In this lesson, we shift our attention to poetry. We will use Psalm twenty-three as our passage.
As we begin here is a definition of poetry, it is an art used to express the deepest of emotions and insights. This will be our working definition, “Poetry is an art used to express the deepest of emotions and insights, and particularly biblical poetry.” Old Testament wise this is Hebrew poetry. That’s what we’re going to be looking at. The goal of Hebrew poetry was to address the mind through the heart.
So specifically, Psalmists, for example, writers of scripture addressed the mind through the heart.
Let that sink in. Hebrew poetry was is intended to appeal to the emotions, to evoke feelings that straight propositional truth doesn’t usually state appeal to the emotions, to evoke feelings that straight propositional truth seldom does.
There is a way to say, for example, a propositional truth, “I’m feeling sad.” That’s true, there’s also a poetic way to say it, “in the deepest crevices of my soul is darkness.” Trying to express the same reality, but in a way that appeals to the emotions and appeals to a way that people can relate to, that’s biblical poetry. It’s meant to be piercing to those addressed.
Biblical Poetry Affects the Whole Person
Essentially, biblical poetry is meant to affect the whole person, not just the intellect. And we see this reality throughout Scripture that belonging to God means worshipping Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, not simply intellectually or some mental assent. When we place our faith in Christ, for example, we give all of our life to him. We belong to him.
He is Lord. That’s biblical poetry, in other words, it was expressed to get these realities about our wonderful almighty God into our head, to get the point across, and move us to worship. That’s biblical poetry.
Styles of Poetry
It could be in terms of different styles. It could be a poetic lament, poetic praise. That’s often the Psalms. Or you either lament expressing deep grief over something that had happened or praise. And oftentimes elements would end in assent or praise of who God is, even though things are looking very bleak.
Lament, praise, sometimes judgment, poetic writing that expressed judgment a lot of time in the prophets that were the case or even hope. Hope is a repeated theme in the poetic writings. It was used to express hope in God’s faithfulness to continue to bless His people, for example, at a time when Israel was in rebellion and He was disciplining them.
And so, before we get to our passage, I want to turn with you to Habakkuk Chapter three, one of the minor prophets, Habakkuk three. There are examples in here of Hebrew poetry that I think we can glean from.
The general context of Habakkuk is that the Prophet Habakkuk cannot believe the word he receives from the Lord that the Babylonians are going to overtake Judah. He can’t believe that people eviler than they were going to overthrow them. How could you possibly let this happen? How could a good God allow this sort of terrible event to take place? And so, He is confused, and it leads us into chapter three.
He appeals not just to the intellect, but to the whole person. Just because something is poetry, that does not make it untrue. God-given principles of interpretation allow us to understand what is figurative from literal as well as to understand the undergirding principles that are true for all time.
In other words, the key with poetry, the key with biblical poetry, as in all literature, is digging and studying to understand what the author’s intended meaning was. That’s what we’re seeking to get at in our case, what is God communicating through the poetry?
That’s what we’re digging to find out. And we still use the principles that we’ve been learning, particularly observe, observe, observe. We will grow more as Bible students if we observe well. Then we will interpret well. Then the application will come out for us because if we get that first step right, if we’re actually taking in what God is revealed, if we’re not being careless to miss important details, if we’re doing our homework, if we’re relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, then we will come to a good and solid meaning of what God is communicating through an author of scripture and thus will know how to live based on that.
Observations from Habakkuk
But some things with Habakkuk three that I found fascinating.
The first one is we can still use a principle of context here. If you Hab. 3:1-2 he states, “Lord, I’ve heard of your fame. I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord.”
And he asks God to repeat them in our day. In our time, make them known and wrath, remember mercy, I mentioned context because it is very important to realize that this. The section right here sets exactly what Habakkuk is going to talk about in the next number of verses, and he will circle back to it as he gets to the end of his prophecy. So, one thing to just think about is kind of knowing what the larger section of verses and paragraphs says.
Another thing I noticed looking at this chapter is verses three through seven. We have some very important realities about the Lord laid out, and in many ways, the language is figurative to try to teach those.
He says that His glory covered the heavens, His praise filled the earth. His splendor was like the sunrise, rays flashed from his hand where his power was hidden. Plague went before him. Pestilence followed his steps. He stood and shook the earth. He looked and made the nations tremble.
The ancient mountains crumbled and the age-old hills collapsed. But he marches on forever. So, we’re getting a lot of physical language of the natural world that we can relate to, especially the original hearers could relate to, to understand who God is.
It’s one thing to say God is glorious. It’s another thing to say the heavens declare the glory of God. The skies proclaim his handiwork (Psa. 19:1). We get a vivid picture in our minds, at least I do, of a beautiful light shining sky that gives us a small glimpse into God’s great creative power and his glory.
In three through seven, much of what is being communicated is God’s acts throughout history is that God is glorious and powerful. Habakkuk is understanding as he hears about God’s previous deeds. God is glorious and powerful.
Going on to eight, were you angry with the rivers? Lord, was your wrath against the streams? Did you rage against the sea when you rode your horses and your chariots to victory? You uncovered your bow. You called for many arrows. You split the earth with rivers. The mountains saw you so. In many ways, I don’t think that we ever saw God physically manifest himself with a bow and arrow, right.
