15. The poetry of the Psalms – poems that appeal to the whole person.

I confess that I never did appreciate poetry in school. I often found it difficult to understand what the poet was really getting at. A random example could be the poem, “Tae a Moose” by Robert Burns (1759 – 1796). The first verse went:

Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beastie,     O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!   Thou need na start awa sae hasty,                      Wi’ bickering  brattle!   I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,   Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

Something about a mouse, I’m told!

An interesting definition of poetry, as compared to prose, is given by an “ancient Chinese poetry critic” as follows:

“When you write in prose, you cook the rice. When you write poetry, you turn rice into rice wine. Cooked rice doesn’t change its shape, but rice wine changes both in quality and shape. Cooked rice makes one full so one can live out one’s life span . . . rice wine, on the other hand, makes one drunk, makes the sad happy, and the happy sad. Its effect is sublimely beyond explanation.” – Wu Qiao

The point being, I think, (other than don’t overdo the rice wine) is that poetry appeals much more than prose to the inner person of the emotions and heart, or as James G Murphy says, “Poetry is the measured language of emotion.” He adds that, “Emotion is the soul’s coming out…into a state of excitement…commonly of a pleasing, but sometimes of a painful character.” (James G Murphy Psalms James Family Publishing  1876, 1977). I think he probably understood Burn’s poetry!

But, having now studied the Psalms more deeply, I have a deeper appreciation for poetry and particularly of OT poetry which of course includes the Psalms, and why the psalmists wrote in the way they did. Tremper Longman has some useful thoughts on the subject. Here are a few quotes from his book:

“The psalms are clearly poetic, and indeed poetry makes up much of the OT…The whole of the psalms, the book of Job, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Proverbs, most of Ecclesiastes, most of the prophets…and even sections of the historical books (see Gen 49, Ex 15, Judges 5, 2 Sam 22) are poetry…[but why poetry?] On one level, this question…cannot be answered. God stands behind the form and content of the Bible, and we cannot read God’s mind on such matters. [But, some possible reasons are:] Poem‘s appeal to the whole person in a way that prose does not… [compare Ex 14:26-31 to Ex 15:1-5…Even though] we gain more historical information from the prose account…we can’t help but be caught up in the excitement of the Israelites themselves [in the poem].…poetry appeals more directly to the whole person than prose does. It stimulates our imaginations, arouses our emotions, feeds our intellects and addresses our wills…poetry is pleasurable [Wu Qiao’s point]. It is attractive to read and even more so to read aloud (or sing)…”

I think another possible reason is that poems are easier to remember, just as catchy songs are (which are of course poetry put into music). And considering that in the days when the Psalms were written, the possibility is that most people were dependant on hearing truth rather than reading it.

Nevertheless, as I found as a young man, poetry can be difficult to interpret. We therefore need to learn ‘how poetry works’ in the OT. In this way we can better understand the psalms. Very, very, briefly there are two main considerations, according to Longman, who says,

“The single most common characteristic of Hebrew poetry is repetition, usually called parallelism…e.g. “May the Lord answer you when you are in distress; may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.” (Psalm 20:1-5) [See also Psalm 2, which is, with minor exceptions, constructed out of synonymous parallelism].

The second major characteristic of Hebrew poetry is imagery…e.g. Psalm 23 speaks of God as our shepherd and Psalm 29 pictures God as the force in the storm and as the one enthroned over the sea.”

Longman concludes that “Hebrew poetry uses a concise, rich language. It is meant to be read slowly and carefully in order to receive the full impact of the message.” (Tremper Longman 111 How to Read the Psalms  Intervarsity Press 1988)

There is so much more, but that will suffice for this Blog (see Longman’s book if you are interested in further detail). Let me finish off with a comment by CS Lewis concerning the poetry of the Psalms. He mentions “parallelism”, calling it the “chief formal characteristic, the most obvious element of pattern…one that survives in translation…[in fact, he concludes that] It is (according to one’s point of view) either a wonderful piece of luck or a wise provision of God’s, that poetry, which was to be turned into all languages, should have as its chief formal characteristic one that does not disappear (as mere metre does) in translation.”  (C.S. Lewis Reflections on the Psalms Fontana Books 1958).