Reading the Psalms as Poetry

One of the biggest difficulties in reading the Bible is the tendency to read everything as law/command. The only places this does not appear to be a problem are in the sections of the Bible we read the least (e.g. Leviticus) where laws are exactly what we are reading. That is about one of the only places that our interpretive strategy of viewing all of scripture as one giant piece of legislation actually works. This is particularly difficult when dealing with Hebrew poetry. Try these three accounts of the same event recorded from three points of view in three different genres:

A Drop Fell On The Apple Tree
by Emily Dickinson.

A drop fell on the apple tree
Another on the roof;
A half a dozen kissed the eaves,
And made the gables laugh.

A few went out to help the brook,
That went to help the sea.
Myself conjectured, Were they pearls,
What necklaces could be!

The dust replaced in hoisted roads
The birds jocoser sung;
The sunshine threw his hat away,
The orchards spangles hung.

The breezes brought dejected
And bathed them in the glee;
The East put out a single flag,
And signed the fete away.

News
A high pressure and a low pressure system collided over the farm today. Two inches of rail fell in five hours and the rivers rose four and a half inches. It was partly cloudy and had a wind from the west at ten miles per hour…

Narrative
I sat in the house and watched the rain fall. I first noticed it hitting the apple tree and then it made its way closer hitting the roof and eventually the street and the brook…

We don’t read all of those the same way. Poetry has more meaning than meets the eye and uses more symbols than does the news or narrative.

Law
When it rains it is always supposed to rain on apple trees first and then proceed to the roof, the eaves, and the gables who are to respond with laughter. At that point, the rain may then proceed to the brook which must find a way to the sea and we must all fashion ourselves necklaces to remember the day that it rained.

Once the rain has reached the sea it must then rain on the roads accompanied by the singing of birds. Powerpoint birds and recorded chirping may also be acceptable…

You can very quickly miss the point if you are not reading the psalms from a proper perspective. There are several things we can do to improve our understanding of the psalms. The first is to realize that poetic language is to be read as such. If it is meant to be read as a list of rules or laws then we all have to buy into the concept of original sin because of what David says in Psalm 51:5. There will be things said that if taken literally or stretched too far can lead us to all sorts of wrong conclusions. The second thing we need to realize is that the psalms are loaded with emotion that often leads to hyperbole (as is the case in Psalm 51:5). There are other times when the psalmist seems to doubt God and ask questions that sound a lot like doubt to us and we ask ourselves, “how does an inspired writer write something like that?” Because he is honest with his feelings, questions, and concerns and he knows God is the only one with the answer. It is scriptural to be honest with God about our feelings. The third thing we need to realize is that once the psalms are understood in the manner they were in their original circumstances (as best as we can construct that) we are then able to incorporate those lessons in contemporary ways. When we are confronted with sin, we can turn to David’s example of repentance in Psalm 51. When we are on our way to worship God on Sunday we can read from the Songs of Ascent (120-134) that were probably recited while ascending the temple steps.

Let us take off our blinders and let the psalms transform us rather than us transform the psalms into something they were never intended to be. Next up, we will tackle a few specific psalms and spend some time unpacking them.

0 Responses to Reading the Psalms as Poetry

  1. Gallagher says:

    Good thoughts. Glad to see the transition is working well.

  2. Lisa says:

    I loved this post. I think I needed to hear someone say what you did about not taking some parts of the Bible as law, especially the books of poetry. It made a lot of sense, and I wonder why I’ve never considered this before. Thanks, Matt!

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