Strong & Beautiful Words: Why We Need a Literary Bible
LECTURE DELIVERED AT YOUR IMAGINATION REDEEMED 2018.
The Word of God, brilliant in its clarity and power, has come into our world.
This Word is the exact representation of who God is—the definitive revelation of the heart of God, the truth of God, the beauty of God:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He
was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing
was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
—the Gospel of John
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various
ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all
things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s
glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
—the book of Hebrews
Modernity’s misframing of the Scriptures presents us with the Holy Reference Book in both form and function. What to do? The road back to experiencing sacred words of strength and beauty lies in our recovery and full appreciation of the Bible’s literary works. Within the biblical text itself we will find two Temples and two Torahs, helping us to encounter afresh these words with power.
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The Word of God is Jesus. And the Word of God is fully, completely, authentically human. The Word of God became flesh and lived among us, as one of us. The Word of God brings together the divine and the human, and both of these without loss and without compromise. The Word of God communicates God to us precisely in and through his full humanity.
This is remarkable, and must be surprising to anyone who reflects on it for any length of time. The fully human can reveal the divine with clarity and even brilliance? How is this possible? The human and the divine can be so aligned?
Yes, in Jesus it is so.
There is also a lesson here for us regarding the other word of God, that inscripturated word of God we call the Bible. In these sacred writings the human and the divine also come together. Not that the writings are themselves human per se, or divine. But rather God makes full use of human writing with all its human characteristics, to communicate divine revelation and perform divine action. That is, God makes full use of the elements, variety, style, and form of human literature to perform his communicative action in the world.
Modernity’s Bible has encouraged us to neglect this truth, to reduce the Bible to a collection of accurate doctrinal statements, moral commands, or devotional thoughts. For the most part, the form of the modern Bible has masked the literary genres of the Bible’s various books by overlaying the text with a foreign structure and reference system that is not attuned to literature. As a result we’ve been missing out on much of the impact the Scriptures were meant to have on us.
We are to receive this word of God precisely the way God has chosen to give it to us . . . as literature. This means the Bible is not only truthful or accurate words, but strong and beautiful words that communicate as speech acts—words that do things, not just tell about things.
As with the person of Messiah Jesus himself, the humanity does not interfere with or diffuse the revelation of the divine, but is precisely the means by which the Scriptures do their work. To respect and receive these Scriptures means we must respect and receive the way God chose to communicate through them. And he did this by taking up fully human ancient literary forms and calling them into his service within the Bible.
The literary character of the Bible is sadly neglected in our life with the Scriptures. Within our churches—that is, in our preaching and teaching—we are rarely introduced to this literary aspect and how fundamental it is to the Bible’s communication.
Today we are going to briefly look at four examples, taken from quite different parts of the Bible, which demonstrate exactly how literary form works in close harmony with biblical content to enhance its communicative impact. Sometimes literary style adds more bite to hard biblical messages, or more delight to joyful ones. Often this is found when we pay close attention to the use of literary device in smaller parts, like individual lines dense with irony or punctuated with powerful, earthy figures of speech. Even less well-known, however, is the use by biblical authors and editors of larger literary forms to shape and intensify their messages. By this I mean the structuring of substantial literary units, either large sections of text or even whole books. This is what I plan to introduce to you today.
Our little excursion will take us to the union of form and content—where how things are said matters as much as what is said. As witnesses, I call two literary temples and two literary Torahs.
Two Literary Temples
(1) Arise, Lord, and come to your resting place
The very first story of the Bible is a story of a temple being built. It is the story, of course, of the creation of the cosmos. And yes, it is most definitely a temple—the place God built for his own home. It goes something like this:
In the beginning God created—he built, formed, filled, and constructed—because the
earth was there but it was tohu wah bohu, unformed and unfilled. That is, the earth was
chaotic and confused—tohu!—but also desolate and empty—bohu! The dark, primordial
powers had a grip on everything, making the place, well, unfit.
But God spoke his powerful word and defeated these powers. And God said, again and
again and again God said, and the world became light, order, structure, and beauty. The
world became a place where he himself could live.
