One of the first things to understand about Bible study is that there are different categories of Biblical content. Not everything in the Bible is written in the same way. Just like we have prose and poetry, nonfiction and fantasy, the Bible is a compilation of many different “genres.”
Genre #1. Prose or non-fiction
Most of the beginning of the Bible is told as a historical narrative. The books of Genesis, Exodus, most of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are written as an account of Creation up through the Israelites being chosen by God, getting enslaved in Egypt, and being lead to the Promised Land by Moses.
These accounts are 100% historical and accurate. They should be interpreted literally, meaning you can take exactly what it says and believe that water actually gushed from the rock when Moses struck it with a staff.
Other examples of Biblical prose are the books of Acts, the Gospels, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Ruth. These books chronicle the actions and lives of specific people in a specific place + time.
Genre #2. Poetry
A lot of people don’t realize just how much poetry there is the Bible. The books of Psalms, Song of Solomon, and most of Job are written in the Hebrew poetry style. It is important to note that they were written in Hebrew poetry, because Hebrew poetry follows different rules than modern, Western poetry forms.
Psalm 119 is a beautiful example of Hebrew poetry. It is built on the couplet form: sometimes parallel, and sometimes contrasting. This means that the verse has two parts. The first half makes a statement and then the second half either restates that or shows a contrast to it.
Biblical poetry should be read and understood much the same way that modern poetry is read: as a beautiful expression of something concrete, though the actual expression of it is not necessarily meant literally.
Remember that the concepts dealt with in poetry are real-life problems and struggles, but the language used to express it deals with the emotions of the struggles as well as the actual concerns themselves.
Genre #3. Prophecy
One of the most popular genres today is fantasy. From sci-fi to medieval knights and dragons, fantasy makes for an exciting read. But it isn't meant to foretell something that will come to pass. (At least I sincerely hope so! That would be scary if it did.)
The Bible doesn’t have fantasy, but it does have something that a lot of people mistake for fantasy: prophecy.
Prophecy is the sci-fi of the Biblical world. It hasn't happened yet, so we aren’t quite sure what it means (because you can only be sure once it happens.) Some things sound very strange and are incredibly hard to decipher, but that doesn't make them fairy tales with no foundation in truth. The big difference between fantasy and prophecy is that fantasy is made up. Prophecy isn’t.
Prophecy is God telling us what will eventually happen. This isn’t a hypothetical sort of thing. This is actually going to happen some time in the future.
The most famous book of prophecy in the Bible--because it’s the most confusing--is Revelation. We haven’t had the end of the world yet, so we’re not sure what Revelation is talking about in some places.
But there are other books of prophecy: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are all prophecy. Daniel is half prose and half prophecy. The Minor Prophets--the small books in the back half of the Old Testament--are all prophecy.
The thing about Old Testament prophecy is that most of it has already happened. The prophets were foretelling Israel's judgement and captivity, as well as their deliverance by a Savior (Jesus!). But most prophecies have what is called a “dual-nature.” This means that they had one meaning (which has already come to pass) which also reflected a future occurrence that hasn’t happened yet. These other books of prophecy are far less known than Revelation, but they can actually be easier to understand when you think about it as happening in the future.
Understanding the Bible is easier when you know what kind of content you’re reading. We react differently to poetry than we do to history, so it’s essential to know which is which in the Bible. Always keep in mind which genre the passage you’re reading is in: it will help you greatly in understanding and interpreting the Bible in your daily devotions.