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IV. Literary Forms in the Bible

The Bible, as a unity in diversity, expresses its unique message in a rich variety of literary forms. The literature of the Bible is an aesthetically beautiful interpretation of human experience from a divine perspective. As we read, interpret, and seek to apply the truths of Scripture, we must be careful not to overlook this artistic dimension, or we will miss an important part of enjoying the Bible. In this section, we will take a brief look at the literary forms found in the pages of Scripture, including figurative language, narrative history, poetry, wisdom literature, prophetic literature, gospel, oratory, and epistle.

Figurative Language The Bible abounds in figurative expressions. The wonderful imagery of Scripture is derived from a wealth of human experience, the manners and customs of the ancient Near East, family and business life, and the whole sphere of nature. While literal meaning refers to the normal or customary usage of a word or expression, figurative meaning refers to a concept which is represented in terms of another. The following list is not complete, but it outlines the major figures of speech used in the Bible.

Short Figures of Speech

Figures of comparison
Simile

A simile involves an explicit comparison of two unlike things using the words “as” or “like.”

“So the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, as a hut in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city” (Isa. 1:8).

“All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isa. 53:6).

“For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (Mal. 3:2).

“For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt. 24:27).

“Behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3). Also see Isaiah 29:8; 55:10-11; Jeremiah 23:29; Matthew 23:37; 1 Corinthians 13:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:2.

Metaphor

A metaphor involves a direct or implied comparison of two unlike things.

“The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer” (2 Sam. 22:3).

“We are His people and the sheep of His pasture” (Ps. 100:3).

“And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16).

The seven “I am” statements of Jesus in the Gospel of John are all metaphors.

“I am the bread of life” (John 6:35).

“I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).

“I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9)

“I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11).

“I am the the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

“I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

“I am the true vine, and My father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1).

Also see Psalm 23:1; Jeremiah 2:13; Luke 8:21; Revelation 1:20.

Figures of association
Metonomy

In metonomy, the name of one object or concept is used for another because of an association or similarity between the two.

“They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29). This is a metonomy, because “Moses and the prophets” stands for the writings of Moses and the prophets.

“There is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Rom. 3:30). In this metonomy, “circumcision” and “uncircumcision” is another way of saying “Jew” and Gentile.”

“Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan” (Matt. 3:5- 6). It was not the city of Jerusalem that moved, but the people who lived in it.

Also see Genesis 42:38; Proverbs 23:26; Matthew 23:22; Luke 1:46; Ephesians 5:16.

Synecdoche

In a synecdoche, a part is used for a whole, or a whole is used for a part.

“All flesh had corrupted their way on the earth” (Gen. 6:12). Flesh is used for the whole person.

“And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry’” (Luke 12:19). Soul is used for the whole person.

“For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). “World” is used for the people in the world. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16).

“All Scripture” is used for every part of Scripture.

Also see Psalm 145:21; Isaiah 58:5; John 12:19; 1 Peter 1:9.

Figures of humanization
Personification

Personification is a figure of speech which takes a human characteristic and applies it to an object, quality, or idea.

“Destruction and Death say, ‘We have heard a report about it with our ears’” (Job 28:22).

“Does not wisdom cry out, and understanding lift up her voice?” (Prov. 8:2).

“The field is wasted, the land mourns” (Joel 1:10).

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things” (Matt. 6:34).

Also see Leviticus 18:25,28; Matthew 6:3; Romans 10:6; 1 Corinthians 12:15-16.

Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism is a figure of speech which takes a human characteristic and applies it to God.

“Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen” (Exod. 33:23).

“He who touches you touches the apple of His eye” (Zech. 2:8).

“Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications” (Ps. 130:2).

“No one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand” (John 10:29).

Also see Exodus 15:8; Psalm 91:4; Isaiah 40:10-11; John 1:18.

Apostrophe

Apostrophe is a figure of speech in which an exclamation is addressed to an object as if it were a person.

“Then he cried out against the altar by the word of the Lord, and said, ‘O altar, altar!’” (1 Kings 13:2).

“Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth!” (Isa. 1:2).

“Open your doors, O Lebanon, that fire may devour your cedars. Wail, O cypress, for the cedar has fallen” (Zech. 11:2).

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!” (Matt. 23:37).

Also see 2 Samuel 1:21; Psalm 148:3-4; Ezekiel 36:1,4,8; 1 Corinthians 15:55.

Figures of illusion
Irony

Irony is an expression that denotes the opposite of what is meant by the words themselves.

“And so it was, at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened’” (1 Kings 18:27).

“No doubt you are the people, and wisdom will die with you!” (Job 12:2).

“Go and cry out to the gods which you have chosen; let them deliver you in your time of distress” (Judg. 10:14).

