Approaching Biblical Poetry Interpretation
Many Christians and even non-Christians have problems with the Old Testament. Most have interpretation difficulties because they lack the historical context. Which means that they have very little idea about what the original audience and author are experiencing at the time of recording the Scripture. So what we tend to do is make the leap to modern day interpretation to pull meaning and application for us in our modern context without fully weighing the implications on the original readers. Void of historical context and the author’s purpose for writing, we are left with many misconceptions and negative vibes from some of the events and teachings found in the Old Testament. Historical context and Authorial intent are vital to properly interpreting the Old Testament. Simply put, a text can never mean to us today what it couldn’t have meant to the original audience.
The main purpose that I am writing today is to inform those struggling with the third main reason that misinterpretations and misconceptions form while reading the Old Testament. Genre is that reason. Many of us understand genre without even being fully conscious of how it affects the way we read and interpret text. You read an email from a family member different than you would a company memo. You read a Facebook post different than you would an online article. You read a biography on C.S. Lewis differently than you would The Chronicles of Narnia. We approach genre differently, yet we fail a lot of times to recognize when the Old Testament weaves in and out of different genres such as narrative (story), prose (teaching), and poetry.
I speak with many believers about their personal difficulties and hesitations in studying the Old Testament. For the most part, outside of books like Leviticus, their issues lie with books that are heavily poetic and figurative in nature. Again, they lack understanding of historical context and authorial intent but also have difficulty approaching poetry.
Why is poetry so difficult? Possible Roadblocks.
1. Unfortunately, poetry is a dying communication and literary form. Public schools and universities have in large part moved away from a well-rounded liberal arts education and the value thereof. Music and the arts take a back seat to math and science. This breeds a mind that mostly experiences straightforward interpretation of propositional truth statements. E=mc2 and 2+2=4. We think and interpret with very little nuance. Don’t believe me. Look no further than people’s remarks on polarizing Facebook posts of religion, race, and politics. Poetry is different. It is full of nuance and emotion, all connected to a propositional truth. Poetry communicates experience rather than just information. Our problem is that we want to think away poetry. We try to explain it and interpret it with what information we can get from it. Poetry is more than that.
2. Men aren’t in to poetry. At least they can’t own up to it. We hate or strongly dislike musicals. “Why are they dancing and singing again!? Why can’t they just say it and get on with the story!?” We like straight forward. We like watching mindless action movies and sports that we don’t have to think about. The problem is that a great deal of the Old Testament is poetry. Men, if we want to be “men of the Word”, then we’ve got to be men who value the literary form of poetry. Poetry requires thought and intent to see the meaning behind each word used by the author. It takes time, mental energy and emotional focus to squeeze out everything the author desires for the reader.
3. Social media and technology has made us more mentally informed and less emotionally invested. There is so much that could be said here, but I would highly recommend a book that I just read entitled 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke. We live in a world where we can hear stories and see images of devastation around the world. In a 60 minute block of time (from world news to local news) you can hear about the hurricane and historic flooding killing dozens and displacing tens of thousands, to a mudslide in Asia, to a missile being launched from North Korea, to local school violence, child being kidnapped, and end it all by looking up funny memes or decorating ideas on Pinterest. I’m sure that I’m not alone in this struggle. We are bombarded everyday with so much suffering, pain, evil and struggle. We have become experts on not letting these things get us emotionally unbalanced. We’ve stopped the process of truly getting in touch with our emotions. Here is the problem when it comes to biblical poetry. Its main purpose is to make you feel something.
4. We tend to shut off and shut down the emotions. We don’t want to be undone. We want to have it all together. We want to be self-sufficient. Biblical poetry reminds us that we are undone. That we don’t have it all together and that if we desire self-sufficiency that death and destruction lie ahead. It points us to and reminds us of the only One who has ever had it all together. It leads and implores us to increase our dependence on Him.
How should we approach biblical poetry?
READ THIS POEM. DON’T GLOSS OR SKIM OVER IT.
Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
What did you feel when you read it? Did you feel the cold winter air? Did you hear the silence of snow fall? Did it take you back to a childhood memory? Did you feel the tug of war of adult responsibility and life’s beautiful moments in your heart? Did it make you think about all the moments where you chose responsibility over beauty? Did it make you think about what you might do the next time that moment comes your way?
How quickly did you want to shut these feelings and thoughts off?
NOW READ THIS POEM.
The Wickedness of Judah by Isaiah the Prophet — Isaiah 1: 2–6
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the LORD has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”
Ah, sinful nation,
a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers,
children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the LORD,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged.
Why will you still be struck down?
Why will you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick,
and the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot even to the head,
there is no soundness in it,
but bruises and sores
and raw wounds;
they are not pressed out or bound up
or softened with oil.
What did you feel when you read it? Did you feel the lostness? Did you feel the wickedness? Did you see the grotesque nature of your sin? Your rebellion? Your state before a Holy God? Do you feel the weight of your depravity? Can you feel the despair and hopelessness in these verses?
How quickly did you want to shut these feelings and thoughts off?
Isaiah didn’t want the people to come away with just a mere propositional truth about the depravity of man. He wanted them to feel their depravity. He wants us to feel our depravity. Men, Isaiah was a rebel in the establishment’s eyes. He was a classic action movie hero, yet broke out into “song” rather than just coming out and saying, “You’re wicked and depraved!” He decided to write a poem about it rather than speaking plainly. Yeah, that’s right guys, A POEM! Isaiah is the guy we all root for in movies and he loved using poetry to get his point across. So did David for that matter!
Isaiah didn’t want to communicate the truth. He wanted them to feel the truth. We must fight back against the societal norms of information intake with little to no emotional investment. We must be willing to be truly undone and unbalanced emotionally in order for the Holy Spirit to do His work through the text to make us ever more dependent on the Lord in our lives.