Samuel Taylor Coleridge once defined poetry as “the best words in the best order.” In a time when most people ridicule and ignore poetry, we as Christians need to recover a love for it, especially since one third of the Old Testament is poetry.
But reading poetry is often difficult. Poetry stretches the boundaries of language and makes great demands on readers to fill in the gaps. But if God thought it best to reveal so much of Scripture in poetry, we need to become good readers of it. Here are four tips for reading Old Testament poetry well.
1. Embrace the nuances of parallelism.
English poetry often uses rhyme, aligning common sounds at the end of lines. Hebrew poetry joins lines together using parallelism. Two kinds of parallelism are most commonly seen. The first is synonymous parallelism, where the two lines mean something very similar, and the second is contrastive parallelism, where the two lines juxtapose opposite perspectives (e.g., Ps. 1:6 and many Proverbs, such as Prov. 10:1). One common misunderstanding about synonymous parallelism is that the two lines just say the same thing twice. But this is never the case. The second line always adds something new. For example:
Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. (Ps. 2:10)
In the second line, the poet extends his address beyond kings to all rulers of the earth, including lower magistrates. He also explains what it means to be wise: to take warning from God’s appointment of His son as High King (Ps. 2:5–9).
Be prepared for all kinds of parallelism. Some sets of parallel lines introduce a comparison (Ps. 103:11), some tell a two-part story (Ps. 3:4), and some simply complete the sentence begun in the first line (Ps. 111:6). The question we always ask is, how does the second line complete or enhance the first?
2. Revel in metaphors.
Metaphors are the lifeblood of poetry. (Note the metaphor.) Metaphors provide powerful ways of seeing reality. Consider Jeremiah 2:13:
My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.
To understand the metaphors, we need to picture the images. A fountain is a spring where water naturally bubbles up out of the ground. Clear, fresh water for free. Such is the overflowing goodness of God. In contrast, a cistern is a pit with a small opening that needs to be hewn out of the rock and then plastered to avoid leakage (hard work). Even when cisterns hold water, the water stagnates and putrefies. Idols are like broken cisterns: they don’t even hold water; all that is left is sludge. The tragedy of sin is that we trade the fountain of living water for broken cisterns. A good Bible dictionary or study Bible can help you understand ancient Near Eastern imagery better.
Another thing to notice is that metaphors often come in families. In Psalm 1:3, we read:
[The godly one] is like a tree planted by streams of water That yields its fruit in its season, And its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
In this metaphor, the godly Israelite is a tree. But other metaphors are also present: the Lord is the farmer who planted the tree in such a prosperous place, and the fruit of the tree is the good works of the saint. How encouraging to see the Lord as the One who tends us. When you encounter a metaphor, let it sink in. Ask the question, what other metaphors does the lead metaphor imply?
3. Discern who is speaking.
Sometimes we are confused by Old Testament poetry because we neglect to ask an important question: Who is speaking? The Old Testament poets often dramatize dialogue between the Lord and His people, and sometimes the shift of speaker happens without being announced. A striking example is Jeremiah 8:18–20, where the speaker shifts three times. Here is the text, with the speakers annotated:
[Jeremiah] My joy is gone; grief is upon me; my heart is sick within me. Behold, the cry of the daughter of my people from the length and breadth of the land:
[The people] “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?”
[The Lord] “Why have they provoked me to anger with their carved images and with their foreign idols?”
[The people] The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.
In each case, we can discern the speaker based on context and clues in the speeches themselves. Learning to ask who is speaking helps unlock confusing texts.
4. Delight in God’s highly crafted words.
God did not give so much of Scripture in poetry so that we would be deliberately confused. He gave us poetry so that we would delight in His Word to the uttermost. Surround yourself with other Christians who can help you appreciate the Bible’s poetry. Read good poetry in English. Soon you will find yourself enjoying the Bible’s poetry more and more.