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How should poetry in the Bible be interpreted?


poetry in the Bible
Question: "How should poetry in the Bible be interpreted?"

Answer:
About one third of the Old Testament is poetry. “Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Lamentations are entirely poetic in form. Most of Job and portions of Ecclesiastes are poetic, while the prose narratives in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers Deuteronomy, Judges and 1–2 Samuel contain substantial poetic sections. The prophetic books of Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah are composed completely in oracular prose [a combination of poetry and prose common in prophetic books]. . . . This is also true for major portions of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel Hosea, Joel and Amos. In the Old Testament only Leviticus, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai and Malachi contain little or no poetic material” (A Survey of the Old Testament 2nd ed., Andrew Hill and John Walton, Zondervan, 2000, p. 308).

A key distinctive of English poetry is rhyme. Not all poems in English rhyme, but rhyme is often a marker of poetry in English. Along with rhyme, the meter or “rhythm” of the words figures into English poetry. Poetry may also use figurative language. In Hebrew poetry, rhyme is not important; meter and the sound of the words are important, but these qualities are mostly lost to the English reader in translation. Hebrew poetry also uses figurative language. But the dominant feature of Hebrew poetry is parallelism.

Parallelism in Hebrew poetry is an instance of two thoughts side by side that bear some relation to one another. Often, the parallelism is synonymous: the same idea will be stated in different ways; that is, instead of rhyming sounds, the lines have rhyming thoughts. Sometimes, the parallelism is antithetical: two opposite thoughts will be contrasted. Other times, the two parallel thoughts will be in a cause-and-effect relationship or some other logical sequence. The primary concern for interpretation is that, if one line of the poetry is unclear, the second line may help clarify the meaning.

Psalm 1 provides a good example of how an understanding of parallelism will aid in understanding the psalm:

Blessed is the one
  who does not walk in step with the wicked
 or stand in the way that sinners take
 or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
 and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
 which yields its fruit in season
 and whose leaf does not wither—
 whatever they do prospers.
Not so the wicked!
 They are like chaff
 that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
 nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
 but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

Here we have parallelism on a number of levels. Taking the psalm as a whole, we see the blessed individual in verses 1–3, contrasted with the wicked crowd in verses 4–5.

Within the description of the blessed one, there is a contrasting parallel between what the person does not do (verse 1) and what he does (verse 2).

Within verse 1, there are three thoughts in parallel that describe what the blessed person does not do:

Blessed is the one who does not
• walk in step with the wicked
• stand in the way that sinners take
• sit in the company of mockers

Some interpreters have built an application for Psalm 1:1 based on what seems to be a progression from walking to standing to sitting. The application usually has to do with a “slippery slope” warning that, if you walk with sinners, soon you will be standing with them and then finally sitting with them. This is often applied to teenagers and their choice of friends. A precocious teenager might then rebut the argument by pointing to Jesus, who walked and stood and sat and even ate with sinners (Matthew 9:10–17). As intriguing as this application may be, it really misses the point of verse 1.

An understanding of parallelism would lead us to doubt that this progression is the intended emphasis of the text. In synonymous parallelism, the three thoughts are essentially saying the same thing: all three verbs—walk, stand, sit—emphasize the same point. Furthermore, to “walk in step with the wicked” is not to take a literal walk with a person who is wicked but to “live a wicked lifestyle.” Likewise, “standing” or “sitting” means that a person has taken his place among the sinners or the mockers—they have joined them—even if they are physically isolated from them. The emphasis in Psalm 1:1 is on the embrace of a sinful standard of living. A person joins the ranks of sinners by embracing and participating in sin and mocking the things of God, not by standing and talking or sitting down to a meal with them.

Psalm 1:2 presents us with a thought antithetical to verse 1, using synonymous parallelism internally; verse 2 tells us what the blessed person does:

but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
  and who meditates on his law day and night.

Although delight and meditate technically mean different things (just as walk, stand, and sit mean different things), the point in verse 2 is to emphasize the similarities. It is the righteous man’s delight to meditate on God’s Word. The blessed person is consumed by God’s law (verse 2), which is contrasted to the negative actions in verse 1. We can insert some of the ideas from verse 1 into verse 2 to get a better idea of the contrast:

Blessed is the one who does not delight sinful ways
But delights in God’s law.
Blessed is the one who does not walk in the way of sinners
But who walks according to God’s law.

So, the way of sinners is contrasted with God’s law. Again, the emphasis is not on physically joining the company of sinners but on accepting the standard by which sinners live. There are two standards—the sinful standard and the godly standard. The two thoughts are parallel to each other—God’s law and the “sinners’ law.” A proper understanding of parallelism will keep us from going off in a wrong direction.

The parallelism continues. Psalm 1:3 says this of the righteous person:

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
 which yields its fruit in season
 and whose leaf does not wither—
 whatever they do prospers.

Here again, lines 2 through 4 of this stanza are parallel—they say roughly the same thing.

This description of the righteous is antithetically parallel to a description of the wicked in verse 4, which exhibits emblematic parallelism (the juxtaposition of a metaphor with its meaning):

Not so the wicked!
 They are like chaff
 that the wind blows away.

The righteous “tree” has fruit and green leaves in verse 3. The unrighteous are like the dry and inedible chaff in verse 4. Unlike the firmly planted righteous, the unrighteous are simply blown away.

Psalm 1:5 contains more parallelism:

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
 nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

The wicked and sinners are parallel terms. Judgment and assembly of the righteous are also synonymous. There is even a parallel going back to verse 1. There, the righteous do not stand in the way of sinners. Here, the sinners cannot stand with the righteous.

The final verse leads to a final parallel:

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
 but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

Because the Lord is the cause of the protection of the righteous, we can assume, based on the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, that the Lord is also the cause of the destruction of the wicked. Because destruction is the destiny of the wicked, we can assume that the destiny of the righteous is the opposite of that, even though that truth is not explicitly stated. Completing the thoughts implied by parallelism, verse 6 might read like this:

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, and they will never be destroyed,
but the way of the wicked, lacking the Lord’s protection, leads to destruction.

Recognizing figurative language (metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification, etc.) is important in interpreting any poetry. And, in Hebrew poetry, understanding parallelism is also an important key. By carefully analyzing the parallelism, many poems will become much clearer. When studying Hebrew poetry, developing some type of diagram may help to visually establish the parallels. Even though the gist of the psalm might be summed up in one sentence, analyzing the poetry will help the truth of God’s Word sink into our souls much more thoroughly.

Recommended Resource: Proverbs NIV Application Commentary by Paul Koptak

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Related Topics:

Why did Jesus teach in parables?

What should we learn from the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31?

Do Proverbs 26:4 and 26:5 contradict? How can both verses be true?

What does it mean to lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6)?

Why is a multitude of counselors valuable (Proverbs 15:22)?

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