Bible Anatomy—Poetry, prose & prophecy

The Bible contains various different types of literature, such as poetry, legal material, laments, prophecy, and narrative. While everyone probably has their favourite, understanding a bit about each of them and how they work is helpful if you want to be a good Bible-reader and get to grips with God's whole message.

You’ll have noticed that there are many different types of writing in the Bible (law, prose, poetry, philosophy, letter, etc). It may all seem like a big melting pot, but there are several advantages to God’s use of this variety. One is that there is something for everyone. If poetry is something that speaks powerfully to you, then there is plenty of it to get one’s teeth into – God can speak through that medium. If you are a ‘rules and regulations’ person who likes order and structure, then you might find some of the legal material up your street. And everyone likes a good narrative – the Bible presents the true (hi)story of God’s relationship with man, and, in particular, His people Israel.

Of course that doesn’t mean that we can just pick and choose which parts of the Bible we happen to like and want to pay attention to – God has given us all of it, and it is all there for a purpose. Nevertheless, different people will gravitate to different parts of God’s Word and have personal favourites.

But there’s more to it than this. By using all these different styles God engages all aspects of our mental faculties, intellectual and emotional. Most people wouldn’t write a love letter in legalese. Nor would they normally present a series of rules for life in the form of a sonnet. God has many things to communicate on many different levels, and He always chooses the right method of expressing Himself to do this.

One thing that is important (and we’ll look at this more in the How to Read it section), is to remember what part of the Bible we are reading and set our expectations appropriately. When we are reading highly symbolic prophecy or the words of one of Jesus’ parables, we are probably not reading things that are literally true. Instead, the symbols and metaphors have to be interpreted to discern the real meaning. In the same way, though there are many things to be learned from the ritual instructions in the Law of Moses, this does not necessarily mean that we are meant to carry out those same instructions today, now that the New Law of Jesus has been revealed. We have to use common sense and logic as we read, and pay attention to the surrounding context, the overall flow of God’s plan and purpose, and the type of literature that we are reading.

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