How to Study



How To Study The Bible For Yourself
Chapter 5

1. Types of Writing in the Bible - Composition

a. Introduction b. Comparison c. Contrast d. Repetition e. Progression f. Climax g. Pivotal Point h. Radiation i. Interchange j. General to Particular k. Cause and Effect l. Analysis m. Interrogation n. Summarization

2. Types of Writing in the Bible - Genre

a. Poetry b. Wisdom Literature c. Narrative d. Letters e. Genealogy f. Prophecy g. Symbols h. Types i. Figures of Speech j. Other Figures of Speech

3. How to Read the Bible

a. Biography/History b. Poetry c. Prophecy d. Teaching e. Comparing Translations

1. Types of Writing in the Bible – Composition

 Prior to any study of the Bible, it is important to realize that the composition of the text can and does play an important role in conveying a written message to its reader, regardless of the type of writing that is being studied. We will frequently make use of the rules of composition unconsciously as we read or write. In her book How to Study Your Bible Kay Arthur lists several compositional tools to look for:

a. Introduction - Presents the information that the reader will need in order to understand what is to follow.

b. Comparison -  Holding one person, event or thing against another in order to show similarities between them

c. Contrast - Holding one person, event or thing against another in order to show differences between them

d. Repetition - Use of a word, phrase or concept more than once in order to emphasize and/or call the audience's attention to the idea being conveyed

e. Progression - The development of an idea or theme as the reader progresses through the passage to increase the reader's understanding by degrees

f. Climax - The use of progression to develop an idea or theme to a critical point

g. Pivotal Point - A change in the overall direction of the passage where ideas on one side of the pivotal point differ in some way from ideas on the other side

h. Radiation - The central point of a passage which can be either the target or source of all other points in the passage

i. Interchange - The author switches between two or more significant themes in a sequential manner

j. General to Particular - The passage moves from discussing a theme in global terms to covering the same theme in more detailed terms, can also be reversed to move from detailed coverage of a theme to a more general coverage of the same theme

k. Cause and Effect - The passage progresses one action to subsequent actions caused by the first, can also be reversed so that caused events are traced back to their sources

l. Analysis - The author presents an idea and proceeds to analyze the idea

m. Interrogation - The author presents a question to the reader and follows by presenting the answer

n. Summarization - The author presents an overview of what has been said, reviewing the principal points and making appropriate concluding comments


2. Types of writing in the Bible – Genre

The Bible is actually a collection of works composed over great spans of time by various authors who each had a unique message and a unique style of writing in which to present this message. Because of this the Bible contains writings of several genres or literary styles. Each genre is suited to the message that is being used to present but in order to understand the message being presented we must first know how to approach the genre itself. Within each book, however, various genres may be present. The book of Isaiah is an excellent example of the mixture of the historical, prophetic, poetic, and narrative genres. Below are listed the principle genres found in the Bible with some suggestions as to how they are best to be treated.

Types of Writing in the Bible
a. Poetry

b. Wisdom Literature

c. Narrative

d. Letters

e. Genealogy

f. Prophecy

g. Symbols

h. Types

i. Figures of Speech

At even a casual reading it becomes evident that the Bible is comprised of many different literary formats each of which is utilized to a different end. Correctly identifying the various types of writing in the Bible is a skill that will enhance your personal Bible study in allowing you to properly interpret the words you are reading. Where the poetic passages allow for incredible imagery, powerful expressions of thought, and great lyrical beauty the narrative passages are better suited to the representation of historic details and technical descriptions. The genealogical and prophetic passages are also used to better present the material being presented by each. Understanding how each genre is used will assist you as you seek to discover the meaning of any passage being studied.

a. Poetry 

The chief characteristic of Hebrew poetry is that it is written not to rhyme as is our western poetry but rather as a progression of thought or ideas. This form of poetry is called parallelism and refers to a style of writing that makes use of couplets, two lines usually but sometimes three or four, that vary in their relationship to each other. A tremendous asset of this style of poetry is that it is translatable into a form that retains the splendor of the original since it is not a system of rhyme and rhythm so much as a sequence of thought that is being translated.

