The Art of Biblical Poetry


We have been learning how to read biblical narrative and showing how the Bible is one unified story. But 30 percent of the Bible is made up of ancient poetry. I don’t know about you, but I don’t read a lot of stories where one out of three pages is some kind of poem. Yet poetry is everywhere in the Bible. Some biblical books are entirely poetry. Most of the Hebrew prophets wrote masterful poems. And the majority of God’s speech in the Bible is represented as poetry. It is also very common in biblical narrative for the story to pause while a character breaks out in poetic song. Like in the Exodus story. There is a narrative about Moses leading the Israelites through the waters of the sea. That is followed by a beautiful poem about the very same thing. Why a story and a poem? Wouldn’t one version suffice? Well, poetry has a different purpose than stories. Instead of describing the difference, let’s just experience it. Okay. So, one part of the story goes like this: “The waters were divided and the Israelites went through on dry land, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.” That seems pretty clear. Right. Now the poem telling the same event. Oh, Lord, by the blast of your nostrils, the waters piled up. Surging waters stood like a wall. Deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea. Whoa! A wall of surging water like jello? Divine nostrils? This is intense. Yeah, the poem ignites your imagination through the experience of verbal art. Biblical poets did this with a specific set of tools. That is what we are going to look at: The Art of Biblical Poetry. The basic unit of any poem is the line. Then, many lines are designed together to make a poem. Okay, I am used to this kind of poem. There is a meter, cadence. Bum bum bum BUM Bum bum bum BUM And, there is rhyme. But, poems in the Bible don’t work like this. Yeah, biblical poems are what you could call “free verse”. They don’t use meter like some traditions of poetry do. And, they don’t use rhyme in the same way, either. So, biblical poems have no order to them? No, they just have a different kind of order. Biblical poems are most basically structured by couplets, two short lines that are carefully worded and placed beside each other. The first line makes the basic statement. Then, the second line develops it in some way. It can do this by completing the thought, or deepening it with different words or images. or by contrasting it in some way. So, check out the opening of Psalm 51. You can see it in action. In the first couplet, the poet asks God to show grace and love. But, how exactly? In the second line, he requests forgiveness for his failures. Okay, so this couplet is finishing one complete thought. Right. And then the next couplet opens with “washing” as a metaphor. Then the second line offers a more vivid image, that of a priest in the temple purifying things so they can be in God’s presence. Okay, so taking an image and deepening it. Right, and then this third couplet opens with the poet’s awareness of his sin, deep inside. That is followed by a description of the sin being outside. It is like it is in public, visible to themselves and other people. So this couplet takes an idea and contrasts it. Exactly. So, couplets by nature are a bit repetitive. But the repetitive language forces you to slow down and linger over the feeling and meaning of it all, looking at each idea from more than one angle. Then, groups of couplets can come together around one key idea. It is like a diamond with many facets, each line offering a different glimpse into the same core reality. So, this poem is exploring what it is like to be forgiven, offered a second chance. That is the kind of experience that can change a person. It is worth savoring and pondering. Now, biblical poets also use repetition on the larger scale. In many poems, you will find a key line that is repeated multiple times. That is called a “refrain”. Or, they will open and close the poem with a similar couplet. That is called an “inclusio”. So, biblical poets love design. Oh, yeah, these are works of verbal artistry. These poets use repetition to create all kinds of elaborate patterns that invite the reader to make connections between different parts of the whole poem that open up even deeper layers of meaning. Cool. So, I am feeling at home with ancient Hebrew poetry. But remember, poetry isn’t something you master and then move on. Biblical poems are a bottomless well. They are packed with a surplus of meaning for those who are willing to slow down and ponder them. And, they are trying to pull my mind in new directions and discover new ideas. Exactly. There is even one more tool that biblical poets have to do that very thing and that is what we will look at in the next video. You guys thank you for watching this video on how to read biblical poetry! Is our first video about poetry, we have a lot more in this ‘How To Read The Bible Series’ about how to read other parts of the Bible. We are crowdfunded non-profit, and that means that everything we make is free and it’s produced because of generosity of people like you who watch and pitch in for more, you can see everything we’ve made on the YouTube channel and at thebibleproject.com
Thank you guys!

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