Poetic genres of the Bible
I was on an atheist webpage the other day, and the author tried to demonstrate that there are contradictions in the Bible because some passages say that God dwells in light, but Psalm 97:1-2 says that clouds and darkness are round about him.
This is treating Scripture as though every single verse in the entire Bible is a completely scientific and objective statement and that nothing is ever poetic or figurative at all. This is false.
We can easily tell that Psalm 97:1-2 is poetry because it’s in the book of Psalms, which is an entire book of poems and songs. This is crucial to understanding the text, because it allows for interpreting certain statements as figures of speech or as imagery.
The Psalms are mostly songs written by king David, although not all of them are. They are filled with imagery, analogies, and deeply personal feelings. The Psalms were never intended to be theological treatises.
While songs about God are going to obviously be theological, their highly poetic and allegorical natures mean that, quite often, the exact wording of the passage is not meant to be taken literally.
In many cases, the Psalms are expressions of feelings, so obviously it would be inappropriate to take the emotional expression of a person during a difficult time in their life and try to force it on everyone.
This concept of poetry as a genre can be very helpful, not just in the explicitly poetic books of the Bible like Psalms and Ecclesiastes, but also in the various books of the Bible that will include a poetic moment to explain some point.
For instance, some people will try to argue that the Bible teaches the earth is flat because there are a few verses that refer to the “circle of the earth”. Isaiah 40:22 states, “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in.” The purpose of this passage is not to comment on the geometry of the planet; the purpose is to glorify God by talking about how awesome he is, and it just happens to refer to the earth in the language of the day. It is like our referring to a sunrise. Are we making a scientific statement about the spatial relationship between the sun and earth? No, it’s just a poetic way of speaking, not a statement of fact. Recognizing poetic devices will help us discern the original intent behind what was written.
Another example of a poetic genre in the Bible is the parable, stories that Jesus told to convey some deeper ethical or theological point. When we read these parables, we understand that Jesus wasn’t trying to say these were literal events that took place. We naturally assume he is telling a fictional story to help the audience understand a truth in a different way. Jesus was telling a parable, and so the audience immediately tries to understand the deeper point rather than focusing on the little details of the story.
Recognizing the genre in these moments is crucial, because ripping some verse out of context from a parable and treating it as something else, like historical narrative, drastically changes how we would understand and apply it.
Yet another poetic genre in the Bible is called wisdom literature. The best example of this is the book of Proverbs, where we have a bunch of pieces of practical advice, quick little sayings that give some sort of ethical guidance or advice for life. Ecclesiastes is also understood as wisdom literature, as are Job and Song and Songs, at least partly.
If you ever look at a sheet that presents loads of contradictions in the Bible, a great deal of them will come from misunderstanding a poetic genre. If you treat the philosophical rambling of a man going through an existential crisis (Ecclesiastes) as being a scientific and objective view of the world, obviously you are not going to interpret the book properly.
The last two genres we’ll deal with in this episode are quite complex — prophecy and apocalypse. There’s a lot of debate concerning these genres and tons of disagreement about how to accurately interpret these sorts of passages. We should try and recognize when a passage is prophetic or apocalyptic in nature, so that we can be even more careful when trying to interpret them.
Prophecy is a genre mostly found in the Old Testament, with the last large group of books being referred to as the “major” prophets or the “minor” prophets. The terms “major” and “minor” just refer to the length of the books. We also find random bits of prophecy in other books of the Bible. Prophecy is a little bit tricky to define, but the very broad definition would be, “a word from God”.
Prophecy does include telling the future, but it also includes God rebuking sin, warning against calamity if people fail to repent, and convicting them of wrongdoing. Even if a prophet never tells the future, and instead, just speaks to people on behalf of God, trying to convict them of their sin and lead them to repentance, that would still be considered prophecy. The important thing to understand is what it means to be a prophet in the Bible, and then secondly, to understand the role of that specific prophet. For instance, Jeremiah’s goal was to convict Israel of their backsliding and warn them of the exile awaiting them if they didn’t repent. As always, doing historical research about the prophet and his time helps us better appreciate what’s being written, when and why.
The last genre we’ll go into here is apocalypse. Like prophecy, it uses a lot of strange symbols and imagery and can be difficult to understand. The obvious case of apocalyptic genre is the book of Revelation. However, there are other passages that follow this genre, like the second half of Daniel. There are also quite a few non-biblical ancient books written around the time of the New Testament that use the apocalyptic genre. A text is apocalyptic when it’s a revelation given to someone, like John or Daniel, and it’s given to them by an angel (or something similar). The angel brings a message about something beyond our realm, like heaven or hell. Also, it typically has a heavy eschatological focus. Eschatology focuses on things like death, the afterlife, the end of the world, the judgment of all humans, etc. In many cases, apocalypses use incredibly vivid, allegorical, and even abstract language to speak of a current crisis. The apocalypse then brings hope to the readers, giving them assurance that their religious convictions will save them.
Apocalypse is a very difficult genre to study. You need to learn the historical context in order to understand the crisis the author’s culture was in, and in order to see how the different pieces of imagery line up in the text. But, more importantly, you need to appreciate the allegories and metaphors being used.
For instance, it’s a common ancient theme that beasts and monsters come out of the sea. I will grant the ancients this — there are some pretty terrifying things in the ocean, so I can definitely understand why this sort of belief would come about. So when we read the description of a great beast in Revelation 13, where does it come from? It comes from the sea. Understanding how the ancients viewed the sea can help you appreciate the imagery being used.
The real difficulty is that the apocalyptic genre is caught up in so much imagery and metaphor, while trying to describe both transcendent heavenly realities and earthly historical situations. It is very difficult to piece it all together, especially if you’re new to the realm of Bible study. I do still recommend reading these parts of the Bible, because they are God’s Word and offer incredibly rich and important truths.
how to understand prophecy in the bible
As an interesting side note on this topic, even though this imagery of beasts is confusing at first glance, the book of Daniel is so specific in some of its prophecies that non-religious theologians refuse to date the book according to when the book itself, and Jewish history, claims the book was written. The reason is because Daniel was apparently making prophecies about future events, and his descriptions are so accurate, that it’s obviously describing the way things actually turned out in history.
My recommendation when it comes to prophecy and apocalypses would be to try and learn as much as you can about the history and culture referred to by the text, then learn as much as you can about the various forms of symbolism used in that culture. Lastly, look at a few commentaries that have different perspectives on the issue. When you’ve done all that, genuinely try and find which answer seems to best account for all the data, rather than just which answer fits your preferences.
This podcast first appeared on Jon Topping’s website