In western culture we consider poetry (or song) as nothing more than entertainment but poetry is no less important a means of communication than, say, a historical narrative. Neither is poetry less capable of conveying information than a newspaper although it is in a more subtle form. Words are used sparingly in poetry and frequently convey ideas larger than they would if used in prose. Each word in a poem is therefore of utmost value and has far greater significance than it would normally have if found in any other form of writing. Poetry is a largely symbolic form of expression; each line of a poem may have greater impact and depth than paragraphs of prose (though it is possible for prose to take on some of the aspects of poetry).

Some of the various types of Hebrew poetic parallelism are:

1. Antithetic parallelism - each line expresses opposing, or contradictory thoughts.

Proverbs 15:8

"The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD:

but the prayer of the upright is his delight."

2. Synonymous parallelism - each line expresses a similar thought, the second repeating the first for purposes of emphasis or clarity. The second line thus often sheds additional light on the first.

Psalm 1:5

Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.

There are several variations of synonymous parallelism, two of which are listed below:

3. Climactic parallelism – the second line echoes a portion of the first and adds to it.

Psalm 5:3

My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O LORD;

in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up.

4 - Emblematic parallelism - one line is literal and the other is figurative or symbolic.

Psalm 6:6

I am weary with my groaning;

all the night make I my bed to swim;

I water my couch with my tears.

5 - Synthetic parallelism - the first line is added to by the second which expresses a complimentary thought and often gives the reason for the first.

Psalm 1:1

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,

nor standeth in the way of sinners,

nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.


b. Wisdom Literature (or Proverbs) 

Wisdom Literature consists of Proverbs laid out in the format of Hebrew poetry but which generally do not have the same style or impact of poetry proper. Proverbs by their very nature are statements (usually couplets of contrasting ideas) giving generalizations describing how life in general goes for the subject of the proverb. Where poetry may take some time to develop a theme to maturity the proverbs are most often single statements or pairs of statements, though occasionally a series of proverbs be used to develop a single theme (such as occurs in the treatment of the theme of wisdom in the book of Ecclesiastes).

It is important to realize that proverbs do not usually have universal application nor are they usually universal truths but are more along the line of rules of thumb with a religious meaning, although many proverbs may be interpreted to be of eternal significance in describing the final outcome of the righteous and the rebellious. Proverbs must be treated with as much care as the rest of the Bible to determine how they are to be applied to our lives today.


c. Narrative 

As the name indicates narrative literature is that which lays out its material in a prose style of writing. Information is presented without adornment, poetic structures may be inserted into the text but overall the passage resembles a modern novel in its design. Our concept of discrete sentences, paragraphs, and chapters would be alien to the ancient Hebrew writers, in fact, many of the oldest manuscript copies have no sentence or paragraph breaks at all. One must be careful to follow the progression of thought contained by the passage itself apart from the occasionally arbitrary sentence, paragraph, verse, and chapter structure placed upon it by various translators and scholars.

A subset of the narrative form is historical writing which differs from the narrative mainly in the sense of its view of time. Narrative is generally written with regard the present while history is written with regard to the past, and in the case of the books of the kings of Israel and Judah is done so as to present a moral standpoint; contrasting the actions of the various kings to that desired by God. Historical writing also allows present-day readers to view past events as though they were there. In this regard Genesis is historic in that Moses wrote what God revealed to him of events that occurred at times ranging from the recent past to events of several thousands of years in the past. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, however, are narrative because Moses is primarily writing about events as they occur and most certainly within the memories of people still alive at the time of the writing.


d. Letters 

Just as letters today are personal communications between an author and a specific recipient so the letters found in the Bible are personal communications between authors and specific recipients with the added feature that they were most likely circulated to a wider audience either after the original recipients were finished with them or out of obedience to the wishes of the authors. Again, just as we read our own letters in their entirety, Biblical letters should be read, if at all possible, from start to finish in a single sitting to grasp the full impact of the purpose, or occasion, of the letter and the points that the author is making. More so than for any other genre of writing is the force of the letter destroyed if it is read in bits and pieces here and there. Larger letters, such as Paul's letter to the church in Rome, may not suffer as much as the smaller letters in being read in sections, but even these were received by their recipients as a single communication from someone who cared deeply for them.