“Come to Bethel and transgress, at Gilgal multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days” (Amos 4:4-5).

“‘Throw it to the potter’--that princely price they set on me. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord for the potter” (Zech. 11:13).

“For you put up with fools gladly, since you yourselves are wise!” (2 Cor. 11:19).

Also see Deuteronomy 32:37; Job 38:4-5; Isaiah 57:13; John 19:14; 2 Corinthians 11:19; 12:13.

Hyperbole

In hyperbole, the writer or speaker exaggerates to create a strong effect.

“Every one could sling a stone at a hair’s breadth and not miss” (Judg. 20:16).

“I am weary with my groaning; all night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with my tears” (Ps. 6:6).

“Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck out of your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:4).

“And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

Also see Numbers 13:33; Deuteronomy 1:28; Psalm 107:26; Matthew 5:29-30.

Figures of understatement
Euphemism

A euphemistic figure substitutes an inoffensive or agreeable expression for one that may offend or suggest something distasteful.

“You shall go to your fathers in peace” (Gen. 15:15). A euphemism for death.

“Unless the Lord had been my help, my soul would soon have settled in silence” (Ps. 94:17). A euphemism for death and burial.

“Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up” (John 11:11). A euphemism for death and resurrection.

“From which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place” (Acts 1:25). A euphemism for hell.

Also see Leviticus 18:6; 2 Kings 22:20; Ecclesiastes 12:2-7; John 2:25.

Litotes

Litotes involves belittling or the use of a negative statement to affirm a truth.

“After whom has the king of Israel come out? Whom do you pursue? A dead dog? A flea?” (1 Sam. 24:14).

Behold, the nations are as a drop in a bucket, and are counted as the small dust on the balance; look, He lifts up the isles as a very little thing” (Isa. 40:15).

“And they brought the young man in alive, and they were not a little comforted” (Acts 20:12).

“I am a Jew from Tarsus, in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city” (Acts 21:39).

Also see Genesis 18:27; Psalm 22:6; Acts 27:14; Romans 1:13.

Figures of emphasis
Pleonasm

Pleonasm is a figure that uses an excessive number of words for the sake of emphasis.

“Yet the chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (Gen. 40:23). The redundant “but forgot him” adds force to the statement.

“Then Jephthah fled from his brothers” (Judg. 11:3). The literal expression is “from the face of his brothers.”

“And it came to pass in those days” (Mark 1:9). The emphatic “and it came to pass” is common in the Old and New Testaments.

“Knowing that God had sworn with an oath” (Acts 2:30). The redundant “with an oath” adds emphasis.

Also see Genesis 38:1,24,28; 42:2; Exodus 12:20; 2 Kings 20:1; 1 John 1:8.

Repetition

Emphasis is gained by a number of techniques that repeat the same word, phrase, or sentence.

“Moses, Moses!” (Exod. 3:4).

“The waters saw You, O God; the waters saw You” (Ps. 77:16).

“For His mercy endures forever” is repeated in each verse of Psalm 136.

“Blessed” is repeated through the beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-11.

“Eloi, Eloi” (Mark 15:34).

“Nor” is repeated several times in Romans 8:38-39.

“To another” is repeated in a list of the spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:8-10).

Also see Deuteronomy 28:3-6; Psalm 22:1; 96:13; 1 Corinthians 13:7.

Climax

This figure lists a series of actions or qualities and repeats each one.

“What the chewing locust left, the swarming locust has eaten; what the swarming locust left, the crawling locust has eaten; and what the crawling locust left, the consuming locust has eaten” (Joel 1:4; cf. 1:3).

“In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4-5).

“And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint” (Rom. 5:3-5).

“But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love” (2 Pet. 1:5-7).

Also see Hosea 2:21-22; Romans 8:29-30; 10:14-15; James 1:14-15.

Figures requiring completion
Ellipsis

Ellipsis refers to the omission of one or more words that must be supplied by the reader to complete the thought.

“And Saul had a concubine, whose name [was] Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah. So [Ishbosheth] said to Abner, ‘Why have you gone in to my father’s concubine?’” (2 Sam. 3:7). The words “was” and “Ishbosheth” are italicized in the translation because they are not in the Hebrew text. They were added to complete the sense of the passage.

“Uzzah put out [his hand] to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled” (2 Sam. 6:6). “His hand” must be supplied to complete the thought.

“He will not always strive [with us], nor will He keep [His anger] forever” (Ps. 103:9).

“For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be [in the likeness] of [His] resurrection” (Rom. 6:5).

Also see 1 Chronicles 16:7; Psalm 137:5; Ezekiel 47:13; Hebrews 7:8.

Zeugma

In this figure, a word modifies two or more words but strictly refers to only one of them. One or more words must be supplied to complete the thought.

