INTRODUCTION TO THE POETICAL BOOKS
I. The Poetical Books
This may be the oldest book in the Bible, since in all its discussions of right and wrong no reference is made to the law. In dramatic dialogues the greatly suffering yet righteous Job contends with his “friends” about the reason for his affliction, only to be taught at last by the Lord to accept His sovereign will for him. This is wisdom literature at its best, recognized even by unbelievers as truly majestic poetry.
The most popular book in the OT for Christians is the Book of Psalms. We often see it bound together with the NT for convenience when a complete Bible is too unwieldy to carry. Many who love the Psalms are not even aware that it is all poetry. 2
Psalms is the hymnbook of ancient Israel, consisting of a collection of five books written over a period of about a thousand years, from about 1400 b.c. (Moses) to about 400 b.c. (Ezra).
The second most likely OT book to be used by believers on a regular basis is the Book of Proverbs. It is absolutely chock full of wise sayings on how to live a successful life from God’s viewpoint (which in the final analysis, is the only one that really counts). It is a marvelous example of wisdom literature.
This book is the hardest for most people to fit into the framework of Bible teaching. The key to Ecclesiastes is the expression “under the sun,” since “the Preacher” is reasoning from the viewpoint of a person without God’s revelation. Here is another good example of “wisdom literature.”
E. Song of Songs
All Bible lovers are agreed that this is a beautiful poem of true and pure love, though the interpretations of the story are diverse. The title “Song of Songs” is a Hebrew idiom meaning “the most exquisite song.” Solomon wrote 1,005 songs (1 Kgs. 4:32); this was his finest.
II. Literary Figures
We use these every day without realizing it. Such expressions as “She’s a real angel” or “He eats like a pig” are figures of speech.
Vivid comparisons are often made between one thing and another in the Bible, especially in the five poetical books.
When the comparison uses the word like or as it is called a simile:
For You, O Lord, will bless the righteous;
With favor You will surround him as with a shield (Ps. 5:12).
Like an apple tree among the trees of the woods,
So is my beloved among the sons (Song 2:3a).
When the comparison is direct, and one thing is called another, without like or as, it is a metaphor. This is a very popular device :
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
The Lord will give grace and glory;
No good thing will He withhold
From those who walk uprightly (Ps. 84:11).
A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse,
A spring shut up, a fountain sealed (Song 4:12).
2. Define Zoomorphism:
Similarly, God’s attributes are compared to animal forms:
He shall cover you with His feathers,
And under His wings you shall take refuge;
His truth shall be your shield and buckler (Ps. 91:4).
3. Define Personification
An object or abstract quality is treated as a person:
Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
Let the sea roar, and all its fullness;
Let the field be joyful, and all that is in it.
Then all the trees of the woods will rejoice before the Lord (Ps. 96:11, 12).
I, wisdom, dwell with prudence,
And find out knowledge and discretion (Prov. 8:12).
This means “human form,” and describes God, who is spirit, as having human parts:
The Lord is in His holy temple,
The Lord’s throne is in heaven;
His eyes behold,
His eyelids test the sons of men (Ps. 11:4).
Several words in close proximity beginning with the same letter—often a consonant—give us “apt alliteration’s artful aid.” 5 For example, the opening verses of the Song of Solomon have many words beginning with the “sh” sound (the letter shîn in Hebrew), including the name of the book and the Hebrew form of Solomon.
Obviously the alliteration in translation will not and indeed cannot match or be in the same place as in the original language. 6 Nevertheless the KJV and the NKJV have many striking illustrations in translation:
He frustrates the devices of the crafty,
So that their hands cannot carry out their plans.
He catches the wise in their own craftiness,
And the counsel of the cunning comes quickly upon them (Job 5:12, 13).
Man who is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble.
He comes forth like a flower and fades away;
He flees like a shadow and does not continue (Job 14:1, 2).
He has sent redemption to His people;
He has commanded His covenant forever:
Holy and awesome is His name (Ps. 111:9).
A present is a precious stone in the eyes of its possessor;
Wherever he turns, he prospers (Prov. 17:8).
The words of a talebearer are like tasty trifles,
And they go down into the inmost body (Prov. 18:8).
This is one device that is almost impossible to translate, 7 because the poem is based on the Hebrew alphabet, and successive lines of poetry are in alphabetical order. Well-known examples are Psalm 119 and four of the five chapters in Lamentations. The Book of Proverbs ends with the twenty-two-verse tribute to the ideal woman based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet (Prov. 31:10–31).
There are other figures of speech as well, some of them overlapping a bit with those we have presented, but these will be enough for most believers.
If the reader will be on the lookout for some of these poetic devices while studying these five books (and much of the rest of the Bible as well), a great deal of fresh interest may be found in the sacred text—not to mention a deeper appreciation of its beauty. (See Eccl. 3:11a.)
