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Interpreting Old Testament Poetry

As with any text in the Old Testament, the interpretation of poetry involves making the Old Testament Interpretative Journey. You haven’t forgotten the steps of the Journey, have you? Let’s apply them to a representative Old Testament poetic text, Psalm 116:1–4.

Step 1: Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the biblical audience?

Our first step is to ask what the text meant to the biblical audience. We begin with a close reading of the passage. Remember what you learned eariler in the course. Don’t forget how to read carefully and make observations! As part of your close observation in Psalm 116:1–4, identify each parallelism in the passage as we discussed earlier in this unit (synonymous, developmental, illustrative, contrastive, formal). Combine the parallel passages into thoughts or images and then study the passage thought by thought. As described earlier in this unit, this will often involve reading two lines as one thought rather than reading one line at a time or reading one sentence at a time.

The opening verses of Psalm 116 can be divided into the following basic thoughts, based on parallelism:

Thought 1
I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy.
Thought 2
Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live.
Thought 3
The cords of death entangled me,
the anguish of the grave came over me;
I was overcome by distress and sorrow.
Thought 4
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
“Lord, save me!”

Next, locate and visualize each figure of speech. First, try to visualize the image. For example, explore the image in thought 2 of Psalm 116 above (“Because he turned his ear to me”). People will often tilt their head or turn their head toward the source of a sound in order to hear well. Can you visualize the psalmist crying out to God, who, in response, turns his head to listen carefully? What about thought 3? We see ropes coming up out of an open grave wrapping around the psalmist’s legs and pulling him down into the grave.

Then be sure to enter into the emotional world of the image. Feel the comfort the psalmist has when he sees God turn his head to listen to him. Imagine the nightmare conveyed by the cords of death image! Ropes are wrapped around you and are pulling you down into a creepy, shadowy, open grave. You fall into the grave and scream for help! Death has a hold on you, but God hears your cry and reaches down to pull you out. This could come right out of a Stephen King movie!

As your heartbeat slows back down, try to identify each figure of speech based on the categories listed earlier in this unit (simile, metaphor, indirect analogy, hyperbole, personification, anthropomorphism, zoomorphism, substitution, representation, apostrophe, and irony). Remember that many figures of speech fall into more than one category. Referring to God’s ear is an anthropomorphism. However, the figure of God’s turning his ear is also a substitution. The turning of God’s ear (cause) leads to his action of deliverance (effect), and it is God’s delivering action to which the psalmist really points.

Now we are ready to summarize what the text meant for the biblical audience. Keep in mind that these figures of speech were figures of speech for the ancient readers as well. Don’t try to make the images literal for them but figurative for us. The writer of Psalm 116 was not being pulled down into a grave by cords literally. We could grasp the text of Psalm 116:1–4 in their town by summarizing as follows:

The writer is facing an immediate, scary, difficult situation. He may even be close to death itself. He calls out to God, who listens to him and then delivers him from the situation. Because of this, he expresses his love for God.

Step 2: Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?

Of course, one of the central differences to remember always when crossing the river from the Old Testament is that we as New Testament believers are under a different covenant. While this is not a critical difference for the message of Psalm 116, it is always a factor to keep in mind. What other differences are there? We may not be in as frightening or difficult a situation as the psalmist was. (Yet some of us probably are.) We may not be facing imminent death.

Another important difference is that the Old Testament focuses on a different view of death than the New Testament does. There is little in the Old Testament about the afterlife (resurrection and heaven). The Old Testament doctrine on death is vague and shadowy. The assurance of eternal life is a doctrine that blossomed after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Step 3: Cross the principlizing bridge. What is the theological principle in this text?

Remember the criteria for developing theological principles:

  • The principle should be reflected in the text.
  • The principle should be timeless and not tied to a specific situation.
  • The principle should not be culturally bound.
  • The principle should correspond to the teaching of the rest of Scripture.
  • The prinicple should be relevant to both the biblical and the contemporary audiences.

A theological principle that can be seen in Psalm 116:1–4 is that God’s people should express their love to God when he hears them and delivers them from difficult and frightening situations such as death.

Step 4: Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible? Does the New Testament teaching modify or qualify this principle, and if so, how?

The New Testament reaffirms the principle that we should express our love to God for having delivered us from difficult situations. In addition, the New Testament has much to say about our deliverance from death (and sin). First Corinthians 15 discusses this at length, explaining how God through Jesus has given us victory over death. We are promised resurrection and given eternal life. Those without Christ are staring death in the face and the “cords of death” do indeed pull them in. We also were in this predicament before we came to Christ, but God heard our cry and delivered us.

Note, however, that neither the New Testament nor the Old Testament teaches that God always intervenes to save us from all difficult, physical situations. God’s people suffer and die physically throughout the Bible. Christians still get cancer and die. Car accidents still occur. For Christians, however, death never really wins. The cords never really get us in the grave. Christ has defeated the power of death, and he gives us victory over death.

Step 5: Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians live out this modified theological principle?

Applications vary, depending on our situation. For Christians actually facing death, this text should give assurance that God will deliver us from the power of death through resurrection and eternal life. Such Christians should express their love to God for such deliverance. The rest of us should likewise express our love to God for saving us from eternal death. We should also remember the times when he responded and delivered us from other difficult situations. We should express our love to him for hearing us and delivering us from those situations.


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