Imagine then how each letter would have been studied as we today would study a letter received from a loved one from whom we did not hear often enough. We would do well to approach the letters in the Bible in the same way, treating them as we would a letter from a distant and dear friend, poring over each word and working to understand the overall theme of this work that was the only way in which its author could communicate.


e. Genealogy

The Israelites placed a great value on genealogical records so that each person's familial background would be understood. Liberties were taken with the genealogies on some occasions for reasons of emphasis; an example being the division of the generations of Jesus Christ as recounted in Matthew 1 into three tidy groups of fourteen. This would be done as a memory device and possible for literary symmetry and in no way takes from the accuracy of the genealogy in this particular instance as its stated purpose was to prove that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

That names have been omitted from this record, indicating that certain generations have been left out, does not overwhelm its goal. The genealogies of the book of Genesis may also contain gaps but in this case, they are often accompanied by a number of years assigned to each individual. In this case, the purpose of the genealogy would be to place certain events and people in time so that it is much less likely for generations to have been skipped.

The genealogical records within the Bible serve three primary functions:

a. Domestic – Used to determine the individual’s social position, privileges, and obligations; such as the rights falling upon the first born son.

b. Political – Used to determine hereditary office, as well as to settle legal claims such as that pictured in the book of Ruth.

c. Religious – Used to establish membership, function, and descent of priestly and levitical duties and position.


f. Prophecy 

Much of the Bible is composed of prophecy which, though a genre of writing, can occur in the form of poetry, prose, or narrative. Taken as a whole the Old Testament of the Bible can be viewed as an ongoing prophecy of the coming Messiah that is fulfilled in part at the nativity. A prophet is one who speaks the words of God and has been given specific instructions regarding the content, occasion, and audience of the prophetic message.

Moses, when arguing with God at the burning bush about his inability to perform the task to which God was calling him was told that his brother Aaron was coming to look for him and would accompany Moses on his mission. God specifically told Moses that he would be as God to Aaron and that Aaron would say and do all that Moses commanded him to say and do. It is in this context that the prophet acted as the mouthpiece of God.

The prophet (either man or woman) would be given a direct message from God to be delivered to whomever God commanded, in what ever form God desired. Prophecy in the Bible ranges from the height of human expression (as in the book of Isaiah) to some of the most humiliating acts (as in Ezekiel eating food cooked over animal waste for one of his prophecies) to the depth of human grief (Ezekiel, again, whose actions concerning the death of his wife were symbolic of the actions of God over the destruction of Jerusalem).

Prophecy is very often symbolic and, as will be seen below, often indicates more than one event of similar character separated by large spans of time. This actually leads to one of the dangers of studying prophecy in that we often seek to interpret some of the more spectacular prophetic passages (such as Revelation) within our current context, interpreting the passage in the light of recent events. While this is a valid exercise and indeed is how prophecy is to be treated we often embark on this exercise seeking support for our conclusions rather than to have our conclusions guided by the prophecy.

Prophecy is at the same time a perfect guide to the future and a poor guide to the future. It is a perfect guide because God through prophecy has told/is telling us what will occur and He is utterly trustworthy. It is a poor guide because we fall into the trap of believing that the prophecy will be fulfilled in our time.

It is crucial in the study of prophecy to have a reasonable view of history and the flow of events. Prophecies of the destruction of Israel, Judah, or various other nations of the time only become clear when we understand how history happened at the time under question. Likewise, prophecies of future events such as the second coming of Christ or the rise of the anti-Christ can only make sense when we understand what has happened in the world since the time the prophecies were made and even, in some schools of thought, what has happened since creation.

Prophecy in general, encompasses both declarative and predictive forms, though we are by far more familiar with the later. It is very important when reading prophecy to have an understanding of history.