Now I suppose such a story can simply be told, in straight-up regular prose. But such language is rather inadequate for the task. Certain stories are deserving of more poetic language, verging on outright songs, due to the greatness of their subject matter.
This is precisely what we find in the grand opening of the Bible—songlike language, complete with refrains, to properly tell us the story of the creation of God’s own home. In three days God takes on the chaos of tohu, and then in three more the emptiness of bohu. In the first three he speaks of light, a vault, and a gathering, all to properly shape the space of things. In the last three he fills the now-ordered spaces and speaks of lights, and then of teeming fish, flying birds, creeping and crawling creatures, and then of us. Like all good temples, this one too needed an image of the god in it, so he made us. Not so much to be an image but to do imaging, to extend God’s good rule to the rest of the creation with both faithfulness and creativity for the sake of the flourishing of that creation. Six good days in all, each one powered only by the strength of his voice, his strong and beautiful words which do his work in the world.
But what then of this seventh? What is this day of rest? Does it matter? Is anything shaped or filled on this last day?
It is precisely here in this well-formed, rhythmic song-poem that we see for sure that the cosmos is the Temple of the Lord. After six strong days the creation is functioning, and there is indeed order, beauty, structure, and purpose. Such a place is ready, ready to be filled one more time, and now with the glory of the Lord himself. So God does what all gods do with their temples, he takes up his residence within his creation-temple so he can properly rule it.
As we read it in Psalm 132:
Arise, Lord, and come to your resting place,
you and the ark of your might.
May your priests be clothed with your righteousness;
may your faithful people sing for joy.
. . . For the Lord has chosen Zion,
he has desired it for his dwelling, saying,
“This is my resting place for ever and ever;
here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it.”
So it is that the Bible begins by setting the stage of its coming drama: the stage is God’s home, the entire cosmos, and when in the story it is quickly corrupted, we should know that God does not give up easily, and he will have his Temple back. All the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord, just as the waters cover the sea. The seventh day, already here on the first page of the Bible, is a vision of our future. On the last and greatest day, God will come home to live with us here in his Temple. It will be a day of rest and peace, a day of life and healing in a very good creation, and with much more imaging to do.
(2) Building a Temple of Prayer
One widespread temple form in the ancient Mesopotamian world was the ziggurat, a huge stone or brick tower-like structure with receding levels or stories. The top of the temple was seen as a place where earth and heaven touched. Priests would climb up the stairs of a ziggurat to the home of the gods in the sanctuary at the zenith in order to care for the gods, tend to their needs, or offer prayers or perform the other rites of the religion. These temples were used throughout a widespread area by ancient Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians.
A generation ago, Dutch biblical scholar N. H. Ridderbos specialized in the study of what he called “architectonic designs” within the Psalms. The basic idea is that by intentionally structuring the lines and then the stanzas of certain psalms, the authors could creatively enhance the rhetorical impact of the words themselves. The song lyrics would, in effect, be put together in ways to highlight, strengthen, or frame certain lines so they stand out, or can be seen to be in relationship to other parts of the psalm.
One clear example of this can be found in Psalm 44. Here the psalmist slowly builds a ziggurat-like structure in order to climb the steps to the top and bring an earnest prayer to God.
Wait . . . what? How exactly does a psalmist build a stepped tower? By counting lines and piling them on top of one another. Here in Psalm 44 the foundation is a strong hymn of praise built of ten lines, stressing what is already known about Israel’s good God:
We have heard it with our ears, O God;
our ancestors have told us
what you did in their days,
in days long ago.
This hymn is all about celebrating God, what he’s done in the past, and our inability to save ourselves. Lord, you made our ancestors flourish, and your arm brought them victory. You loved them and saved them. We’ve heard all the stories and we know what you did. You’re the best!
Then, when we look more closely we see that this stanza of ten lines is actually constructed of precisely balanced halves—two sets of five lines each. Each set of five emphasizes different, but related, points: the first set is about the great things God has done, while the second highlights that we are unable to do such things ourselves. So the foundation is God—and specifically his past acts of power and love.
