Of course, when we read Scripture in a modern English translation, we are crossing language, time, and cultural barriers. So the words we read on a printed page or screen are quite different from the unfamiliar symbols that Paul, John and others scratched out on a scroll. And yet, we can still detect a lot of writing techniques used by the biblical writers that we can emulate.
One thing that the biblical writers excelled in was the use of poetic devices. Here are just a few examples:
Apostrophe is a direct address to something or someone who is absent or cannot respond, as in “Where, O death, is your sting?”
(1 Cor. 15:55).
Personification is giving an object or idea human form or traits, as the writer of Proverbs does with “Wisdom” (Prov. 8 and 9).
This sure drives home the message a lot better than, “Gee, folks, wisdom is a really good thing to have.”
Synechdoche is the use of something small to represent something larger. Psalm 46:9 says that God “breaks the bow and shatters
the spear.” In the context it is clear that the bow and spear represent all weapons of battle; it means that God destroys a nation’s ability to make war.
Hyperbole is exaggeration for effect: “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:24). Jesus is painting the ludicrous picture of the Pharisees eating soup, and removing a tiny unclean animal, but ignoring the huge unclean animal
that is also in the bowl!
Irony is saying the opposite of what you really mean, usually sarcastically, as when Elijah taunted the prophets of Baal because their god did not answer: “Shout louder! … Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). (By the way, if you’ve
ever been told that sarcasm is ungodly, Elijah proves that there is a time and place for everything!)
Poetic devices can be crucial to understanding a passage. We know, for example, that Jesus is using hyperbole when he accuses the Pharisees of swallowing camels! But the passage in which He says, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off” (Matthew 5:30), is hyperbole as well, though perhaps a bit more subtle. (It must be hyperbole; do you know anyone who ever followed that command literally?) If we see that statement as exaggeration for effect, it doesn’t blunt Jesus’ words; it only emphasizes all the more forcefully our Lord’s concern that we avoid sin.
Admittedly, not every passage of Scripture will have writing techniques to teach you, but the more you think about it, the more
you’ll find such principles in the most unusual places. The first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, for instance, begins with a genealogy. Certainly that is not the way we would write today, is it? But when you consider that the Gospels are, to some extent, biographies of Jesus, it makes a bit more sense. It is not unusual for a biography to begin with family history—who this person’s father, grandfather, etc. is.
Chapter 1 of Matthew also reflects the important writing principle of considering your audience. Matthew’s Gospel was aimed primarily at the Jews of that time; Matthew knew that his fellow Hebrews would be more than a little interested in the pedigree of a person.
So, there’s a few things I’ve learned from the writers of Scripture. It’s exciting to see how the Bible can not only teach us to grow as followers of Christ, but as writers for Christ, too. As you glean writing principles from your own reading of God’s best seller,
please share them with me. I’d love to hear from you.
David E. Fessenden is an independent publishing consultant with degrees in journalism and theology, and two decades of editorial management with Christian publishers. He has written six books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. His first novel, The Case of the Exploding Speakeasy, will be published in fall 2013.Dave’s blog