Interpreting Poetry

The Bible contains some of the finest poetry in the world. About one third of it is poetry. The book of Psalms is well-loved, and the books of Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, and parts of Ecclesiastes, also are reckoned as beautiful poetic books. Other books contain songs as well (Judg. 5, Isaiah 5, Hab. 3, Luke 1, Rev. 15, etc). Interpreting poetry involves a number of challenges, but when rightly understood, poetry is of magnificent use for faith and ministry.

A. The Poetry – Prose Continuum

1. Biblical Terminology:

shir: song (Judg. 5:12; Ps. 65:1; Ex. 15:1; Deut. 31:30; Num. 21:17;

mizmor: Ps. 67:1; Ps. 68:1;

lament: 2 Sam. 1:17; Amos 8:10

2. Stichographic:

space left in manuscripts between lines of poem (Ex. 15; Deut. 32; Judg. 5)

3. Poetry:

Type of discourse that employs a high degree of following features: terseness, redundancy, parallelism


B. Features of Poetry

1. Terseness: lines of poetry are shorter than lines of prose; transitions unexpressed; words more laden with meaning; article more omitted; accusative marker usually absent, as well as relative pronoun (cf. Judg. 4:19; Judg. 5:25)
2. Redundancy: facts are restated in different or parallel forms (cf. parallelism)
3. Parallelism: dominant marker (meter less controlled): “repetition of similar or related semantic content or grammatical structure in adjacent lines”

C. Parallelism

1. Synonymous:

The same sense is expressed in different but equivalent terms

Lord, how are they increased that trouble me!
Many are they that rise up against me.” Psalm 3:1

2. Antithetic:

Two lines correspond with one another by an opposition of terms and sentiments

Psalm 1:6 For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous:
but the way of the ungodly shall perish

3. Chiastic:

The order of terms in the first line is reversed in the second

Ps. 22:23b and c: All ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him;
and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel.

4. Staircase:

A steplike pattern in which some elements from the first line are repeated verbatim and others are added to complete the thought

Ps. 92:9: For, lo, thine enemies, O LORD,
for, lo, thine enemies shall perish;

5. Emblematic:

A simile or metaphor forms one of the lines

Ps. 42:1: As the hart panteth after the water brooks,
so panteth my soul after thee, O God.

As a dog returneth to his vomit,
So a fool returneth to his folly (Prov. 26:11).

6. Specifying:

The second line gives greater detail on item from first line
Mine enemies speak evil of me:
When shall he die, and his name perish? (Ps. 41:5)

7. Intensifying:

The second line gives a more intense picture of the first

Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou anointest my head with oil: my cup runneth over (Ps. 23:5).

8. Synthetic:

The second line complements rather than parallels

Ps. 3:4: Many there be which say of my soul,
There is no help for him in God

F. Forms of the Psalms

1. Designations in the Psalter

mizmor: 50 times in OT only in book of Psalms (stringed instrument)
shir: 30 Psalms “psalm or hymn”
miktam: 6  Ps. 16, Ps. 56-60
tepilla: “prayer” psalm of lament
maskil: Ps. 32, Ps. 42, Ps. 44 instruction or contemplation

Songs of Ascents
Tehilla: Psalm 145 “praise”

We don’t always know distinctions between terms; yet it gives us sense of different characters of Psalms
2. Purpose

occasion for use: Ps. 100 toda thanksgiving
hazkir: for remembrance Ps. 38, Ps. 70
lelammed: Ps. 60 for instruction
for Sabbath day: Ps. 92
leannot: Ps. 88: not certain

3. Other Forms

Psalms of Lament: Ps. 3, Ps. 10, Ps. 13, Ps. 22, Ps. 88

Messianic Psalms: All Psalms speak of Christ; Messianic Psalms specifically aim at directly predicting aspects of person and work of the Messiah to come. What the Messianic prophecies do prophetically, the Messianic Psalms do hymnically.