A brief breakdown of both types follows:

a. Declarative Prophecy

In this sense the prophet is one who speaks for another, carrying the context of the prophet being the mouth through whom the other speaks. Although the prophet is generally understood to be speaking for God it is possible for the prophet to speak for another human as well. In the Old Testament we have an example of the declarative prophet in the relationship between Moses and his older brother Aaron:

Exodus 4:14-16 "So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses, and He said: "Is not Aaron the Levite your brother? I know that he can speak well. And look, he is also coming out to meet you. When he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. "Now you shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth. And I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will teach you what you shall do. "So he shall be your spokesman to the people. And he himself shall be as a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God."

Exodus 7:1 So the LORD said to Moses: "See, I have made you as God to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet."

In this case, Moses would be the speaker for God Himself as the prophet of God and Aaron, in turn, would speak for Moses as the prophet of Moses.

b. Predictive Prophecy

This form of prophecy is concerned with what we generally view as the function of the prophet: The prophet predicts events yet to occur, often speaking of them as though they are accomplished fact as a reflection of the power of God’s word. There are two types of predictive prophecy: That which is immediately fulfilled and that which is fulfilled at some later point in time. A brief definition of both types appears below:

1 - Immediate fulfillment

In which the prophecy is fulfilled shortly after it is spoken and is a key in determining if the one who claims to be a prophet truly is a prophet, as seen below:

Deuteronomy 18:21-22 "And if you say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?’ "when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him."

An example of an immediate predictive prophecy is shown below:

Exodus 14:1-5 "Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: "Speak to the children of Israel, that they turn and camp before Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, opposite Baal Zephon; you shall camp before it by the sea. "For Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel, ‘They are bewildered by the land; the wilderness has closed them in.’ "Then I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that he will pursue them; and I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over all his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD." And they did so. Now it was told the king of Egypt that the people had fled, and the heart of Pharaoh and his servants was turned against the people; and they said, "Why have we done this, that we have let Israel go from serving us?"

2 - Delayed fulfillment

In which the prophecy is not fulfilled immediately but is delayed by a variable period of time. The prophecies of Christ's birth and ministry were fulfilled after centuries, those concerning His return are yet to be fulfilled. Most good study Bibles will include a list of at least some of the prophecies made concerning Jesus Christ. An example of a prophecy of Christ that has a delayed fulfillment is shown below:

Deuteronomy 18:15-19 "The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, "according to all you desired of the LORD your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.’ "And the LORD said to me: ‘What they have spoken is good. ‘I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. ‘And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him."

There are frequent occurrences in the Bible where both types of predictive prophecy are combined. In these cases, the prophecy of a significant event to take place in the future is immediately fulfilled as a sign confirming the more complete fulfillment, or simply as a blessing. Many examples of this type of prophecy are found in the book of Isaiah one of which is used to apply as a confirmation of Isaiah's own prophetic ministry and that of Jesus Christ:

Isaiah 61:1-3 "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, Because the LORD has anointed Me To preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn, To console those who mourn in Zion, To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness, The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified."

Prophetic passages in the Bible can be found in a variety of literary forms and can range in length from several words to several pages of text. The prophet’s personal response to the message that has been received from God is also frequently found in prophetic literature. One example of this occurs in Isaiah 21 where Isaiah describes the physical effect of God’s proclamation against Babylon upon his own body:

The prophecy of Habakkuk also includes personal commentary on God’s message to the extent that the entirety of his prophecy is in the form of a discussion between God and himself.

Prophecy is often regarded by Bible students as the most difficult literary form within the Bible to interpret. While this is often true the study of prophecy is also extremely rewarding. By means of prayerful contemplation of prophecy the Christian gains a wonderful sense of the power of God and the effectiveness of His plan. As well, some of the most beautiful passages in the Bible are prophecies in poetic form that concern the advent and mission of Jesus Christ. In one sense the entire Old Testament is prophetic in that Christ is foreshadowed within its text. For us to gain the greatest benefit from our study of prophecy some guidelines for interpretation are now given:

a. Study the New Testament treatment of Old Testament prophecies and how the New Testament authors come to regard the prophecies as being fulfilled (this can also act as a guide to our own study of the Bible as a whole, we would not be going far wrong if we were to treat the entire Bible as characters in the New Testament treated the Old Testament).

