Biblical Poetry is a tricky literary genre for western-minded Americans. We often grasp the letters of Paul or stories from the Bible a little easier, for they appeal to logic. But the psalms of the Bible appeal to our emotions, which for many of us (myself very much included), is a bit of a bridge to cross. In fact, in Grasping God’s Word, the author claims that modern Christians often are made to feel as though they cannot publicly express any doubt, despair, or pain. Keeping all this in and ignoring it is extremely unhealthy for one’s mind and soul. “We believe this stunts the believer’s growth as badly as minimizing the intellectual dimension does (Duvall & Hays).” Maybe this is why the emotion-heavy, poetic literature makes up one-third of the entire Bible!
Modern Christians often are made to feel as though they cannot publicly express any doubt, despair, or pain – keeping all this in is extremely unhealthy for one’s mind and soul.
Q: So then, how do we handle this large portion of scripture that is emotion-focused rather than logic-focused?
A: We look for answers to how these emotional pleas are answered and how they represent man and God’s connection.
Three main elements make up Biblical poetry: terseness, structure, and imagery / wordery.
Terseness is simply the art of minimizing word use. Sort of what we who use Twitter do with our “tweets”. Instead of building a huge argument, poetry tries to concisely express emotions.
Poetry in the Bible is structured either in parallelism or acrostics (I will shortly explain these big words – don’t worry). Parallelism has its own types as well. Parallelism is the dominant structure on Biblical Poetry and is basically just a word to describe how a group of two or more lines function together in meaning to make a single point or subject – (remember the post on Subjects V Objects?). How these lines relate in order to make this point is then categorized as either: synonymous, emblematic, synthetic, antithetic, climactic, or formal.
Synonymous parallelism is when the lines following the first simply restate what the original line had already said, E.G.
Josh is awesome!
Yes, Josh is cool indeed!
Emblematic Parallelism (or illustrative parallelism) is when the second or following lines are describing the first line, E.G.
May the force be with you,
Like nerds with Star Wars!
Synthetic Parallelism (or developmental parallelism) is when the second or following lines are further developing the first line, E.G.
Doctor Who is the best show ever because
It has time travel and aliens
And a blue box that’s bigger on the inside!
Antithetic Parallelism (or constrative parallelism) is when the following lines are in contrast with the first in order to further prove the first line’s point, E.G.
Vampire Diaries is the best vampiric form of entertainment.
Twilight vampires sparkle with inferiority
And Supernatural’s vamps just suck!
(Supernatural is still the superior show overall)
Climactic Parallelism is when the lines following the first mimic it until the final line makes a grander point, E.G.
The beauty of Middle Earth is unparalleled.
The intellect of our wizards unmatched.
The joy of our hobbit unheard of.
The peace of our elves unimaginable.
The kindness of our men is beyond measure.
LOTR fans have the best fantasy world ever!!!!
Finally, formal parallelism is basically any form of parallelism in poetry that doesn’t fall into one of the other categories.
The other type of structure in biblical poetry is acrostics which simply means that each line starts with the next letter of the alphabet portraying a singular meaning – this doesn’t translate well into other languages from the original Hebrew. In English it would look something like this:
An apple a day will not keep the doctor away
Because they have a high level of sugar
Counter that apple with meat
Develop a hunger for bacon
The point of knowing these structures is so that one can recognize them in order to understand their overall point, in context. They were an appeal to emotions, composed with the utmost of structures.
Finally, the third element to biblical poetry is Imagery – or Wordery, as I like to call it. This is anything from wordplay to puns to idioms or whatever. This is the greatest challenge in interpreting poetry from the Bible, for these devices do not translate. A perfect example is how “Adam” – “mankind” – was formed from “adamah” – “the ground” – in Genesis. The word “Adam” comes from the word “adamah” thus the wordplay, but we cannot see that in our own language. And, as Gabel argues, what’s true of these puns is also true of all literary devices used in other languages. This is why he continues his argument to stress the need for Bible translations that focus more on stricture than just accuracy. I, personally, like to have a variety of English Bible translations – some for accuracy alone and some to help me with understanding the structure of the psalms. The New Jerusalem Bible is perhaps the best English translation for focusing on the structures of the literature (I prefer ESV for accuracy).
So to wrap this all up, grab your Bibles and let’s see how this understanding of the Psalms can help us read and interpret 1 Chronicles 16. The important context to note in this passage is that David is singing a song of praise because the Ark of the Covenant was just brought into Jerusalem. The Ark of the Covenant represented the Israelites special relationship with God and their history as God’s chosen people. As such, this psalm is also about said history and relationship. Verses 8-11 are in pairs of synthetic or developmental parallelism we are told to praise God FOR He is great and to make His name known BY singing to all nations. Verses 12 – 14, 15 – 18, 19 – 22, and 23 – 24, are in pairs of synonymous parallelism all explaining that the history of God causes our need to sing praise. Verses 25 – 27 is also synonymous parallelism showing that God should be praised just for how awesome He is! Verse 28 then continues in synonymous structure still explaining the need to praise God for being awesome; but, verse 29 starts with two lines in developmental parallelism explaining that God is cool and awesome and such, then turns to verse 30 where constrative or antithetic parallelism is used to show how the earth should tremble at how awesome God is but instead the earth has been firmly established by God, Himself. This leads into verses 31 – 33 where synonymous parallelism is used again showing how all creation praises God. At the end of verse 33, however, we see another instance of constrative. This time it is with the line of how God will come to judge the earth. Finally, verses 34 – 36 return to developmental parallelism in order to show that we should give thanks to the LORD FOR His love endures forever!!!!
The emotional plea and connection to God that we are to see here is then that we should praise God for what He’s done, for who He is, praise Him with all creation, and praise Him for His great love!!!! This, to me, is the perfect example of complete praise for God – David is consumed with passion and love and emotion for God in such a way that we should all strive to be!
We should praise God for what He’s done, for who He is, praise Him with all creation, and praise Him for His great love!!!!
The point is: Biblical poetry is not a rational argument but rather an emotional plea that we, the readers, are meant to interpret by seeing their structure and relating to the emotions conveyed, in order to reflect on our own relationships with God!!!!
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 Duvall, J. Scott, and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001. 374. Print.
 Gabel, John B., and Charles B. Wheeler. The Bible as Literature: An Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. 35. Print.
 Duvall, J. Scott, and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001. 376. Print.
 Gabel, John B., and Charles B. Wheeler. The Bible as Literature: An Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. 37 – 39, 148. Print.
 Duvall, J. Scott, and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001. 377 – 380. Print.
 Gabel, John B., and Charles B. Wheeler. The Bible as Literature: An Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. 296 – 297. Print.
 Gabel, John B., and Charles B. Wheeler. The Bible as Literature: An Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. 298. Print.
 The New Jerusalem Bible. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985. Print.
 Barton, John. The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.