9 - Literary Structure

Interpreting Parables

“Interpret parables strictly according to the special principles required by this type of literature” (McQuilkin’s Guideline #6 under Principle 1)

1. What is a parable?

Definition: A parable is “a true-to-life short story designed to teach a truth or to answer a question” (McQ 153).

The true- to- life story is not the record of an historic event, but it is something that could have happened. Some have said that the parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”

Example: The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

Not all passages which have been designated a parable fit this definition. For example, Matthew 13:33 is designated a parable but there is no story: “Another parable He spoke to them: ‘The Kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened’” (Matt.13:33).

2. Kinds of Parables

A. The Story Parable

The story parable has a beginning, middle, and an end. It is not legitimate to treat each detail as having a spiritual application. Many of the details are there to build up the story. It is a realistic story usually making one main point

Example: The Lost Son & Loving Father (Luke 15:11-32)

B. Similitude

The similitude is more like an illustration taken from everyday life. When the text says “The kingdom of heaven is like,” it is saying that the kingdom of heaven is illustrated by the following situation.

Example: Matthew 13:44 (note Matt.13:31 - “Another parable he put forth to them”), “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

C. Allegory, Metaphor

In John 10:1-16, Jesus presents Himself as the Good Shepherd. Some would say that this is not a parable but an allegory (an extended metaphor) because there are many points of comparison (See McQuilkin, bottom of page 192 and the top of page 193). In verse 6, the Greek word paramia is translated “parable” in the KJV, “illustration” in the NKJV, and “figure of speech” in the NIV.

3. Comparison of Parables and Allegories

A few story parables are very close to allegory. Many of the details in the story are intended to represent something else. For example, in the parable of the Wheat and Tares (Matthew 13:24-30), Jesus explains the details in verses 36-43:

  • The One who sows the seed = the Son of Man
  • The field = the world
  • The good seeds = the sons of the kingdom
  • The tares = the sons of the wicked one
  • The enemy = the devil
  • The harvest = the end of the age
  • The reapers = the angels

Ordinarily we should not interpret the details of a parable in this way, but in this case we have the authority of Jesus Christ Himself to do so.

1. A parable is realistic but an allegory might not be.

2. Both the parable and the allegory will have a central theme but the parable was created to make one central point while the allegory might be created to teach several related truths.

4. Characteristics of Parables

  1. They are clear, concise, and simple in detail. This means that they are easily understood by everybody
  2. They speak of familiar experience, the experience of everyday life
  3. The parables are kingdom-centred; they point to the Kingdom of God.
  4. The ending of the parable is significant. Often it is surprising, a reversal of what was expected.
  5. Usually the parable has a single main point that Jesus wants to drive home. It is often found in the ending.

5. Why did Jesus use parables?

1. Jesus used the parables to stir up thinking. His goal was not to entertain the people, but rather to make the truth clear and to show how it should influence daily life. The parables did not encourage passive listening. They demanded a response.

2. The parables obscured the truth for those who refused to respond.

The Parable of the Sower can be found in three Gospels. All the accounts include a small section on the reason Jesus used parables followed by an explanation of the parable: Mark 4:10-12; Matthew 13:10-17; Luke 8:9, 10.

Note Mark 4:10-12, “And He said to them, ‘To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that

‘Seeing they may see and not perceive,
And hearing they may hear and not understand;
Lest they should turn,
And their sins be forgiven them.’”

This saying is followed by Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of the Sower which He interpreted in a semi-allegorical way (vv.13-20). In the past this passage was used to open the way to allegorical interpretations. As Fee says in How to Read the Bible . . ., “The parables were considered to be simple stories for those on the outside, to whom the ‘real meanings,’ the ‘mysteries’, were hidden; these belonged only to the church and could be uncovered by means of allegory” (pp.123, 124).

  • Augustine’s interpretation of The Good Samaritan presented in How to Read the Bible . . . (p.124) is an example of this approach.
    • A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho = Adam
    • Jerusalem = the heavenly city of peace, from which Adam fell
    • Jericho = the moon, and thereby signifies Adam’s mortality
    • thieves = the devil and his angels
    • stripped him = namely, of his immortality
    • beat him = by persuading him to sin
    • and left him half-dead = as a man he lives, but he died spiritually, therefore he is half-dead
    • The priest and Levite = the priesthood and ministry of the Old Testament
    • The Samaritan = is said to mean Guardian; therefore Christ himself is meant
    • bound his wounds = means binding the restraint of sin
    • oil = comfort of good hope
    • wine = exhortation to work with a fervent spirit
    • beast = the flesh of Christ’s incarnation
    • inn = the church
    • the morrow = after the Resurrection
    • two-pence = promise of this life and the life to come
    • innkeeper = Paul

There is an obvious meaning to this parable. The lawyer certainly understood what it meant (Luke 10:37), but Augustine thought there must be some hidden meaning that was hidden from the average listener. That thinking took him far from the purpose of Jesus in telling the parable.