“I have surely visited you and [seen] what is done to you in Egypt” (Exod. 3:16). “Forbidding to marry, [and commanding] to abstain from foods” (1 Tim. 4:3).

“Forbidding” only applies to marriage, and “commanding” must be supplied.

Also see Exodus 20:18; Deuteronomy 4:12; 2 Kings 11:12; 1 Corinthians 14:34.

Aposiopesis

This is a rhetorical figure that breaks off a thought in mid-sentence.

“‘And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’--therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden” (Gen. 3:22-23).

“Yet now, if You will forgive their sin--but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written” (Exod. 32:32).

“But if we say, ‘From men’--they feared the people, for all counted John to have been a prophet indeed” (Mark 11:32).

“And if it bears fruit, [well.] But if not, after that you can cut it down” (Luke 13:9).

Also see Psalm 6:3; Luke 15:21 (cf. 15:19); John 6:62; Acts 23:9.

Exercise: Try to identify the figures of speech found in the following verses (some verses use more than one): Genesis 18:27; Exodus 15:8; Leviticus 18:25,28; 2 Kings 22:20; Psalm 23:1; 107:26; 145:21; Ezekiel 36:1,4,8; Matthew 23:37; Luke 1:46; Romans 8:29-30; 1 Corinthians 13:7; 13:11; 2 Corinthians 11:19.

Extended Figures of Speech
Parables

Parables are extended figures of comparison that often use short stories to teach a truth or answer a question. While the story in a parable is not historical, it is true to life, not a fairy tale. As a form of oral literature, the parable exploits realistic situations but makes effective use of the imagination. Jesus frequently composed parables in His teaching ministry (see Mark 4:34) and used them in response to specific situations and challenges. His parables are drawn from the spheres of domestic and family life as well as business and political affairs. He used imagery that was familiar to His hearers to guide them to the unfamiliar. Some of the parables were designed to reveal mysteries to those on the inside and to conceal the truth to those on the outside who would not hear (Matt. 13:10-17; Mark 4:10-12). This was especially true of the parables that related to the kingdom of God. However, other parables like the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25- 37) and the parable of the landowner (Matt. 21:33-46) could be grasped by unbelievers.

Parables have one central point; the details are not meant to call attention to themselves but to reinforce this single theme. In most parables, assigning allegorical meanings to each of the details can lead to confusion and obscure the point. A good joke produces the spontaneous response of laughter. If the joke must be explained, it loses its impact. In a similar way, a parable must be “caught” by the hearer. The story parables (e.g., the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the workers in the vineyard, the rich man and Lazarus, the wise and foolish virgins) are all designed to elicit a response from the hearers. The moment it is grasped, the point of the parable penetrates like the point of an arrow. Nathan’s parable of the rich man who slaughtered the poor man’s lamb sank into David like a shaft when Nathan said, “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:1-7). As soon as David caught the parable, he was caught by it.

Allegories

The parables in the gospels range from similitudes to true parables to allegories. The parable of the leaven (Matt. 13:33-35) is a similitude, because it is an illustration from everyday life. The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) is a true parable, because it is a story that has a beginning and an end. The parable of the vineyard owner (Mark 12:1-11) is closer to an allegory, because it has a number of details that have corresponding conceptual meaning.

While a parable is an extended simile, an allegory is an extended metaphor. The allegory of the vine and the branches in John 15, for example, develops the metaphors of Christ as the true vine (vss. 1,5), the Father as the vinedresser (vs. 1), and believers as the branches (vs. 5).

Allegorical stories have several points of comparison. In John 10:1-18, the allegory of the good shepherd draws a point-by-point comparison between a number of elements (the door of the sheepfold, the shepherd, the sheep, the thief, and the hireling) and corresponding spiritual truths.

Allegories range on a continuum from the elusive to the explicit. In some, the details obviously point to a corresponding group of concepts, as in the allegory of the good shepherd; in others, the thematic implications of the images is less clear. Jesus told the parable of the soils to the multitudes but explained the spiritual application of each point of the story to His disciples (Matt. 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20). While parables use realistic imagery, allegories often use words in a figurative rather than literal sense. The parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7) uses “sheep” literally, but the allegory of the good shepherd uses “sheep” figuratively; the parable of the vineyard owner (Luke 20:9-21) uses “vineyard” literally, but the allegory of the vine and the branches uses “vine” figuratively.

The allegories in the Old Testament include Israel as a vine in Psalm 80:8-15, the woman of folly in Proverbs 7, the allegory of old age in Ecclesiastes 12:1-7, and the allegory of the two sisters in Ezekiel 23. New Testament allegories include the foundation and superstructure in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 and the spiritual armor in Ephesians 6:11-17.