But all these images give us an understanding as finite people that God is a warrior. And we see that truth throughout Scripture as God judges the nations.
In many ways, He judges Israel. He uses one nation and their powerful army in his powerful hand, though to consume another, or as we’ve learned elsewhere from scripture, who uses an army of nobodies such as Gideon’s army. The Book of judges. To take down another He is a warrior, He is the warrior God, that’s what’s going on here.
Eleven through thirteen uses language such as sun and moon. Standing still at the glint of your flying arrows, in wrath, you strode to the earth and in anger, you thrust the nations. What he is getting at in these images is that God controls the universe, everything that’s created is under his powerful hand.
Fifteen, you trample the sea with your horses churning the great waters. Verse sixteen is important, I heard in my heart, pounded my lips, quivered at the sound, decay crept into my bones and my legs trembled. So, if you go back to verse two. Remember Habakkuk states, I have heard of your fame, I have heard of your deeds, much like the Israelites had often heard of God delivering his people from the land of Egypt.
Notice earlier I said that poetry was supposed to affect the whole man, the whole person, not simply an intellectual assent. Well, look at Habakkuk hearing this language about who God is and what he’s done. Look at how he is affected.
In verse sixteen, I heard about these things essentially, and my heart pounded my lips quivered at the sound, decay crept in my bones and my legs trembled. Habakkuk is a perfect example himself of him hearing about the almighty God and the power of God, using poetic language to describe what he’s truly done and who he truly is. I wonder when we hear about God’s glory when we hear about his mighty acts in the Old and New Testament as we experience him as Christians.
Do we sometimes miss this kind of reality? Do we miss God’s glory? Do we ever have a reaction quite like her backpack’s? Habakkuk is simply affected by this reality and the description of God and what I wanted to end with for this section is the latter part of three in terms of God using poetry. It all turns out the second half of verse sixteen. So, Habakkuk is hearing about remembering God’s mighty works in the past. And before that, he just cannot believe it.
What is going to happen to his nation, his people through an eviler nation? Yet here’s what he says at the end of sixteen, yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us, though the fig tree does not bud.
And there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails, and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls yet. I will rejoice in the Lord. I’ll be joyful in God, my Savior.
What’s fascinating to me about this, again, is if it were me in his position and I were trying to speak about my hope still in the Lord, I would probably just write, “Nothing’s going well. There’s nothing good happening here.”
But Habakkuk uses language that would have been absolutely understandable in the context of the ancient Israelites saying the fig tree doesn’t bud. No grapes in the vines, the olive crop is failing the fields, producing no food, there are no sheep in the pen, there’s nothing going right. We have no substance. We have no food. We have no ability to make any money. We don’t even have cattle. Everything is shot. And they would have understood that by him saying that.
Yet he says, I rejoice in the Lord, and then in verse nineteen, the sovereign Lord is my strength. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer. He enables me to tread on the heights. And a deer in many ways to us might be maybe Christmas tones, I don’t know. But in that day, that meant a strong animal with stable feet, essentially.
And so, his faith, specifically the Lord himself is strong and able to make him that way. The reason I went through Habakkuk is I think there are some solid and good poetic examples for us to take. And the main thing to take from it is there’s so much going on here. There are so many wonderful realities about God, and Habakkuk could have simply said, God is glorious, he’s a warrior, he controls the universe, things aren’t going well, but we trust him. But instead of that.
To communicate with the people of that day Habakkuk more clearly he used appealing language, poetry.
There’s an application to us and the peaks and valleys of life. The day of prosperity rejoice in the day of adversity, remember, the Lord has made the one as well as the other, it’s Ecclesiastes seven. Something that is a compliment company idea really gets it that well.
Now we come to Psalm 23. But before we read this passage, I want to read 1 Samuel 17:32.
David was a shepherd and as you read Psalm 23 you need to think of his experience as a shepherd, his intimate knowledge here. Context really helps us here, knowing what David knew.
The first thing we know about the Lord being a shepherd is David says, I shall not want, or in other words, I lack nothing. I shall not want. And I’m just going to ask the question. How do you not lack anything? What does that even mean? As good Bible students, we know not to look up here, over there for answers, but look to God’s revealed word.
Often the answer to what we need is in the text. How in the world does he lack nothing? Well, here’s what my shepherd does. God being shepherd makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside. Still waters. One thing important to think about here, going back to context, is if you look at David’s experience as a shepherd. Though he was describing maybe the worst of the worst of his experiences or the best of the best, depending on how you think about it, but David was, you know, a shepherd wasn’t some guy just sleeping in a meadow.
In other words, David as a shepherd was very active and very protective. And he led his sheep and he cared for them and he protected from wolves. And so just thinking about God as a shepherd, He’s acting. The Lord is the one acting here, He is the one leading makes me lie down, leads me. The Lord, in other words, is not a passive God, but He is the sovereign God who is manipulating and moving circumstances for His glory. He protects and loves His people, as we see here, just something to think about.
