This is like prophecy except that it is largely visionary, with much use of symbols. Old Testament prophecy normally centres on Israel and Judah and their neighbours, apocalyptic literature is not just local but universal, cosmic even. Books like Isaiah and Jeremiah, for instance, have oracles which relate to God’s judgement on nations situated in the Fertile Crescent and which therefore had some dealings with Israel. The remotest regions are normally Cush, lying south of Egypt, and places, difficult to identify, like Magog and Tubal, which appear to be north of the Black Sea. Apocalyptic however knows no such bounds.
We live in an age in which the word “global” is more and more frequently used, so that the relevance of this literature for us is beyond dispute. The most thoroughly apocalyptic book in the Bible is the Book of the Revelation (often aptly called “the Apocalypse”), but this is anticipated in the Old Testament in large sections of prophetic books like Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah, in each of which there are visionary sections. Jesus gave an apocalyptic discourse to his disciples just before his death, and this is recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21.
To enable you to get a feel for apocalyptic and especially its use of symbols, it would be good to read Zechariah chapters 1 to 6. Another feature of apocalyptic is the frequent appearance of angels in the narrative and we find these in some of these chapters.
Without doubt this kind of literature, especially Revelation, has its own problems, particularly for the reader whose knowledge of the Bible is limited. In fact many if not most of the problems connected with it are due to the fact that we do not know the Old Testament well enough, for this is the chief source of its symbolism.
A strange feature of Revelation is the fact that the writer never employs any of the formulae of quotation (such as “What does the Scripture say?”) which we know from other books of the New Testament, and yet no New Testament book (except possibly Hebrews) can equal it in the use it makes of the Old Testament.
A course like this cannot do more than provide an introduction to this literature.
We all need guidance, not simply in the great but also in the smaller matters of life, and it is valuable to have certain proverbs that express wise counsel to take with us through life, especially if they are in a memorable, rhythmic form. This is the value of so much in the Book of Proverbs. This book, very helpfully, begins with nine chapters of general exposition of wisdom before the actual proverbs begin. It is worth studying these chapters carefully before proceeding to read the rest of the book. Dr Johnson once said, “a man must carry knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge.” The structure of the Book of Proverbs well illustrates this, especially if we substitute the word “wisdom” for “knowledge”.
This is because the proverbs in this book need wisdom for their application as well as imparting wisdom. In other words, the individual proverbs are clearly intended to be read through the lens provided by these early chapters.
Remember that proverbs always deal largely in broad generalisations. In English we have some contradictory proverbs, like “Look before you leap!” and “he who hesitates is lost.” Does this mean that neither of these has any value? No, but real wisdom comes in discerning which is applicable in our particular circumstances. The same is true of the Book of Proverbs. It deals often in broad generalisations and the Holy Spirit can give us the wisdom we need to see if our circumstances fit. The over-riding principle is that real wisdom is always godly, for it is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning, the foundation, of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10).
Ecclesiastes has appeared to many readers to be a strange book, and it certainly has some unusual characteristics. There is a strong element of irony in it, and so we will consider it more fully in the section on irony in Study 11.
The Book of Job is often regarded as the world’s greatest poem, and this verdict is not restricted to those who regard it as inspired in the sense we identified in Study No. 3. It is largely in the form of a dialogue between Job and his friends, although it has an important prose prologue and epilogue. There is a discourse on the nature of wisdom in chapter 28 and two great disclosures of God to Job in the later chapters. It is often said to be about the problem of suffering, but this is not an accurate description, for the problem it raises is not simply that of suffering, but rather the suffering of the righteous in a world governed by a just and all-powerful God. This is a problem we can hardly fail to be aware of not only in the Bible story itself but also in life in the world today.
Enter any public library and you will probably find that the two most used shelves are those of the fiction and biography sections. These focus on telling stories about particular people and this always interests us. “Tell me a story!” is a plea heard in a million households every evening. Now the good news of Jesus is a story, a true story. It comes to us primarily in the four Gospels. What exactly are these books?
We have already thought about the Old Testament history books, and the Gospels are history in the sense that they are factual and are set in a particular period of time. They differ from the historical books of the Old Testament however in focusing on a Person. Now it is true that some of the Old Testament books give a place of importance to a particular person or persons. The books from Exodus to Deuteronomy show much interest in Moses and the books of Samuel focus on Samuel before moving on to David. Then there are Ruth and Esther. The Book of Job focuses on the sufferings of Job. What then is distinctive about the Gospels?
