Basic Literary Forms in the Bible
When reading Holy Scripture, we must take different literary genres into account, such as history, law, poetry, prophecy, parables, epistles, and apocalyptic. We cannot read parables like history, or epistles as apocalyptic. This basic hermeneutical rule is one that many people violate when they read apocalyptic literature such as Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, Matthew 24, and the Book of Revelation as if they were literal historical narratives. This was how Hal Lindsey came up with his interpretation of locusts in Revelation as Apache helicopters, and how scores of political leaders, including Hitler and Saddam have been prophesied as the Antichrist.
The Bible also uses many literary forms into account. I thought the following definitions from a couple of Ligonier Ministries articles would help in our discussions this week or next week of General and Special Revelation. I already briefly mentioned anthropomorphisms in an earlier post.
Phenomenological Language. Much of the Bible comes to us with language that describes the way things appear to the naked eye. The language used is descriptive of the ways things look from our perspective and is not necessarily asserting precise scientific fact. An example of this is the description of the sun rising. Unless we understand the use of phenomenological language, we might think that the Bible teaches that the earth is at the center of the universe. When we realize that the Bible describes things according to appearance, we see that the Bible is not really saying that the sun revolves around the earth. Rather, it is merely saying that the sun rises because, to our naked eye, it looks like the sun moves and the earth does not. This use of language is still current. The meteorologist gives us the time of sunrise, but nobody assumes he is teaching that the sun revolves around the earth.
Anthropomorphic Language. This is language that ascribes uniquely human characteristics to God. A text that reads “the finger of God” is an example of this. When the Bible describes things in this way, it is not really asserting that God has physical parts like human beings. It is only describing things in ways that we can relate to. Errors like the Mormon teaching that God has a body result when we do not take the use of anthropomorphic language seriously.
Hyperbole. A hyperbole is an intentional exaggeration used to make a point. It is not the same as a lie or a distortion because the speaker expects his audience to understand that he is exaggerating the truth in order to make a point — not that he is giving a specific statement of fact. One clear example of the use of hyperbole in Scripture is Jesus’ parable about the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31–32). In this parable, He says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all the seeds. It is well known, however, that there are seeds smaller than the mustard seed. Thus, if we do not understand the use of hyperbole we might think that Jesus is teaching error. The use of hyperbole, however, demonstrates that Jesus’ primary point in this parable is not to give a precise, horticultural fact. Rather, He is pointing out that the Kingdom of God starts out very small but will grow to be very large.
Metaphor. This use of language makes implicit comparisons by using a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing in order to designate another. One example of this in the Bible is when Jesus says about Himself: “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7). In this statement, Jesus is not teaching that He is made out of wood, has hinges, and so forth. He uses the word “door” in order to show His disciples that He is the entryway into the presence of God, much like normal doors are entryways into various rooms and other areas.
Personification. Personification occurs when personal forms of description are used for impersonal things. When we impart human characteristics to inhuman things, we engage in personification. A good example of this is found in Isaiah 55:12. This verse speaks about mountains singing and trees clapping their hands. Obviously, Isaiah does not really think that the mountains will literally sing or the trees literally clap. Rather, he is using poetic license to express vividly the tremendous joy that will come to the whole world when the people of God repent and turn back to the Lord.
See you this Saturday.