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Introduction

Lord, our Lord,
How majestic is your name in all the earth! (Ps. 8:1)

Over one third of the Bible is comprised of poetry. The books of Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Lamentations are almost entirely poetic. Furthermore, the prophetic books also embody poetry as a major literary feature. Indeed, practically every Old Testament book has some poetry in it. Even many narrative texts have poems embedded in them. Because poetry comprises such a large portion of the Old Testament, it is important that we learn how to read and interpret it. We hope that you learn how to enjoy it as well!

Some of the most beautiful and beloved passages in the Bible are found in the poetic sections of the Old Testament. Christians throughout the ages have turned to Psalms, for example, for encouragement in difficult times, and their spirits have been lifted and their hearts refreshed by the colorful and powerful poetry of the Psalter. Believers have soared on the wings of eagles with Isaiah, and they have viewed the tragic, heartrending devastation of Jerusalem with Jeremiah. Indeed, the poetry of the Old Testament has a way of resonating within us—it can reach right down inside and vibrate within our souls, speaking to us quietly but powerfully. This phenomenon is universal. Regardless of age, education, or culture, Christians around the world cherish Old Testament poetry, especially the Psalms.

Shortly after Danny arrived as a missionary in southern Ethiopia, a new translation of the New Testament was introduced into the area where he worked. But the Christians in the area bought few copies of the new translation, and the translators, who had worked hard on the project, were disappointed. However, the missionaries continued their translation project by translating the book of Psalms next. After a few years they printed a special edition of the new translation, one that contained the New Testament and Psalms. This edition sold like hotcakes.

Why? What is it in the Psalms (and other Old Testament poetry) that attracts us? Why do you enjoy Psalms? Is it because this book leads you into a deeper worship of God? Is it the wonderful imagery and powerful figures of speech? Perhaps it is because the psalms have a way of connecting to real-life situations and of reflecting a refreshing honesty that we in real-life situations can relate to. In many contemporary pious Christian circles, believers are discouraged from expressing doubt, despair, or pain in public. Apparently, the assumption is that such emotions are reflective of immature faith. The psalmists, by contrast, do not hesitate from expressing a wide variety of emotions. They come right out and express what bothers them.

The psalmist in Psalm 88:14, for example, feels free to cry out, “Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” If you stood up in church and prayed that verse as a prayer, we suspect your church would not call on you to pray anymore! Such declarations simply are not accepted in many Christian circles, and this leaves us without any biblical way to deal with despair.

The Christian church today sometimes tends to minimize the emotional dimension of the Christian’s spiritual life. We believe this stunts the believer’s growth as badly as minimizing the intellectual dimension does. The poetry of the Old Testament actually focuseson our emotional response to God as well as on our emotional response to those who are hostile to God and his people. The poetry of the Old Testament connects with us down deep, both in joy and in despair. It resounds in our hearts and stirs us spiritually and emotionally. We should not minimize it. Instead, we should drink deeply of it.

In this unit we will explore the nature of Old Testament poetry. We will discuss how and why it affects us so powerfully. We will delve into some of the mechanics and features of Old Testament poetry in an attempt to gain an appreciation of the artistry employed by these poets. We hope this study will help you see and appreciate the poetry in the Old Testament even more than you do now. We will also explore issues of interpretation and application in order to give you some guidelines for reading and grasping God’s poetic word in the Old Testament.


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