Modern poetry can be difficult to understand. It’s even more challenging to understand ancient near eastern poetry. Regardless, it is important to better understand biblical poetry since it makes up about one third of the Bible.
Biblical poetry is very compact, seeking to express truth, feelings, and experiences using rich imagery. It was written with imagination and feeling and needs to be read the same way, without wooden literalism. Interpreting the Bible literally means reading the Bible according to the intent of its authors and the literary conventions of the particular style being used. We do not read poetry the same way we read historical narrative because poetry uses imagery that often serves as a figurative depiction of reality. Historical narrative tends to give us the bare facts and the orderly account of what exactly happened.
Unlike poetry where rhyming words and metre are used, Hebrew poetry is thought-based and structured by balanced parallelism, word plays, and sound plays.
Understanding parallelism is the most significant thing to help us understand biblical poetry. What parallelism means is that the first line in a couplet is directly related to the next line and must be read in that relationship to be understood. The meaning of the passage is not just in the lines themselves but in the tension created between the two lines. It’s like creating a perception of depth by seeing a truth through both eyes. Both lines must be taken together to see the whole and greater thought.
There are several kinds of parallelism to look for.
Complete the same thought in different words. “O Lord, I have so many enemies; so many are against me” (Psalm 3:1). When interpreting this verse, think of the meaning as a single statement.
Contrast the first line by lines expressing opposite thoughts stating the positive and negative. “For the Lord watches over the path of the godly, but the path of the wicked leads to destruction” (Psalm 1:6). The thought of the first line is expanded by the contrast of the second line.
Develop the thought in the next two or three lines and interpret it much like prose. “You brought us from Egypt like a grapevine; you drove away the pagan nations and transplanted us into your land” (Psalm 80:8).
A pattern expressing the message in a descending and ascending order with the main point found in the middle of the pattern. “O God, do not be silent! Do not be deaf. Do not be quiet, O God” (Psalm 83:1). Pattern: A-B-C-B-A
Here are a few basic guidelines to interpreting biblical poetry.
Look for the central theme of the poem as indicated by structures such as parallelism, and groupings of stanzas, repetition of words, phrases, and refrains. Compare modern translations for helpful insights to understanding words and phrases.
Identify the type of parallelism used since it will define the relationship of one line to the next, the complete thought being expressed, and therefore its meaning.
Summarize the main idea of each stanza in relation to the general theme.
Identify the figures of speech and interpret them according to corresponding principles. In other words interpret hyperbole as exaggeration and simile as comparison. Consider all extreme, harsh, or violent language in light of the fact that poetry uses such language and prose does not. Since poetry is compact you will have to fill in the thought-gaps from other more clear Scriptures to interpret it.
Relate the poems to their historical setting as well as their place in chapters and books because context helps determine meaning.
Biblical poetry may at first seem repetitive, but it forces us to engage both heart and head. Read it slowly. Imagine the experience from different angles. Feel what the poet felt.