Lecture 5: Literary Context

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Points out the importance of reading a passage in its literary context, and with regard for the appropriate genre (e.g., the psalm, the proverb, apocalyptic). The concentric circle diagram is not available for you to look at, but you can draw it from the description Dr. Guthrie gives in the lecture.


Literary Context


I. Words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs have no specific meaning apart from a specific context.

A. The danger of flying planes.

B. The meanings of the word table.

C. The word stop.

D. We want to hear what God is saying to us and to hear it well we must hear it with a specific context.


II. Two areas:

A. What is the broader literary context?

1. Literary context - The material that works with and surrounds the passage under consideration.

2. We have several layers of context and we must consider:

a. How each fits into the passage.

b. How each fits into the paragraph.

c. How each one fits into the section of the book.

d. How each fits into the book itself.

e. How each in the New Testament fits into Paul's other works.

f. How each fits into the New or Old Testament.

g. How each fits into the Bible itself.

3. Tools that might help in studying literal context.

a. A commentary

b. A study Bible

c. A Bible dictionary

d. "How to read the Bible - Book by Book"

4. Philippians 4:13 - How do people usually read this passage?

a. Most read it in terms of physical ability

b. Paul isn't talking about that. He is really talking about contentment. V10ff

B. What is the genre or type of literature of this part of the Bible?

1. The rules of the game. There are certain rules we have to follow when we are dealing with different kinds of genre.

a. We read history different than we read fiction. This is true even in the Bible

i. The Old Testament

ii. Narrative

iii. Law

iv. Poetry

v. Prophecy

vi. Wisdom

vii. Gospels

viii. Paul’s letters

ix. Apocalyptic

b. Examples:

i. Psalms - Psalms are a hymn or song that expresses worship to God.

a) The Psalms are divided into 5 different types

b) We need to tune into what emotion is being expressed. Is it a lament or a psalm of wisdom?

c) The concluding application of the psalm should be on our worship.

d) Psalm 18:37-40 - How do you respond to this particular psalm?

ii. Proverbs - Proverbs are generalized truths about life

a) Proverb 12:1-11

b) These are principles for how we approach life.

iii. Revelations- Revelation is apocalyptic - highly symbolic.

a) Revelation chapter 9

b) The fifth trumpet - v. 3ff and Hal Lindsey

c) Locusts are a symbol of God's judgment

d) What is the symbol intended to mean?


III. How sensitivity to literal context can help us.

A. It tips us off to the authors point.

B. It can help communicate the force or power of what is being communicated.

Moses and the children of Israel

C. It can keep us on track in terms of application.


Course: How to Read Your Bible

Lecture: Literary Context

I. Introduction

Thank you very much for being here. It’s great to see everybody this morning and I think we’ll have a good time talking about some aspects of context this morning.

We talked about background context last week. What we want to talk about this week is literary context. There’s an old story about a guy who was having a devotional. The way he had his devotionals with the Bible is he would open up the Bible and point his finger and whatever the passage said, he took that as God’s word for him that day. And so morning after morning, he would open up the Bible and point his finger, and he came up with all kinds of things. Well, one morning he opened up the Bible and pointed his finger and it said, “Judas hanged himself.” And he thought, “Oh, no, that can’t be what God wants me to do today.” So he closed the Bible real quickly. He opened it again and it said, “Go thou and do likewise.” He thought, “Oh, no, that can’t be right.” So he shut the Bible and he opened up again and it said, “What thou doest, do quickly.”

Well, you can get into a lot of trouble in dealing with the Bible that way, and yet there are a lot of people that do that. They just open the Bible and plop down and try to read passages of Scripture completely apart from their context. So we want to talk today about the importance of reading things within context. Whether you’re reading through the Bible following a reading program or you’re doing more detailed study of the Bible, you want to read things within their context.

