Finding the Structure of Daniel 1: Two Complementary Approaches

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Whenever I preach, the first thing I do is outline the text. Or better, I seek to find the author’s intended organization of his passage. Believing Scripture to be divinely-inspired and deftly-written, I assume every passage in Scripture has a Sprit-given shape. This doesn’t mean I will be able to discern perfectly the author’s literary structure, but in order to hear what the author is saying and to see what he is stressing, I begin by looking for literary clues (e.g., key words, repeated words, clausal connections, etc.).

Sometimes this is easy; sometimes this is hard. And sometimes a passage can be organized in different ways, especially when we look at it from different heights. This doesn’t mean that the author has multiple messages in mind—although sometimes we find the overlapping of literary devices. It means, that like differing microscope lens might reveal different details, so various readers (or one reader) may see multiple organizations to a singular passage. Such is the case with Daniel 1.

In what follows, I offer two approaches to reading Daniel 1. These are not two competing ways to see this chapter. Rather, they provide two complementary lens to see how this chapter works. The first compares the offer of food, education, and title (or Table, Teaching, and Title) to Daniel and his friends. The second provides a literary arc to the chapter, with Daniel’s faithfulness centered in the middle. Let’s look at each. Continue reading

The Literary Structure of Isaiah: Five Tour Guides to Help You Stay the Course

pexels-photo-697662.jpegThe book of Isaiah is sixty-six books, just like the Bible. And it is divided into 39 chapters and 27 chapters, just like the two Testaments–old and new. Therefore, we should organize Isaiah around this bipartite division, right?

Well, maybe . . . not.

Somewhere along the line, I’ve heard this line of thinking. And for years, I operated with this basic understanding that there is one seismic break between Isaiah 39 and 40, making the one book two. Add to this a number of well-worn proof texts for systematic theology—e.g., verses about Christ’s virgin birth (7:14 and 9:6–7), his sacrifice (52:13–53:12), and the grossness of sin (64:6)—and I accumulated a lot of disconnected knowledge about this glorious book.

It was not until I began reading Isaiah as whole book, however, that the message of Isaiah began to come to life. I am still learning that message, but having a mental map of the whole book has been a game-changer. And thankfully, that map has been aided by a number of tour guides—books and teachers that have helped me find my way in Isaiah.

The Need for Teachers . . . According to the Bible

This is how it should be. God gives teachers to the church to instruct in God’s Word (Eph. 4:11–12). And we would be fools to ignore them.

With the wisdom of ages past and those who have devoted themselves to the study of the Bible in the present, we can and should gain a better understanding of Scripture. Indeed, whenever we enter a new book of the Bible, one we do not know well, our best course of action is not to hide ourselves away in our room until we determine its meaning. We should seek the assistance of those who have gone before us. Such dependence on faithful teachers does not put human wisdom above the Bible, it listens to the Bible, acknowledges the gifts of God, the goodness of reading the Bible in community, and seeks to know God’s word with the help of others.

With that in mind, here are five scholars, tour guides, who have provided an outline of Isaiah. While each organizes the book differently, their collective witness gives us insight into things we should be looking for when we read. At present, I am persuaded Barry Webb’s outline is the most persuasive, but I am still learning. Continue reading

Keep Zion in View: Help for the Beleaguered Reader of Isaiah


If you have started the Via Emmaus Bible reading plan, you may be thinking about now: Isaiah a big book—a big, confusing book. If so, have no fear, you are not alone. One of the first times I read Isaiah—Isaiah 13–19 in particular—I just gave up.

This post is written so that you won’t follow that same path.

When I gave up reading Isaiah, I had no idea how to read Isaiah, or any other Prophet. I was trying to read Isaiah like I read Paul or John. I was looking for a nugget of truth or application in every verse, or at least one in every paragraph. However, that’s not the way to read Isaiah. Isaiah is like climbing a mountain—literally and literarily!!

In the book of Isaiah, Mount Zion is the goal and each section of the book keeps coming back to his holy hill. The effect is a pronouncement of salvation and judgment in surround sound. Yet, you wouldn’t know that the first time you read the book. (However, Isaiah 2:1–4 does supply a help key to the rest of the book). And thus, to get the most out of reading Isaiah, you will need to see the big picture.

Indeed, reading Isaiah can feel like putting a puzzle together without the box top, if you don’t have the big view in mind. But if you have the boxtop, i.e., a picture of what the whole book is about, it makes the reading understandable and far more enjoyable.