David and other biblical poets use language that their hearers can understand to appeal to them and to hammer these things home, to affect them, to lead them to worship of the highest God. And so, for us, I, I kind of understand what’s going on here somewhat.
But apart from a little bit of study, I probably don’t have as much of an innate understanding as they would have. Hearing about a green pasture and still waters, it’s like that looks like a painting that would be in some art museum.
But some of these are consistent ideas in terms of sheep. They eat leafy greens and grass. So, this was life. Still waters, sheep are very easily scared from what I know. Still waters again. Like nourishment. Like clean drinking water. God is providing nourishment and rest.
How do I even lack nothing? Well, because my shepherd does what a shepherd is supposed to do, and He does it perfectly. He gives me life and leads me to what I need to live.
Your mind may go to Psalm 19, which talks about the word of God, the law of the Lord, restoring our soul. This is a consistent contextual biblical idea that wasn’t just alien to readers, but in fact, was a very part of what they knew about who God was and how he uses his word. What do we learn about God overall by using this figurative language about a shepherd? Obviously not the literal language, which is sort of natural for us to already know that.
But something important about an interpretation is we don’t say God is a literal shepherd, just like He’s not a literal door. Christ isn’t literal bread.
God is the provider. He Is good. He’s trustworthy. This imagery David uses of Shepherd, the Lord is my shepherd, and thinking about David’s experience as a shepherd as well. He’s getting at something about God. He’s getting to the deeper and truer eternal reality about our wonderful God that is just like a good shepherd, the Lord Yahweh, the great I am, is a provider who provides for His people.
He is good. He is trustworthy. God created us for his namesake. God is always pointing us at the point of our salvation, the point of us living for Christ is to bring glory to God and even his faithful acts out of love for us are still to the glory of his own name.
Very interesting here, just from an observation standpoint, moving from four from three to four is that there’s somewhat of a shift in point of view. One through three, the Lord is my shepherd. Now David says even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil. It’s as if he shifts and turns and says for you, Lord are with me. Your rod and staff, they comfort me something. To be honest, I hadn’t really noticed much before hearing this psalm.
But in many ways, it’s almost as if this psalm gets more personal as it progresses. And perhaps that’s because the circumstances he describes are direr as he goes on. There really is a shift. Your picture in verse two, three green pastures. And then even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod, and your staff.
They comfort me. The Valley of the shadow of death and some translations would say Darkest Valley. You can see the symbolic description of his circumstances.
God’s people would have known that when they hear about a rod and a staff, that would have immediately told them something about how great God was. They comfort me. Interesting to know that what God does is comforting. I think these connect.
Going down to five. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.
I guess more down to human terms, you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. All these realities would have been examples.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of our enemy, anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. That is so interesting. It’s hard for us to get our heads around this because we don’t use language like this, you prepare a table before me in my head with oil, my cup overflows. This is a bountiful blessing. God is giving David a lot here in the presence of his enemies.
Those two ideas, him being surrounded by people that wanted to kill him basically and just be giving be given by God, this lavishness, this awesome lifestyle of blessing and protection, our complete opposite ends of the spectrum.
That’s what David was really getting at here, the wonderful protection and grand blessing of who God is as his protector. He says, “I’ve got enemies all around me, and you’re still giving me everything I could ever want.” That’s fascinating. That says something about who God is. And one more thing I mentioned earlier about context. I’m not sure exactly when this song was written. I’m not sure scholars know the timing exactly. But it was, I believe, in David’s kingly reign.
And if you know anything about the life of David as revealed in Scripture, he didn’t have an easy time. He had enemies all around him profoundly, so he had a best friend, Jonathan. Oh, but it turns out Jonathan’s father wanted to kill him on multiple occasions. That would be a tough one. His own son, Absalom, wanted to kill him. He’s constantly on the run. Plenty of enemies. So, David, writing about a shepherd earlier, writing about enemies, was well acquainted with these realities. So, when David was writing about enemies he wasn’t writing about, they put nasty Facebook posts.
He was writing about. They throw spears on my head like every two seconds.
Something to really think about and dig into. Here is the unimaginable distance between these ideas. God preparing a table for me. And yet I have people that always want to kill me and hate my guts, and everything seems bleak. And how in the world am I supposed to be God’s chosen king when everything seems to completely go wrong every time it starts to go right? Really important stuff here and he ends here. With all these realities about God, good, he’s trustworthy.
He provides, he protects, he gives the amazing blessings. Six, surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord. The next forever. It in some ways reminds me of us looking earlier. At Habakkuk. Habakkuk ends on a hopeful, prayerful note, the same can be said of David and Psalm twenty-three. So those were some examples not of biblical poetry. I hope some of the principles of interpretation and observation shined through obviously us using this digital form is simply meant to be a way of looking at the text, seeking to observe and glean truth about who God is.
- Why is it important that the Bible has literature that addresses the mind through the heart?
- What can we do as Bible readers to avoid being overly literal with poetry and not spiritualizing the poetic language?
- How can you apply the principles of observation, interpretation, and application when reading Biblical poetry?
- How have the poetic sections of Scripture been an encouragement to you?