b. As many prophecies contain both an immediate and a delayed fulfillment we must for each prophecy attempt to grasp the meaning for the people who would originally have heard it, its near fulfillment, and continue by studying its practical message for Christians of all times, its delayed fulfillment.

c. Always consider the literal meaning of the prophecy before assigning some symbolic understanding that may or may not be accurate. William of Occam was reported to have said: "If something can be interpreted without assuming a complicated hypothesis, there is no ground for assuming that hypothesis." This is known as Occam’s razor and it fully applies to Bible study. Do not assume a complex interpretation of the Bible when the Bible itself gives no clear support for such an interpretation.

d. Look within the prophecy for other figures of speech to see how they are used, how they may apply to the prophecy, and why they were employed in the first place.


g. Symbols 

A symbol is something which contains a meaning beyond what is regarded as the normal meaning. In the Bible, symbols are most frequently found in the prophetic writings but they occur throughout the Bible and must always be interpreted with attention being paid to the context surrounding the symbol. Symbols can be of almost any form such as number, color, appearance, and imagery.

1 - Numbers

Numbers often used as symbols in the Bible, especially in the books of Daniel and Revelation. Below is a list of common interpretations of the symbolic value of numbers as they are used in the Bible (note that this list is not exhaustive, merely a guide):

1 – unity, independent existence, the number from which all others descend

2 – strengthening, confirmation, increase of courage and/or strength

3 – the divine number of God, a symbol of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

3 ½ – incompleteness, unattained or anticipated fulfillment, imperfection; 42 months; 1,260 days; "times, time, and half a time" – see especially the prophecies found in the books of Daniel and Revelation for usage of this number

4 – representative of the world or mankind

5 – the number of the complete and normal human being

6 – incompleteness, one short of 7

7 – perfection (3 + 4), significant of the union of heaven and earth - predominant in Genesis and Revelation

10 – human perfection and wholeness (2 x 5)

12 – Christian endeavor in the world (3 x 4) – as in the 12 tribes of Israel

24 – perfection and wholeness of Christian endeavour in the world (2 x 12) – reflected in the 24 elders that bow before the throne of God in heaven, see Revelation 4:4

40 – a generation, human activity in the world, testing and/or judgment (4 x 10)

70 – very sacred, completeness and perfection (7 x 10)

1,000 – ultimate completeness and perfection (10 x 10 x 10)

144,000 – indicates the absolute security of the people of God of all generations (12 x 12 x 1,000)


2 - Colours

Some interpretations of colors as symbols follow:

Black – famine/need/death (Rev. 6:5-6)

Red – war (Rev. 6:4)

White – conquering (Rev. 6:2), purity (Isaiah 1:18)


3 - Objects

Objects, both living and dead, are often used to exemplify broad themes. The use of objects as symbols include:

Animal (often described as having horns) – Kingdom or nation (Dan. 8; Rev. 13)

Horn – King, emperor or ruler of a kingdom or nation, either physical or spiritual; size occasionally indicates significance, the horn representing Alexander the Great is described as "conspicuous" (Dan. 8:5)

Woman – Nation or people:

     i) Whore or prostitute when describing an evil or fallen people (Rev. 17);

     ii) Wife, bride or daughter when describing a holy, redeemed or chosen people (Rev. 19)

     iii) Mother when describing the nation of Israel; specifically when portrayed as giving birth to one who would rule the nations (Rev. 12).


h. Types 

The general definition of a type is that it is a divinely purposed literal reality in the Old Testament that foreshadows a spiritual reality in the New Testament. Types may be persons, places, objects, events, institutions, and offices; the anti-type (New Testament fulfillment) of which should always be clear. There is often the temptation to see a type where none exists, the relationship between the type and the anti-type does not have to be strained if it exists the relationship should be obvious.

Two examples of the types that appear in the Bible are:

1 - The lifting up of the brass serpent in the wilderness as a type of the lifting up of Christ on the cross at His crucifixion. The scripture references are Numbers 21:4-9 with John 3:14-15.

Numbers 21:4-9 "Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread." So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD that He take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live." So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived."