I just finished reading John Grisham’s book “The Last Juror.” They’re having this in “Jackson Reads” this summer. And it’s actually a very good read. I enjoyed reading the book. One of the things I experienced as I read through the book though was just anger at the laws that were taking place in Mississippi back in 1970 – the early 1970s when this book took place. In fact, I thought about where I was here in west Tennessee at the time and I thought, I just can’t believe that the state of Mississippi had those kinds of laws at that time. It was just ridiculous, and I’m sure that there were a lot of laws that were not good. I was experiencing this anger about the laws and just really thinking very badly of Mississippi. I’m sure a lot of these dynamics were there and took place. But then I read this. It’s called the author’s note at the end of the book. And Grisham writes this, “Very few laws remain the same. Once enacted they are likely to be studied, modified, amended, and then often repealed altogether. This constant tinkering by judges and lawmakers is usually a good thing. Bad laws are weeded out. Weak laws are improved. Good laws are fine tuned. I took great liberty with a few of the laws that existed in Mississippi in the 1970s. The ones I mistreated in this book have now been amended and improved. I misused them to move my story along. I do this all the time and never feel guilty about it since I can always disclaim things on this page.”

Now think about how important the broader context (not just of the novel but of the book that has the author’s comments) is to understanding what’s going on in “The Last Juror.” What it means is as I read this – it would have been better if I had known this on the front end. But again, it would have dampened the story a bit if I had. But it makes a great deal of difference to me now to think everything I was reading there was not actually based on some historical fact. So the context is very, very important.

So let’s talk a little bit about literary context.

II. Meaning is found in context

Words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs have no specific meaning apart from a specific context.

A. Example 1 - The phrase "the danger of flying planes"

Think about the parts of a sentence you might read, for instance, the phrase “the danger of flying planes.” Now what does that mean? What could that mean? In what way? Where are the planes? So you’re thinking about it from the standpoint of someone who is flying the plane, that flying planes is dangerous. Keith flies planes and so we can read that phrase from that standpoint. What’s another way we can read that phrase? Maybe I’m sitting in the stands. I’m watching the air show at the airport out here, and those flying planes are dangerous if one of them gets out of control and hits us in the stands. That’s dangerous. Well, I don’t know specifically what that phrase means apart from some specific context, right? Because that’s the way language works.

B. Example 2 - The word "table"

What about the word “table”? What does the word “table” mean? What’s the first and obvious meaning of the word “table” for most of us? Maybe that thing sitting right there on the stage that we eat lunch at. But the word “table” doesn’t necessarily mean that. What are other meanings of the word “table”? You can have a chart if you’re a person who works in an office. Or to table an issue. It can be used as a verb. Or you can talk about the water table. There are all kinds of meanings for that word. That word that we have in English, T-A-B-L-E, doesn’t mean anything specific apart from a context. It needs a context to give it specificity.

C. Example 3 - The word "stop"

Even you think about a common word like “stop.” If I pull up and I see it on a stop sign, a red stop sign at a crossroads, a four-way stop, then it means something very specific. But if I’m walking down the aisle of an antique store and I see the same sign hanging upside down from the ceiling, I don’t come up to that sign and stop. Why? Because I know that it’s in a very different kind of context. It doesn’t mean stop in that particular place at that moment. If I see “stop!” with an exclamation point at the top of a brochure where someone is trying to sell me something, again, what it means there is “give me your attention so I can sell you something.” That’s what the word means in that context. And if I hear it on a sitcom and I’m watching television and a guy is coming on to a girl and he’s just praising her because she’s so beautiful, and she says, “Stop.” But what’s she saying in that situation? She’s saying, “Keep going. Come on, come on.”

D. Context shapes meaning

So words have to have a specific context because context shapes meaning. It’s very important that as we read the Bible we clue in to the context, to what’s going on in that part of the Bible in which God is inspiring these things to be said. What we’re trying to get at in our Bible reading and Bible study and Bible interpretation is we want to hear what God is saying to us in the Word. If we’re going to hear it well, then we’re going to need to hear it within a specific context.

III. Two main areas

There are two main areas we want to study when we’re talking about context.

A. The broader literary context

What is the broader literary context? It is the material that surrounds and works with the passage under consideration.

1. Layers of literary context

Now you have a little diagram of this at the very top of your page there, but you also have one on the next page. In that center blank, put “passage.” Right in the center of that concentric circle diagram. Outside in the next circle, write “paragraph.” So you have passage and then paragraph. The third circle out, write “section of the book.” So if I’m reading Paul’s letter to the Romans and I’m reading Chapter 5 verse 8 about God demonstrating his love towards us, I want to know how that fits into that paragraph there in the first part of Chapter 5. I also want to know how it fits into the broader context of a couple of chapters where Paul is talking about grace and that salvation is by faith. It’s not by our works.