  • The usual reason that people didn’t receive a parable is that they didn’t like the teaching
    • Luke 20:9-18 (The parable of the tenants)
    • Did they understand?
    • see v.19!
    • so what was hidden from them?

6. Interpreting Parables

The parables were originally spoken by Jesus. Usually the listeners would understand the main teaching because they were there, knew the situation, and could identify easily with the characters described.

The parables come to us in written form. We were not there when they were originally spoken. We may not fully understand the situation, and may not be able to identify with the characters. Therefore there is some need of interpretation.

In their book How to Read the Bible (p.133), Fee and Stuart present a modern version of the Good Samaritan to help us experience the impact of the first telling. “As an audience it assumes a typical, well-dressed, middle-American Protestant congregation.”

A family of disheveled, unkempt individuals was stranded by the side of a major road on a Sunday morning. They were in obvious distress. The mother was sitting on a tattered suitcase, hair uncombed, clothes in disarray, with a glazed look to her eyes, holding a smelly, poorly clad, crying baby. The father was unshaved, dressed in coveralls, the look of despair as he tried to corral two other youngsters. Beside them was a run-down old car that had obviously just given up the ghost.

Down the road came a car driven by the local bishop; he was on his way to church. And though the father of the family waved frantically, the bishop could not hold up his parishioners, so he acted as if he didn’t see them.

Soon came another car, and again the father waved furiously. But the car was driven by the president of the local Kiwanis Club and he was late for a statewide meeting of Kiwanis presidents in a nearby city. He too acted as if he did not see them, and kept his eyes straight on the road ahead of him.

The next car that came by was driven by an outspoken local atheist, who had never been to church in his life. When he saw the family’s distress, he took them into his own car. After inquiring as to their need, he took them to a local motel, where he paid for a week’s lodging while the father found work. He also paid for the father to rent a car so that he could look for work and gave the mother cash for food and new clothes.

Obviously, this version does not present a completely equivalent situation, but it does shock us somewhat, reminding us of how the lawyer must have felt when he was confronted with a “good’ Samaritan who for him would be virtually the same as an atheist for us.

The parables were not comfortable, “nice” stories. They were intended to provoke a reaction; they should provoke a reaction in us also.

Credit: Much of this page makes use of material from Sheila Evans

Hebrew Poetry

A. Poetry in general

  • Poetic form—there are lots of standard forms (Allen p.28)

There was a young lady from Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger
  They came back from the ride
  With the lady inside
And the smile on the face of the tiger

  • The nature of poetry: not a “pretty rhyme” but intensified language Allen p.41–50
    • The Eagle by Alfred Tenneyson
      He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
      close to the sun in lonely lands,
      Ringed with the azure world he stands.
      The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
      He watches from his mountain walls,
      And like a thunderbold he falls.
    • unfortunate that some Bible paraphrases remove much of the poetry
  • Misconceptions in poetry
    1. The idea that literal meaning and poetic meaning are somehow opposed
      • We use poetic language all the time in everyday speech, even something as mundane as a sports commentary
      • “the bases are loaded”, “It’s not over till the fat lady sings”
    2. The notion that poetry is always imprecise and ambiguous

Where do we find poetry in the Bible?

  • Old Testament: almost 1/2 of the Old Testament is poetry.
    • Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Psalms
    • Large parts of the Prophets: Hosea (entire), Micah, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Isaiah, Jeremiah
    • Songs in narrative books: Genesis 49, Exodus 15:1–18, Deuteronomy 32 and 33, Judges 5, 1 Samuel 2:1–10, 2 Samuel 1:19–27, 1 Kings 12:16, 2 Kings 19: 21–34
  • New Testament: we do not find as much poetry in the New Testament as in the Old Testament.
    • However there is some
      • Quotation from O.T. poetry
      • Songs are included in several places (e.g. Col 1:15–20)

B. Parallelism

(Much of this section is borrowed from Ross)

  • The basic feature of biblical poetry is the recurrent use of a relatively short sentence-form that consists of two (or more) brief clauses:
    By day the Lord sends forth his love
    and at night his song is with me. (Psalm 42:9)
  • The clauses are regularly separated by a slight pause, for the second part is a continuation of the first and not a completely new beginning.
  • On occasion, four parts may form the line.
  • The relationship between the parts of a line is called “parallelism”.