On rare occasions, the New Testament allegorizes Old Testament narratives that were not intended to teach truth by correspondence. Paul does this in Galatians 4:21-31 when he turns the story of Hagar and Sarah into an allegory of law and grace.

Obscure Figures of Speech

Dark sayings Scripture contains enigmatic or dark sayings (Num. 12:8; Ps. 49:4; 78:2) that state truth in an obscure way and must be searched out to find the meaning.

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to Him shall be the obedience of the people” (Gen. 49:10).

“There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isa. 11:1).

“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse” (Matt. 9:16).

Also see Isaiah 21:11-12; Daniel 5:25-28; Matthew 9:15,17; Luke 11:34-36.

Riddles

A riddle is a concise and puzzling statement posed as a problem to be solved or explained.

“Out of the eater came something to eat, and out of the strong came something sweet” (Judg. 14:14; cf. 14:12-19).

“Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666” (Rev. 13:18).

Fables

A fable is a fictitious narrative intended to enforce a useful truth or a moral lesson. Fables often involve plants and animals that speak and act like human beings. See the fable of the trees in Judges 9:8-15 (interpreted and applied in 9:16-20), the fable of the thistle in 2 Kings 14:9, and the fable/allegory of the two eagles in Ezekiel 17:2-10.

Symbols and Types
Symbols

Symbols are figures of representation in which one thing is used to suggest another. The symbol is a literal object that conveys a lesson or truth.

The pillar of cloud and fire (Exod. 13:21-22) symbolized God’s glory and presence among His people.

Blood symbolized the life of an animal or human (Lev. 17:11; Deut. 12:23-25).

Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones (Ezek. 37:1-14) symbolized the judgment and restoration of Israel.

The basket of summer fruit in Amos 8:1 symbolized the end (8:2) that would come in judgment. The Hebrew words for “summer fruit” and “end” sound almost alike, and ripe fruit is either consumed or spoiled--an apt symbol of judgment.

Numbers (e.g., four, seven, and twelve), colors (e.g., blue, purple, scarlet, white, and black), and metals (e.g., gold, silver, bronze, iron) are used symbolically in Scripture.

Also see Jeremiah 1:13; 13:1-11; 24:1-10; Daniel 2:31-45; Zechariah 1:18-19; 5:1-4; Revelation 1:20.

Types

Types are prophetic symbols. A number of Old Testament people, events, and things are types that correspond to New Testament antitypes.

Melchizedek was a type of Christ (Gen. 14:18-20; Ps. 110:4; Heb. 7:1- 10).

David was a type of Christ (Ps. 22:1-21; 69:7,9,20; cf. Rom. 15:3).

Adam was “a type of Him who was to come” (Rom. 5:14), that is, Christ.

The earthly tabernacle was “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5).

Also see 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 10:6,11; 2 Cor. 6:16-18.

Narrative

Narrative, or story, is the most common literary form in the Bible. Both testaments are full of the stories of God’s redemptive work on behalf of His people. This form is so prominent in Scripture because the God of the Bible acts in the arena of human history.

On one level, hundreds of individual narratives like the story of Jacob and Laban are sprinkled throughout the Scriptures. On a higher level, these individual narratives combine to form major motifs like Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage and conquest of Canaan. On the highest level, these larger narratives fit together into the ultimate narrative of God’s plan to deliver people out of darkness and bring them into the light of His kingdom.

On each level, the biblical narratives contain universal patterns or archetypes that capture the essential themes of human experience. The inner and outer conflicts between good and evil, heaven and hell, light and darkness, angels and demons, wisdom and foolishness, faith and doubt, courage and cowardice, obedience and rebellion, hope and despair are enacted throughout the narratives of Scripture. When all the stories are combined together, a magnificent, unified plot with a beginning, middle, and end unfolds, and the reader realizes that he or she is a part of this plot. From creation to consummation, the sovereign hand of God is upon the course of history.

Creation and Consummation

There are a remarkable number of parallels between the first and last three chapters of the Bible. These chapters portray the beginning and the end of the great drama of God’s creative/redemptive purposes. Genesis 1-3 moves from the creation of the universe to the creation and fall of man. Revelation 20-22 moves from the judgment of the unsaved to the creation of the new universe in which believers will dwell with God. The stories of creation and consummation both stand at the transitional point between time and eternity. Enclosed between these two accounts is the stage of human history on which each person must make the choice between one of two destinies: endless separation from God or endless fellowship with God. Both of these narratives blend figurative with literal language since they deal with realms of existence that transcend our experience. They combine to tell us that our brief earthly existence is not all there is; we must live in the light of who we are (creation) and where we are going (consummation).

