Taking the Bible to English Class

This post is part of an ongoing series on reading, interpreting, and studying the Bible. Click here for all the posts in this series.


Last week we talked about the importance of paying attention to the immediate context of what we’re reading in Scripture. Today, I want to talk about words.

I love words. I love how they can be spun and stretched and woven into a thing of beauty. I love that meaning can be conveyed not only mechanically or simply for the sake of information but as a crafted work of art.

God chose to reveal His Word to us through human language—and what a masterful work of art it is. The artistry of its language, its complexity, its imagery, its beauty—it invites us to study and consider it as we would any other great work of literature. But unlike any other piece of literature, we approach it with awe and reverence, knowing that what its pages communicate is not concocted by a human mind but by the mind of God. Its pages reveal who He is. Its words are alive.

When we pay attention to the literary nature of the Bible, we are not undermining its power. We are embracing it for what it is and how God has chosen to reveal himself. He revealed himself in a way we could understand—in a book, written in human words, using stories and poetry and logic, using the same literary tools we use today.

Words, Context, and Imagery

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This is where some would say, “Yes, Diana, but this is for nerdy English-major types like you. Why should I care about this?”

I will admit I probably get more excited about this than some. But this isn't a matter of nerdy-ness or liking literature. If we're seeking to be sensitive to the context of Scripture so that we read and understand it properly, there are some important words and literary devices we should pay attention to.

Physical Time and Space 

  • Speaker and audience, “I”, “you”—Who is speaking? Who do they assume is listening? How does this influence the way we understand the passage?
     
  • Place markers—Are you given any information about where this is taking place? Where the people involved are located? What does this have to do with the passage?
     
  • Time markers—Are you given any indication of when something is happening? Are you given a month, day, year? Is it put in the context of someone’s life or death? What does this time frame have to do with the passage?

Logic and Train-of-thought

  • Sequence markers—Are there words indicating an order of events? Look for words that imply a ‘first this, then that’ or ‘that was then, this is now’ relationship. Words like “after,” “now,” “then,” “when,” etc. How does this order of events affect the passage? Are they talking of something in the future or the past?
     
  • “Therefore,” “For this reason,” “Thus”—These words signal a conclusion based on previously given information. What is being concluded? Look back at what came before. What supporting evidence or logic led to this point? 
     
  • “For”—Often used to introduce an example or supporting piece of evidence in a logical argument, particularly when it starts a sentence. How does it relate to what came before it? To the entire flow of the chapter?
     
  • “But”—This word signals a contrast with what came before. Example: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins…But God, being rich in mercy…” (Eph. 2:1,4). How does the verse contrast or give a surprising conclusion compared to what came before? 

Literary Devices

  • Repetition—Repeated words or phrases usually indicate emphasis. What words or phrases continue to reappear in a verse, chapter, or book? (Think about words related by a root, for example, joy and rejoice, or encourage and encouragement.) How do they relate to or point to the main message?
     
  • Metaphors and Similes—Both use imagery to make a comparison. A simile uses “like” or “as” (“the devil prowls around like a roaring lion”) and a metaphor does not (“the Lord is my Shepherd”). How does the imagery relate to the passage? What point is it trying to make? What is it illustrating?
     
  • Contrasts and Comparisons—Are two things being compared or contrasted? Are there connections being made to how they are similar or different from each other? (Example: Paul contrasts law and Gospel and life in the Spirit vs. life in the flesh in the book of Romans.) How does this relate to the passage? What point is it making? How does comparing/contrasting these things help to make this point?
     
  • Quotations—Is something else being quoted? Is it another passage of Scripture? Is it another source from the time? Is it someone else’s words? How does it relate to the passage? Is it being approved of or criticized? If it’s another passage of Scripture, look back at that other passage (you’ll usually go back to the OT from the NT), and read it in its own context. How does this context relate to what is being said in the NT passage?

Remember that our goal is to read and interpret Scripture well. Noticing these words and literary features helps us to read a passage of Scripture in the right context. They ground a verse in a train of thought or story as a whole. When we see it in its proper place in the whole, we are better equipped to understand it correctly. 

This is true in a small verse-by-verse and chapter-by-chapter sense. It’s also true with the Bible as a whole. Next week, we’ll talk about the big-picture of Scripture and how to locate what we’re reading within the overarching redemption story.