C. Types of Parallelism

  • Robert Lowthe is the man credited with the “discovery” of biblical parallelism (in 1753).
  • He distinguished three types: synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic.
  • The third category, “synthetic,” became sort of a catch-all for what would not fit the others.

1. Complete Parallelism

  • Every single term or thought unit in one line is parallel to an equivalent term or unit in the other line.
    • Find an example in Psalm 6
  • Complete parallelism can be subdivided into:
  1. Synonymous Parallelism
    • where the thought is repeated by the second line in different but synonymous words.
      Then Israel / came / to Egypt;
      Jacob / sojourned / in the land of Ham. (Ps. 105:23)
    • another example (Isaiah 1:3).
      The ox knows his master
        the donkey his owner’s manger,
      but Israel does not know
        my people do not understand
    • The order of the parallel terms need not be the same in both lines;
    • Find another example in Psalm 6
  2. Antithetical Parallelism
    • balances the parallel lines through the opposition or contrast of thought, as in 90:6:
      In the morning / it flourishes / and is renewed;
      in the evening / it fades / and withers.
    • Any in Psalm 126 ? What about Proverbs 10
  3. Emblematic Parallelism
    • one of the parallels is literal, the other a simile or a metaphor
      As the deer pants for the waterbrooks, literal
      So pants my soul for you, O God” figurative (Psalm 42:1)
      As a father / has compassion on / his children,
      so the Lord / has compassion on / those who fear Him. (Ps. 103:13)
    • see also Psalm 18:16
  4. Inverted or Chiastic Parallelism
    • strictly speaking a form of synonymous parallelism;
    • the main difference is that the order of the terms is inverted, like a mirror image
    • A clear example is found in Isaiah 11:13b:
      Ephraim / shall not be jealous of / Judah,
      and Judah / shall not harass / Ephraim.
    • These are not always complete or perfectly balanced
    • Another example from Isaiah 1:18
Though be your sins
as scarlet
as snow they shall be as white
Though they         be        red
as crimson,
as wool
they shall be.

2. Incomplete Parallelism

  • This type of parallelism is very frequent with many variations.
  • Only some of the terms are parallel
  1. Incomplete Parallelism with Compensation
    • only some of the terms are parallel e.g. Psalm 6:1
    • but each line has the same number of units (usually clear in English, but clearer in Hebrew).
      You will destroy / their offspring / from the earth,
      and their children/from among the sons of/men. (21:11)
  2. Incomplete Parallelism
    • one line is longer than the other, as in 6:2 (MT 6:3):
      O Lord, / rebuke me / not in your anger,
      nor chasten me / in your wrath.
    • On occasion Lowthe’s old category of synthetic parallelism may be helpful.
    • In that type the second part further develops the first:
      For the Lord is a great God,
      and a great King above all gods (Ps. 95:3).

3. Formal Parallelism

  • Not really parallelism
  • the second colon simply continues the thought of the first
    I have set / my king
    on Zion / my holy hill. (Ps. 2:6)

4. External parallelism

  • the correspondence occurs between successive verses, as in Isaiah 53:5:
    But he was pierced / for our transgressions;
        he was crushed / for our iniquities;
    upon him was the punishment / that brought us peace,
        and with his wounds / we are healed.
  • see also Psalm 6:1,2

5. Climactic (Staircase) parallelism

  • A type of synthetic parallelism. A part of the first line is repeated, and then newer elements are added to build up to a climax.
  • Example: Psalm 29:1, 2a
    Give unto the Lord,
        O you mighty ones,
    Give unto the Lord
            Glory and strength.
    Give unto the Lord
                the glory due to his name;
    Worship the Lord
                    in the beauty of holiness.

Understanding parallelism helps in interpretation.