And then outside of that, you might draw another circle. Between this circle and that last line out there, put another circle in there so that the fourth circle out would be the book itself. If I’m looking at Romans, I want to understand Paul’s statement in the context of the whole book. And there’s something between the book itself and the context of the whole New Testament.

What would you think a circle would be if I’m studying in Paul’s letter to the Romans that would be between looking at the context of the book and looking at the context of the whole New Testament? Yes, Paul's other letters. Other letters that Paul wrote might help me understand something as I consider these in light of each other. And then a circle outside of that would be the New Testament, or the Old Testament if I'm dealing with the Old Testament. You have to draw another circle out there. And then finally the final concentric circle would be the Bible itself.

I think you get the picture that when we're dealing with issues of context we actually have several layers of context that we want to consider.

2. Tools

What are some tools that would help us tune into different layers of context here? If I'm looking at a passage and I'm saying to myself, you know, I want to understand this passage in the broader scope of what Paul's doing in Romans, one thing that I may want to do is read that whole section of Romans. At least read the whole chapter. But what might be some tools that would also help me tune into the context, that might tip me off, for instance, to an outline of the book? Can you think of some tools that might help with that?

a. Commentaries

One tool would be a commentary on Romans. Commentaries almost always have an outline in the front of the book and the author will talk through the different movements of the book, and so in two or three pages you can kind of get the gist of what's going on in the big picture and say, "Oh, I see. Well, this passage in Isaiah fits into the beginning of this whole section on God bringing salvation to his people."

b. Study Bible

Another tool would be a study Bible. Normally, a good study Bible is going to have an outline of the book at the beginning.

c. Bible dictionary

Another is a Bible dictionary. It will give you a brief article on any book of the Bible and normally will also give you a general outline.

So let's say that I'm studying and I'm zeroing in on a passage or maybe I'm doing a lot of reading and I come to a passage and I think, "Boy, I want to understand what this means here and it's a little foggy to me." Then what I can do is I can look in the front of that book in my study Bible and say, "Okay, where does this fit in the outline?" Or I might pick up my Bible dictionary and read the little article on that book and look at the outline given there.

d. How to Read the Bible - Book by Book

There's another little book that's not expensive that I have found very helpful. It's by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart called How to Read the Bible Book-by-Book. And what they do is they'll take a book like Isaiah and they'll briefly go through, but they'll also kind of tip you off to some things to be aware of in this part of the book in terms of the type of literature.

3. Example: Philippians 4:13

Now let's talk just for a second about how this makes a difference. I want you to take your Bibles and turn to Philippians 4:13. The NLT reads this way, "For I can do everything with the help of Christ who gives me the strength I need." A very common translation of that is "For I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

Now you see that verse used a lot in our culture. It tends to pop up a lot in athletic context, doesn't it? I can still remember when I was in high school playing football and we would gather around for prayer before the game, praying that God would help us to beat the brains out of those guys on the other team. Of course, they were over in their locker room praying the same thing. And we claim this verse. Well, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. There's a famous world-class boxer who a number of years ago came out and on his shorts he had Philippians 4:13. Now in that kind of use of this passage, what are people normally saying? I mean, how are they reading that passage? I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. They are using it in terms of physical ability. It's kind of the Superman or Spiderman reading of this passage, right? It’s having to do with ability. I mean, I like Spiderman. When you read it that way, it makes you think you can go up to the top of the church building and jump over this church.

But if you read the passage in its context, you will know Paul’s not talking about that at all. Look at the passage and back up to verse 10: “How grateful I am and how I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you’ve always been concerned about me, but for a while you didn’t have a chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to get along happily whether I have much or little. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little, for I can do everything with the help of Christ who gives me the strength I need. But even so, you have done well to share with me in my present difficulty. As you know, you Philippians were the only ones who gave me financial help when I brought you the good news and then traveled on from Macedonia. No other church did this. For even when I was in Thessalonica you sent help more than once. I don’t say this because I want to get from you. What I want is for you to receive a well-earned reward because of your kindness. At the moment, I have all I need, more than I need. I am generously supplied with the gifts you sent me with Epaphroditus.”