However, there’s more to this towered temple than hymns of praise. We now move up from ten lines to eight, and instead of praise we hear a complaint: Um, God, we know you’re great and all, but we, uh, aren’t doing so well at the moment.
But now you have rejected and humbled us;
. . . you gave us up to be devoured like sheep
and have scattered us among the nations
Again, we see the stanza broken into two exactly balanced halves. The first four vie for God’s attention: God, have you noticed that we’re suffering? The second four point out that everyone else has noticed, and they are mocking us: Reproach and scorn, derision and disgrace—that’s all we get from our neighbors, God.
The point of the temple prayer so far is pretty clear: So God, if you are able to save us, as you did our ancestors, and we’re in trouble now, what’s stopping you?
Next, as you’ve likely guessed, we move up from eight lines to six as the ziggurat narrows, and here the prayer moves from grievance to self-defense. As for us, God, we are still your people, and we’ve done our part:
All this came upon us,
though we had not forgotten you;
we had not been false to your covenant.
God, you have no reason to hold back. We’re in a covenant with you and we’ve been doing our part. The priest is here to officially protest the people’s innocence. The two halves, now three and three, claim Israel’s faithfulness in following the path, and then the fact that nothing can be hidden from God anyway, so it’s not like he doesn’t know what we’ve been doing.
Now, the case has been made and the moment is here. We’ve climbed the temple stairs with the priest and his song. We’ve arrived at the sanctuary at the top, the place where God dwells. It’s time for the song’s final four lines, to tell the Lord exactly what’s expected of him:
Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
rescue us because of your unfailing love.
The representative of the people of Israel has ascended the steps of God’s temple, singing his prayer as he goes, the case for his plea to God growing stronger and stronger. Ten–eight–six–four. Story by story, level by level, the case has been building for the final, desperate prayer: We know from our storytellers that you are capable. Yet we are in terrible distress. And it’s not our fault! (Now the singer enters God’s sanctuary at the top.) God, please, please, please help us!
Why bother counting lines in the stanzas of Hebrew Psalms and paying attention to their relationship to content? Because biblical authors were intentional in using techniques like this to artistically deliver their messages with force. As we read Psalm 44 with artistic awareness, we too are climbing, protesting, praying. Poetic structures help readers and listeners enter into the world created by the words. Artless, numbered, two-column, reference-book presentations of the Bible diminish and blur the power and beauty of the truth. When art and truth embrace, full and deeply human communication happens.
Two Literary Torahs
(1) Five Songs of Pain
They are set in Jerusalem, or at least what is left of Jerusalem. It is early in the 6th century BC, and the Babylonians have overrun and ransacked the city. The great Temple of Solomon has been utterly demolished, and most of the population either killed or taken captive. Women have been raped, and the lives of many young children snuffed out. There are only a few poor stragglers left behind in the rubble.
The physical pain and devastation are unimaginable. But that’s not all of it. For the destruction of Jerusalem means even more—the loss of a dream, of a story, of a hope. For these people of God, Jerusalem and its Temple were at the very center of what God was doing in the world. Their loss meant the visible end of that work. The Temple was God’s home, Jerusalem his city, Israel his people. God’s work in the world was to be in and through this place and these people.
And now it was all gone.
Therefore those poor and outcast stragglers sang songs of pain and loss, laments of abandonment and despair. Both their lives and their story were now a wasteland. The book of Lamentations collects these songs and stanzas and words in a kind of stockpile of suffering, an assembly of wails and weeping. (Making it not the most popular book in the Bible.)
Just the words alone would be enough to open the door for us into this world of pain.
My eyes fail from weeping,
I am in torment within;
my heart is poured out on the ground
because my people are destroyed,
because children and infants faint
in the streets of the city.
Arise, cry out in the night,
as the watches of the night begin;
pour out your heart like water
in the presence of the Lord.
Lift up your hands to him
for the lives of your children,
who faint from hunger
at every street corner.
