Tell me if you know this one:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Or this one:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
These are passages from Psalm 19 (NIV) and Psalm 23 respectively, but even if you couldn’t give me chapter and verse, you probably recognized them. I’d bet you even feel they are somehow woven into the thread of your memory or (dare I say?) written on your heart.
The Problem With Poetry
Besides the parables of Jesus and the Ten Commandments, many of the best-known parts of Scripture are poetry. Poetry makes up a good third of the Old Testament, including whole books like Psalms and Lamentations, and it persists, if to a lesser extent, in the New Testament.
With its precise wording, melodic phrasing, rich imagery, and compelling rhythms, poetry is the closest that words come to pure music and thus the most sensuous form of language—the kind we feel physically, and thus the kind that most sticks with us.
That’s good, because we like poetry, right? Right?
The truth, for most of us, is that we actually feel about poetry the way Mark Twain says we feel about classics: We praise it with no intention of reading it.
The problem with poetry is that we’re not used to reading it, and we didn’t like studying it in school. We’re not good at it, and thus we’re a little afraid. But what does it mean for us as students of Scripture if we are bad at reading a large chunk of it?
How We Read Now
Once in a coffee shop, I overheard a very earnest Christian college undergrad declare to her friend, “The psalms are, like, the best poetry I’ve ever read.” Since I had been reading Homer, Virgil, and Milton, my first thought, honestly, was, I don’t know about that. I’d hardly felt the same elation reading Psalm 107:1-43 as I had reading Paradise Lost. The beauty and power of Milton’s language simply eclipsed that of the NIV translation committee’s.
As the young woman continued, it became clear that she appreciated the psalms, first, because their language showed up in many of her favorite praise choruses and, second, because they reiterated true things about God. These are good things, but they’re not uniquely poetic things. She was reading the psalms more like mini-sermons or memory verses than poems.
Most of us read biblical poetry this way—that is to say, for their familiar phrases and little doctrinal nuggets. We read to confirm that these poems, which we normally wouldn’t read, are not so scary or difficult but really fit into our larger worldview.
In fact, that’s often how we read the whole Bible.
This is called reading for information. It’s similar to how we read labels, Wikipedia, or the news. It has probably always been the major kind of reading humans have done, and the internet has amplified that. To read Scripture only for information, though, treats the Bible as if it were merely an instruction manual and we were just complicated machines.
Another popular kind of reading is reading for amusement: pop culture “news,” blogs, public interest stories, maybe even some fiction once in a while. I think it’s fair to assume few people read Scripture for amusement.
But there are many other kinds of reading—among them study, meditation, and reading for beauty, all of which invite forms of growth. This kind of reading can be difficult and generally more time-consuming, but it’s the kind of reading that deeply changes us.
We need to begin by rejecting the wedge our culture tends to place between things that we learn from and things we enjoy. The psalms are full of verses about delighting in Scripture:
Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart.
Direct me in the path of your
commands, for there I find delight (Psalm 119:34-35 NIV).
The ancient Hebrews saw a deep interconnection of the heart, mind, and will, such that knowing what pleased God was tied up with enjoying it.
Notice, too, the link between knowing, doing, and enjoying: “that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart.” There are plenty of reasons modern Westerners have a hard time experiencing this connection, but if we want to let Scripture speak to us, we need to change the way we read it. That, after all, was why I didn’t immediately assent to the young woman’s passionate embrace of the psalms. I, too, had read them more for their usefulness than as poetry of the spiritual life.
And here’s the wonderful thing: If we slow down enough to really encounter biblical poetry as poetry, it can actually change the way we read the whole Bible.
How to Read Poetry
Poetry can feel scary when we approach it with the wrong expectations. That’s why the right mindset can be more important than literary knowledge. Here are four mental shifts that can help you get more out of poetry.
1. Don’t Sweat the Technical Stuff
You probably have some memory of a teacher presenting poetry as language that looks like English but needs Greek words to describe it (“an excellent example of an apostrophic lyric ode in dactylic hexameter, blah blah blah”). The good news is, you can get pretty far without most of that, much of which doesn’t apply to Hebrew poetry anyway. It’s often enough just to start with genre. Is it a poem of praise or lament? Of prophecy or prayer? Etc.
2. Read Slowly
Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined poetry as “the best words in their best order.” By “best words,” he meant words suited to the rhetorical context. You might remember from English 101 that rhetoric can be studied under the headings of speaker, message, and audience—plus, perhaps, medium and moment. The best words suit a specific occasion or purpose. Put in their best order, they become like music, and musical words acquire power while also drawing attention to themselves as patterned language.
To study these words, you need to slow down and take note of the author’s choices. Why these words? Why this order? How do such things reflect a specific context, intention, or argument?
To read Scripture only for information treats the Bible as if it were merely an instruction manual and we were just complicated machines.