Now that’s not talking about physical ability. Paul’s not saying, “Hey, I can go out here and take on the world. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” What’s he talking about? How would you sum up the point that Paul’s making based on the context of this broader passage? What’s the point? He’s saying, “Whether I’m in a situation where I don’t have much to eat, I don’t have many resources to carry on with or I just have an abundance of them and things are going really great, whether I’m in a situation in which there’s need or there’s plenty, I can handle those different kinds of situations through Christ.”

Now I’m going to jump ahead a little bit but when we’re talking about application of this passage, then what we want to do is say in the original context what Paul is dealing with is the issue of contentment. So what are some parallels to our situation in which we struggle with being content? Do you see the point? So we would want to read a passage like this within its context because that passage doesn’t mean just whatever we want it to mean. We want to read it in its context to understand what Paul was actually saying so we can tune in to that and really do a good job with understanding it.

B. Biblical genres

Now let’s talk about the our second main question when dealing with literary context. What is the genre or the type of literature of this part of the Bible?

1. The rules of the game

Now in talking about the type of literature, we need to understand the rules of the game. We were up in North Carolina last year and were at a game store. We like games. We’re becoming more games people in our family. We don’t come by it naturally but we play games occasionally. And we found this game called Goblet, and the person who was trying to sell this to me assured me that this was a great game and was going to be really worth buying. And it really is a neat game. The thing I like about this kind of game is it’s very simple. It’s not hard to learn how to play. You can be playing it in just a few minutes, and you have different color pieces here and different sizes. But, if I got a together a couple of people and I say, “Hey, why don’t you guys just sit down and try this out.” And I set up the board for them and got them going on it and said, “Okay, go.” Well, they might laugh and do different things, but they wouldn’t understand the rules of the game.

Now when we’re dealing with literature of any kind, there are certain rules that govern how we understand, how we deal with and read that type of literature. Now you and I actually deal with this every day of our lives. The little diagram that you have there gives different kinds of genre or literature that you and I deal with all the time – things like the newspaper, the telephone book, a menu, a devotional book, perhaps history if you’re reading a piece of history. Pat bought Winston Churchill’s “History of the English-Speaking People” last night, and we’re going to be reading through that. You don’t read history the same way you read a love letter. You don’t read a love letter the same way you read a map.

Now you probably haven’t ever thought about that before. But as you and I have grown up in our culture, we understand that different rules are engaged as you read these different types of literature. If I am reading history, I’m going to read it differently than I read a novel because the rules are different. I’m not going to go on the Internet and try to search and find out – well, I wonder what happened to this guy after the story was finished. You know why? Because this guy has never existed. I don’t read it the same way that I read history. If I am reading a menu and I see up at the top of the menu this phrase “You the customer mean everything,” I don’t latch onto that and say, “Oh, I’m so important to these people.” And I tell the waitress, “Would you please tell the owner I want to come over and see them tonight because I mean everything to them.” We don’t read it that way. If I am being romantic with my wife and I come up with some really wonderful poem like “Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you,” I’m not making a comment on the chemical makeup of my wife. You know, I’m saying, “When I kiss you, mmm, oh, mmm, you’re so sweet.” That’s not what I’m saying, because those words are used figuratively as they are in much of poetry. Even very bad poetry. Okay? So we engage different types of literature according to different rules of the game.

2. Genres in the Bible

Now it’s the same way with the Bible. You have Old Testament and New Testament there. Some of the literature that we’re going to encounter in the Bible would be things like narrative, law, poetry, prophecy, wisdom (like the book of Proverbs). The Gospels are going to be very distinct in some way. Paul’s letters are going to be read differently than apocalyptic, which is a big word that we use to describe the book of Revelation. Because the rules are very different when you’re dealing with apocalyptic literature like the book of Revelation than when you’re dealing with history or a letter.

So let’s talk about some of the rules of the game. There is another book by Fee and Stuart that I think is just wonderful and very basic. It’s been popular for a number of years now and it’s called “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.” It’s another little paperback book that’s not that expensive. Now in this seminar we’re not going to have time to go into great detail on all the different types of literature in the Bible, but Fee and Stuart take each type and they do go into great detail and they put out certain kinds of questions that you need to ask when you’re dealing with different types of literature.