First of all, there are four of them. This shows a quite exceptional emphasis on this person, and warrants us in treating the Gospels as a distinct, although related, genre from the Old Testament historical books.
Not only so, but they focus on Jesus in a much more total way than the personal focus of any of the Old Testament books. The Book of Job, for instance, closes with a great revelation of God, and in that revelation God virtually says to him that the big story of things is not about him, Job, but about God himself. The Gospels make it clear to us that Jesus is the heart of the Big Story.
Are the Gospels then biographies of Jesus? Now this has often been denied, and this for two quite disconnected reasons.
The first is that from early days they have been called “Gospels”, and so can be regarded as a kind of preaching. When we preach the gospel, if we preach it authentically, what we say centres in Jesus. Now these Gospels not only centre in Jesus; their whole subject is Jesus. It might seem legitimate therefore to regard them as a kind of preaching. There is nothing wrong with this, provided we see preaching as exhortation that always has a factual basis. This is what all preaching in the Bible is, whether it is that of the Old Testament prophets or of the apostles in Acts. John makes it clear that his gospel is concerned to present Jesus so that the reader may believe in him and receive life in his name (John 20:30-31).
The second reason is because in certain circles the idea has been promoted that these books are not authentic biographies with a concern for factual accuracy, but rather that each of them is a kind of semi-fiction reflecting so much the outlook and concerns of a particular small Christian community that the authentic Jesus has virtually disappeared from sight. Happily, a major reaction against this approach is now under way, due largely to the publication of a book edited by Richard Bauckham and entitled, The Gospels for all Christians
The differences between the Gospels are in some ways comparable to those between some Old Testament books. For instance, the Books of Samuel and Kings deal with much the same history as the Books of Chronicles but the perspective is different, and we need both points of view. Then Isaiah and Micah prophesied at roughly the same time and they have one oracle in common, but again the perspective is somewhat different. The same is true of Haggai and Zechariah and of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. It is pre-eminently true of the Gospels.
Each Gospel writer was led by God to select items from the life and ministry of Jesus that were relevant for his particular target readership or audience, the particular readers and/or hearers he had in mind. There is much in Matthew that suggests a Jewish target readership. much in Mark for Romans and in Luke for Greek- speaking Gentiles, while John, although firmly rooting his thought both in the teaching of Jesus and in the Old Testament, may well have had Gentiles in view as well.
We are, of course, told a great deal in Scripture about the lives of other people, but, with one possible exception, this is not strictly biography, for it does not focus on one person but rather on the interaction of a number of characters with each other. The possible exception is the story of David told in the books of Samuel. It has been said that Tyndale’s English version of the story of David is the first great biography in the English language.
We live in an age when letter-writing is becoming a dying art, when we send so many e-mails and have dropped nearly all the formalities, such as “yours sincerely” and even “Dear”. When we do need to spend money on a stamp we tend to use the opportunity to put in lots of chatty things that we know our recipient would enjoy.
The letters of the New Testament often use some of the formalities current in the society at that time, but with Christian adaptation, and they have a good deal of personal warmth in them, for they were written from Christians to Christians. One of the most important things to say about them is that they are occasional letters; they were written to deal with issues that had arisen at the particular churches, and so they are not treatises in Systematic Theology or Christian Ethics. Remember this when you read them.
Our situations will not be exactly the same and yet the main themes are still relevant today. So, for example, Galatians deals with the gospel (if that is not relevant, what is?), First Corinthians with problems of a local church, Colossians with the uniqueness of Christ, Ephesians with the universal church, and so on.
Learn not only from the substance of these letters but also from the attitude of the writers: their concern to exalt Christ, their love for those to whom they write, showing itself in loving counsel which sometimes has to have a sharp edge to it.
There are three epistles which are real theological heavy-weights: Romans, Ephesians and Hebrews, and Colossians and parts of Second Corinthians are not far behind. To study any one of them carefully and prayerfully can be a life-transforming experience and may well revolutionise your whole approach to the Christian faith and to the Christian life. They are not easy (especially Hebrews, because it assumes a lot of knowledge of the Old Testament) but do not be afraid of them. They were written to churches with ordinary Christians in them, and the writers expected them to be understood, although of course many of the readers may have had a fair knowledge of the Old Testament but this would not apply to them all. Pray that God will open them up to you.
Sometimes a distinction is made between ordinary letters and open letters. The latter are either not addressed at all (as with the letter to the Hebrews or First John) or have very broad addresses such as those introducing Second Peter and James, although there are some others that combine the specific and the general such as the Corinthian epistles and First Peter. In fact the New Testament letters range from the very personal, such as Philemon), to the apparently general, such as Hebrews, although even in that epistle the lack of specific designation is balanced by the fact that the writer evidently knows the readers. So we should not indulge in too much stereotyping. Take a look at the opening verses of each of the epistles and you will see this variety.