Take Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-47 (NIV). After the angel announces that she will bear God’s son, Mary spontaneously sings, “My soul glorifies the Lord, / and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” She begins her poem by insisting her soul is so full that it must praise the Lord, and then she repeats a similar idea to capture the sense of joy in God. This, incidentally, is an example of parallelism, or repetition with modification, which is the only really technical term you need to know. And while sometimes parallel phrases are basically synonymous, it’s worth slowing down to really think about whether, as in this case, there’s a subtle difference or not. There might be many ways to magnify God, but Mary emphasizes that this form of magnification also entails rejoicing.
The incarnation marks the moment when God thought it fitting to His dignity and glory to take human form and enter into physical, social, emotional human existence. It’s the moment when God says more absolutely than anywhere else in the Bible, including His pronouncement in Eden: This world I made is good—good enough for Me to become part of it.
Now, poetry is the most material form of language, meaning the form that most draws attention to the fact that language is the fascinating symbol-system it is. Poetry is uniquely well suited to the moment when God announces that He’s entering into the physical world.
We could go on to talk about the speaker or the message. For instance, how Mary’s song is steeped in the language and traditions of the Hebrew Scriptures, or how it concisely describes the way God’s economy reverses humanity’s. The point is that we see more dimensions of the text when we slow down and look for them.
3. Don’t Be Scared; Poets Are People, Too
Once you’ve determined to slow down and notice what you’re reading, recall that poets are people, too. Their poems come from specific circumstances or out of specific emotional and spiritual states.
Sure, these poems are divinely inspired, but that doesn’t mean we can scoot the author to the side. As Jonathan Edwards loved to say, “God uses means,” and we need to take that seriously. I like to tell students that lyric poems are phenomenological; that is, instead of directly expressing a belief or truth, they often say, “This is how life feels right now.” Think of the inspired poet as being authorized by God to express his or her spiritual experience in a specific moment.
Sometimes this is easy, as when Hosea is told to marry Gomer, an incurably promiscuous prostitute, and then he prophesies about Israel as an unfaithful wife. Some psalms appear to be written by David when under siege or in times of illness. The Song of Solomon is often helpfully laid out to make clear that many different voices are speaking.
Other times this is not so easy, as in much of Isaiah, so we might need to learn more about the political or social context. Minimally, we can imagine a devout person—one growing in the Spirit—is speaking and try to reconstruct the hopes and anxieties behind his utterances. Isaiah says, “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low’” (Isa. 40:3-4). In his words, we can hear the profound expectation that God is about to act. And not being rigid readers, we know his expectation isn’t that the topography will change but the status quo will be upended with the force of an earthquake. That’s powerful stuff for someone who lived before Christ.
4. Let the Poetry Play
You’ve heard of poetic justice? Well, consider this poetic truth: Poetry plays. By this, I mean that poetry exists in a different space than other forms of language. It’s more like a game with words than a dissertation. More sand castle than syllogism. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to read it for information.
Poets like to quote a verse from the Persian poet Rumi:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
Rumi isn’t rejecting right and wrong (though he may be questioning the kind of certainty about them that leads people to immoral actions). Rather, he’s recognizing a space where the normal pressures of life do not apply in the same way. For poets, this is the space of play with words, their sounds and meanings, where one is not required to make one’s statements conform to the normal legal and social rules.
To study these words, you need to slow down and take note of the author’s choices. Why these words? Why this order?
Emily Dickinson said that poetry tells the truth “slant”—indirectly, through its unique idiom of image and sound. Elizabethan poet Philip Sydney made perhaps the most direct statement about poetry’s indirection: “[T]he poet … nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.”
Again, no one’s denying that poetry can say true things; they’re defending poetry from bad reading and insisting that we approach it thoughtfully and with an openness to the space of play the poem opens to us.
This is really more freeing than frightening. Think of playing with children. Their imaginations know no bounds, yet they often develop little rules as they go, and this makes for surprising and delightful moments—ones that mean different things to the children than they do to us adults.
And play can be urgent and serious, too. Think professional sports. Think your elementary student’s chess tournament. What makes it play is not frivolity but that the medium or form creates a space separate from the rest of life and requires you to give yourself over to it, if you really want to appreciate it.
The Human Perspective at Play
Consider Hosea 2:1-23, which hardly seems playful. Yet starting with the human perspective and stepping into the play-space helps when we read, at the beginning, all the horrible things the outraged husband plans to do to his unfaithful wife.
If we take those verses as the direct reflection of God’s righteous anger, God looks not just angry but violent and cruel, and we might be in danger of justifying our own cruelty when our anger is just. In the play-space, however, we can read it first as Hosea’s anger and grief expressing itself in exaggerated terms. We can let him rage and can even sympathize, yet never commit ourselves to error.
And how much more dramatic is Hosea 2:14 when viewed from this human perspective: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, bring her into the wilderness and speak kindly to her.”
Instead of directly expressing a belief or truth, poems often say, “This is how life feels right now.”
