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A Series of Letters on Bible Study (4): Recognising the Genres

D Newell, Glasgow

Dear John,

Now you have gained an overview of Scripture as a whole you are in a position to investigate individual books – always the best way to conduct your Bible study. One of my regrets is that as a young man I fell into the easy trap of squeezing the juice out of individual verses (often for the purpose of preaching the gospel or giving a little word of ministry) instead of seeking the sense of the whole book in which they were found. As a consequence my study became random and desultory instead of systematic and methodical. One of the sadder characteristics of much assembly preaching is the tendency to construct gospel messages from three or four texts ripped out of context and pasted together. This implicitly propagates the false and indeed dangerous notion that you can make God’s Word mean whatever you want. I still recall nearly falling off my seat in amazement a few years ago on hearing one gospel preacher use Job 41.8 in his exhortation to the unsaved. The verse reads as follows: "Lay thine hand upon him, remember the battle, do no more". This, I was told, meant that the sinner should lay hold of Christ in faith, look back to the victory of Calvary, and cease from attempting salvation by good works. The doctrine, in terms of Biblical soteriology, is correct enough, but it is not at all what the passage means. Read that verse in its context and you will see it is all about the inadvisability of messing with Leviathan. To do such violence to the face-value significance of Scripture is to bring God’s truth into discredit, for an intelligent listener will simply go away thinking that Christianity is completely irrational and therefore beyond normal examination. Nothing could be further from the truth. Paul preached the gospel expecting his hearers to check his message against the Old Testament (Acts 17.11). Never forget: God says what He means and means what He says. The Bible is not a book of coded mysteries to be explained only by some priestly elite. God graciously conforms to the conventional rules of human language and grammar.

Before getting into an individual book of Scripture, we need an idea of the various literary genres used in the Bible. Within its substantial library of 66 books we find a wonderful variety of writing forms. It should come as no surprise that there is as much diversity and beauty in the written word as in the created world. In human writing we automatically distinguish between the language and style of a love-letter, a cake recipe, and a university thesis. The same writer will employ different techniques in each case, because each genre has a distinct aim in view. In the Bible three main genres stand out.

First of all, there is straightforward narrative. This covers the historical books of both Testaments. The story of Israel’s nationhood, the lives of its patriarchs and kings, the New Testament Gospel records, and Luke’s summary of church history all constitute narrative. It may include, among other things, historical records, details of legislation, religious ceremony and architecture, biography, parables and sermons. If you are reading, say, the book of Genesis, you are confronted with an infallibly accurate but carefully selected record of ancient history uniquely organised by the Spirit of God so as to provide spiritual nourishment for believers today. Bible history is always more than mere history (1 Cor 10.11). You could watch out for four areas of significance. First there is the historical progress of God’s people Israel from the calling out of their founding father Abraham in Genesis 12 to become the ancestor of the promised Messiah. God will always accomplish His purpose. Second, there are valuable individual portraits of men and women, good and bad, from which we can learn practical lessons in godliness. In Genesis, for example, there are seven great men worth careful study (Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph). Third, there are clear moral principles demonstrated in God’s dealings with men: He is seen as the God who creates, commands, calls, intervenes in judgment and provides salvation. Fourth, you might catch glimpses of Christ in the typical pictures that pepper the book. Typology refers to the way in which God has organised history so that it speaks in advance of the coming and work of His beloved Son. Thus in Genesis we find several remarkable illustrations of Calvary: Adam’s deep sleep whereby God formed Eve out of his side (Gen 2.21-23); the coats of skin which clothed guilty Adam and Eve (Gen 3.21); the death of Abel as the victim of Cain’s hatred (Gen 4.8); the sacrifices Noah offered after the flood which brought God delight (Gen 8.20-21); the giving of the only son Isaac in sacrifice on Moriah (Gen 22.2); the divinely provided substitute of the ram (Gen 22.13). Biblical narrative, whether in the Old or New Testament, is full of precious lessons about the goodness of God, the sinfulness of man, the inviolability of the divine purpose, and the centrality of the person and work of Christ.

Second, there is poetry. This comprehends the group of books at the centre of the Old Testament (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon) as well as most of the prophets, who delivered their oracles in poetic form. The great characteristic of poetry is its memorability: it strengthens expression through repetition and striking imagery. Hebrew poetry does not use repetition of sound (rhyme) or rhythm (metre) as does English verse, but reiterates ideas in parallel phrases. If you want to see the difference poetry makes, try reading the account of the death of Sisera in Judges where it is recorded twice – once as prose narrative (Judg 4.17-21) and once as poetry in the Song of Deborah (Judg 5.24-27). Again, compare the historical creation account in Genesis 1-2.4 with the poetry of Psalm 104. The Book of Psalms consists of 150 marvellous inspired song lyrics of varying length and structure devoted to the praise of God, the record of human experiences of God’s mercy, and the encouragement of God’s people. Thus, instead of simply saying that true happiness comes through separation, the psalmist writes, "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" (Ps 1.1). These three parallel phrases help us understand what ungodliness really is (sin and mockery of God), expose the insidious dangers of close association (from casual walking and standing to sitting down in fixed fellowship) with the wicked, and highlight the pressures on the individual believer ("the man") in a world where "sinners" (plural) are in the majority. It is tough to take a stand for God, but it is worth it. One of the great Reformers said that you can find a psalm to match every experience of life. Whether going though times of prosperity or penury, whether spiritually depressed or elated, there will be a psalm that meets your need and expresses the feelings of your heart before God. Believers over the years have found this book a source of inexhaustible comfort.

Just a word on imagery. To recognise imagery in the Bible does not mean that one has departed from the principles of literal interpretation. On the contrary, to read any text in a natural way is to allow for and correctly interpret figures of speech (simile, metaphor, personification) just as one does routinely in daily life. No one believes that the man who in a crisis loses his head, or whose eyes pop out, or who is asked to lend an ear is anatomically deprived. Such language arrests our attention and sticks in the mind. In the same way the psalmist speaks of his sorrow: "I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears" (Ps 6.6).

The final generic category is what I shall call doctrine. This comprehends all the New Testament letters in which the apostles teach the truth of God for believers of this dispensation directly, logically, rigorously and yet palatably. It is always doctrine in the context of fellowship (for no believer is expected to be outside the local assembly), brotherly warmth, and practical living. Unlike academic treatises, the doctrinal books of the Bible are never cold, detached, clinical or abstract. Read Paul’s wonderful account of the voluntary self-humbling and consequent exaltation of the Son of God in Philippians 2.5-11 and see how it is essentially part of a very practical passage on lowliness among the Lord’s people. Paul was writing to defuse potential division in the assembly. There was no better way to do it than to focus upon the grace of Christ Jesus. Or read Peter’s great exposition of the value of Calvary in 1 Peter 3.18 and see how it fits into a section encouraging Christians who were going through suffering because of their faith in the Lord Jesus. In the Bible doctrine is nothing if not dynamic. Of course, all Bible books contain doctrinal truth, but in the New Testament only the letters are devoted to its systematic exposition. That is why we find in them clear teaching as to how a local assembly should function, what the death of Christ means, how believers should behave in the world today, and what lies ahead for God’s saints.

Keep reading!

Much love in the Lord Jesus Christ,


To be continued.


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