What I want to do is give you a few examples to whet your appetite and just have us move in the direction of being sensitive to how the different types of literature affect a reading of the text, and then we’ll have a time for some questions. Let's talk about some examples here.

3. Example: Psalms

First of all, one of the most popular books in the Bible is the book of Psalms. It is one of my favorite books. When I'm struggling a little bit spiritually and maybe I've gotten kind of dry in my Bible reading or Bible study, one of the things I'll do is I'll go back and I'll read about five Psalms a morning and just pray through those Psalms because of their richness.

The Psalms are a hymnbook that express worship to God. They are somewhat complex.

The Psalms is divided into five different books. I don't know if you've ever seen that in the book of Psalms itself or if your Bible lays it out as such. There are five main movements in the book of Psalms and there are a lot of different types of Psalms.

One of the things that we're going to find in the book of Psalms are ''laments'', and we're not really used to laments in our culture. A lament is where the psalmist is crying out to God about how bad things are. Basically, I hate what's going on in life right now. I don't like it that these wicked people are prospering and here I am lying in the dust and it doesn't seem like you care at all. Now to me that's actually a very important aspect of worship, that we learn how to be honest with God. You know what? God knows exactly what we're feeling anyway.

Michael Card is a friend of mine and he is writing a book right now about lament and writing some songs based on the laments of the Bible. It's a lost aspect of our worship, but you're going to find these laments. Now what they normally do is they come around at the end and say, "But you know what? Then I woke up and I thought, you know, God really is in control of everything, that you really are worthy of praise." So they come around to giving praise to God.

Besides laments, we're going to see in psalms some phenomenal passages of ''praise'' that worship God in his magnificence and his majesty and his power. There are going to be Psalms that are oriented to ''thanksgiving''.

Then there are going to be other Psalms that were very tied to the ''history of Israel'' in various ways. It might be an individual psalm expressing something that happened in David's life, and David wrote this psalm, we're told, coming out of that experience in his life. And Psalm 51 would be an example of that. He's crying to God for forgiveness for this horrible thing that he's done. There are going to be Psalms that were used by the congregation of Israel as a whole as they were ''going up to worship God in the temple''. There are going to be other kinds of Psalms that are more ''wisdom-oriented''. Psalm 1 would be an example of that. "How blessed is a man who does not walk in the ways of these ungodly people but his delight is in the law of the Lord." And it talks about wisdom.

One general principle in dealing with the Psalms would be for us to clue in to the confessions and emotions that are in that Psalm. And I mean "confession" there by agreeing with God that something is true about God. The confessions and emotions. And I think with the Psalms we need to tune in to what is the emotion being expressed here, because they were meant to express joy or sorrow or even thanksgiving for the stability of being among the people of God. You don't want to just analyze and pick the Psalms apart and say, well, you know, this truth and this truth and this truth. I think the Psalms invite us in to worship. And that's why I think the concluding application of the Psalms often needs to be our own personal worship, our prayer.

Again, one thing that I do with the Psalms is I will read through them, and as I'm reading through them and things stick out to me, I will actually at that moment turn those into prayer to God and say, "God, you know, this situation that I'm dealing with, I praise you that you are in control of the situation." So to use them as an expression of praise to God.

You have some things that are difficult to deal with in the Psalms in which the psalmist is actually calling down bad things on his enemies. There are wonderful praise psalms like Psalm 19. But look at Psalm 18 just for a minute. And we are told at the beginning of this Psalm that this is a thanksgiving for deliverance by God, a psalm of David, the servant of the Lord. That's given in the introduction, not in the psalm itself but in something that was attached to this psalm along the way. And in verses 37 through 40, it says this, "I chase my enemies and caught them. I did not stop until they were conquered. I struck them down so they could not get up. They fell beneath my feet. You have armed me with strength for the battle. You have subdued my enemies under my feet. You made them turn and run. I have destroyed all who hated me."

Now what are you going to do with that? You know, you're reading this in your devotional time and you're saying, "Wow, this is great. Those people have been giving me a hard time at work. They are toast. I'm going to go after them. God is going to give me the strength to crush them under my feet." Is that how we're going to respond to this? Well, it needs to be read in its context. First of all, we need to understand that this is David's response to a historical situation as he is coming out of a battle. The traditions attached to this says that this is after Saul was pursuing him and persecuting him. We need to read it within that historical context and understand what was going on with him. This is not blanket permission for every believer through the ages to go out and destroy their enemies. But what I want to do is I want to say what were the emotions David was expressing here in his worship of God? What were the confessions? I think some of the confessions might be things like, you know, the success that God gives me in difficult situations really come from God. I mean those are from God and I need to thank God when things turn out well.

