Biblical Poetry

Examining the Claims

The claims asserted above are widely stated in Christian circles.  They should not be allowed to go unchallenged.  Below is an item-by-item weighing of the claims of people who wish to ignore the third of the Bible that comes to us as poetry.

Consideration #1: exactly how difficult is biblical poetry?

All literary genres (such as stories or epistles) provide us with a continuum in regard to difficulty.  Stories can be simple or complicated.  A passage in an epistle might be easy to read, but it is just as often hard to piece together and understand.

We can see the same principle with poetry.  The passages quoted above are on the more difficult half of the continuum, with their references to teeth like arrows and a robe of righteousness.  But a passage like the following is on the easier half of the poetic continuum:

The Lord is good,

a stronghold in the day of trouble;

he knows those who take refuge in him (Nahum 1:7).

We recognize this as poetry rather than prose, and as partly figurative instead of literal, but it is no more taxing on us than normal discourse.

In regard to the alleged difficulty of poetry, therefore, we need to be careful not to concede too much.  Some poetry is decidedly difficult, but almost always a passage of difficult poetry will be immediately balanced by easier material.  We also need to be forthright about the fact that the Bible is not an easy book to read but a difficult one.  I will speak personally in saying that most times when I read a passage for daily devotions there is much that challenges me and quite a lot that I find perplexing.  I regularly find myself consulting the notes of a study Bible or commentary to satisfy my questions about a passage, even in devotional reading.

Biblical poetry is within the reach of any dedicated reader who makes a good faith effort to understand it. The more we know about how poetry works, the easier we will find it to read biblical poetry with understanding and enjoyment.

Consideration #2:  why biblical poetry is not optional but required.

If we ask how we know that God intends for us to understand and enjoy poetry, the answer is that approximately a third of the Bible is poetic in form.  Poetry is literally everywhere in the Bible.  For starters, we can think of whole books that are wholly or largely poetic in format:  Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and Job.  Additionally, vast parts of most of the Old Testament prophetic books are poetic. Then we need to add that the books of Ecclesiastes and Revelation, though mainly printed as prose, are actually poetic in technique.

Those are the obvious places where we find poetry in the Bible.  But imagery and figurative language abound in parts of the Bible that we do not regard as poetry. The discourses and conversations of Jesus are an example: “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12 and 9:5); “you are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13).  Poetic language is also interspersed throughout the New Testament epistles: “at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” (Eph. 5:8).

The conclusion is obvious: so much of the Bible consists of poetry that it is unthinkable to regard biblical poetry as optional in our reading diet and our menu of passages for Bible teaching.  It is instructive to ponder Paul’s claim that Christians are God’s poem: “For we are his workmanship [Greek poeima, from which we get our word poem], created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10).

Consideration #3: exactly how unnatural is poetry?

Is poetry an unnatural form of discourse? The answer is “yes and no.” We can begin with how poetry is more natural than we may think.  Everyone uses figurative language during the course of a typical day.  We speak of road hogs, game changers, cliff hangers, and nightmare tests, even though we know that none of these is literally true.  No one has ever literally juggled a schedule or killed time, but we keep speaking in these terms anyway.  We do so because it seems like a natural way to name the experiences that are in view.

Additionally, it is an interesting fact of literary history that in most ancient cultures, poetry preceded prose as an accomplished form of expression.  How could that be if prose is the natural form of expression and poetry an unnatural form?  We wrongly think that prose is a natural medium; it is actually a sophisticated form of expression.  In everyday situations we do not speak prose (complete sentences with a subject and predicate).  We speak an associative discourse comprised of single words and phrases, disjointed and incomplete sentence fragments, and arrangement by stream of consciousness instead of formal syntax (sentence structure).  Prose is everyday discourse on its best behavior.

But in other ways it is true that poetry is an unnatural or extraordinary form of speaking—something out of the routine and not the way people usually express themselves.  So much the better.  Poetry has a quality that J. R. R. Tolkien ascribed to fantasy and fairy tales, namely, “arresting strangeness.”  Poetry can overcome the cliché effect of ordinary discourse.  It startles us with its unusualness and forces us to analyze a statement when ordinary ways of stating the same content are overly familiar.  A poem is like a still life painting of a bowl of fruit: it compels our attention when the same scene in real life makes little or no impact on us.

Consideration #4:  poetry is not more difficult today than at other times in history.

There is no chronologically-based handicap for modern readers when it comes to poetry.  Even contemporary songs employ the resources of poetry.  Furthermore, our whole cultural situation is well known to be image oriented, and the primary element of poetry is imagery (words naming concrete objects or actions).  Additionally, an age of texting has made the brief mode of discourse a common feature of everyday life, and a defining trait of poetry is that it is a more concentrated form of discourse than prose and narrative.

Consideration #5:  biblical poetry is definitely worth the effort of mastering it.

There is a religious side to this claim and a literary side.  The religious side is that God entrusted a third of the Bible—his revelation of himself and his ways—to poetry.  No one wishes to carry a Bible with a third of its pages removed.  We would not even want the Psalms to be missing.

Quite apart from this religious argument, poetry offers literary rewards that are unique to it.  Of course the same is true of other literary genres.  No other form of writing is an adequate substitute for poetry.  Poetry combines truth and beauty in a higher concentration than other genres.