Christ’s Ascension: Ps. 68:18 (Eph. 4:8)
Christ’s Betrayal: Ps. 41:9 (Luke 22:48)
Christ’s Death: Ps. 22:1-21 (Matt. 27)
Christ’s Deity: Ps. 45:6-7 (Heb. 1:8-9)
Christ’s Exaltation: Ps. 8:5-6 (Heb. 2:6-9)
Christ’s Kingship: Ps. 2:6; Ps. 89:18-19 (Acts 5:31)
Christ’s Lordship: Ps. 8:2 (Matt. 21:15-16); Ps. 110:1 (Matt. 22:44; Acts 2:34)
Christ’s Obedience: Ps. 40:6-8 (Heb. 10:5-7)
Christ’s Priesthood Ps. 110:4 (Heb. 5:6)
Christ’s Resurrection: Ps. 2:7; Ps. 16:10 (Acts 2:25-28; Acts 13:33-35)
Christ’s Sonship: Ps. 2:7 (Matt. 3:17; Heb. 1:5)
Christ’s Sufferings: Ps. 69:9 (John 2:17; Rom. 15:3); Ps. 69:4 (John 15:25)
Christ’s Supremacy: Ps. 118:22-23 (Matt. 21:42)
Other Messianic Psalms: Ps. 24, Ps. 72, Ps. 102, Ps. 109

Songs of Zion: Ps. 46, Ps. 48, Ps. 76, Ps. 84, Ps. 87, Ps. 122: praise to God for his majestic presence in Zion

Penitential Psalms: Ps. 6, Ps. 32, Ps. 38, Ps. 51, Ps. 102, Ps. 130, Ps. 143 (see Bullock, p. 136 for some qualifications)

Prophetic Psalms: Ps. 50, Ps. 95, Ps. 81, Ps. 82

Wisdom Psalms: Ps. 1, Ps. 32, Ps. 34, Ps. 37, Ps. 49, Ps. 112, Ps. 128

Kingship Psalms: Ps. 93, Ps. 95, Ps. 96, Ps. 97, Ps. 98, Ps. 99

Creation Psalms: Ps. 8, Ps. 19, Ps. 65, Ps. 104, Ps. 148

Psalms of Confidence: Ps. 23, Ps. 91, Ps. 121, Ps. 125, Ps. 131

Historical Psalms: Ps. 78, Ps. 105, Ps. 106, Ps. 134, Ps. 136

Imprecatory Psalms: call for God’s judgment on psalmist’s enemies: Ps. 35, Ps. 69, Ps. 109, Ps. 137

Psalms of Praise: Ps. 65, Ps. 104, Ps. 146, Ps. 147, Ps. 148, Ps. 149, Ps. 150.

Torah Psalms: Ps. 1, Ps. 19, Ps. 119

G. Rules for Interpreting Poetry

  1. Analyze the poetry, identify the significance of the sections and the parallelism
  2. Enter into the emotional world that the poetry paints.
  3. What is it teaching? What is it aiming at? Are there other sections of the Bible that shed light on it? How would Christ have read this? How did Christ fulfill this?
  4. Psalms: See where the Psalm fits into the logic of the book in which it finds itself. Is it part of a group of Psalms?
  5. Proverbs: Establish the literal meaning and deduce the appropriate doctrine from this. Relate the meaning to the theological center of Proverbs. Consider from out of this christocentric framework what the Proverb teaches your people about practical obedience and its enablement by Christ, who is the Wisdom of God.
  6. Job: See the passage in light of the logic of the book, as it seeks not to solve the problem of evil, but strengthen and equip sufferers and those who help sufferers to live to God’s glory in suffering by a) giving a voice to struggle; b) unmasking false views and applications regarding suffering, and c) pointing to God, who alone can be the refuge of the sufferer.
  7. Ecclesiastes: See the passage in light of the logic of the book, as it seeks not to solve the enigmas of life, but to put them out there in their starkness, and then command the fear of God and the commandments of God, in light of a great and mysterious God, whom we can’t know apart from His self-revelation.

H. Conclusion

Calvin in His Commentary on the Psalms writes about the Psalms that they are “an Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul, for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotion with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. In short, as calling upon God is one of the principle means of securing our safety, and as a better and more unerring rule for guiding us in this exercise cannot be found elsewhere than in the Psalms, it follows that in proportion to the proficiency which a man shall have attained in understanding them, will be his knowledge of the most important part of celestial doctrine … There is no other book in which there is to be found more express and magnificent commendations, both of the unparalleled liberality of God toward his Church and of all His works; there is no other book in which there is recorded so many deliverances, nor one in which the evidences and experiences of the fatherly providence and solicitude which God exercises toward us, are celebrated with such splendor of diction, and yet with the strictest adherence to truth; in short, there is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this religious exercise.”