One of the problems we have is that reading one of the New Testament letters is like listening to one end of a telephone conversation, although it is not so disjointed. There are of course certain things we can pick up on about the outlook of the recipients from the letters themselves. An interesting attempt to do this is found in John Barclay’s article, “Mirror-Reading a Polemical Letter: Galatians as a Test Case.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament. 31 (1987): 73-93, but this would be somewhat heavy-going for beginners in Bible study.
h. The Psalms
I have left this to the end because of the Psalter’s extremely varied character. It is virtually a compendium of literary genres. There are hymns and prayers, many of the latter being laments, and there are, amongst others, meditations on history and on nature, both in terms of their relationship to God, and “wisdom psalms” in which there are inspired reflections on life. I suggest you read Psalms 1, 12, 19, 78 and 145, and decide what type of psalm each is.
There will be a fuller study involving the Book of Psalms later.
3. The Varied Authors of the Bible
Varied authorship inevitably produces variety of style. All of us have our favourite words and turns of phrase, our special interests, the themes that move us and those that do not, and all of us are affected by our personal biographies.
Perhaps in the New Testament this is most noticeable in the four Gospels and also when we compare the epistles of John and Paul, we should note the different ways in which they employ important words.
A word of warning: sometimes it is alleged that the common attribution of a book or part of a book to an author cannot be correct because it is not in his style. This kind of argument is not without its problems. A gifted author may not confine his work to one style. Some writers on theological topics, for instance, adapt their styles according to their readership. If they are writing for scholars, their style is technical, if for ministers they do not avoid technical language altogether but this is much less marked, while if they are writing for the Christian in the pew they tend to avoid it altogether or at least explain it at times when its use is unavoidable or highly desirable. Then styles may develop over time and may vary according to circumstances. So, for instance, it is sometimes argued on stylistic grounds that Isaiah 40-55 is unlikely to have been written by Isaiah himself. If however, as has been suggested, these chapters were never given orally but are a literary product of the pen of Isaiah, we would expect some difference of style.
The common use of the Septuagint, the great Greek version used in Greek-speaking synagogues in New Testament times, by the New Testament writers furnished a vocabulary source for them. This is why there is less vocabulary variety in the New Testament than might have been expected. Some use more formalities than others, as, for instance, Luke does in his two prefaces. But formal introductions to the epistles often occur and they are Christian adaptations of familiar forms.
4. Prose and Poetry in the Bible
A great deal of the Old Testament and a little of the New is in poetry.
The main feature of Hebrew poetry, which it has in common with other Semitic poetry, for example that found at Ras Shamra in Syria, is parallelism or sense- rhythm. In this, two or more lines say the same thing in different words (identical parallelism) or present a contrast (antithetical parallelism) or show development of some kind (synthetic parallelism). So we have the following:
“I will extol the LORD at all times;
his praise will always be on my lips” (Ps. 34:1)
“The lions may grow weak and hungry,
but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing” (Ps. 34:10)
“My soul will boast in the LORD;
let the afflicted hear and rejoice” (Ps. 34:2)
These categories have been recognised for a long time, but the first and third are not quite as distinct as may appear at first, because two seemingly identical lines may exhibit some differences, which enrich the thought. So the second line of Psalm 34:1 shows that the psalmist is not only extolling God in his heart but using his lips to express his praise in verbal utterance.
Poetry is often difficult, if not impossible, to translate without destroying its poetic form, but this kind is an exception, for parallel or contrasting or developing thoughts can be rendered in any language. We can see here the combination of divine inspiration and providence.
There will be more about Biblical poetry in a later study.
5. Diversity in the cultural background
The cultures found in the Bible are all different in important ways from that of the contemporary western world, which itself is somewhat diverse. It is important for commentators to be aware of this, lest they miss the differences and therefore misinterpret the Scriptures.
So, in the Old Testament, we find not only the developing culture of Israel, but also, for instance, the Egyptian culture in the story of Joseph and parts of the story of Moses, and the Babylonian in the Book of Daniel.
Some of the cultures have more in common with those in Africa or western Asia today, where cultural conservatism has often been a feature of society. Some years ago, I was lecturing on Genesis and was trying to explain why Laban, the uncle of Rebekah, seems to have had as much say in the decision that she should go to become Isaac’s wife as her father, Bethuel (Genesis 25). Later, some Nigerian students remarked to me that they had not needed the explanation, because the same thing happened in their culture. When their course at the college was over, one of the same group told me he had also discovered that there were features of the Graeco-Roman culture which forms the wider cultural background of the New Testament, particularly the Acts of the Apostles, which were nearer to present-day western culture than to his own.