Epic

An epic is a long narrative, often written in an elevated poetic style, that combines many episodes. Although written in prose, portions of the biblical account of the exodus from Egypt to Canaan in the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy combine together to fit the epic form. The exodus epic is unified by strong nationalistic elements (the formation of the nation of Israel), a central hero (Moses), and the underlying motif of a quest (the promised land). But unlike conventional epics, the real hero of the exodus epic is not a man, but God Himself. The account extolls the mighty acts of God, not Moses, and focuses more on moral and spiritual values than on human accomplishments. While a conventional epic would praise the exploits of men, the exodus epic exposes the Israelites as a rebellious, frail, and sinful people in need of the grace and deliverance of God.

Law

A good portion of the narratives in Exodus 20 through Deuteronomy 31 is written in the form of legislation for the nation of Israel. The law consists of the testimonies (moral duties), the statutes (ceremonial duties), and the judgments or ordinances (civil and social duties). The bulk of the more than 600 commandments in the Pentateuch are found in the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 2O:22-23:33), the Deuteronomic Code (Deut. 12-26), and the Code of Holiness (Lev. 17-26). Part of the Old Testament law consists of apodictic (“do” and “do not”) commands. These are direct commands that generally apply to every Israelite. The rest of the law is casuistic (case-by-case). These commandments are conditioned by specific circumstances.

The law is written in the ancient form of a binding covenant between a lord and his vassal. Obedience on the part of the vassal would lead to agreed benefits and protection, but disloyalty would lead to punishment (cf. the blessings and cursings of Deuteronomy 27-28).

Heroic Narrative

In this form of narrative literature, the story is based on the exploits of a principal character. To the extent that the hero or heroine embodies accepted social and moral virtues, the story of his or her life becomes a model for others to imitate. The protagonist’s values, the roles he or she fills, and the way he or she faces conflicts are important themes in heroic narrative.

Old Testament examples of this literary form include the story of Abraham (Gen. 12- 25), Jacob (Gen. 27-35), Joseph (Gen. 37-50), Gideon (Judg. 6-8), Ruth, David (1 Sam. 16--2 Sam. 24; 1 Chron. 11-29), Esther, and Daniel.

Tragedy

Some of the protagonists of Scripture fell from a position of blessing to calamity. The narratives of their lives are tragic because of the disastrous change in their fortunes. There is a greatness about most of them that is marred by a fatal flaw in their character. This is why the reader hopes in vain that the story will turn out better than it does.

In each case, the tragic protagonist faces one or more critical moral choices and fails. The consequences of this failure may not be immediate, but they inevitably bind him in a web from which he cannot escape. He is at once responsible for and victimized by his tragedy. In some cases like Samson in Judges 13-16, the tragic hero gains insight from his suffering. Other biblical examples of tragic narrative are Adam and Eve (Gen. 3), Saul (1 Sam. 9-31), and Solomon (1 Kings 1-11; 2 Chron. 1- 9).

Poetry

More of the Bible is written in poetry than most people imagine. In addition to the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and the Song of Solomon, a substantial portion of the prophetic literature (including most of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, and Micah, Nahum, and Zephaniah) is also poetic. Almost half of the Old Testament is poetry, but in many translations some of this poetry appears in prose form.

The poetry of the Bible is an effective vehicle for communicating the full range of human emotions from the heights of joy to the depths of despair. In a very personal way, the poets and prophets expressed their sorrows, the plight of their people, and their unshakable hope in the Lord.

Parallelism in Hebrew Poetry

While many forms of poetry rhyme sounds, Hebrew poetry rhymes ideas. Since the rhythm is logical rather than phonetic, much of it is retained in translation. In most verses, the thought of the second line is parallel to the thought of the first line. Some verses are made of three, four, and even five lines, and the parallelism can extend throughout.

Synonymous parallelism

In this form of parallelism, the thought of the first line is repeated in different words in the next line(s).

Lord, how they have increased who trouble me!

Many are they who rise up against me (Ps. 3:1).

Also see Genesis 4:23-24; Psalm 49:1; 103:3; Proverbs 11:7,25; 12:28.

Antithetic parallelism

In this case, the thought of the first line is sharply contrasted in the next line(s).

A soft answer turns away wrath,

But a harsh word stirs up anger (Prov. 15:1).

Also see Psalm 1:6; Proverbs 10:1; 15:2,4-9,13-15,18-22; 27:6.

Synthetic parallelism

Here, the thought of the first line is added to or developed in the next line(s).

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,

Nor stands in the path of sinners,

Nor sits in the seat of the scornful (Ps. 1:1).

Also see Psalm 1:2; 19:7-9; Proverbs 4:23; Isaiah 55:6-7.

Introverted parallelism

This is an external parallelism that balances sets of lines. For example, the first and fourth lines and the second and third lines may be parallel as in Proverbs 23:15-16 (cf. Ps. 5:7). In Psalm 30:8-10, lines 1-2 are parallel to lines 7-8, and lines 3-4 are parallel to lines 5-6.

