Monday, March 2, 2009

Studying the Bible: Interpretation - Poetry

When we hear the phrase “biblical poetry”, most of us probably think of Psalms. That is absolutely right. However, poetry is found all over the Bible, not just in Psalms. We find poetry in the Pentateuch, History, the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Epistles, in addition to the Poetical Books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Since poetry is so pervasive in the canon, it is very important that we know how to interpret it.

The first thing we want to keep in mind about poetry is that it uses figurative language. It should not be interpreted in the same literal manner in which we would interpret prose literature, like an epistle. A great way to see the difference between figurative language and literal language is to read Judges 4-5. Chapter 4 tells of the defeat of Sisera by the Israelites. It is a straightforward, literal narrative. Chapter 5 is a poetic rendering of the same event using figurative language.

Judges 5:20 says, From heaven the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera. Some interpreters have taken this verse literally and stated with conviction that God sent a meteor shower down on Sisera. However, the prose account of the same event in chapter 4 mentions nothing about meteors or stars – a glaring omission if it literally happened! It is better to understand the poetry to be conveying the overwhelming victory given to Israel by God and the terror God caused in the hearts of the Canaanites.

So when we interpret poetry we want to remember that figurative language is the norm and we shouldn’t take everything in a literal way.

The second key to understanding biblical poetry is the concept of parallelism. Parallelism means that lines of Hebrew poetry have a similar rhythm or cadence. In other words, the lines will tend to have the same number of syllables and stress. However, this can only be seen in the original Hebrew. Don’t worry, though – you don’t have to learn Hebrew. The English translators are able to see the parallelism in the original Hebrew and then group the lines together accordingly, formatting the English in a way that sets off the lines as poetry. (If you look again at Judges 4-5, you can see how poetry is formatted differently than prose so that the English reader can distinguish between the two.)

Lines of poetry grouped together can relate to one another in different ways. When looking at biblical poetry, it is essential to identify which of the following forms is being used.

In synonymous parallelism, subsequent lines repeat the idea or theme of the first line. A good example of this is Psalm 1:1:

Blessed in the man
  • Who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
  • Nor stands in the way of sinners,
  • Nor sits in the seat of scoffers.

Each of the three indented lines is communicating the same point, blessed is the man who rejects the ways of the ungodly. The goal with this kind of parallelism is to boil all the lines down to the one idea they are all communicating.

In antithetical parallelism, the second line contrasts the first. So, the point is made by stating a truth positively and negatively. Luke 1:52 is a good example:

he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate

In this kind of parallelism, it is more difficult to boil the lines down to one sentence, but it can be done. Understanding one of the two lines can help you better understand the other. The lines are working together to make one point.

In synthetic parallelism, the second line elaborates on the first line and adds some additional information. The second line advances the thought of the first. Psalm 1:3 provides is an example:

He 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

The writer takes the idea of a tree planted by water and develops that with each line. Not only is it planted by water, but it is fruitful. Not only is it fruitful, but it’s leaf doesn’t wither. And not only that, but it prospers in every way. Typically, the main point being made is most fully expressed in the last line, which is certainly the case with Ps 1:3: the man who rejects the ways of the ungodly will prosper in everything.

There is one more form: non-parallel parallelism. These are poetic lines that share a common rhythm in the underlying Hebrew but do not relate to one another in any of the ways described above. Usually, the lines do not represent separate ideas but are strung together in one thought, as in Psalm 139:4:

Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.

As you can see, the lines are forming one thought. They are not synonymous, antithetical, or synthetic.

Identifying these forms of parallelism can be very enjoyable. I encourage you to open up the Psalms and take a crack at it.

Next time, interpreting prophecy.

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