Define Anthropomorphic: an·thro·po·mor·phic
anthropomorphic means that you refer to God in terms of a man’s body or a human body. It is simply a device by which to say something about God, who is otherwise indescribable, inexplicable.
Anthropomorphism is two Greek words, “anthropos morphae.”
So, anthropomorphic means that you refer to God in terms of a man’s body or a human body. It is simply a device by which to say something about God, who is otherwise indescribable, inexplicable.
For example, in the Scripture it says, “The arm of the Lord is not shortened and it cannot heal.” Does God have an arm? No. It says, “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth.” Does God have eyes? No. He’s a spirit, "The Spirit has not flesh and bones." It talks about his feet, it talks about even his appearance, as if He were a man.
Sometimes it talks about God as if He were a bird. It talks about the “everlasting wings” and He “covers you with his feathers.” God is not a man, God is not a chicken, God is not an eagle, God is not a pigeon, God is not a bird, but in order for us to comprehend in our minds something true about God which is otherwise indescribable to us, the Bible writer chooses to speak to us in terms which we understand.
So, very often when you read in the Scripture, for example, that “It repenteth God that He made man,” all that is saying to us is that from our vantage point, we understand that that means, God felt bad, so bad about the condition that if He were a man, He would say to himself, “I wish I’d never made them.” But obviously that is not “ipso facto,” how God feels, because if that’s how God felt, He’d know He’d feel that way because He knows everything, and if that’s how He really felt He never would have made them in the first place.
So, you’re simply dealing with an anthropomorphic concept. We, from our viewpoint, will understand when God says, “I’m sorry I ever made them”; we understand that emotional expression because what that means is they are a major disappointment to me. And so we don’t want to make more of that.
it is important to note that many who are involved in the signs and wonders movement often point to Psalm 91:4 to validate "angel feathers" from God and heaven. But in context, Psalm 91:1-6 reads,
He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday (KJV).
The fact is that Psalm 91:4 (and the entire chapter), has nothing to do with God having wings and feathers, or God blanketing a church with feathers, or God using "feathers" as signs and wonders and supernatural manifestations. The verses describe God in anthropomorphic terms (human terms), and is figurative language that demonstrates God's protection, love, comfort, and sovereignty.
Of wings, feathers, anthropomorphic terms, and Mormonism, the late Dr. Walter Martin wrote:
If the Mormons are to be consistent in their interpretation, they should find great difficulty in the Psalm where God is spoken of as "covering with his feathers," and man "trusting under his wings." If God has eyes, ears, arms, hands, nostrils, mouth, etc., why then does He not have feathers and wings? The Mormons have never given a satisfactory answer to this, because it is obvious that the anthropomorphic and metaphorical usage of terms relative to God are literary devices to convey His concern for and association with man. In like manner, metaphors such as feathers and wings indicate His tender concern for the protection of those who "dwell in the secret place of the Most High and abide under the shadow of the Almighty." The Mormons would do well to comb the Old Testament and the New Testament for the numerous metaphorical usages readily available for observation. In doing so, they would have to admit, if they are at all logically consistent, that Jesus was not a door (John 10:9), a shepherd (John 10:11), a vine (John 15:1), a roadway (John 14:6), a loaf of bread (John 6:51), and other metaphorical expressions any more than “our God is a consuming fire” means that Jehovah should be construed as a blast furnace or a volcanic cone. [ http://www.waltermartin.com/mormon.html ]
Cults such as Mormonism go to great lengths to twist the Scriptures to "prove" a point. Instead of assuming, leaning to their own understanding, and grossly misinterpreting and twisting Scripture, those caught up in the "angel feather" craze would do well to consider Dr. Martin's teachings on the proper interpretation of anthropomorphic and metaphorical terms within God's written word.
Bible poetry’s greatest technique is not to rhyme sounds, as in much English poetry, but to “rhyme” ideas—that is, to put two or more lines together that somehow match each other. We should be grateful to God that this is the mainstay of biblical poetry because it translates nicely into nearly all languages, and not too much beauty is lost in the translation process. Our Lord Himself also frequently spoke in parallelism. (Carefully reread, e.g., Matthew 5–7 and John 13–17 after studying the following notes.)
We would like to present some examples of the main types of Hebrew parallelism so that the reader can look for similar structures, not only while studying the OT with the help of the Believers Bible Commentary, but also while having daily devotions and listening to sermons.
As the name implies, this type has the second or parallel line saying about the same thing as the first—for emphasis. Proverbs is especially full of these:
In the way of righteousness is life,
And in its pathway there is no death (Prov. 12:28).
I am the rose of Sharon,
And the lily of the valleys (Song 2:1).
2. Antithetic Parallelism
This type puts two lines “against” each other that form a contrast:
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the ungodly shall perish (Ps. 1:6).
Hatred stirs up strife,
But love covers all sins (Prov. 10:12).
