This is part of our series on genre in the Bible. You need to understand the different genres of the Bible if you want to hear what God has to say to us today. This post looks at how to read poetry in the Bible.
“When was the last time you visited your local bookstore or logged in online and bought a book of poetry? When was the last time you read a poem, whether because you wanted to or because you had to? Can you name a single poet you didn’t learn about in school? Regardless of where you live or where you are from, if you are anything like 93.3 percent of Americans, then the respective answers to these questions may very well be these: Never, I can’t recall, and No.”
That’s how Matthew Mullins begins his book, Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures.
I remember a colleague at the university who taught English 100 saying that students were terrified when they saw that the words didn’t go to the end of the line.
We’ve been taught to read for information, and poetry isn’t written to convey information.
Part of the difficulty, Mullins says, is that we’ve been taught to read for information, and poetry isn’t written to convey information. Part of the difficulty may well be the way we were taught poetry in high school. Poetry is written to give words to our emotions, and high school teachers aren’t always in touch with the emotions of fifteen-year-olds. Most people are more likely to hear their emotions reflected in the lyrics of the music they listen to.
A good poem will do more than reflect my emotions. It will stretch my imagination and enable me to feel things I didn’t feel before.
A Good Poem
A good poem will do more than reflect my emotions. It will stretch my imagination and enable me to feel things I didn’t feel before. It will delight me with its sounds. Some poems are crying out to be read aloud. Try John Masefield’s poem “Cargoes” about three different ships with different cargoes. What pictures does that conjure up in your mind? Did you notice that there’s not one main verb in it? Not one “complete sentence.” That should tip you off that it’s not trying to communicate information. It is inviting you to contemplate three pictures. To experience them with all five of your senses.
We have to read slowly to do this, and here’s another part of the difficulty. In our fast-paced world of achievement, we are always in a hurry. We only have ten minutes for Bible reading before we need to get ready to go to work/catch the bus/go to school . . . (You fill in the blank). Those ten minutes are filled with other anxious thoughts. The phone rings. I remember that my lunch is still in the fridge. We cannot read poetry like that.
Neither can we worship God like that. We cannot listen to the Holy Spirit like that.
To read the Bible and hear it speak to us we need a time and place where our minds can be free from distraction.
To read the Bible and hear it speak to us we need a time and place where our minds can be free from distraction. Find a place where no one will interrupt you. Turn off your phone. You are not entering a vacuum. You have come into the warmth of God’s presence. Listen while he speaks . . .
Not Just the Psalms
It’s not just the Psalms that are poetry. Sometimes people break out into poetry for sheer joy. Look at Moses and then Miriam after the children of Israel had crossed the Red Sea (Exodus 15); Hannah when she gave her son to the Lord (1 Samuel 2:1-10), echoed by Mary when the angel visited her with the news that she was about to be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:46-55). The prophets use poetry to speak of the great things God will do, and also of the evil he will bring upon those who refuse to listen. Peter at Pentecost quotes Joel (Acts 2:17-21). Paul breaks out into poetry at times of intense emotion (Philippians 2:1-11). In the book of Revelation worship is expressed in poetry (Revelation 4:8, 11). It’s everywhere. And it’s noticeable if you have a Bible that shows poetry by the way it punctuates the lines, not having them run to the edge of the page!
One of my earliest memories is of a holiday by the sea in England. My sister was about three. I remember her skipping down to the beach one morning, chanting to anyone who would listen: “There’s a man! He’s all right! There’s a tree! It’s all right! There’s a dog! It’s all right! . . . and so on all the way to the beach. That’s a three-year-old’s poetry. No, it doesn’t rhyme. (Poetry doesn’t have to.) But it has structure. It has repetition. It has emotion. Does it communicate? You bet.
Was she communicating information about the man, tree, dog, etc.? Of course not.
What would have been the difference if she had just said “I’m happy at the thought of a day at the beach.”? If you can answer that question you know why there’s poetry in the Bible. If you felt her joy you know how to read the poetry in the Bible.