Engaging Exposition (9): The Author’s Method of Communication

Poetry

Walt Kaiser notes that Poetry “is important enough to occupy about one-third of the Old Testament.”* It is a medium of communication that uses figurative language to explore the intricacies of life, and it has the capacity to provide an extraordinary view of ordinary things. Grant Osborne notes,

Semitic poetry had its origin in the religious life of the people, both corporate and individual. Prose was inadequate to express the deep yearnings of the soul, and poetry as an emotional, deep expression of faith and worship became a necessity. The many types of religious needs called for different types of hymns. Hebrew poetry was not recreational but was functional in the life of the nation and its relationship with Yahweh.**

It is important to understand a primary pattern found in Old Testament poetry-semantic parallelism. Kaiser describes semantic parallelism as of “major importance both for identifying the literary form and for getting at its meaning.” He further states, “The basic idea of parallelism is that two or more lines of poetry express either a synonymous idea by use of an equivalent but different word, or an antithetic idea by some type of contrast. The parallelism may be semantic (dealing with meaning) or grammatical (pertaining to form).”

Despite the predominance of the Psalms as Old Testament poetry, there are many other examples of poetry in Scripture. In particular, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon all contain poetry. Further, large portions of the prophets are poetic.

Poetry is often difficult to interpret because it contains so much figurative language and there are numerous ways that poets may incorporate the use of figurative language. One of the primary figurative devices found in Scripture is the simile. Similes, like metaphors, are “used as a means of comparing things that are essentially unlike. The only distinction between them is that in simile the comparison is expressed by the use of some word or phrase, such as like, as, than, similar to, resembles, or seems.” (Perrine)

While similes express the comparison, metaphors imply the comparison. That is, “The figurative term is substituted for or identified with the literal term.”

Personification also is a type of figurative language found in Scripture. In personification, objects, animals, or ideas are given human attributes.

Paradox is yet another form of figurative language. A paradox is an apparent contradiction that is nevertheless somehow true.

Irony is a form of figurative language that occurs in Scripture, although it is not as common as those listed above. Irony is saying the opposite of what one means.

We must be careful not to over-exegete figurative language in Scripture. However, a commitment to allow the context to determine their meaning will put us well on our way to understanding Scripture’s rich use of figurative language.

Wisdom

Wisdom literature in the Bible is often associated with the books of poetry. In fact, the books of wisdom often utilize poetics. While all of Scripture may be described as containing God’s wisdom for his world, the books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon are unique in their discussion and treatment of God’s principles of wisdom for his people.

In his book The Hermeneutical Spiral, Osborne provides a wonderful overview of the ten forms that wisdom writing may take.*** First, he defines the proverb, the most prominent form of wisdom writing, as a “brief statement of universally accepted truth formulated in such a way as to be memorable.” Second, there are wisdom sayings. These differ from typical proverbs in that they may not be prescriptive in nature. Rather, they suggest possible outcomes based on potential choices. Third, is the riddle. This is used rarely in Scripture, yet the riddle was a key form of wisdom literature in the ancient world.

Fourth, is the admonition. This form of wisdom writing presents the hearer with a wise course of action and immediately provides positive or negative reinforcement by revealing a potential outcome based upon the choice made. Fifth, is the use of allegory in wisdom literature. Allegory, as a literary device, involves communicating a deeper meaning through the use of symbols or story (cf. Ecclesiastes 12:1-7).

Sixth, are hymns and prayers found in wisdom literature. Often these prayers are written as poetry. The same is true for the hymns. Seventh, there is the dialogue. The dialogue is found primarily in Job, but is used in Proverbs as well. This type of wisdom writing chronicles a conversation between people, with the goal of attaining wisdom or understanding.

Eighth, is the confession. Found primarily in Ecclesiastes, this form of wisdom writing functions as an autobiography of sorts, where life’s lessons are recounted-both the good and the bad. Ninth, is what is called onomastica. This type of wisdom writing, found rarely in Scripture, recounts the attributes of God (cf. Job 38). Tenth, are beatitudes. They are found throughout Scripture, but are most noted for their use in the Sermon on the Mount. Beatitudes provide examples of the kind of wise choices that result in the blessing of God.