  • When we know that lines of poetry are related, then we can look for the relationship, and that will help us to understand the meaning.
  • Example (Psalm 22:16):
    For dogs have surrounded me;
    The congregation of the wicked has enclosed me,
    They pierced my hands and my feet.
  • Understanding the Psalm:
    • It is possible that the psalmist was surrounded by a pack of real dogs, but it is unlikely. If this is an example of emblematic parallelism, then we realize that “dogs” is a figurative way of speaking about the “wicked” in the second line.
    • When we read the rest of the psalm, the context of this verse, we notice references to several other animals: “worm” (v.6), “bulls” (v.12), “lions” (v.21), and “oxen” (v.21).
    • Rational thinking would tell us that they are not literal animals. This lends support to our interpretation.
    • The third line reinforces it further.
    • This psalm is typological: although rooted in history, it points ahead to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The animal imagery emphasizes the horror of that terrible event.

Praise! A matter of life and breath by Ronald Barclay Allen (Nashville:Nelsons, 1980)

Literary Structures

  • All large documents contain some kind of structuring
  • Ancient ways of structuring are very different to modern practices
    • Modern: chapters, subtitles, paragraphs, introduction & conclusion
    • Ancient: narrative techniques, inclusio, parallelism, inverse parallel structures, etc.
  • Logic:
    1. Context is one of the most vital factors in determining meaning
    2. The most important aspect of the context of a passage is its role in the argument of the book.
    3. The structure of a book gives great help in determining the flow of argument:
      • both at the level of the whole book
      • and within smaller sections
    4. Therefore structure is of great exegetical importance.
  • Structure of the book of Judges
  • Colossians 3:1-6
  • Structure of the book of Acts
  • Structure of Galatians 5:13-6:5 (pdf document)
  • Handout on structure of Luke 18:18-30

Two valuable papers:

  • C. A. Smith, The Leaning Tower—Foundational Weaknesses if Contemporary Chiastic Studies, (Toronto: ETS, 2002)
  • A. Boyd Luter And Richard O. Rigsby An Adjusted Symmetrical Structuring Of Ruth, JETS 39:1 (March 1996) p. 16

Structure of the book of Judges

Prologue [1:1-2:5]
Israel fails to purge the land
The Pattern of rebellion & salvation
Example of the pattern: Othniel
Ehud—the lone hero from Benjamin/Dan
  Deborah—woman (looked down on by men but valued by God) from Joseph’s tribes
    Gideon and Abimelech—the ideal judge and his son, the worst judge
  Jephthah—(social outcast by men, but valued by God) from Joseph’s tribes
Samson—lone hero from Benjamin/Dan
Micah & the Danites: Israel just as idolatrous as the Canaanites
Gibeah: Israel just as immoral as the Canaanites

The Pattern

  1. [2:10-13] They forget about God’s goodness and forsake him
  2. [2:14] God allows them to be defeated and oppressed
  3. [2:15] They are very distressed
  4.         and eventually cry out to God for help
  5. [2:18a] God had compassion on them and sent them a deliverer (judge)
  6. [2:18b] They served God as long as the judge lived

The pattern can be seen clearly with Othniel

Colossians 3:1-6

1. If then you were raised with Christ,

          the things above seek, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.

2.       the things above set your mind on, not on things on the earth.

3. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.


4. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.

5.      Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth:

          fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.

6. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience

Structure of the book of Acts




Spirit’s Action


Concluding statement of growth




Acts 2:4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Jerusalem (no persecu­tion)

Acts 2:46-47 So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.




Acts 3:6 Then Peter said, "Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk."

Jerusalem and the towns around (5:16)

Acts 6:7 Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.




Acts 6:10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. (Moved Stephen into controversy, leading directly to persecution)

Judea including Samaritans

Acts 9:31 Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied.




Acts 10:19 While Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Behold, three men are seeking you.

Acts 10:44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word.

Gentiles in Judea

Acts 12:24 But the word of God grew and multiplied.





Acts 13:2 As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, "Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."


Acts 16:5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily.





Acts 16:6-9 Now when they had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia. 7 After they had come to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them. 8 So passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. 9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us."


Acts 19:20 So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.





Acts 19:21 When these things were accomplished, Paul purposed in the Spirit, when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, to go to Jerusalem, saying, "After I have been there, I must also see Rome."

Journey to Rome

Acts 28:30-31 Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.

Andrew Fountain (2004)

Inverted Parallel Structure in Galatians 5:13-6:5

Structure of Galatians 5:13-6:5 (pdf document)