John 3:14-15 "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, "that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."

2 - The Passover celebration of the Israelite nation as a type of the atoning sacrifice of Christ on our behalf. The scripture references are Exodus 12:3-13 with 1 Corinthians 5:7-8

Exodus 12:3-13 "Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying: On the tenth day of this month every man shall take for himself a lamb, according to the house of his father, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for the lamb, let him and his neighbor next to his house take it according to the number of the persons; according to each man’s need you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats. Now you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month. Then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at twilight. And they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it. Then they shall eat the flesh on that night; roasted in fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat it raw, nor boiled at all with water, but roasted in fire—its head with its legs and its entrails. You shall let none of it remain until morning, and what remains of it until morning you shall burn with fire. And thus you shall eat it: with a belt on your waist, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. So you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’S Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD. Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt."

1 Corinthians 5:7-8 "Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."

In each of the preceding examples, the type and its anti-type are clearly defined and interpreted by the Bible.


i. Figures of Speech 

A figure of speech is a word or phrase that is used to convey something beyond its ordinary meaning. An example of a figure of speech would be to say that "The Sun has set." The Sun has not actually set but has become hidden beyond the edge of the Earth due to the Earth's own rotation, we say that it has set but we are conveying information of an entirely different sort. It is clear that we are using a figure of speech because the context of the expression has been established over time and it has become understood that the obvious meaning of the figure of speech is not the meaning that is intended and that we are speaking of things as they appear, not as they are.

It is important to regard the Biblical context of each figure of speech as it is encountered in order to interpret properly what is being said, for often the opposite of what seems to be true will be used and will only become apparent through reading the surrounding verses. Several types of figures of speech are:

1 - Parables and Allegories

Stories told for the purpose of driving home a specific idea or collection of ideas.

2 - Parable

A parable is a story that is true to life but is not usually an event that has actually occurred (much like the novels of our day) and may be considered to be an extended simile (see below). The parable is usually designed to teach one main point, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan is used by Jesus to teach the concept of loving one’s neighbor. Parables are generally found in the gospels and are usually introduced by a phrase similar to this: "And Jesus spoke this parable," an example is below:

Luke 5:36-39 Then He spoke a parable to them: "No one puts a piece from a new garment on an old one; otherwise the new makes a tear, and also the piece that was taken out of the new does not match the old. 37 "And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 "But new wine must be put into new wineskins, and both are preserved. 39 "And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better.’"

Some guidelines for interpreting parables are as follows:

a. Take note of the actual meaning of the story.

b. Study the occasion that prompted the parable if it is given, this is the context.

c. Find the central point of the parable

d. Compare this point with the teaching of the Bible.

e. If there seems to be some interpretive problem obtain what information you are able relating to the cultural background of the story and the people it was told to.

f. Resist the temptation to allegorize the parable, a parable is a sermon of one point and frequently the details of the parable merely exist to set off the main point and do not have significance in and of themselves.

3 - Allegory

An allegory is a story that is usually not true to life and may be considered to be an extended metaphor (see below). An example of an allegory is shown below:

John 15:1-8 - 1 "I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples."

The allegory usually teaches several points but may concentrate upon one or two of significance. Some useful steps for interpreting allegories are as follows:

a. Note the details and features of the allegory

b. Note any interpretation that is given by the story teller for the various details

c. Consider the other features of the allegory and see if a meaning can be derived for them from other passages

d. Do not try to identify all the details of an allegory, some will just not fit into any interpretive scheme since they exist solely for the purpose of setting off the main points

4 - Figures of comparison

One item being compared to another.

5 - Metaphor

An implied comparison between two dissimilar items as in: "My God is the rock of my refuge." (Psalm 94:22)

6 - Simile

A comparison between two things usually using the words like or as, as in: "His heart is as firm as a stone." (Job 41:24)

7 - Figures of relation

The substitution of one word for an other that is related to it.

8 - Metonymy

A figure of speech in which an idea is deduced or named through the use of a term indicating an associated idea, as in: "When Moses is read" (2 Corinthians 3:15) to refer to the writings of Moses rather than the person of Moses.