All of us have felt emotions when someone is treating us unfairly, unjustly. They're coming after us to do us harm. And we know those kinds of emotion so it might be that a psalm like this can help us enter into saying, "Lord, this was a difficult situation in my life, and yet you helped me come through this and we're on the other side of it now and I want to praise you just as David praised you for help in his difficult situation. I want to praise you for help in this difficult situation in my life, and I want to worship you." Our enemies would be different than David's enemies. Our response to it have to be read in the broader context of the Bible itself. We'd have to read this in light of Jesus' words about loving our enemies as Christians, and it would have to be interpreted in light of Christ's words there. But there are parallels to the experience that we can draw from. So the Psalms are expressing worship to God. I don't want to just read through them and say, "Well, what can I learn today?" I want to enter into worship. I want to enter into the emotion of celebrating what God has done in my life or being honest with God about the difficulties that I'm having. I think God can handle our honesty according to the Psalms.

4. Example: Proverbs

Another part of Scripture is the book of Proverbs, for instance. Now Proverbs or the wisdom literature in general give us generalized truths about life. One thing you can do to think through the application of a proverb would be this phrase: The best way to approach life is "blank." Proverbs are not promises. They were not written to be air-tight promises for every situation of our lives. Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about here.

Look at Proverbs 12:1-11. NLT reads, "To learn you must love discipline. It is stupid to hate correction." Do you see how that's a generalized principle for how we approach life. "The Lord approves those who are good but he condemns those who plan wickedness. Wickedness never brings stability; only the godly have deep roots." Now again, these are general principles for how life works. "A worthy wife is her husband's joy and crown. A shameful wife saps his strength. The plans of the godly are just. The advice of the wicked is treacherous. The words of the wicked are like a murderous ambush but the words of the godly save lives."

Now does that mean that a godly person never says something that is wrong? No. It's talking about general patterns. "The wicked perish and are gone but the children of the godly stand firm." Now again I know some godly people whose children have not turned out very well. They haven't stood firm. If a person took this as a promise and said, "In every situation if I'm godly and I'm living the right way, then my children are going to hang in there," it's similar to that very common proverb you hear people say, "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it." Now if a person took that as a promise and said this is air-tight, then it might lead to some disillusionment. There are parents who are godly who have done the best they could to raise their kids in the ways of the Lord. But one of their children has gone off and has not accepted the Lord and is living a life apart from God and even died in that condition. So this type of thing can lead to disillusionment. But what this proverb is saying is that the best way to live life is to raise your children in the ways of the Lord because you're moving them in a trajectory that's going to be a very positive thing generally speaking.

The Proverbs say a lot about the good person – look at verse 8 and following – “Everyone admires a person with good sense but a warped mind is despised. It’s better to be a nobody with a servant than to be self-important and have no food.” Verse 11 “Hard work means prosperity. Only fools idle away their time.” Now there are people who work hard and still things have not turned out well financially. Sure. But what’s Proverbs doing? Proverbs is not giving us air-tight promises; it is giving us principles for how life is to be lived best. So when I read verse 11 “Hard work means prosperity,” I'm not taking that as a promise, that if I work real hard, I’m going to get rich. But I read it as saying that the best way to approach life is to work hard. This week I’m going to just set my schedule, go out there and work hard because that’s the best way to approach life from God’s perspective. Does everybody understand what I’m saying there?

Now let me pause here with the Psalms and the Proverbs. Let me see if anybody has a question because for some of you this may be a very new way of thinking, but understand that when God inspired these original writers to write the Psalms and Proverbs, for instance, they were working with conventions of literature, just like you and I do. And we need to tune in to how those types of literature work and what they’re trying to say and do. The author of Proverbs knew that these were not air-tight promises. These are general guidelines for life. Does anybody have a question about that? Does that cause a problem for anybody?