This type is parallel in form only; the two (or more) lines don’t contrast, expand, or emphasize. It is just two lines of poetry put together to express a thought or theme:
Yet I have set My King
On My holy hill of Zion (Ps. 2:6).
4. Synthetic Parallelism
The second line of poetry builds up (synthesis is Greek for “putting together”) the thought in the first line:
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want (Ps. 23:1).
Keep your heart with all diligence,
For out of it spring the issues of life (Prov. 4:23).
5. Emblematic Parallelism
A figure of speech in the first line of poetry illustrates the content of the second line:
As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So pants my soul for You, O God (Ps. 42:1).
As a ring of gold in a swine’s snout,
So is a lovely woman who lacks discretion (Prov. 11:22).
IV. Enjoying OT Poetry
Unfortunately, many people get “turned off” to poetry in school, either by being forced to memorize poems they don’t like or don’t understand, or by having had teachers who made them dissect poems till all the beauty and freshness was gone. It is somewhat like growing a rose, which anyone can do with little knowledge at all except a desire to experience beauty. A biology class assignment that takes the rose to pieces part by part is no doubt educational, but hardly helpful from an artistic or aesthetic viewpoint.
Enjoying OT poetry is somewhat like a middle ground between experiencing a rose with no knowledge of roses on the one hand, and doing a scientific study on the other. You will enjoy roses more if you know the difference between a tea rose and a floribunda, if you can tell red from pink and pink from coral and red-orange.
Likewise if you can notice the forms and techniques that lend “color” to poetry, and the techniques of the Psalmist or other biblical poet, you will get a great deal more out of Bible poetry. This is true not only in the five books considered poetic, but in the rest of the OT as well—not to mention in the NT.
Basics of Interpreting Poetry
There are some characteristics of poetry which apply to all types. These include:
While it seems likely that Hebrew poetry did use certain types of meter, there is so much controversy about precisely how this works that it remains a subject for the experts to argue about, and not a practical tool for the Bible student. Fortunately, the main characteristic of Hebrew poetry is thought parallelism, in which the relationships of the meaning of elements of the lines of poetry carry a substantial part of the meaning of the whole poem.
There are three types of parallelism that are most common, and also of most practical use to the Bible student:
Elements may be dropped from any line of poetry, and carried over from a previous line. I gave an example of this under the section on interpreting prophecy, so I'm skipping that example here.
In interpreting synonymous parallelism, try thinking of the meaning of the verse as a single statment. Don't try to make a new thought out of the second (or third) line of poetry. This is especially important in Proverbs, where there can be a temptation to make theology out of half a Proverb, and then build a new thought out of the second half. The two or three lines of synonymous parallelism act together to express a single thought more completely.
Here the thought of the first line is expanded by expressing its opposite in the next line. In interpreting the passage, again remember that we are not looking at two different thoughts. The single thought is the difference between the legacy (or remembrance) of a righteous person and a wicked person. The antithetical parallelism helps create a contrast between the results of the life of each one.
Note:An interesting exercise in interpreting poetry, and more broadly in understanding Biblical inspiration, is to compare the thought of this short proverb, and the book of Ecclesiates. What is the point of each? How are they expressed? Compare and contrast them. Look back to the principles expressed at the beginning of this essay for some suggestions on finding the truth in these circumstances.
Synthetic parallelism can be interpreted much like prose. The second portion expands on the same topic, and uses the same meter (again, I'm not discussing meter as it is less important for interpretation), but does not have a defined relationship to the previous line element by element.
I am skipping climactic parallelism, in which the second and/or third lines produce a climax, often being parallel in one element, but adding more in building to a climax. It is identical to synthetic parallelism in terms of interpretation, except that you may find a closer relationship between the meaning of the lines of poetry.
One more characteristic of Hebrew poetry that should be mentioned, though it won't impact interpretation very much, is the acrostic. Psalm 119 is an excellent example, in with 176 verses are divided into 22 sections of 8 verses each, and in each section every verse begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The sections are sequential, so that one completes the Hebrew alphabet with all verses in the last section starting with the last letter (tau). When interpreting Psalm 119, you should remember that this form has much more to do with the arrangement of the verses than does the topic. To read Psalm 119 topically, you need to read scattered verses that use the same key words wherever they occur in the psalm.
You can find much more information on the various types of Hebrew poetry, and some discussion of meter in a good Bible dictionary or Old Testament introduction. There is an excellent article in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (ISBN: 0-19-528356-2), titled Characteristics of Hebrew Poetry and starting on page 392.
Types of Psalms and other Poetry
The major types are:
MacDonald, William ; Farstad, Arthur: Believer's Bible Commentary : Old and New Testaments. Nashville : Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1995, S. Job 1:1
MacDonald, William ; Farstad, Arthur: Believer's Bible Commentary : Old and New Testaments. Nashville : Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1995, S. Job 1:1