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Literary Styles in the Bible

Unbelievably, there seems to be a renewed belief that the Earth is flat. Yes, you read that correctly. In various circles and outlets, folks are re-birthing the thought from old that the Earth may not be a globe, but a flat kind of disk.

Perhaps it is just the day and age we are currently in, when just about anything can gain traction in this world of super saturated social media. Or maybe there really are more people aligning their beliefs in this. Either way, I hear more and more about it without searching it out. That being the case, I decided to provide what I believe should be basic hermeneutics as related to this topic.

First off, let’s see what the Bible says related to the Earth and its shape. Upon inspection, the Bible has at least a few if not several mentions of the Earth having edges (Job 38:13), having four corners (Revelation 7:1), having pillars (1 Samuel 2:8), and having foundations (Psalm 82:5). Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Bible knows this. Does this prove that the Bible says the Earth is flat… should Bible believing Christians believe the Earth is flat?

In the gospel of John, Jesus said he was the true vine, and that believers are the branches (John 15:1-2). Was Jesus made of wood… are Christians wooden? Of course not. There are other examples but one should be enough. Likewise, when the Bible speaks of things like the four corners of the Earth or the foundations of the Earth, it is obviously not to be taken literal. You must understand the way the Bible was written to understand its meaning.

Just as God used many diverse people to write the Bible, and just as God has made an innumerable amount vastly different people, the Bible was written in many different literary styles and techniques to provide many different insights and concepts that God would like to reveal to us. I’ll list a few here:

  • Acrostic – This is a device found in Old Testament poetry in which the successive units of a poem begin with the consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The units might be single lines, pairs of lines, or stanzas (as in Psalm 119).  This can only be seen in the original Hebrew text.
  • Alliteration – This is the repetition of the same initial sounds of adjacent or nearby words, and is used for narrative effect. This is a literary device that can really only be seen or heard in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages of the Bible. 
    • In English, an example would be “alliteration attracts attention.”
  • Allusion This is an indirect reference to something else.  The person, thing, or event being alluded to is understood from a personal or cultural context or knowledge. A good biblical example is John 8:58 where Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” Many people and events from the Bible have become allusions in the English language.
    • Examples are when we refer to someone as being a “good Samaritan,” or having “the patience of Job,” or “the wisdom of Solomon,” or even having an unhealthy desire for something that is a “forbidden fruit.”
  • Anthropomorphism – This is a type of personification that ascribes human characteristics (such as human actions, emotions, or physical attributes) to God.  This projection of human characteristics onto God was done in order to make Him more understandable to us. It is the language of appearance, of describing God in human terms.
    • Genesis 6:6: “And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.”
  • Apostrophe – This is an indirect type of personification, where the speaker addresses an inanimate object, or himself or herself, or others who cannot or do not respond to the statement or question.
    • Psalm 43:5: “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?”
    • Isaiah 44:23: “Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it. Shout, you lower parts of the earth, break forth into singing, you mountains, O forest, and every tree in it!”
  • Assonance – This is the repetition of the same internal sounds of adjacent or nearby words, and is used for narrative effect. This is a literary device that can really only be seen or heard in the original languages of the Bible.
    • In English, an example of this would be “conceive it, perceive it, believe it, achieve it.”
  • Chiasmus – This is 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.  The two clauses display inverted parallelism.
    • Isaiah 6:10: “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, and return and be healed.”
  • Hyperbole – This is a use of exaggeration for emphasis or rhetorical effect.
    • 2 Chronicles 1:15: “Also the king made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones.”
    • Mark 9:43: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched.”
    • John 12:19: “The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, “You see that you are accomplishing nothing. Look, the world has gone after Him!”
  • Idiom – This is a figure of speech or an expression that is peculiar to a particular language, and in and of itself cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its component words taken separately. 
    • Examples in English would be “to pay through the nose,” “break a leg,” and “a bee in your bonnet.” Matthew 23:24: “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”
  • Imagery – This is the use of vivid or figurative language to represent objects, actions, or ideas.
    • Revelation 12:1: “Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars.” This imagery is reminiscent of Joseph’s dream of the sun, moon, and stars in Genesis 37:9.
  • Merism – This is a listing of opposite parts to signify a whole or a totality.
    • For example, the division of “night/day” and “darkness/noonday” in the Psalm below means all the time-
    • Psalm 91:5-6: “You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day, nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday.”
  • Metaphor – This is a figure of speech in which a comparison is made between two seemingly unlike things.
    • James 3:6: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.”
  • Metonymy – This is a type of metaphor in which something (either concrete or conceptual) is not identified by its own name, but by a name of something closely identified or associated with it.
    • An example would be calling a business executive “a suit.”
    • Leviticus 26:6: “I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none will make you afraid; I will rid the land of evil beasts, and the sword will not go through your land.”
    • Revelation 1:18: “And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.”
  • Paradox – This is a statement that seems to be illogical or contradictory on the surface, but in actually conveys a deeper truth.
    • Matthew 16:25: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”
  • Parallelism – This is a figure of speech in which two or more clauses are related to each other through the lines of a poetic structure in order to make a larger point.
    • Matthew 7:7-8: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.”
  • Personification – This is the attribution of human characteristics to non-human objects (usually the divine, inanimate things, or abstract ideas), and is done as a rhetorical device.
    • Psalm 77:16: “The waters saw You, O God; The waters saw You, they were afraid; The depths also trembled.”
    • Proverbs 1:20-21: “Wisdom calls aloud outside; she raises her voice in the open squares. She cries out in the chief concourses at the openings of the gates in the city she speaks her words.”
  • Simile – This is a figure of speech in which a comparison is made between two seemingly unlike things using “like” or “as.”
    • Matthew 28:3: “His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow.”
  • Symbolism – This is the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities, giving meaning or character to something.
    • Revelation 13:1: “Then I stood on the sand of the sea. And I saw a beast rising up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name.”
  • Synecdoche – This is a figure of speech in which a part is used to represent the whole, or the whole for a part, or the specific for the general, or the general for the specific.
    • 2 Kings 8:9: “So Hazael went to meet him and took a present with him, of every good thing of Damascus, forty camel-loads.”
    • Ephesians 6:12: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood.”
  • Type – This is a literary foreshadowing, where one person or thing serves as a metaphorical prefigure (type) of another that is to come later. In the Bible, this is a person or thing (as is found in the Old Testament) prefiguring another person or thing (as is found in the New Testament).
    • For example, the bronze snake pole that the people looked to serves as a type, or prefiguring, of the Cross-
    • Numbers 21:9: “So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”
    • John 3:14-15: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
  • Wordplay – This is the witty use of the meanings and ambiguities of words. Biblical writers made plays on word meanings that can only be seen in the original languages.
  • Matthew 16:18: “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” (Petros, the word for “Peter,” means “a small rock, stone, or pebble.” Petra, the word for “rock” here, means “a large rock.”)
  • Philemon 1:10-11: “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.” (Onesimus means “profitable or useful.”)

When the Bible mentions the foundations of the Earth, for example, it is being used as imagery or symbolism. Look at these verses in Job and Isaiah:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding.

Job 38:4

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

Isaiah 40:21

These verses are not to be taken literally, as if the Earth were mounted on a foundation, but are understood to be the beginning of time or early stages of the creation.

Remember when reading the Bible that God used many different authors and many different literary types to convey various concepts and meanings. Yes, the Bible should be taken at face value when it was written to be taken at face value. But when it obviously is providing different meaning that what is stated, seek out the meaning that God is providing through thoughtfulness and prayer.

Thanks goes out to for their literary expertise used in this article.