But Lamentations does more. First, we notice that the songs are five in number. Ever since the books of Moses were gathered into a set of five, the number had gained a special prominence for the Jews. So when the songs of Israel’s worship became a collection, they too were grouped into a set of five, with the opening psalm encouraging the book’s singers and readers to delight and meditate on the lyrics just as they do the Torah.
But here in Lamentations, in a strange and tragic twist, there is no more Temple for singing, no Torah readings to hear and follow, only five dispirited songs of God’s absence. It is almost an un-Torah, a description of a world without what is essential to the world. The fact that the songs number five seems to perversely pour salt on the open wounds, highlighting and reminding everyone of what’s been lost. Lamentations is a five-part litany of what’s gone.
The literary structure of the book has already made the pain deeper, the impact stronger. Yet there’s more. The subject matter is so difficult to handle that the poems here are perhaps the most tightly arranged in the Bible. It’s as if only an orderly configuration can hold the sorrow, doubt, and despair together long enough to be offered to God as a desperate prayer.
Most of the songs are acrostics poems, with each of the stanzas beginning with the twenty-two consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In the core pattern the stanzas each have three lines, but then in the third song all three individual lines begin with the same letter as the form tightens in the extreme. But after that things begin to fall apart, and the pattern struggles to hold. The fourth poem recedes to two-line stanzas, with the acrostic sequence applying only to the first line once again. By the time we get to the fifth and final poem structural chaos ensues, with only twenty-two single lines, no stanzas to speak of, and no acrostic pattern at all. It is as if the power of the singer to bring order into the situation fades away in the face of the enormity of the suffering. The book ends in disarray and then silence.
Even before we read all the words, the very construction of the book of Lamentations as a literary collection communicates its message powerfully to us. The literary form heightens the impact and allows us to see and hear (in Hebrew, anyway) what Jerusalem’s devastation has done to the story of Israel and the world.
But we’re still not done. Lamentations holds one more literary gem for us. Deep in the heart of the book, the seed of something new is planted, something that speaks of hope and renewal even in the face of such utter loss. The five songs are all laments, unrelentingly recounting the details of the disaster’s aftermath. Yet right in the center of the third and central song, where they hold a special power at the heart of the entire book, we find this:
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
These words are often taken out of the book and read minus their context, and we’ve even made a famous hymn out of them. But such anti-literary verse jacking only weakens the power of the words. When these claims of fresh hope are properly discovered within their surroundings of otherwise unrelenting anguish, their strength is magnified considerably, and they do their job much more effectively. Perhaps we could say we earn the right to grab hold of this hope only when we are seated in Jerusalem’s ruins with all five songs of brokenness on our lips.
With lines of despair and a literary structure of devastation, Lamentations is a fitting response to the complete disaster of the collapse of everything Israel holds dear. But deep within this book we find the single thread that will connect these songs of lament to an as-yet-unseen faithfulness and as-yet-unknown compassion. The centermost point holds secret power, telling hopeless people that God is not done, that abandonment is not forever. You are sitting in nothing but rubble, but you may at least sit and look not merely around, but forward.
(2) Five Songs of Renewal
In the immediate aftermath of the great Jewish-Roman War of ad 66-70 many Jews of southern Israel had moved north, away from the conflict. But the destruction of the Second Temple created a set of troubling questions for the Jewish community: was there a future for Judaism without a temple? Where would they find their focus and identity now? Groups led by the Pharisees strongly argued they should recommit to the Torah as interpreted in Israel’s traditions.
So one generation after Jesus, his Jewish followers in Palestine were in a very tight spot. They offered new answers to these questions of Jewish identity, answers focused very precisely through the Jesus lens. This put them squarely at odds with the Pharisees, who saw the Jesus followers as disrupters to their own plan of national renewal. So the Pharisees pushed hard to get these Jewish believers expelled from the synagogues, thus cutting off their ties to the Jewish community.