4. Example: The book of Revelation

Let’s talk just briefly about the book of Revelation. Look at Revelation chapter 9. I mentioned that Revelation is what we call apocalyptic literature. And one thing about apocalyptic literature is it is highly symbolic. It uses lots of symbols. Now it’s speaking of realities that are spiritual realities, real truths about God and about the universe, I think even about the end of the age when Christ returns. I think it’s speaking about those real realities. So when we say it’s symbolic, we’re not saying these things are not true. We’re just saying that symbols are used to represent greater truths.

Let me give you an illustration of this. If you picked up the paper this morning and you saw a cartoon – a political cartoon – and you saw an elephant on one side of a wagon pulling the wagon in one direction. On the other side of the wagon was a donkey pulling in the other direction and there was a big pile of money in the wagon, how many of us would think there was actually an elephant and a donkey somewhere in America that this was being sketched of? None of us would. Why? What would we immediately know that was referring to? Well, the different political parties in our political system. Why? Because we understand those symbols.

It’s the same way in the ancient world. For instance, if you look at the fifth trumpet in Revelation 9, it reads in verses 3 and following, “The locusts came from the smoke and descended on the earth and they were given power to sting like scorpions. They were told not to hurt the grass or plants or trees but to attack all the people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” Now I remember back in the 70s, Hal Lindsey came out with a book called “The Late Great Planet Earth” and he interpreted the locusts to be Russian helicopters that were swooping down on Israel. And he said a locust has this kind of globe look to its face and these whirling of the wings and all this kind of stuff. Well, what Lindsey was doing was he was interpreting John’s vision here very literally rather than understanding the symbolism behind this.

The symbolism here actually goes back to the Old Testament. The locust is a symbol of God’s judgment and the devastation that comes about as a result of the judgment of God. This is a very powerful image of God’s judgment on those who are the wicked and who are apart from God. Now we’re not going to go into detail there, but when reading Revelation, we need to ask what is the symbol intended to mean here. There are some other places in the Bible in which we need to tune into apocalyptic as well.

IV. How sensitivity to literary context can help us

Let me just mention briefly in closing a few examples of how sensitivity to literary context can help us.

A. Knowing the author's point

First of all, it tips us off to the author’s point. I think discourses, letters, speeches, these things are put together by an author in specific ways because the author is trying to build a message. And so what we do when we tune into literary context is we’re trying to be sensitive to how the author has packaged things here. And that passage I’m dealing with has a specific role in that broader package of communication. So I’m tuning in to the author’s point when I’m sensitive to literary context.

B. Adding to the force of communication

Secondly, it can help communicate the force of what’s being communicated. Or you could say the power of what’s being communicated. Sometimes you don’t see the point if all you’re doing is tuning in to the punch line. You got to have the big picture of how the author has built up to this point to see the power of what’s going on here. For instance, in the Old Testament, Moses is opposed at one point by a couple of other leaders of Israel. And in that opposition, one of them is turned leprous. Now you can read that apart from its context. When her skin was turned white, you can say simply say, well, that’s a very powerful judgment or punishment of God. But if you back up to the beginning of that chapter, they’re challenging Moses not just because he’s got all the power and authority there, but also because he married a Cushite. A Cushite was a black African, from a very powerful nation in northern Africa. And it’s interesting to read that context that they’re coming not just because of the authority Moses has, but also because they’re upset that he’s married this Cushite whose skin is black, and then to see that the judgment on the one who is standing against Moses is that her skin is turned as white as snow. It gives a force, it gives a power to that specific form of judgment if you understand the broader context of what’s going on there. So we can sometimes understand the force or the punch line better if we understand the bigger picture of what the author is doing.

C. Keeping application on track

And then, thirdly, it can keep us on track in terms of application. If I’m not tuning in to the broader context at times, I can misread the passage and therefore not be thinking correctly about how to apply it to my life.

Now I have an assignment for you for next week. Based on what we learned about the two aspects of literary context, how the passage fits into the broader scope of what’s going on here, and also the type of literature I’m dealing with. I want to ask you to read Psalms 73 this week and identify the main points and the main message of Psalms 73 based on the context of the whole chapter as well as the genre, the type of literature. What might be an appropriate application for you and me in reading that chapter?


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1 How to Read Your Bible - Quiz 5

Literary Context


46 min

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