Climactic or stairlike parallelism

This uses parallelism to build to a climax by repeating part of the first line and adding to it in the next line(s).

Give unto the Lord, O you mighty ones,

Give unto the Lord glory and strength.

Give unto the Lord the glory due to His name (Ps. 29:1-2a).

Also see the rest of Psalm 29.

Emblematic parallelism

Here, a literal statement in one line is elevated by a figurative image in another.

As cold water to a weary soul,

So is good news from a far country (Prov. 25:25).

Also see Psalm 42:1; Proverbs 11:22.

In addition to these forms of parallelism, there are also incomplete forms which have only partial correspondence. Another technique in some Hebrew poetry is the use of acrostics, or alphabetical poems. In this poetry, the first line or set of lines begins with the first letter of the alphabet, and the poem proceeds in this way to the end of the alphabet (examples include Psalm 9, 10, 25, 34, 111, 112, 119, 145; Prov. 31:10-31; Lam. 1-4).

While there is some meter in biblical poetry, it is not a major characteristic. When meter is used, it appears in the form of varying combinations of stressed units per line (e.g., 3:3, 3:2, 2:2:3). This meter, in turn, is interlaced with the different kinds of parallelism. The stressed units and part of the parallelism cannot be discerned without the Hebrew text. Even with the Hebrew, the divisions between the stanzas or strophes is sometimes unclear, since the thought breaks are not always of uniform length.

Narrative or Dramatic Poetry

The book of Job is an excellent example of narrative poetry that portrays a dramatic story. The plot moves from prosperity to calamity to the restoration of prosperity. There are a number of plot conflicts, including Satan’s conflicts with God and Job, the conflict between Job and his friends, and the conflict between Job and God. The prologue (chapters 1-2) and the epilogue (42:7-17) are written in prose, and the rest of the book is in the form of a poetic dialogue. The action moves slowly in the poetic section, and the reader is expected to concentrate more on the development of the imagery and the concepts than on the sequence of events. Within this great poetic narrative there are many lyric passages. It also part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament because of the themes it explores, including the goodness and sovereignty of God in view of the problem of evil and suffering.

Lyric Poetry

Lyric poetry is predominant in the book of Psalms and the Song of Solomon. The psalms speak to the mind through the heart. Since they were set to music, their emotional effect was even greater when they were sung as part of Israel’s worship in the first and second temples. They are rich in the artistry of parallelism, figurative imagery, symbolism, multiple meanings, and emotive vocabulary.

Each of the psalms is a brief literary unit that develops a theme and makes a distinctive contribution to the psalter. The psalms are structured in different ways and can be classified into several types, including individual and communal lament psalms, individual and communal thanksgiving psalms, descriptive praise psalms, and wisdom psalms. The different types of psalms had specific functions in the individual and corporate worship of Israel.

Pastoral Literature

This literary form uses the idyllic imagery of rural poetry or shepherds in a rustic setting to portray a feeling or a truth. Psalm 23, for example, takes the reader through a day in the life of a shepherd who cares for his sheep from morning to night. The psalmist uses these images to express God’s gracious care for His people. Jesus carries this a step farther in His allegory of the good shepherd (John 10:1-18). The prophets also made effective use of pastoral settings to depict the blessings of God’s kingdom (see Isa. 40:10-11; 41:18-19; Hos. 14:4-7; Amos 9:13-15). The Song of Solomon describes the experience of love by praising the beauty and virtue of the beloved through natural and rustic images (see Song of Sol. 2:8-17; 7:10-13).

Literature of Praise

The Bible is full of beautiful examples of the literary form of encomium, or praise. The godly man, for example, is praised in Psalms 1 and 15, and wisdom is personified as a woman and praised in Proverbs 8. The last 22 verses of Proverbs uses the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet to praise a virtuous wife (Prov. 31:10-31). First Corinthians 13 is an unsurpassed encomium of agape, and the author of Hebrews praises faith in 11:1-12:2.

But the Scriptures reserve the highest praise for the Lord. See Psalms 8, 19, 29, 33, 36, 103-105, 111, 113, 117, 135, 136, 139, 146-48, and 150. Also see the Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. The Lord Jesus Christ is praised in John 1:1- 18; Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:15-18; and Hebrews 1:1-14. The Revelation portrays a magnificent scene of praise for the Father (4:8-11), the Son (5:9-10), and combined praise for the Father and Son (5:11-14).

