All the chewy goodness of proper hermeneutics in new fun-sized bites!

Old Testament – Poetry

“Over one-third of the Bible is comprised of poetry,”[1] write authors J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. This is significant because we Christians can sometimes minimize the “emotional dimension”[2] entailed in our relationship with God. The poetry of the Old Testament reflects this emotional dimension, which lends itself to fully developing our spiritual selves.

Duvall and Hays focus on three characteristic elements of Old Testament poetry:

Terseness: “This simply means that poetry uses a minimum number of words.”[3] In light of this, we can see that the words that do comprise Old Testament poetry were chosen for impact and power. Consider, for example, the short, compact lines from Psalm 25:4: “Make me know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.” In the Hebrew the first line consists of three words and the second consists of two. Contrast this with a prose text like Genesis 12:10 to see the difference in length.

A High Degree of Structure: Poetic texts are structured around a particular unit of thought. The rules of punctuation are not followed as strictly as in the prose texts, say Duvall and Hays. So their suggestion is to, “train your eye to read line by line rather than sentence by sentence.”[4] Also, take note of some particular forms of structure inherent in Old Testament poetry, such as: parallelism, i.e. two lines that express one thought (perhaps to develop synonymous, developmental, or contrastive passages); and acrostics, i.e. a poem where each successive line starts with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet.

Figurative Imagery: According to Duvall and Hays, the major way that Old Testament poets communicate is through figurative imagery, or painting pictures. There are numerous ways that Old Testament poets would paint these pictures, some involve: analogy, i.e. likening two different items with simile, hyperbole, personification, etc.; substitution, for example, substituting an effect for a cause (see Proverbs 19:13) or substituting a representative part of an entity for the entire entity (like “Jerusalem” for the southern kingdom of Judah); or other miscellaneous figures of speech, like irony (saying the opposite of what someone really means) or wordplays (playing off sound similarities or variant meanings).

As always, when interpreting Old Testament poetry, follow the five steps of the authors’ interpretive journey. God wants to connect not only with our minds but with our hearts; and the emotional impact of Old Testament poetry will open us up to having a richer and fuller relationship with Him.

Check back next week for Chapter 21: Old Testament – Prophets.

We’ve barely scratched the surface with Grasping God’s Word! We highly recommend you purchase this excellent book here.

[1] J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 373.

[2] Ibid, 374.

[3] Ibid, 376.

[4] Ibid.