You Can't Love God and Hate Poems
About a third of the first testament of the Bible is written in the poetic genre of writing. A huge chunk of that 33% is contained in the prophetic books.
Prophetic poetry? That sounds kinda crazy, right? Especially when the idea of “prophecy” in our culture has become strongly associated with predicting future events. We do not see this as the primary vocation of the prophets in the Bible. There are famous texts that fantastically seem to point towards future events, but they are passages that appear in the context of long songs of lament, social critique, praise, political commentary, etcetera. In many ways, this is the same type of discourse you might hear from our modern day “prophets” like Marvin Gaye or Rage Against the Machine. In our holy text however, we consider that the prophets spoke words that sprung out of their spirit in a way that was specially connected to God’s Spirit. These poems were born by the will of God to act as scaffolding for understanding the world—they were a lens and a catharsis for an ancient culture, and are continually re-appropriated to help modern people make sense of their own experiences.
Walter Brueggeman is the expert on this, and I highly recommend listening to his conversation with Krista Tippett of On Being.
Many of us don’t really like poetry that much. To many people, they seem like a way to make things more confusing, abstract, and opaque. If we want to understand the world better, why would we cloud up our conversations with fragment sentences and metaphors and the like?
Some of the difficulty of poetry is the point. If you need to wrestle with a text, you might think about it more deeply. If the meaning is plain, you might assume you understand things too quickly.
If you are a person who feels this way about poetry, perhaps you can think back to a time when you were 16, and you bought a new album from a band you loved, and you listened intently with headphones, and read the lyrics as you listened. Did you somehow feel that the song was articulating something you had felt, but couldn’t find words for, using poetry and musical notes?
Eugene Peterson, the late pastor and author of The Message version of the Bible said this about poetry:
“Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking, and our ears, dulled with too much chatter, miss around and within us. Poets use words to drag us into the depth of reality itself. Poetry grabs us by the jugular. Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal.” (Answering God, 11)
Peterson is getting at the idea that you cannot get at the meaning of a poem in a hurry. The genre itself is asking you to practice mindfulness in how you read, one word, one phrase, at a time, reflecting on how the words affect you as you read and connecting that effect to the definitions of the words and phrases, also their connotations, historical use, sounds, syllables… To hear what a poem is saying is a discipline in itself. Our contemporary, western culture carries the pressure to produce fast-food meaning and spirituality. Spending time with poetry asks us to Be Still and Know.
Thankfully, there are tools for better understanding poetry, and particularly ancient Hebrew poetry. In fact, you definitely should watch this cartoon about biblical poetry and this one on biblical metaphors. Then, if you want to do a deep dive, you can listen to this podcast. But it would also be a lovely practice to apply these traditional literary methods for dissecting a poem, and applying them to biblical texts, like this one…
The wolf will romp with the lamb,
the leopard sleep with the kid.
Calf and lion will eat from the same trough,
and a little child will tend them.
Cow and bear will graze the same pasture,
their calves and cubs grow up together,
and the lion eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens,
the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent.
Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill
on my holy mountain.
The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive,
a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.
Isaiah 11:6-9 (MSG)
What’s your favorite poem and why? What’s your favorite biblical poem and why?