God gave us his word in a book that is made up of multiple books. Whereas biblical theology (step 10) looks more at Scripture as a whole, literary context focuses on the individual parts as they come to us within their overall canonical context. It’s the difference between appreciating a whole quilt and looking carefully at one of its single squares, which itself has its own color, texture, and story.
The question in literary context is, “How does the passage contribute to the book’s overall story or argument?” To answer this, we need to have a solid grasp of the book’s thought-flow, which is best initiated by reading the whole book several times on your own, each in a single sitting, and while comparing several book outlines drafted by those who have spent far more time in the book than you have. As you examine your passage in view of the whole book, there are at least three areas you want to keep in mind: literary placement, literary function, and literary details.
Literary Placement: A Passage’s Location
Literary placement refers to your passage’s location. Is the passage part of a larger literary grouping with a discernible beginning, middle, or end? What leads up to the passage? What flows from it? How is the book organized, and how does the passage fit within the section, book, canonical division, Testament, and Bible––in that order?
The book of Daniel, for example, is most naturally structured in two parts: (1) God’s sovereign control in the present (chs. 1–6) and (2) God’s sovereign control in the future (chs. 7–12). Part one includes a progression of court stories about the exaltation of Daniel and his three friends. Together they stress that, while not always clear in the present, Israel’s God is sovereign over all things and is working for his own against the world’s rebellion. Part two then supplies a series of apocalyptic visions about the rise and fall of succeeding empires. Together these emphasize that, while it may not always be evident in the future, Israel’s God controls all things according to his purposes and will ultimately establish his kingdom through his Messiah, destroying all evil.
If you were studying the episode of the fiery furnace in Daniel 3, it would be good to know its placement in part one between the stories of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the image/statue in chapter 2 and the king’s punishment and restoration in chapter 4. It would also be good to know that in Jesus’ Bible, Daniel’s hope of God’s kingdom opens the final narrative portion of the Writings, which sought to remind the believers who were in exile and slavery (Ezra 9:9; Neh. 9:36) that Yahweh’s power and kingdom-purposes still stand. In this context, Daniel follows Lamentations and affirms the concluding statement, “But you, O LORD, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations” (Lam. 5:19). Furthermore, in response to the lamenter’s final cry, “Renew our days as of old––unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us” (5:22), Daniel declares that God had not completely rejected and would both restore and renew. Standing in the concluding portion of the Hebrew Scriptures, Daniel plays a vital role in thrusting the reader’s eyes toward the New Testament, which begins to realize God’s kingdom purposes.
Literary Function: A Passage’s Purpose
Literary function addresses your text’s purpose. What is the book’s main thrust, and how does this passage advance the book’s storyline or reasoning? Do the verses fill in, add on to, introduce, bring to completion, or counterbalance the portion or book of which it is a part? What does the passage contribute to the overall picture? What does the overall picture add to it? If this passage were missing from the book, what would be lost?
If the book of Daniel as a whole supplies a glorious, hopeful vision of God’s kingship over all the created sphere, how does the story of Daniel 3 contribute to this message? In Daniel 2, King Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a statue-like image with four parts, each of which represented earthly kingdoms that would ultimately be overthrown by God’s kingdom that would never perish (Dan. 2:44). Babylon, led by Nebuchadnezzar, was the first of these kingdoms (2:37–38). In Daniel 3, Nebuchadnezzar appears to have gotten caught up in his dream from chapter 2, but he is determined to be not just the head of gold but the whole. He erected a massive image that appears to have represented himself. All peoples, nations, and languages were to worship it, lest they immediately be cast into a blazing furnace (3:1–7). Daniel’s three friends––Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego––were unrelenting in their commitment to Yahweh and refused to bow down (3:16–18), thus resulting in their punishment. But they were not burnt, for one “like a son of the gods” protected them (3:25). As such, Nebuchadnezzar declared them to be “servants of the Most High God” (3:26), praised their God for his mighty act (3:28), and then decreed that none should speak against their God (3:29).
This episode plays a key role in showing how Nebuchadnezzar grew in his awareness of Yahweh’s sovereign control of the present. This recognition would only expand until we read, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (4:37).
Literary Details: A Passage’s Distinctive Contributions
Literary details are the particular features or aspects of the text that set it apart and that help identify its overall contribution. How comprehensive or selective is the passage? Do any details help you decide whether the author wrote it in connection with a specific cultural or historical situation? Does the passage relay material from a distinctive perspective? What does this tell you about the author’s intentions?