In the midst of this tense situation, the Gospel According to Matthew was crafted to tell the story of Jesus in such a way as to give his Jewish followers encouragement and reassurance as they continued to honor Messiah Jesus. This Gospel is constantly quoting the First Testament and presenting Jesus as the culmination of all that came earlier in Israel’s story. Constantly we see recapitulations of the story that came before: escaping to Egypt, going down into the Jordan River, going out in the wilderness to be tempted, going up on a mountain to deliver instruction, and so forth.
This theme is reinforced in various ways, not least by the entire book’s literary structure. The opening ancestor list is organized into three groups of fourteen generations each. The first set presents Jesus as a true son of Abraham, and the next one as a true son of David. Crucially, the third set of fourteen is counted from Israel’s great exile in Babylon, a perfect setup for telling Jesus’ story as the end of exile when Jesus will save his people from their sins.
But three sets of fourteen can also be seen as six sets of seven, thus allowing Jesus to be seen as the beginning of the seventh seven, a doubling up of Judaism’s usual number of completion and perfection. The Gospel is doing all it can to tell us that Jesus is the decisive turning point in Israel’s long, and often tortured history. This is what it’s all been pointing to.
So what about the core narrative of Jesus in the Gospel itself? Are there any macro-literary elements there to help the case that Jesus really is the culmination of Israel’s story? And in particular, what about the Pharisees’ current Torah intensification program, does Matthew have anything to say about that?
Matthew’s response is to pick up that ancient number five, and creatively reapply it to the new situation birthed with the coming of Jesus. As we’ve seen, after the original set of the five—the Torah—Israel used the number to organize both the Psalms and the book of Laments. But now Matthew creates a New Torah of renewal by giving us the five great speeches of Jesus as the five core “books” of his Gospel. Double down on Torah to protect your threatened identity? Yes, says Matthew, but do it with this Torah.
These five speeches all follow sections describing the actions of Jesus, and are all marked out in a special way. They begin when Jesus calls his disciples together and then end with some version of the phrase “after Jesus had finished saying these things.” Each long discourse focuses on a different aspect of the surprising, renewing coming of the reign of God. All of this will appropriately lead the reader to the remarkable ending when Jesus institutes a new Passover meal, and then ushers in a new Exodus through his death and resurrection. All of it is a do-over for Israel’s story, bringing the long-hoped-for but ever elusive era of God’s restoration and life.
So Matthew could have simply told with his words what he wanted to say, thus encouraging his original audience to stay the course in the face of strong pressure. But Matthew did more, he carefully crafted a literary Gospel which shows us exactly what it tells us about the meaning of Messiah Jesus within the long story of Israel. The very form of Matthew’s Gospel reinforces his message, delivering its good news with even greater impact.
The story of Jesus is itself strong and beautiful, but when we see it presented with strength and beauty we are drawn more deeply into its redemptive drama.
Reading a Literary Bible
Not all, but much is lost when we don’t read our Bibles as collections of diverse literary writings. The Spirit of God filled the living, breathing, oh-so-human Christ, empowering him to do his Father’s will in the world. The Spirit of God filled too the living, breathing, oh-so-human writings of sacred literature we call the Bible. We must let the Spirit do this work still today by receiving and respecting the literary Bible, strong and beautiful words that do so much more than merely tell. They are words to make us know, and see, and feel the truth, if only we will let them.
About the Author
President, Institute for Bible Reading
The focus of Glenn’s 30 years in Bible ministry has been publishing, researching, speaking, and writing on the topic of reading and living the Bible well. His book Saving the Bible from Ourselves is available from InterVarsity Press. He is a leader in the development of Reader’s Bibles, and is currently working on Immerse: The Reading Bible for Tyndale House. Previously, Glenn was Bible Publisher and VP, Global Bible Engagement at Biblica. He is a former staff member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and high school Bible teacher.
Glenn has spoken on the Bible at the Q Conference, Bible Gateway FB Live!, Thrive, Radio Bible Class, and regularly presents at churches and conferences across the country. Glenn’s education was in philosophy and theology at Calvin College and Seminary. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife Jain and has two adult sons.