Understanding Biblical Literary Devices– A Key to Correctly Interpreting Scripture

Psalm 57

Psalm 57:1, In the shadow of your wings. Other Scriptures that refer taking shelter under the shadow of YHVH’s wings in times of trouble (and all the time for that matter) include Psalms 17:8; 61:4 and 91:1. The wings of Elohim is an example of an anthropomorphism which is “the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal or object.” Obviously, Elohim is not a Bird-God, for he does not have wings like a bird. This is an example of a poetic or literary device that the writer employs to help us to understand  difficult spiritual concepts using physical analogies. 

Author’s note: At the end of this article, I will address the false concept that the earth is flat, which I refer to as “flat earth foolishness.” Those who believe that the earth is flat base this notion on a twisted understanding of the Scriptures. A basic, 101 level comprehension of the rules of logic, biblical interpretations (called hermeneutics) and understanding the literary devices and cultural contextual background of the biblical authors will summarily dispel this false notion, as this article will point out.

Furthermore, I am not open to debate about this issue. If you want to argue with me that the earth is flat, then take your nonsense and peddle it somewhere else, but not on MY blog. Your comments will not be allowed to be posted and they will be immediately deleted. So don’t waste your or my time trying. — Natan Lawrence

The Bible is full and running over with literary devices. This is because much of the Bible is poetry or literary prose. Understanding these many and varied literary devices will help one to correctly interpret Scripture, find the deeper meaning of a Scripture, understand the richness found therein, and enables one to better understand the true message and intent of the author. 

But why does the Bible employ so many literary devices from Genesis to Revelation as we are about to see from the examples below? There are specific reasons why YHVH Elohim inspired the writers of Scripture to employ various literary devices besides for the sake of making the Bible more interesting to read. There are definite and deep spiritual reasons for this that relate to our gaining a deeper, personal relationship with our Creator. We will discuss these reasons later.

In the mean time, having an understanding of the literary devices that YHVH inspired the biblical authors to employ will insure that one does not derive errant understanding from Scripture by, for example, understanding something in a literal sense that was meant to be figurative, symbolic, metaphorical or hyperbolic. Much of biblical prophecy, for example, has been written using literary devices and one can easily misconstrue something to be literal when it is figurative and end up with all sorts of bizarre interpretations and twisting of the Scriptures engendering false doctrines and heresies.

The following is a list of literary and figurative devices found in the Bible with definitions and examples:

Acrostic: A composition usually in verse in which sets of letters (such as the initial or final letters of the lines) taken in order form a word or phrase or a regular sequence of letters of the alphabet. An example of this is Psalm 119 in which the first words in successive units of the poem start with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In Psalm 145, the first word in each verse starts with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Allegory: A story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life. Parables are form of allegory where symbols are used to teach biblical principle. Yeshua employed this teaching method to convey deep spiritual truths by using everyday examples from life that his listeners, with a little reflection, could understand. Examples of this include:

  • The mustard seed in Matt 1331–33 and the leaven in Matt 13:33 are symbols for the kingdom of Elohim. 
  • In the Parable of the Prodigal son represents believers who backslide and come back to Elohim (Luke 15:11–32). 
  • The Parable of the Vine and Branches symbolizes the believer’s relationship with Yeshua (John 15:1–8). 
  • Paul compares of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4:21–31 to represent salvation by works versus salvation by grace. 
  • Ezekiel uses two sisters to represent apostate Judah and Samaria (Ezek 23:1–49). 
  • In Psalm 80, Israel is likened to a grape vine.
  • In Ezekiel 16, Israel is likened to a virgin bride and then an adulterous woman.

Alliteration: The use of the same initial consonants in a line. This biblical literary device is only noticeable in the original languages. 

Allusion: An indirect reference to something else. The referent and meaning are understood from cultural, personal context, or inside knowledge. Examples of this include:

  • The great sign in heaven in Revelation 12:1 refers back to Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37:9. In John 8:58 when Yeshua declared, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM,” his listeners knew that he was telling them that he was the I AM of Exodus 3:14. 
  • While hanging on the cross and Yeshua declared, “My Father, my Father, who have you forsaken me,” he was signalling to his hearers that he was fulfilling the Messianic prophecies of Psalm 22. 

Anthropomorphism: This is a type of personification where human characteristics (physical form, human-like emotion, or other human characteristics) are attributed to Elohim, in order to make his spiritual qualities more understandable to finite and limited human understanding and linguistics. An example of this is found in Genesis 6:6 where YHVH is grieved, or in Jeremiah 3:12 where YHVH is angry. Other examples from Scripture include

  • So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. (Exod 33:23)
  • For thus says YHVH of hosts: “He sent Me after glory, to the nations which plunder you; for he who touches you touches the apple of His eye. (Zech 2:8)
  • Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications. (Ps 130:2)
  • …[N]o one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. (John 10:29).

Aposiopesis: The leaving of a thought incomplete usually by a sudden breaking off in mid-sentence. Examples include:

  • Then the YHVH Elohim said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—therefore the YHVH Elohim sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. (Gen 3:22–23)
  • Yet now, if You will forgive their sin—but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written. (Exod 32:32)
  • But if we say, “From men”—they feared the people, for all counted John to have been a prophet indeed. (Mark 11:32)
  • And if it bears fruit—but if not, after that you can cut it down. (Luke 13:9)

Apostrophe: The addressing of a usually absent person or a usually personified thing rhetorically. This is a type of indirect type of personification where the speaker addresses an inanimate object including him or others who cannot respond to the statement or question. For example, sometimes a psalmist addresses his soul or commands mountains and rivers to praise Elohim. Examples of this include:

  • Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? (Ps 43:5)
  • Sing, O heavens, for YHVH has done it! Shout, you lower parts of the earth; Break forth into singing, you mountains, O forest, and every tree in it! (Isa 44:23)
  • Then he cried out against the altar by the word of YHVH, and said, “O altar, altar! Thus says YHVH…” (1 Kgs 13:2
  • Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth! (Isa 1:2)
  • Open your doors, O Lebanon, That fire may devour your cedars. Wail, O cypress, for the cedar has fallen, because the mighty trees are ruined. Wail, O oaks of Bashan… (Zech 11:1–2)
  • O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! (Matt 23:37)

Assonance:  This is poetic literary device where the internal sounds of words are repeated. This biblical literary device is only noticeable in the original languages. 

Chiasmus: A figure of speech in which two or more clauses are related to each other through the reversal of the lines of a poetic structure in order to make a larger point. Examples of this include:

  • Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed. (Gen 9:6)
  • But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Matt 19:30)
  • Make the heart of this people dull, And their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart… (Isa 6:10)
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