9  - Synecdoche

The use of a specific term in place of a general term, or vice versa, as in: "Then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave," (Genesis 42:38) which refers not only to the gray hairs on the man's head but to the man himself.


j. Other Figures of Speech

1 - Anthropomorphism

Speaking of God, either by man or by God Himself, as though He had a human body and formation. Although man has been created in God’s image, and Jesus Himself ascended into heaven in human form, it is not necessarily the case that God looks just as we do. Creation in His image is generally believed to refer to our abilities of reason, self-consideration, intelligence, and our possession of a soul. When anthropomorphism is used it gives vivid imagery to the acts, thoughts, and will of God.

2 - Apostrophe

This occurs when the writer directly addresses things or persons that are either absent or imaginary, as in: "Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon." (Joshua 10:12)

3 - Euphemism

The substitution of a more agreeable expression for one less accepted, as in the use of "He fell asleep" in the place of "He died."

4 - Hyperbole

A deliberate exaggeration for the purpose of emphasizing the stated point, as in: "I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears." (Psalm 6:6)

5 - Interrogation

Essentially a rhetorical question to which the answer is obvious and does not need to be given, as in: "Is any thing too hard for the LORD?" (Genesis 18:14). The question of Jesus upon the cross is also a rhetorical question: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46)

6 - Irony

In which the opposite of the intended meaning is stated in order to emphasize or call attention to the intended meaning, revealed by tone of voice in living people and by the context when written. In 2 Samuel 6:20 King David's wife says, "How glorious was the king of Israel today." The context of the verse shows clearly that she was telling him how she thought he had actually dishonored himself.

7 - Litotes

Saying something by denying its opposite, as in the use of "He is not far off" in the place of "He is near."

8 - Personification

The writer speaks about, not to, a non-personal or non-living thing as though it had human characteristics, as in: "Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together." (Psalms 98:8)

9 - Pleonasm

The use of superfluous words, as in: "according to all that we have heard with our ears." (2 Samuel 7:22)

One must always be careful to observe the context of any figure of speech or literary device as the context will always allow us to determine the cause and situation for any specific passage. We cannot isolate discrete passages from their context at the risk of greatly misrepresenting the truth of the Bible. An example of this taken to the extreme is found in the Bible student who took the following two passages out of their context:

Matthew 27:3-5 "Then Judas, His betrayer, seeing that He had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood." And they said, "What is that to us? You see to it!" Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself." 

Luke 10:37 "...Go and do likewise."

It is obvious from this example that the context is important to the proper understanding of any passage within the Bible if we are to remain true to its teaching.


3. How to Read the Bible

As noted above there are various genres of writing found in the Bible, each of which requires our attention in a different way just as we read newspapers, novels and wills in different ways. Of primary importance is to remember that the Bible is not merely a collection of various literary genres but that it represents God's revelation of Himself (and of His actions in history) to man.

a. Biography/History

b. Poetry

c. Prophecy

d. Teaching

e. Comparing Translations


 a. Biography / History

Typically, the biographical/historical sections of the Bible present events that have occurred in time and as such are similar to the newspapers, historical reference works and biographies of our day. The primary distinction of the Biblical material is, however, that it is presented in the context of God's activity throughout history (preceding time, during the time and after time) to work out His plan of salvation for mankind. Consequently, there are deeper meanings and greater significance to the Biblical historical narratives than would be given to their modern counterparts.

Many have said that the Bible is a historical document and to some extent, it is in that it records events and describes individuals in a historical context. In this regard it can be read as history and much useful information can be received. But the Bible is more than a mere historical document and,  just as we read a newspaper seeking to understand the bias/viewpoint of its contributors, so we should read the historical portions the Bible within the greater context of God's interaction with humanity to afford its redemption.


b. Poetry 

Those being a poet really greatly appreciative of the poetry found in the Bible and how it can be used to convey vast concepts in an efficient and beautiful manner. However, one must not discard what is taught by Biblical poetry simply because it is poetry and therefore not to be taken seriously. Poetry is a form of writing that relies greatly on the reader's knowledge to teach the ideas that it is being used to teach; it is, for lack of a better example, a more "emotional" method of communication and as such can often be used to say in a word or two what prose would require sentences or paragraphs to communicate.