The biblical author clearly wrote Daniel 3 to remind the audience of Yahweh’s greatness and worth and of his ability to save either out of or through suffering. Nebuchadnezzar initially displayed pride when he questioned the three: “Who is the god who will deliver out of my hands?” (3:15). This stands in contrast with his later declaration, “There is no other god who is able to rescue in this way” (3:29). The king’s initial challenge is also countered by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s relentless commitment to the true God and their confidence that he was able to rescue. “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (3:17–18). The three did not presume that they fully knew Yahweh’s will, but regardless of his pleasure, they would trust and obey. Such details force readers to decide whether we will equally surrender to the supreme Sovereign and Savior in this story.
Furthermore, when read in view of the whole book, the emphasis that one “like a son of the gods” protected the three in the furnace (3:25) likely anticipates the “one like a son of man” who will reign over God’s kingdom (7:13–14). Later this figure is probably tagged the “Messiah,” during whose ministry God intends “to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place” (9:24, 26). As such, Daniel 3 does not merely add general hope in a delivering God; it also fuels anticipation for the Messiah’s reign.
Psalm 121 in Its Literary Context
In Psalm 121 the psalmist expresses his confidence in Yahweh as his helper, and he builds his belief in God’s protection by rehearsing to himself and to others the qualities of God’s faithfulness that he has grown to know are true. Psalms like this predictively provided Christ with words to capture his own heart cries, and now, for those in Christ, they model how to remain Godward and hopeful at points of desperation, both individually and corporately.
Psalm 121 occurs in the fifth book of the Psalms (Pss. 107–150). This section offers reflections on the restoration after exile and presents Yahweh as one who will renew his people in fulfillment of his Davidic kingdom-promises. Much like David’s own prayer in Psalm 14:7 (cf. 1 Chron. 16:35), Book 4 ended with the psalmist praying for return from exile. He cries in Psalm 106:47: “Save us, O LORD our God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.” The psalmist is most likely hoping not simply for a physical return to the land (cf. Deut. 30:3–5) but for the climactic second exodus of which the prophet’s spoke and that would align with the coming messianic kingdom (e.g., Isa. 11:1–12:5; 49:1–6; Jer. 23:5–8; Ezek. 34:16, 22–24; 37:20–28; Hos. 3:5). Now Book 5 opens in Psalm 107 with praise to God for answering this prayer. We read in Psalm 107:1–3: “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.”
After this, the remaining parts of Psalm 107, along with Psalms 108–109 emphasize Yahweh’s unrelenting affection for all who trust him (cf. Pss. 107:33–43; 108:11). With glorious messianic hope, Psalm 110 then stresses that the Davidic covenant has not been set aside. Quoting Psalm 110, Hebrews 1:13 tell us that Jesus is David’s “Lord” of whom Yahweh declared, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet” (cf. Matt. 22:41–45). Psalms 111–118 stress that the God who works on behalf of his people deserves wholehearted worship and loyalty at all times and in all circumstances. Such a call stresses the importance of God’s word, which is celebrated in Psalm 119. It also requires the centrality of Yahweh’s presence in the lives of God’s people, which is the focus of the Songs of Ascent in Psalms 120–134. It is in these Songs of Ascent that we find Psalm 121, which supplies hope-filled assurance in Yahweh’s guardianship and gives cause for enjoying his presence. Building off Psalm 121:6, Revelation 7:16 declares that, for all who die in the great Tribulation, having identified themselves with the slain Lamb, “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.” The favor that God shows his Christ becomes the favor he shows all who are identified with him. The longest of the Songs of Ascent is Psalm 132, which emphasizes the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise to David that he would indeed have a king on the throne of Jerusalem forever.
Psalms 135–138 summarize God’s work through creation and providence on behalf of his people, with Psalm 138 returning to psalms of David, which continue through Psalm 145. These psalms depict the anointed royal figure requesting God’s help in both in both spiritual and temporal matters (Pss. 139–144) and then celebrating Yahweh’s character and work (Ps. 145). The five books conclude with a string of five praise psalms that exalt the excellencies of God over all (Pss. 146–150).
Standing as the second of the Songs of Ascent, Psalm 121 sets the readers’ gaze upward toward God and his holy mountain. “I lift my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” Looking up means one thing: the psalmist was down. Nevertheless, in his pain, in his anxiety he looked Godward to the one who made heaven and earth. He says, “He will not let your foot be moved” (Ps. 121:3). Your Guardian never sleeps, and because of that you can. He was a refuge for Christ, and he will continue to guard all who find refuge in him. You can rest today, because the all satisfying Savior reigns in the person of Jesus. The Davidic hope has reached its fulfillment, and now the very psalms that Jesus drew from to clarify his own mission of triumph through tribulation can become the very cries of our hearts. “The LORD is your keeper…. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (Ps. 121:7–8).