Wisdom Literature

While the wisdom literature of the Bible is denoted more by content than by form, it usually appears in the form of didactic poetry that teaches principles about life. Most of this literature is in Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Some of the Psalms (1, 37, 119) and much of the book of James can also be categorized as wisdom literature. Jeremiah 18:18 mentions three classes of spiritual leaders in Hebrew culture: priests, prophets, and the wise (cf. 1 Kings 4:29-34; Job 12:12). Joseph, Abagail, Solomon, and Daniel are examples of those who possessed prudence and wisdom. As observers of life, the wise could give right answers in critical situations. They were highly practical rather than theoretical; they knew the course of action that would lead to the desired results in life. The sages analyzed conduct and studied the consequences of given actions.

Wisdom is more than shrewdness or intelligence; it relates to practical righteousness and moral acumen. The key word for wisdom is hokhmah, which literally means “skill.” Wisdom is the skill in the art of living life with each area under the dominion of God. It is the ability to apply truth in the light of experience. The wisdom literature stresses that the basis for true success in skillful living is the fear of the Lord.

This literary form is generally expressed in poetic terms and uses a variety of techniques including parallelism (antithetic parallelism dominates Prov. 10-15, and synthetic parallelism dominates Prov. 16-22), numerical sequences (Prov. 30:15-31), alliteration (Eccles. 3:1-8), and the full spectrum of figurative language. The proverb is a special feature of wisdom literature because it uses a comparison or simple illustration to make a poignant observation about life. Proverbs are practical and concise; they are meant to be read slowly in small sections. These maxims are easily memorized statements that are true to life even though individual cases may differ.

Prophetic Literature
The Old Testament Prophets

The prophets were divinely appointed individuals who received God’s messages through dreams, visions, angels, and direct encounters with the Lord, and related these messages in oral, visual, and written form. Many of them like Nathan, Elijah, and Elisha left no written records, but those who did are responsible for about onefourth of the Bible.

The bulk of the seventeen prophetic books in the Old Testament apply the standards of the moral law of God to the attitudes and practices of the day (twelve were written before, two during, and three after the exile in Babylon). As spokesmen who declared God’s will for His people, the prophets proclaimed this word through warnings and promises. They exposed the sinful practices of the people, warned about judgment to come, and called the people to repentance. They stressed the need for right belief (orthodoxy) and right practice (orthopraxy). Theirs was a twofold message of condemnation because of the sin of man and consolation because of the grace of God.

The prophetic books engage in forthtelling and foretelling. The bulk is forthtelling, or spiritual insight: exhortation, reproof, and instruction. The remainder is foretelling, or spiritual foresight: prediction of immediate and distant events to come. These prophecies were not intended to satisfy curiosity, but to show that God is in sovereign control over all of history. Most of these predictions have already been fulfilled, because they concerned the judgment of various nations including Israel and Judah. Some anticipated the coming Messiah and were fulfilled in the first advent of our Lord. Others await fulfillment in the events associated with His second advent.

There is a great diversity and individuality among the prophets ranging from the sophistication of Isaiah to the simplicity of Amos. Their personalities, backgrounds, interests, and writing styles vary widely. These writings usually take the form of collected oracles that are not always in chronological order. They utilize poetic parallelism, parables, allegories, and other figurative language as well as covenant lawsuits (e.g., Hos. 4), woe oracles (e.g., Mic. 2:1-5), and salvation oracles (e.g, Jer. 31:1-9). Some of them also express their message through satire, which is “the exposure, through ridicule or rebuke, of human vice or folly” (Leland Ryken). Two examples are the book of Jonah and Amos 4.

The Revelation

The book of Revelation is a highly structured work that combines elements of almost all the literary forms in the Bible, including figurative language, parallelism, typology and symbols, epic, narrative, lyric and narrative poetry, and praise. The three dominant literary types in this book are apocalypse, prophecy, and epistle. Apocalyptic literature appears in parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah as well as extrabiblical books dating from about 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. John’s Apocalypse shares the basic characteristics of this kind of literature: visions, symbolic language and use of numbers, highly stylized structure, a concern for future events (eschatology), the warfare between good and evil, the judgment of evil, and divine deliverance in time of persecution. The book of Revelation combines these features with a genuinely prophetic word for the church, and puts all of this in the form of an epistle (Rev. 1:4-7; 22:21).

The Revelation is full of contrasting themes: light vs. darkness, heaven vs. earth, time vs. eternity, the forces of good vs. the forces of evil, the establishment of the city of God (new Jerusalem) vs. the destruction of the city of evil (Babylon), the sealing of the saints vs. the mark of the beast, the wedding feast of the Lamb vs. eternal separation from God. The book abounds with archetypal images (universal qualities of human experience). Its richness in symbolism (e.g., numbers, animals, colors, minerals) has led to many interpretive problems, resulting in four major approaches to the book.

