Categories of Bible Literature (V)


On day 25 we said that Bible poetry, “Draws readers into events and feelings of the writer’s life.” We’ll take a closer look at the poetry of the Bible today and consider some tips for how to understand it better. The books of Job through Song of Solomon are poetic books. You’ll also find poetry here and there in other books of the Bible.

Biblical Poetry Presents Emotional Truth

Biblical poetry is experience oriented. That is, it’s intended to stir the emotions and imagination of the reader, to draw the reader into the experiences of the writer. Teaching aims for the head, while poetry aims for the heart. Notice this contrast in the following passages:

“And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.” (Heb 12:5-6)

O LORD, rebuke me not in thy wrath: neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure. For thine arrows stick fast in me, and thy hand presseth me sore. There is no soundness in my flesh because of thine anger; neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin.” (Psa 38:1-3)

The passage from Hebrews plainly teaches that God disciplines those He loves. It states a fact, but it doesn’t really tell you how it feels when God disciplines you.

The passage from Psalms, on the other hand, focuses on the feelings of being chastened. To benefit fully from biblical poetry, you need to cooperate with its goal. That is, you need to share the experiences and feelings described. What does it feel like to have God chasten you? It is like having arrows pierce you. It is like being chrushed under a mighty hand. It is a spiritual experience that produces physical results.

Biblical poetry sometimes presents emotional truth rather than literal truth. It accurately portrays how the experience feels, not necessarily how it is. For example:

“O God, why hast thou cast us off for ever? why doth thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture? Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old; the rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; this mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt.”(Psa 74:1-2)

Clearly, God didn’t cast off His people forever (Rom 11:1-2), but it sure felt like it to the Psalmist. God had not forgotten His people – the teaching portions of the Bible make that clear, but the hardships Israel experienced made them feel like God had abandoned them.

The key here is to compare the writer’s experiences and emotions with the Bible’s teaching passages. That will help you know what doctrine feels like lived out. It will also help you distinguish between the true feelings poetry expresses and absolute truth.

Biblical Poetry Often Uses Metaphors, Similies and Analogies

So we’re all on the same page, here are Webster’s definitions for the three terms I just used:

“a figure of speech containing an implied comparison, in which a word or phrase ordinarily and primarily used of one thing is applied to another (Ex.: the curtain of night, “all the world’s a stage:)”

“a figure of speech in which one thing is likened to another, dissimilar thing by the use of like, as, etc. (Ex.: a heart as big as a whale, her tears flowed like wine)”

“the likening of one thing to another on the basis of some similarity between the two.”

Let’s take another look at that passage from Psalm 38:

“O LORD, rebuke me not in thy wrath: neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure. For thine arrows stick fast in me, and thy hand presseth me sore. There is no soundness in my flesh because of thine anger; neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin.”(Psa 38:1-3)

The second sentence isn’t literal. God didn’t literally shoot arrows at David. He didn’t press David to the ground physically. These are word pictures that David used to tell us what his experience was like. It’s important to remember, though, that the figurative language expresses a literal truth; God’s disciplines His sinning sons. His discipline is penetrating and painful. It can create an enormous sense of pressure in our lives.

Biblical Poetry Uses Parallelism to Clarify and Amplify Thought.

Types of Parallelism

Here are three types of parallelism you’ll see often in poetry:

An idea is expressed multiple times.

Expands on the original idea.

Explains an idea by contrast
Synonymous Example

“Enter not into the path of the wicked, and go not in the way of evil men. Avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away.” (Pro 4:14-15)

Solomon warned his son to avoid the wicked path. He said the same thing six different ways so his son would get the message. The point here is that we’re not supposed to develop six different doctrines from this passage. Instead, we’re supposed to understand that God is making one important point. Do you see what I mean? Get it? OK.

Synthetic Example

“The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.” (Psa 19:7-9)

In this example the benefits of the Bible are presented in parallel form. Each phrase uses some synonym for God’s Word (e.g. The law of the Lord). Then an attribute of God’s Word is declared (is perfect). Then a benefit of Scripture is listed (converting the soul). The passage builds line upon line to give us a full picture of the Bible’s nature and the nurture it gives us.

Antithetic Example

“The proverbs of Solomon. A wise son maketh a glad father: but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother. Treasures of wickedness profit nothing: but righteousness delivereth from death. The LORD will not suffer the soul of the righteous to famish: but he casteth away the substance of the wicked. He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand: but the hand of the diligent maketh rich. He that gathereth in summer is a wise son: but he that sleepeth in harvest is a son that causeth shame.” (Pro 10:1-5)

In this example, Solomon addresses five topics in five verses. Each topic is explained using the contrast of opposites. A wise son is contrasted with a foolish son. Seeing one side of a topic can leave you in the dark, but providing contrast by exposing its opposite is illuminating.

Read More About It

Read Psalm 1 and look for the poetic elements we’ve discussed today.

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