Who doesn’t love the Psalms? These poem-songs have been treasured throughout church history. Yet we often have trouble with the imagery and figures of speech that make poetry what it is.
God loves poetry. Over a third of the Bible is recorded in poetic form. Essentially, poetry is a highly structured form of communication. Rather than speaking in free flowing prose, poetry takes pains not only with regard to what to say, but also how to say it. Poetry makes frequent use of imagery and figures of speech. This makes it a somewhat indirect form of communication. The goal isn’t to get us to assimilate information into our brains. The goal is to get us to feel the truth or experience presented by the author.
Here are some tips for navigating this complex genre:
1. Focus on the imagery.
When a poetic passage presents you with an image, see it in your mind’s eye. When Psalm 91:4 tells you that God will cover you with his feathers, image hiding under the shelter of a giant bird. The Psalmist is not trying to convince you that God is literally a bird, but he does want you to grasp that imagery and learn and feel more about God through it.
There is a difference here between taking poetry seriously and taking it literally. Psalm 91:4 refers to a literal truth: that God cares for his people. But the poetic phrase is not meant to be taken literally. Taking the poetry seriously means acknowledging the imagery and interpreting it as a figure of speech. Taking it literally leads us far away from the literal truth the Psalmist was trying to convey.
So do your best to fully appreciate the imagery presented. It’s there for a reason. Don’t translate it into propositional statements as quickly as you can; value the imagery.
2. Look for poetic elements and structure.
In other words, what makes this poem different than prose? Every poem can be summarized in a bald statement. But that strips the value of the poetry. So what elements are making this poem more powerful than a plain statement?
For example, why does “God is my shepherd; I shall not want” mean more than “God will take care of my needs”? What is added that makes the poetry poetic? In this case, it’s the parallel structure and the figures of speech.
The parallel structure gives us two phrases that are meant to be considered together. Biblical poetry gives us these parallel phrases, typically in groups of two, three, or four lines. So “God is my shepherd” is presented in relationship to “I shall not want.” What is that relationship? How does the one line help us understand the other? Are they saying the same thing (as in Ps. 19:1)? Adding more information (as in Ps. 46:1)? Answering a question (as in Ps. 119:9)? Showing a contrast (as in Ps. 1:6)? All of these are common types of parallelism. In this case, the two lines are complementing one another in a cause and effect relationship. “I shall not want.” Why? Because “God is my shepherd.” The parallel structure adds beauty and depth to this assertion.
The power of the statement also comes from the figure of speech. “God is my shepherd” is not a literal statement. We are meant to visualize it (see point 1) and contemplate our relationship to God in these terms.
Unfortunately, since these poems were written in an ancient language, the figures of speech are sometimes odd or difficult for us to interpret. But we do our best, consulting a pastor, Study Bible, or commentary when it gets tough. This is a common problem in cross-cultural situations (as the video below illustrates).
We should also keep an eye open for unique structure. How are key thoughts structured in the poem? Does the poem show signs of unusual formatting? For example, Psalm 119 is a big acrostic. Verses 1–8 start with the Hebrew “A” (aleph), verses 9–16 start with the Hebrew “B” (beth), etc. Many English translations note this so that you can appreciate the structure. Proverbs 31:10–31 is an acrostic. So are several other Psalms. When you identify these elements, ask how it heightens the impact of the poetry to realize that it has been so carefully crafted.
3. Consider the overall impact
Poetry is complex, and the elements that make it unique are often varied and difficult to pinpoint. But that’s what makes it poetry. So when you read through Psalm 23, live in the imagery. Consider the structure and the figures of speech. Then sit back and consider the poem as a whole. How does it impact you? How do you feel after meditating on God as your shepherd, after the assurances of his presence in the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” and after the visual of a banquet laid out even as your enemies look on? It’s not just about identifying propositions to fill in your theological beliefs (though biblical poetry gives us these), it’s about experiencing God in a unique and powerful way through contemplation.
And by the way, if you’re reading through the poetic sections of Scripture quickly, you’re doing it wrong. Speed-reading is such an attractive concept these days, but poetry resists speed-reading. If you’re not willing to take your time and soak it in, you’re not ready to read biblical poetry.