How to Read Poetry

Much of the Old Testament was written as poetry. This includes pieces of the historical books (songs that were sung), many books of prophecy, and the books that are generally known as books of Poetry (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon). To understand what is being said, we must know something about poetry.

Let us begin with the purpose of poetry. Poetry allows the writer to communicate his inner feelings in an emotional but understandable way. Often poetry is sung. That was the purpose of the Psalms. Singing helps us to memorize writings. Even with simply reading poetry, it is easier to memorize than the same thing written in prose. This was very useful to people who had little access to the written word. They could still remember what the Scriptures said about different subjects. Even today, when people can quote long passages of Scripture, most of the time it will be from a poetic passage.

Poetry in the Bible helps us in several ways. It gives us information about God and His dealings with man — just like the rest of the Bible. Poetry arouses our emotions which helps us to internalize the message. Biblical poetry shows us a proper way of expressing our emotions to God. And much of the poetry gives us practical wisdom for our lives.

There are some common methods of expression that are common to poetry. When I think of poetry, the first thing I think of is rhyming. That is not how Hebrew poetry was written, however. In Hebrew poetry, the writers used similar statements that almost repeated themselves, but built on each other. The kings of the earth form a united front; the rulers collaborate against the LORD and his anointed king. (Psalm 2:2, NET)

The most often overlooked, fundamental idea in poetry is the imagery that is used.

As an example, look at Isaiah 65:17-25. This passage is commonly misunderstood by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and others because they fail take the poetry into account. They believe that God will literally create a new earth and the lions will really eat straw and the wolf and the lamb will really lie down together. The message of the passage is that God is going to create a peaceful place — in His holy mountain. This prophecy has been fulfilled in the church. We must recognize when the writer is using poetry to get a picture into our minds.

Another example is in Psalm 3. Did God really come down and slap David’s enemies so that their teeth fell out (verse 7)? No. But David’s enemies were saying that God would not save him (verse 1-2). God made them shut their mouths by saving David (verse 8)! Slapping them and shattering their teeth was just a poetic picture of what God did and gets the emotion of it into our minds.

When you are reading poetry, make sure that you understand the context in which each statement is made. Understand the main idea the author is trying to get across. When you read a piece of poetry, think about the emotion it invokes within you. Poetry is a very powerful tool for communicating emotions and God used it. We need to understand it and read it the way God meant for us to read it.