Bible Lessons

Tricky Forms of Literature

We must remember that the Bible is a real book with words and sentences. These words and sentences have literal meanings. Though the Bible is a spiritual book; and though it must be interpreted with the help of the Holy Spirit, understanding the language and literary structure, in a given passage, is the gateway through which the Holy Spirit will guide us.

In the Principle of Context, we went over some of the various literary genres in the Bible -Poetry, Wisdom, Prophetic, etc. Like a building with a structure, the literary form is the structure in which the words were written…

Phenomenological Language: Phenomenological language, is a technical term for language that describes what appears to the naked eye. Instead of describing the technical reality of a thing, this kind of literature simply describes what it sees. The weather forecaster does this every morning when they talk about the sunrise and the sunset. The sun doesn’t literally rise or set, it stays in its place as the earth rotates and moves around the sun. The weather forecaster isn’t wrong by using this language, and neither is the Bible. The Bible speaks of the sun rising and setting (Ecc.1:5), of the sun standing still and the moon stopping (Jos.10:13a), and more.

Metaphoric Language: Metaphoric Language is a term for language that uses a metaphor to explain or teach a lesson. We use language like this all the time. Terms like “ballpark average”, a “blanket of snow”, and “blind as a bat” are all metaphors that are widely understood. The Bible talks about the wise being a “fountain of life” (Pr.13:14); we are clay and God is the potter (Isa.64:8); Jesus referred to Himself as the “bread of life” (Jn.6:35); and almost every parable is a metaphor with a singular concept that is being taught. When Jesus called Himself the bread of life, was He teaching that He is actually a piece of bread? No. It was a metaphor used to teach a spiritual concept: as bread sustains us physically, only Jesus can sustain us spiritually.

Personification: Personification is a term for language that describes inanimate objects in human terms. We say things such as the burger was “calling” my name, the wind was “howling”, or the story “leaped” off the pages. The Bible talks about creation singing and dancing (Isa.55:12) and the heavens speaking (Ps.19:1-3). Does this mean that creation is actually singing? No. It is a literary form used to paint a legitimate word picture in the mind of the reader.

Anthropomorphic Language: Anthropomorphic Language is when God, who is an invisible Spirit, is described in human terms. God is described as having human features such as eyes and hands (Ps.34:15, Ex.7:5); as having human actions such as resting and relenting (Gen.2:2, 2 Sam.24:16); and as having human emotions such as jealousy and sorrow (Gen.6:6, Ex.34:14). This is a gracious act of God, stooping down and explaining Himself to us in terms we can understand -just as a father would to a little child. In reality, God is Holy, other than us, Spirit, invisible, and incomprehensible. We should thank Him for using terms that are understandable.

Hyperbolic Language: Hyperbolic Language is a term for language that purposely exaggerates to make a point. We say things like, I wanna kill him, or, I’m starving. Do we actually mean that we want to commit murder or that we are literally starving? No. We are exaggerating our language to make a point. Jesus said that the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds (Mk.4:31). It would seem that Jesus was wrong because the mustard seed isn’t the smallest seed. But when we know that Jesus was using hyperbolic language, then it makes sense. Jesus was exaggerating to make a significant point: that a little faith goes a long way. There are many places in scripture where hyperbolic language is used.

Parallelism: Parallelism is a form of literature that emphasizes a point by repeating it and/or contrasting it with a different but similar sentence. This literature is common in Proverbs, Psalms, and the Prophets. An example of this is in Job 38:16…

“Have you entered into the springs of the sea; or walked in the recesses of the deep?

Each line of this verse is saying almost the same thing. A point is being made by repeating it with similar but different language. Many of the difficult passage in the Bible us Parallelism. If we could just identify when it is being used, it would guard us against wild interpretation.

Understanding these literary forms have been instrumental in my personal study. Complicated passages become simple much of the time when I’m able to identify which literary structure to interpret it from. Like understanding how to take an engine out of a car, a wheel off of a bike, or a faucet off of a sink, these literary forms have shown me how to draw out the literal interpretation from various passages. They are literally metaphors, parallels, personifications and more. I am able to understand what it means by what it says.