One value of a good Bible dictionary is to give you information about this kind of thing. A valuable and reliable one-volume Bible Dictionary worth purchasing for regular use is A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, D. J. Wiseman (eds.) The New Bible Dictionary, Leicester: IVP, 1996.
6. A Challenge, a Treat, a Blessing
Have you ever spent an evening simply reading a book? Many people have done this from time to time, although it is a pity this is a less frequent experience for many people since the advent of television. A little girl was once asked whether she preferred radio or television. “Radio,” she answered, “because the pictures are better.” She meant, of course, the pictures she got inside her head. If that is true of radio, it is even more true of reading.
I want to offer you a treat. Settle down to read the Book of Genesis through, not as a big job but as an invitation to blessing. Without doubt you will manage it in one evening. I suggest you read it attentively but not too slowly, unless, of course, you find that God has some big thing to say to you through a particular passage.
It is the Word of God, but it is also a literary marvel. Read chapter 1 in all the majesty of its monotheism, combining as it does such economy of language with more detailed description where necessary. Feel its rhythms (“the evening and the morning were the first day”, and so on) and, if you have ever read other ancient creation-stories, take in its total uniqueness. In the majesty of chapter 1, God creates simply by speaking; in the intimacy of the complementary story in chapter 2 he makes human beings by “getting his hands dirty”.
Note how the fall into sin in chapter 3 leads to the inevitable effect of sin in death, as seen in the sombre refrain, “and then he died”, in chapter 5, followed by the (intentionally) depressing statement in 6:5 and the great judgment of the Flood. Read the story of the Tower of Babel in chapter 11, which seems so modern that you can almost hear the structural engineers calling out, “we have the technology!” On the way, though, don’t miss the evidence of God’s grace: the great promise in Genesis 3:15, the exemption of Enoch from death, the rescue of Noah and his family from the Flood.
This will prepare you for Genesis 12, with the great promise of God to Abraham, the foundation of the whole missionary enterprise, which was God’s intention, first of all for Israel and then for the church. Note how the purposeful migration of Abraham contrasts with God’s scattering of the peoples from the Tower of Babel.
Read on through the story of Abraham and see how that promise is repeated and articulated further while you note that the narrative includes the man’s failures as well as the great triumph of his faith and obedience in chapter 22. In that amazing chapter, do not miss the way the story of the fifty- mile journey from Beersheba to Mount Moriah is covered in a couple of verses, while, in contrast, each particular movement of Abraham is spelled out once the top of the mountain is reached, imparting great dramatic tension to the story. Here is literary artistry in the service of truth.
Go on through the story of Isaac, and note how in chapter 27 the way things can go wrong even in a believing family, for there all the relationships were wrong, whether they were between Isaac and Rebecca, Isaac and Esau, Jacob and Esau, or one of the other three relationships. Yet, despite that, God’s promises and purposes continued unaltered.
Now comes the story of Jacob. See how God dealt with him, how this man of guile, with all the twists in his character, found himself up against a similar “twister” in Laban, how God met him at Bethel and at Peniel, and brought him, despite the twists that were in his family’s characters too, to a resting place in Egypt.
Read through the peerless story of Joseph, described by one literary expert as the story-telling masterpiece for all time (perhaps he had not read the parables!). The story just carries you along. Deceit is the most characteristic sin we find in the Book of Genesis, and it is still there as the brothers confront Jacob after they have sold Joseph. See how they too are taught some hard lessons, and then read the deeply moving appeal of Judah to Joseph in chapter 44. You cannot stop there, for the account pulls you on to the emotional breakdown of Joseph in the following chapter. The story moves to its close and to Joseph’s expressions of his faith in his assurance that God’s providence had been at work in his life and in his request that his bones should be transferred to the Promised Land.
What lessons about the ways of God there are here! You may not be quite the same person at the end of your reading of Genesis as you were at the start.
Which Bible book will you read through next?
7. “God’s Varied Grace” in Christ (1 Peter 4:10, ESV)
All this variety ministers to the one great purpose of Scripture, to set forth the beauties and glories of Christ, that we may be led to trust him, love, serve and worship him all our days and in all eternity.
For further Reading: G. D. Fee and D. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all its Worth, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003, Chapters 3, 4, 7, 11, 12, 13.