One of the many challenges we face when studying the Bible is understanding literature written in unfamiliar styles.
With the impact that novels and book series have on today’s literary culture, studies show that poetry in particular has fallen by the wayside.
Christopher Ingraham writes that according to the National Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, “Since 2002, the share of poetry-readers has contracted by 45 percent—resulting in the steepest decline in participation in any literary genre. … Over the past 20 years, the downward trend is nearly perfectly linear — and doesn’t show signs of abating.”
This presents a challenge when we try to understand the Bible, which according to The Bible Project series How to Read Biblical Poetry is a third of the Bible’s content.
What often makes poetry difficult for readers is its intricate structure and heavy reliance on symbolism. While books are primarily concrete description and dialogue with occasional hints of poetic elements, works of poetry rely almost entirely on the relationship between the concrete and the abstract— taking abstract emotions like grief and hope and using concrete imagery to bring those emotions to life inside the reader.
Time and cultural differences have an effect on these images. The contrast between sun and moon, fire and ice, heat and cold translates universally; the implications of these polar opposites are easy for readers to relate to and understand.
For example, writing that someone’s eyes are “as cold as their heart” is understood to be a description of a distant, apathetic or unsympathetic character, while writing of “the fire behind their eyes” depicts someone experiencing a burst of passion, anger or another strong emotion.
How to Read Biblical Poetry further explains that there is a heavy usage of land and sea metaphor in biblical poetry. Land is used to depict safety, shelter and refuge, while the untamable sea illustrates danger, chaos and ruin.
David uses these metaphors in multiple psalms: “Save me, O God, / for the waters have come up to my neck. / I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; / I have come into deep waters, / and the flood sweeps over me.” (Psalm 69:1-2). He cries out to God to “be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, / for you are my rock and my fortress” (Psalm 71:3).
Some poetry, however, is more specific to certain eras or people groups, making it harder for readers not a part of the group to relate. For example, most modern Americans would not write a love poem for their wife describing her with “hair like a flock of goats,” “teeth like a flock or shorn ewes that have come up from the washing” or “cheeks like halves of a pomegranate” (Song of Solomon 4:1-3).
For the Hebrews, without grocery stores or the possibility of upward mobility, these symbols illustrate a life of ease, abundance of food and prosperity that would be attractive to a prospective spouse.
Another key difference between biblical and mainstream poetry is the structure. While the most well-known poems today are governed by rhyme and meter, Hebrew poetry is written in free verse— poems with neither rhyme nor meter. Instead, they are structured by “couplets”— put simply, pairs of poetic lines.
“English poetry is developed from Greek and Latin poetry, which is primarily sound-based. Hebrew poetry has much in common with Canaanite poetry. It is basically thought-based in balanced, parallel lines,” explains Bob Utley, a retired seminary professor.
The first line in the couplet introduces the thought being expressed — God’s love, the gravity of sin, the love humans have for each other, and so on. From there, the second line in the couplet will take one of three routes: complete, repeat or contrast line one.
An example of the second line completing the first is found in Psalm 119:1: “Happy are those whose way is blameless, / who walk in the law of the Lord.”
This couplet expresses the abstract idea of living a life of righteousness through the concrete illustration of a journey and walking down a path. Line two serves to complete the first, explaining that to be “blameless” requires meditation on God’s law.
Other times, the second line repeats the same idea of the first in different, often deeper wording. An example of this can be found in Amos 24:5: “But let justice roll on like a river, / righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
In this verse, line two repeats the idea of God’s holiness, using the same illustration of a river. However, in line two, the idea is deepened, expressing the idea that God’s holiness is not only just, but never-ending, eternal and constant.
Finally, the latter lines in couplets can be used like antithesis— using two contrasting images to express one idea.
An example of this technique is found in verses like Song of Solomon 8:12: “My vineyard, my very own, is for myself; / you, O Solomon, may have the thousand.” This verse illustrates the power of love for one’s spouse— in its purest form, so strong that they are content with monogamous intimacy.
In his own writing, Solomon confesses that while he is in relationships with multiple women, love in its purest form binds spouses to each other.
Understanding the fundamentals of Hebrew poetry — its thought-based couplet structure and the nuanced intricacy of its metaphor— allows readers not only to understand, but also to better appreciate the beauty and intricacy of poetry in the Bible.