In all languages, poetry is the means of expressing more directly, emotionally and intensely the longings of the human heart. As the language of the heart, poetry expresses moods of joy and despair. It contains many figures of speech, so is not to be taken too literally.
Before 1753 no distinction was made in our English bibles between poetry and prose (therefore the KJV does not lay out poetry as poetry). The RSV was the first English translation to print poetry laid out as poetry.
Yet somewhere around 40% of the Old Testament is written in poetry— which includes entire books such as Job, Psalms, Proverbs, the Song of Songs and Lamentations. Other generes— such as historical narratives, have poetry scattered throughout, and the Prophets (a genre I will talk about soon) often communicated through poetry. Only a few Old Testament books contain no poetry (Leviticus, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Malachi). In the New Testament poetry is less frequent but can be found throughout.
In ancient Israel, poetry was widely appreciated as a means of learning. Because reading and writing were rare skills and no one privately owned written documents (with an exception, perhaps, of the kings), poetry was commonly used to help people commit things to memory. Some poems were even written as acrostics (such as Provebs 31)— which are used as mnemonic devices (memory aids). Since poetry was a common means of learning, God spoke through the prophets and to the people through poems, and people expressed their feelings to God (both positive and negative) through poems. Deep expression of struggles and joy in life are seen in biblical poetry. Questions are often asked— asking whether God has become silent, is ignoring the author, or if His love has ceased… likely the same types of questions we ask when going through hard times. Poetry and songs frequently occur as the author’s response to a situation in his or her life. For example— David’s response when he heard of Saul and Jonathan’s tragic death is a song of lament (2 Sam 1:19-27).
The key to understanding Hebrew poetry is not assonace, alliteration, meter or rhyme— so common to poetry as we know it today. Instead, the essential component to Hebrew poetry is something called parallelism. “(Parallelism) is a construction in which the content of one line is repeated, contrasted, or advanced by the content of the next.” It can be thought of or described as a “thought rhyme” where thoughts are repeated, contrasted, or developed from one line to the next in order to expound on the thought more fully. There are several types of parallelism, the most common types listed below:
1. Synonymous parallelism: this is where the second line of a poetic verse repeats the thought of the first line (only in different words). Therefore, both lines mean the same. For example, Psalm 19:1:
“The heavens are telling the glory of God
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”
2. Antithetic parallelism: this is where the second line states the truth of the first line in a contrasting way. Often connected by the word “but”. For example, Proverbs 15:1:
“A gentle answer turns away wrath
but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
3. Synthetic parallelism: The second line adds to the first, leading to a logical conclusion. The second line completes the thought of the first. (Usually you can ask “Why?” or “What’s the result?”) For example, Psalm 90:12:
“So teach us to number our days
That we may get a heart of wisdom.”
4. Emblematic parallelism: One line is a literal statement followed by a second line which is figurative. (Uses similes and metaphors.) For example, Song of Solomon 2:2:
“As a lily among brambles,
So is my love among the maidens.”
5. Climactic parallelism: Also known as repetitive parallelism. Merges synonymous and synthetic parallelism. There is repetition and development of a concept. Stair-like. For example, Psalm 1:3:
“He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf does not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper.”
Though parallelism is likely a new concept to most of us, there are some familiar things to look for in biblical poetry:
Like our poetry the authors often used word pictures to describe the situation they were going through or the emotions they were feeling. Figures of speech (which I will cover in greater depth in an upcoming post) are frequently used. A few tips for understanding word pictures/figures of speech:
- First, observe what is there. See the word picture being communicated. You need to use your imagination. What connotations go with that picture? Are they good or bad? What emotional overtones does it communicate? What is the author’s emotion? What figures of speech are being used and how do they enlarge the idea being communicated? Try to “listen” to any metaphors to understand what they signify.
- The second step is to interpret the connotations. In light of the whole passage, what was the author trying to communicate? What is the author’s intent? If the author uses a figure of speech, what does the figure of speech imply? (For example— hyperbole is a figure of speech or literary device found throughout the Bible— in various genres including poetry. Hyperbole by definition is not to be taken literally— it is an exaggerated statement used to make a point/used for emphasis or effect. So a hyperbole would imply that it is not a literal statement but that a strong point is being made.)
- From there, ask yourself what timeless truth can be applied to your life? What can you learn about God’s character or ways? What can you learn from the author’s intent? What thoughts or emotions do these truths stimulate in your mind and heart?
- Something to try: read Psalm 1 or Psalm 23 and using your imagination— think about: the connotations that go with the word picture, the emotional overtones, and what, overall, the author is communicating. Take time to “listen” to or meditate on the metaphors. What truth from this word picture/Psalm can you apply to your life?
A final tip on reading poetry:
Poetry reflects and contains doctrinal truths but like historical narrative, its purpose is not to teach systems of doctrine. It should not be read in the same way that you would read a New Testament letter— chocked full of doctrine. Instead, “it is intended to appeal to the emotions, to evoke feelings rather than propositional thinking, and to stimulate a response on the part of the individual that goes beyond a mere cognitive understanding of certain facts.” (From How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.)