That’s the goal of this post—to give you a few boxtops for Isaiah. The following videos, sermons, and literary outline, therefore, are a few ways to get your bearings in Isaiah. May they help you read this big and wonderful book with less confusion. Continue reading

Finding the Macro-Structure of Joshua, with a Note for Expositional Preachers to Widen Their Vision


In recent years, few practices have been more fruitful for my Bible reading and preaching than (attempting to find and) discovering the structure of a biblical passage. Dave Helm and the good folks at Simeon Trust call this structure the “bone and marrow” of any passage. Just like the human body is built with interconnected bones that give shape to the body, so the arguments, narratives, and poetry of the Bible has a recognizable skeletal structure that gives shape to the passage.

This is true at the microscopic level, where biblical authors organize a few verses around a chiasm or some other literary structure. It is also true at the macroscopic level, where we can recognize the literary structure of entire books. This latter macrostructure is most helpful for discovering the main argument of a book and why the author is writing what he is writing in the way he is writing.

Recently, I have found help on this front from a book by David Dorsey. In his Literary Structure of the Old Testamentthis Old Testament scholar provides the macro-structure of every book in the Hebrew Bible, as well as many smaller literary structures in various books. At present, I have not read the whole book nor have I agreed with everything I have read, but by and large, Dorsey’s careful treatment of the Bible provides a helpful outline of every book.

As our church begins to look at Joshua this Sunday, I thought I’d share a couple of his outlines, simplified and color-coded, to help us see how the macro-structure of Joshua clarifies the main point of this book. Indeed, as Joshua has some longer section regarding land divisions, etc., I believe seeing the larger scope of the book will help us understand the main points. Continue reading

From Law to Gospel: Seeing the Literary Structure of 1 Timothy 1

bibleIn his chapter “Cohesion and Structure in the Pastoral Epistles,” Ray Van Neste argues for literary cohesion in 1 Timothy (in Entrusted with the Gospel: Paul’s Theology in the Pastoral Epistles, 84–104). While many critical scholars have denied this unity and declared 1 Timothy is a patchwork letter (not written by Paul), Van Neste shows how the letter demonstrates internal cohesion. From a careful reading of the letter, he shows how thematic and linguistic connections unity the first and last chapter (98–104).

Most impressive in his argument is his treatment of 1 Timothy 1 and 6, where he shows multiple ways the letter shows cohesion and structure. For instance, developing a number of “hook words,” Van Neste observes,

  • The use of “teachers of the law” (v. 7), law (v. 8), and lawfully (v. 8) link verses 3–7 with verses 8–11.
  • Pisteuō (“entrusted”) ends verse 11 and serves as the keyword for verses 12–17: “faithful” (v. 12), “unbelief” (v. 13), “faith” (v. 14), “trustworthy” (v. 15), “believe” (v. 16). In each case, the Greek word has pist- as its root.
  • Faith and a good conscience also mark the beginning and end of the chapter (v. 5 and v. 19).

With these various “hook words,” we see how the chapter holds together and unfolds. This strengthens our commitment to Paul’s authorship of 1 Timothy, and it shows us how to read the chapter as a whole. Yet, the unity is more than just linguistic. There also appears to be a literary structure in 1 Timothy 1. Continue reading

Reading the Minor Prophets Together: Ten Observations from Paul House’s ‘The Unity of the Twelve’

12By 1990 there was no consensus on the structure of the Minor Prophets. Observing this fact, Paul House, in his book The Unity of the Twelve, surveyed the way scholars looked to chronology and regional location as possible ways “the Twelve” were ordered. Such approaches were significantly lacking, however, and so he concluded: “It is probable that historical research has not successfully uncovered the structure of the Twelve because that structure is governed by literary principles” (67).

In conversation with literary critics and scholars employing methods of canonical criticism, House shows why we should read the Twelve as more than 12 similar but separated oracles. Rather, by examining the structure and plot of the Twelve we can come to a clearer understanding of the unified message that the Minor Prophets is seeking to convey.

As others have observed in the Psalms, there is an intentional ordering in the Minor Prophets, better termed The Twelve. Historically, these 12 books are always found together and typically in the same order (63). For that reason, a unified study of their message is valid and valuable. And Paul House’s book, though technical, is an important for helping read and understand the Minor Prophets.

To get a sense of his argument and how the twelve prophets are unified, let me share some of his observations—first on the structure of the Twelve, then on the plot of the Twelve. Continue reading