Philip Yancey’s book, The Bible Jesus Read, was a helpful and inspiring guide for me when I began reading the Bible and found myself struggling to engage with the Old Testament. His reflections helped me find a foothold to begin reading the prophets and wisdom literature. One of the most remarkable insights I gained was also one of the simplest. Yancey helped me to see that the Psalms really are a book of poetry. That was exciting because I had already gained some experience trying to read and write poems. It gave me a new way to begin to understand and explore the book.
The book of Psalms is the blazing, nuanced heart of the Bible’s poetry, but there is poetry scattered throughout Scripture. Adam’s first words about Eve (Genesis 2:23) are poetry, the book of Job is almost entirely poetry, and the first half of the first chapter of John’s Gospel (John 1:1-14) is a stunning poem. Reading poetry might not excite you the way it does me, but it is good to have some basic tools for reading it, because reading a poem isn’t quite like reading anything else.
One of the obvious and most recognizable features of poetry is metaphor. You may remember learning somewhere along the way that a metaphor is a comparison. Metaphors talk about one thing in terms of another by directly saying X is Y. The psalmist writes of God:
You are a strong tower,
where I am safe
from my enemies. (Psalm 61:3)
Metaphors compare something that is hard to know or encompass in our thinking with something that is more comprehensible. As modern readers, we may not understand the importance of building a fortified tower as a part of our city’s defenses, but still, we understand more about towers than we do about God.
When you find a metaphor in your reading, stop and take time to savor the language. This is key to reading poetry. Think about the things being compared and ask yourself, “Why is X being called Y?” There is often an immediate and obvious reason, but other, more subtle reasons, are waiting to be discovered.
As we wonder about the comparison, we may be drawn into a deeper and more personal engagement with the writer, the text, and the Spirit. Good metaphors engage our imaginations: we may picture things we have never seen or experienced. They also engage our reasoning, and we must work out for ourselves how and why the writer would think these two things are comparable.
Many of the images and metaphors the writers of the Bible used are no longer common for many contemporary readers. The psalmist David famously writes:
You, LORD, are my shepherd. (Psalm 23:1)
For those of us who are far removed from agricultural and rural life, the image and idea of a shepherd might not help to deepen our understanding and appreciation of who the Lord is for the writer. We have some idea of what a shepherd is - that they are responsible for caring for and protecting the flock - but the power of the metaphor is limited by our shallow understanding and lack of immediate experience of sheep or shepherds.
As readers we can overcome this, to some extent, by further reading, research, and meditation. We can’t transport ourselves to ancient Israel and know firsthand about the dangers of wild beasts, thieves, sickness, and drought that the psalmist would have known about deeply. We can read about it, though, and find images and films and art that depict the shepherd’s life. We can peer into the lives of present-day shepherds, through documentaries and travel.
It is also hard to overestimate the level of understanding that can come through exercising our imaginations in contemplation and meditation. Would you like to try a small experiment? Close your eyes and spend a minute trying to see, in your mind, the hills of cropped grass wavering in the afternoon heat. Hold on to that picture and now try to smell the strong stink of the sheep. See if you can feel the shade you’re sitting in from the one tree in sight that is large enough to shelter you. Linger over the loneliness of that life as you imagine it, even for a few moments, and experience how it can transform your reading and understanding of David’s expression and strengthen your connection with the Scriptures.
We will never live long enough to see, hear, or taste all that the Bible’s poetry contains. Returning, over and over, to the images and ideas of the Bible’s metaphors will continually surprise, confront, and comfort us. Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known passages in all of Scripture, but as we read it at different stages of our lives, the significance of the Lord being a shepherd to the psalmist—and to us—will change. The Spirit makes the Bible come alive to us, and in us, and poetry has a unique role to play in that ongoing process.
If you would like to learn more about the Bible’s poetry and how to engage with it, I recommend Robert Alter’s book, The Art of Biblical Poetry.
To learn more about poetry generally, and how it works, consider reading the most beautifully written textbook I have ever found on any subject: Western Wind, by David Mason and John Frederick Nims.
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