Poetry is used in the Bible in much the same way as hymns are used in our churches or songs, such as "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know," are used to teach our children the truths of God. Poetry is not necessarily to be taken literally as it often employs imagery and other literary devices to transmit its message but some poetry, such as Psalm 139, is extremely literal in their presentation of truth. It is very important to keep in mind the context of the writer, as it is with any style of writing, in order to best understand the idea that the writer is trying to communicate.


c. Prophecy

Prophecy is not really a genre of writing but a style of writing (actually, this can also be said for the other genres listed here but is more evident in prophetic writing). Prophecy occurs in poetic form (most spectacularly in the prophecies of Isaiah), in historical narrative (such as occurred between God and Abraham when God promised Abraham a son) and in a variety of other literary genres.

Its most notable feature is that it is declarative, speaking of events that are not as though they are, and in so doing shows that the purposes of God cannot and will not be thwarted. However, the surety that God's word will be fulfilled does not allow us to apply prophetic teaching to every event that occurs, as has been said elsewhere "Prophecy is a poor guide to the future." Often such application is the result of a very narrow understanding of a very limited group of prophecies. God does not and has not spoken to us in bits and pieces but in the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and God's ultimate revelation to man.

Prior to Jesus' own ministry, death and resurrection very few of His contemporaries understood how He was the fulfillment of prophecy. Subsequent to that, however, it became very clear, to the point that we now see that then entire Old Testament can be viewed as an arrow pointing directly at Jesus. In the same way the events of today cannot usually be understood in light of Biblical prophecy until that prophecy is completely fulfilled. Paul makes reference to this when he writes to the Corinthian church that while on earth he sees things as though through a mirror in Heaven he will see things perfectly. We await that day and know that as well as we understand things now we will understand them perfectly when we stand in His presence.


d. Teaching 

In one sense the entire Bible is a textbook, not of history or ancient styles of writing, but of God. In the Bible we are studying God. What is more is that it is a textbook of His own design and therefore ultimately reliable. Each page of the Bible is a lesson and we will do ourselves an injustice if we read the Bible without attempting to apply its lessons to our lives.


 e. Comparing Translations 

Many guides to Bible study will encourage the Bible student to compare various Bible translations to have a good understanding of what the Bible is saying in a particular passage. But, how can we do this since most of us have little or no understanding of the languages that the writers of the Bible used and have not had sufficient education to accurately determine which translation is correct in the instances where one translation uses different words or phrasing than another translation.

One of the best methods of comparing translations is to read the passage in question several times in your favorite translation. Read it until you are familiar with the flow of the passage, the words that the translators used and how they determine your understanding of the passage. Once you have familiarized yourself with the passage in your translation of choice read it several times in one or more alternate translations. Make notes of instances where you feel the alternate translation says things differently than the first translation did. Then use various of the tools referred to in our Bible Resource Study Tools to determine why the translations differ; asking yourself questions such as:

- Why did the translators use this particular selection of words?

- Is there a reason why the translations differ?

- Is my understanding of the passage affected by the alternate readings?

Commentaries are quite often useful when comparing translations as many explore these very questions in far greater detail than you or I might be capable of. Of special value is the use of an exhaustive concordance, such as Strong's or Young's (where the words in our modern translations can be traced back to the Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew words of the original writers). With such a concordance, you will be able to see for yourself the various alternatives available to the translators and perhaps learn why they chose the translation that they did.

Remember, all translations, commentaries and other Bible study helps have a bias. Bias is not wrong in and of itself, but it is good to be aware of the particular bias of the author(s) of the tools you are using, especially if that bias is different than your own.

1. Closing the Mind 2. Cultural Redefinition 3. Deductive vs. Inductive Bible Study
4. Getting Lost in the Details 5. Giving Up 6. Ignoring Clarification 7. Indecisiveness
8. Missing the Obvious 9. Overlooking Context 10. Seeing only the Spectacular 11. Selective Interpretation


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