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The Hermeneutical Distinctives of Expository Preaching

The Genres of the Bible

That is why we must take seriously the different types of biblical lit- erature through which God speaks still—poetry, historical narrative, prophecy, proverbial sayings, apocalypse, parables, allegories, sermons, letters, theological arguments, and so on. They are very different styles of writing with specific patterns and accepted conventions governing their use and referencing their meaning. In recent years a good deal of attention has been given to genre studies, so that each type of biblical writing is properly understood within its own framework of reference. This too will be an important set of tools for the biblical preacher to be able to own and use.

One of the most obvious examples would be the symbolic language of the apocalyptic tradition in Jewish literature, exemplified for us in books like Daniel, Zechariah, or Revelation. To read the numerical and other symbolic ingredients “in the flat” as literal facts or events would be to misunderstand how the genre works. This is not to devalue or avoid the plain meaning of Scripture in any way, but rather to rec- ognize that its truth is not literal where the writing is metaphorical or symbolic, where that literary convention is being employed. After all, I have yet to meet anyone who imagines that Isaiah 55:12 will have a literal fulfillment: “The mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands”! However, we are not always so aware of how the genres work in other areas of the Bible.

To understand something of the chiastic structure of Hebrew think- ing can be a great help in getting to the heart of a detailed Old Testa- ment narrative or to the main burden of a prophetic oracle. With the central point as the focus of the passage, all that precedes and follows it augments or explains its significance. At the heart of a conflict narra- tive there is usually a key turning point that resolves the issue and after which everything is different. To see that as the major teaching point can unlock all the details of the story to accomplish their intended purpose. To realize that a prophetic oracle can have more than one point of fulfillment or level of significance can enable the message of the prophet to come alive to us today. We do need to explore what it meant to the people of God when the oracle was first delivered, and we do need to realize that what it reveals of God is unchangeably true. But we cannot simply put the contemporary Christian congregation into the same position as Old Testament Israel. Both are covenant peoples, but what is the significance of the coming of Christ and of the new and better covenant? And what of the prophecy remains to be fulfilled


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