Diving into the Word 4: POETRY

Poetry's just a man's way to woo women, right? Well, it certainly can speak to the heart of an individual in a way in which other groupings of words and sentences just fail to do. But poetry goes well beyond Valentine's Day sentiments. Homer captured the tales of The Iliad and The Odyssey in epic poetic form. The anti-war movement of the 1960s was fueled by those who articulated a generation's frustrations into the lyrics of folk and rock songs. Poetry moves us. And God also realizes the power of a poem as a vehicle for truth. 

So besides the wonder and the beauty of listening to the words of a psalm or a proverb, how do I get the most out of my study of biblical poetry? The following are some components of poetry in the Bible that will help you to draw meaning from your reading.

Rhythm but no Rhyme: Any rhymes you think you may see in English translations of poetic passages are purely accidental. Neither Hebrew nor Greek poetry has the intention of rhyming, but other devices like alliteration (repetition of a consonant sound), assonance (repetition of a vowel sound), and a flow of the syllables would have given the lines a certain rhythm in the original languages.

Doxology: Poetry is not just confined to 5 Old Testament “Books of Poetry.” The prophets’ speeches make use of poetry. And often after a section of narrative in a historical book, you will find a poem that celebrates what just happened. And these poems are usually directed as praises to God - what many call "doxologies" (from the Greek word doxa for "glory"). These are glorifying poems or songs. After the victory of God over Pharaoh at the Red Sea, Exodus 15 records an extended poem of praise. We see Hannah do something similar in 1 Samuel 2 after learning that she will have a child. We find other short doxology poems in the epistles, like we see in 1 Timothy 3:16:

      "He was manifested in the flesh,
    vindicated by the Spirit,
        seen by angels,
    proclaimed among the nations,
       believed on in the world,
     taken up in glory."

Parallelism: A common feature of biblical poetry is the use of parallelism. You often see two or more lines of similar structure that form a couplet (if it’s 2), a triplet (if it’s 3), and so on...In a couplet, the second line nuances the first line in some way. Either it’s...

      1) Synonymous (using other vivid words to echo the first line)


              "Now in that day the glory of Jacob will fade,
              And the fatness of Jacob will become lean." (Isaiah 17:4)


     2) Antithetic (it’s a contrast to the first line, often beginning with “but”) 

             "The king's wrath is like the roaring of a lion,
             But his favor is like dew on the grass." (Proverbs 19:12) 


     3) Synthetic (it completes an open-ended subject or question with an action or answer)

              "How can a young man keep his way pure?
              By keeping it according to Your word." (Psalm 119:9)


Imagery and Figurative Language: Look for repeated symbols, metaphors, similes, and personification. The Bible allows us to understand abstract ideas about God and humanity through the use of concrete images like SHEPHERD, SWORD, or ROCK. The Psalms are full of these images that help us see our relationship to God in concrete terms. "The LORD is my shepherd" paints a more powerful and comprehensive picture in my mind than just saying "The Lord will take care of me."     

Meaning: All of the above-mentioned components of poetry convey meaning to the readers. Poetry is not only beautiful. The words themselves and the pictures they paint are memorable. We remember song lyrics better than almost anything else we hear, right? The Bible's poems are the same way. They are meant not just to be read once but to be savored by the people of God. The Psalms are quoted more than any other book by the New Testament writers...so they must have seen vital meaning in these biblical poems. We should have the same reverence for them today.


To His Glory,


Caleb Cochran

Preaching & Outreach Minister

Rockville, MD


Photo credit: stephcarter / Foter / CC BY-ND