Wisdom literature is one of the most challenging genres to interpret correctly. Because of their practical nature, it is easy to lose sight of the theology that supports them. It is also easy to lose sight of Christ if we forget He is the very wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:30)! For instance, the book of Proverbs contains practical advice on everything from marriage to personal finances. However, every proverb is built upon this truth: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7).” We can see clearly, then, that the foundation for every aspect of practical wisdom is an authentic relationship with God through the Messiah Jesus. As interpreters, we must be careful that our teaching reflects this truth when we deal with Wisdom literature.

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* All quotes from Walt Kaiser found in Toward An Exegetical Theology (Baker, 1981), 92.

** Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (2nd Edition; IVP, 2006), 231.

*** See Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 247-250.

God’s Guidelines for the “Gray Areas” of Life: Wise Decision-Making in a Wicked World, Part 2

Ethical and moral decision-making presents a great challenge for devoted followers of Jesus in the 21st century context. In 1 Corinthians Paul provides helpful guidelines for navigating what could be called “the gray areas” of the Christian life.

These biblical principles are true anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances. They are extremely helpful in leading us to be wise decision-makers as we live out a gospel-centered ethic.

1). Will this action be helpful to me?
“Everything is permissible for me,” but not everything is helpful. “Everything is permissible for me,” but I will not be brought under the control of anything. – 1 Cor. 6:12

“Everything is permissible,” but not everything is helpful. “Everything is permissible,” but not everything builds up. – 1 Cor. 10:23

Certain actions are not helpful for believers. They don’t build you up or make you better for Jesus. They accomplish little or nothing. To understand this principle, examine the following four statements. “‘Everything is permissible for me'” (6:12; 10:23). “‘Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods,’ but God will do away with both of them” (6:13). “‘Every sin a person can commit is outside the body'” (6:18). “‘It is good for a man not to have relations with a woman'” (7:1). I believe these were all “Corinth slogans.” In other words, these statements were not things Paul was affirming. On the contrary, these were popular sayings that Paul was correcting because they were rooted in a misunderstanding of the implications of the gospel. The first three erred on the side of antinomianism; the last one erred on the side of legalism and asceticism. All were infected with a view of reality that was grounded in a Platonic-type of philosophy that saw matter as evil or, at best, inferior. Thus, some went to one extreme and said, “The body does not matter, so indulge.” Others said, “The body is bad, so I will punish it.”

Paul said there is a third and better way. There is a gospel way! The Lord is for the body (6:13) and He is going to raise it (6:14). In other words, the body is a wonderful gift from God, God has redeemed it in Christ, He is going to resurrect and glorify it and it is a great thing when handled properly. So ask: is a particular activity helpful, profitable, beneficial? Will a particular activity make me better in Christ and raise me to a higher spiritual level? In other words, the question should not be, “Am I free to do it?” The question is, “Is it good for me to do this as a man or woman in Christ?”

2). Will this action potentially enslave me?
“Everything is permissible for me,” but not everything is helpful. “Everything is permissible for me,” but I will not be brought under the control of anything. – 1 Cor. 6:12

Paul is confident that he is a slave to only one master. His name is Jesus. No one or no thing is to “be master” (NIV) over us other than Him. I will choose to live a radically Christ-centered life because I belong to Him. You see, there is a danger in living “too close to the edge.” It can be the edge of antinomianism and libertarianism or legalism and asceticism. Either extreme is going to draw you away from Christ, and you will run the risk of being enslaved. Later, in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, Paul will point out that living near the edge of sin can even make one vulnerable to demonic attack and influence. There is little, if any, wisdom in hanging around out here.

The boasts: “I have liberty in Christ” and “I am free under grace” can become something of a moral rationalization that is more likely a personal idol erected for satisfying sensual pleasure. What you convince yourself will hurt no one will lead you yourself into a world of slavery and bondage to the cruelest taskmaster of all: yourself and your own carnal desires. True spiritual freedom is not the right to do what you want, it is the supernatural enablement of Christ to do what you ought and enjoy doing so! Gordon Fee says, “There is a kind of self-deception that inflated spirituality promotes, which suggests to oneself that he/she is acting with freedom and authority, but which in fact is an enslavement of the worst kind-to the very freedom one thinks one has” (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 253). Christians must consistently guard themselves against any action that will potentially enslave them. I believe this is a tremendous word of wisdom as it relates to issues like drugs, alcohol, tobacco and pornography just to note a few of the more common destroyers of lives and families in our day.