HOW TO READ AND TEACH THE “POETRY” PARTS OF SCRIPTURE
Most of the Bible’s poetic books and passages are in the Old Testament. Hebrew poetry appears frequently in the Old Testament. The Book of Psalms may be the best example of this, though poetry is sprinkled throughout the Old Testament, at times thrown in among the books that are otherwise characterized by narrative or prophecy, for example.
Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of poetry is its use of figurative language. The author is communicating something very important and true, but not with the use of scientific jargon or precise language. Metaphors, similes, hyperbole, and other forms of language are employed that require an understanding beyond wooden literalism. Poetry is spoken, or sung, usually appealing to the emotions, often with very concrete symbolism. The well-known 23rd Psalm is full of this type of language. What does it mean that the Lord is my shepherd, that He makes me lie down in green pastures, and that He leads me beside quiet waters? What does it mean that His rod and staff comfort me? Psalm 23 is a beautiful poem that teaches profound spiritual truth, but with the use of metaphor and symbolism.
The wonderful thing about teaching poetry, especially the Psalms, is that the audience can almost immediately relate to what the author is expressing. Whereas other types of literature – like law and prophecy – can seem very foreign to the modern hearer, the Psalms express human feelings that haven’t changed in 3,000 years. Psalms of lament, praise, thanksgiving, wisdom, confession, etc., express emotions that are every bit as much a part of the human condition now as it was back then. When teaching the Psalms, therefore, try to communicate the sense of the emotion, and allow the words of Scripture to give permission to express these various prayers and feelings.
When teaching the Psalms, it can be helpful to provide a few characteristics of Hebrew poetry, especially that of parallelism. In much of Hebrew poetry we find that the second stanza of a verse relates to the first in some way. Often, there is a restatement of the same or similar idea using different words. For example, Psalm 15:1 says: “O Lord, who shall sojourn in your holy tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?” The second line of this stanza is not saying something significantly different than the first. The tent and holy hill refer to a place reflecting God’s presence, and to sojourn or dwell have the same implications here. But notice, the question is more beautiful and poetic in the way it is stated, rather than something bland like “Who can be in God’s presence?” This type of parallelism is often called synonymous parallelism. In contrast, a second line in Hebrew poetry is often designed to say something different than the first. “For the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but the Lord upholds the righteous” (Psalm 37:17). The second line in the stanza serves as a contrast to the first. This is often called antithetical parallelism. Finally, progressive parallelism occurs when the second line does more than restate the first, but adds to it in some way that is significant. When teaching the Psalms, therefore, it is important to keep the poetic beauty and imagery of the language while at the same time interpreting the meaning in ways that are consistent with Hebrew poetry.