Much of its structure revolves around the number seven (seven churches, 2-3; seven seals, 6-8:1; seven trumpets, 8:2-9:21; seven signs, 12-14; seven bowls, 15-16; seven final events, 17-22). Because of the abrupt shifts in the visions and events, it is difficult to arrange them in a clear chronological sequence. The Revelation makes abundant use of Old Testament imagery and ties together many biblical thematic strands into a great portrait of the consummation of all things. As it concludes the plot of Scripture from eternity to eternity, it shows that history is leading to a purposeful climax under the sovereign rule of the living God.

Gospel

The Greek word euaggelion means “good news” or “glad tidings.” The good news about salvation in Christ was first proclaimed orally and later written in the unique literary form known as the gospels. They are highly episodic and do not fit the other literary categories like heroic narrative. The unifying theme of the gospels is the person and work of Jesus Christ who is portrayed not merely an example to be followed, but as the way to eternal life and the rightful object of man’s supreme allegiance. Though they are full of biographical material, the gospels are really thematic portraits of the God-man, taken from four different perspectives. The gospels combine blocks of sayings, dialogues, and narratives to confront the reader with the unique claims and credentials of Christ. They are four complementary accounts that provide a composite picture of the Savior in such a way that the total is greater than the sum of the parts. In a highly selective manner, each develops major themes in the life of Christ with particular stress on the events of the last week. The gospels depict the conflict between belief and unbelief and build to the climax of the crucifixion and resurrection. Another major theme is the work of Jesus in relation to the kingdom of God. Christ’s death and resurrection inaugurated the beginning of the age to come; in one sense, the time of God’s rule has already begun, but in another sense it still awaits consummation with His second coming. The gospels display Jesus’ unparalleled facility with poetic forms. He was a master of using analogies in nature and human experience to illustrate His teachings. His application of similes, metaphors, parables, allegories, hyperbole, irony, paradox, proverbs, and questions is striking and illuminating.

Oratory

There are several excellent examples of oratory in the Scriptures. Solomon’s sermon and prayer at the dedication of the temple in 2 Chronicles 6 well illustrates the art of speaking in public with force and eloquence.

That the Lord Jesus possessed an unsurpassed oratorical ability is clear from His brief sayings to His extended discourses. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is a model of persuasiveness and exhortation that makes brilliant use of metaphor, rhetorical questions, analogies from nature, synonymous and antithetic parallel construction, repetition, and satire. Those who were privileged to hear these words were astonished at His teaching (Matt. 7:28-29).

The apostle Paul was also a skillful and effective orator. The book of Acts records the effect of his speeches and teachings on different audiences (13:16-45; 14:12; 21:40- 22:24; 24:10-25; 26:1-28). His address before the Areopagus in Acts 17:16-34, although cut short by the audience, illustrates some of the features of classical rhetoric. Paul began by using the classic form of the exordium, or introduction, to gain the attention and interest of his hearers. By using an anecdote and quoting from Stoic poets, he sought to win common ground with his sophisticated audience. Beginning in verse 30, Paul moved into the second part of his address, the propositio, or statement of his thesis. But the resurrection of the dead was too much for this Greek audience that viewed the spirit as good but the body as evil.

Epistle

On one end of the spectrum of letters is the personal, nonliterary letter; on the other end is the formal epistle that is intended for the public and posterity. The epistles of the New Testament are unusual in that they combine elements of both, in varying combinations. Most of them, like 1 and 2 Thessalonians, generally follow the standard form of ancient letters: the name of the writer, the name of the recipient, a greeting, a wish or thanksgiving, the body of the letter, and a final greeting and farewell. But Hebrews lacks most of these elements, and 1 John lacks all of them. Nine of the New Testament epistles are addressed to churches or groups of churches (they were to be read aloud in congregational meetings), and four (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon) are addressed to individuals. All of them arose out of specific occasions. Some are formal in nature (e.g., Romans and Hebrews), while others are quite personal (e.g., 2 Corinthians, 2 Timothy, and Philemon). There is also a wide variation in the amount of theological content, though none of the epistles were simply intended to be theological treatises. Formal or informal, they all bear the mark of apostolic authority.

The literary quality of the epistles does not surface in their form but in the stylistic richness that they exhibit throughout. Many of Paul’s letters have long, eloquent sentences that flow into a climax (cf. Eph. 1:3-14,15-23; 3:14-21). Paul’s extended military metaphor in Ephesians 6:10-17 makes use of vivid images and parallel construction (also see 1 Cor. 13). There are lyric passages as in Romans 8:31-39; Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Timothy 3:16; and 2 Timothy 2:11-13. The epistles also enhance their persuasiveness through passages written in an exalted style (see 1 Cor. 15:39- 58; 2 Cor. 4:8-9; 6:4-10; Phil. 2:1-2; 4:8; Jas.3:6-12).

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)