I find this shift to courting his wife back more remarkable in the mouth of a man than if we jump immediately to God’s perspective. God, of course, has infinite capacity to forgive and love, but a human male in a patriarchal society has a lot to overcome to arrive at this intention. This powerful image, then, underlies the spiritual and emotive force of God’s covenantal relationship with His people.
How to Read Biblical Poetry
Even once we learn to read a poem well, we might find many reasons to read a biblical poem differently than a “secular” one. For practical purposes, though, just a few principles are enough to get you started.
1. Some Things Merit Repeating
I’ve already suggested paying attention to parallelism. Consider Psalm 46:1-3:
God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change
And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains quake at its swelling pride.
In verse 1, the second idea comments on the first, and then the last four lines contain a repetitive structure (“though … though … though … though”) that links them together. This latter technique is common enough in English. It creates a rhythm and makes each line into a kind of ladder step of increasing power.
The first technique is less common, but it can be an effective way of emphasizing an idea. Again, avoid the temptation to assume parallel structures are synonymous. This is where reading gets more difficult but also more interesting. For example, in the first two lines, “present help” intensifies “refuge and strength.”
Sometimes the second part makes the first more specific: “Thus says the Lord who made you and formed you from the womb” (Isa. 44:2). “Formed in the womb” is a more intimate image than the first line’s “made,” though similar in meaning.
Sometimes the second completes the thought of the first: “Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6). Whereas goodness and lovingkindness following me connotes movement and journey, “dwelling” provides a corresponding sense of arriving or resting so that God’s presence is felt everywhere. This is maybe the most technical part of reading biblical poetry, but, again, it’s all about slowing down and paying attention to what you read.
2. Learn to Love Studying
It’s common for students to complain that all this analysis ruins their enjoyment of a work. They “just want to read.” It’s interesting, by comparison, to note that lots of Christians actually appreciate how study enriches their appreciation of Scripture.
After all, we shouldn’t expect that we’ll be able to read for information and entertainment all day and then suddenly be good at reading for growth when we sit down with our Bibles. Nor should we expect that in his last sermon, the pastor told us everything we need to know about a given verse. We should, rather, expect that we could use some help once in a while getting our minds around this ancient Near Eastern anthology of spiritual texts.
When we study, of course, we are reading for information, and the temptation is to let that information replace an actual encounter with the text. We think, This guy has a Ph.D. and teaches at a university, so this must be what it means. That’s why I put meditation after study on my informal list. Rather than let study replace our personal encounter, we should let it assist us in going deeper by giving us more points of access.
Meditation has a long tradition in Christianity, so I won’t say much more here other than to point out that meditation is itself a form of slowing down (as is study), and if we learn to do it with the poetry passages, we will find it profits us with the prose as well.
Finally, as someone whose brain can take off in any direction whenever I’m thinking, I strongly recommend writing in a journal, by hand, as part of your meditation. It gives your body something to do and thus helps you focus.
What We Can Learn From the Preeminent Biblical Poem
I’ve not said much about Song of Solomon, though it is perhaps the preeminent biblical poem. My advice especially applies here because we tend to be so uncomfortable reading it as the love poetry it is: The lovers are thinking and writing about each other’s bodies and about their desire for one another. But letting it be poetry actually helps us access the spiritual dimension without committing pagan errors of sexualizing the divine.
These human voices are beside themselves. “May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” is ecstatic, extravagant language (Song of Solomon 1:2). And the woman speaks erratically to her friends, to no one, and directly to her lover; she’s too excited to pick an audience. Like her, the man speaks with unexpected metaphors suggesting a luxuriant relationship:
Your eyes are like doves behind your veil;
Your hair is like a flock of goats
That have descended from Mount Gilead (Song of Solomon 4:1).
There’s an innocence here that’s not present in the same way as when John Donne called his mistress’s body “my America!” Yet this is no naiveté, for the woman in the Song recognizes that love is never completely private but bears a complex relationship to the social world. She seems even to caution women against being led into error.
To me, it’s difficult to read Song of Solomon and not conclude that American Christians have a more difficult time talking about sex than the Bible does. We call it “good” but prefer it locked away, out of view and outside of thoughtful conversation. Yet Scripture says, Let’s marvel at our bodies, at desire! And how much more ought our desire be for the One who can truly make us whole!
I could certainly say more. There’s so much to find in biblical poetry that I’m at pains to reduce it to lists and brief readings, but you’ll get more out of it if I offer you a guidebook rather than a slideshow of my own journey. For me, the great discovery of learning to read biblical poetry is that the freedom poetry invites us into is really of a piece with the freedom Christ beckons us toward, a freedom to explore and enjoy the world without shame or fear.
But to get there, you have to pick a place to start, and you have to be willing to do the work. It’s a work, as I suggested at the beginning, that leads us to the rich pleasures of beauty. A beauty that shines through the experiences—concrete, complex, and sometimes uncomfortable—of the thinking, feeling, struggling, desiring, and loving creatures God chose to be His mouthpieces.
Illustrations by MUTI