Poetry in the BibleUltimate Questions
The Bible is a book of many books. Each of those books has a genre that frames it and gives it context. Today, Jon teaches a crash course on literary genres of the Bible and why they are important to know. Produced by Laura Saad and Tiffany Lou-Hing Sound & Editing by Laura Saad Check us out at @p2cspods on Instagram
Hello, I’m Jon Topping, and welcome to the Ultimate Questions podcast.
During these past few episodes we’ve been looking at how to read the Bible, and currently we’re looking at how to study the literary context, by learning about the various genres in the Bible. For this episode, we’ll be evaluating the more poetic genres in the Bible, like parables, prophecy, psalms, and apocalypse.
In apologetics, there’s something that happens quite often when dealing with people trying to criticize the Bible. The person will grab a hold of some verse, rip it out of its context, not even try to understand even what genre the passage or book is, and then they’ll apply their own interpretation to it (often without realizing that this is what they’re doing), and then they’ll say that the verse is silly, or goes against science, or contradicts another Bible verse.
For example, I was on an atheist webpage the other day, and the author tried to show how there is a contradiction in the Bible, because there are passages that say that God dwells in light, but then in Psalm 97:1-2 it says that clouds and darkness are round about God. So the contradiction would be that the Bible says God dwells in light, but then also says darkness is all around Him. The problem here is that there is no attempt at understanding the genre. This is treating Scripture as though every single verse in the entire Bible is a completely scientific and objective statement about reality, and that nothing is ever poetic at all. This is just a very uninformed way to go about reading the Bible. In this passage, we can easily tell that it’s poetry, because it’s the book of Psalms, which is an entire book of poems and songs. It’s speaking with metaphor and imagery, simply to worship God and talk about how awesome He is. In the verses following this one, it speaks of how fire shoots out from God, that lighting sparks out, and the earth trembles, and that mountains melt like wax before God. Imagine our atheist website friend trying to argue “well there’s no way that mountains could melt like wax!”. Yeah, I know, that’s not the point. Appreciating the genre of what you’re reading is crucial to understanding the text.
The first poetic genre in the Bible I’ll mention is the parable. These were the moments that Jesus told a story to convey some deeper ethical or theological point. When we read these parables, we understand that they are not historical narratives, in that, Jesus wasn’t trying to say these were literal events that took place. So when Jesus tells the parable of the ten virgins, found in Matthew 25, we obviously understand that He’s telling a fictional story with a deeper purpose behind it, to help the audience understand a truth in a different way. In this story, five virgins forget their oil for their lamps, so by the time they get to the wedding feast, it’s dark, and the doors are locked. They try to get in, but the groom won’t let them in. Now, when reading this story the audience knows there weren’t ten literal virgins that lived, and five of them weren’t allowed to go to the wedding because they forgot to get oil. A skeptic could look at this story and say, “clearly the groom would recognize their voices and let them in!” Well yes, but that’s not the point. This isn’t a literal event, because the genre isn’t historical narrative. Jesus was telling a parable, and so the audience immediately tries to understand the deeper point, rather than focusing on the little details of the story. For this story, Jesus’ point was that we should be prepared for the Day of Judgment. Recognizing the genre in these moments is crucial, because ripping some verse out of context from a parable and treating it as something else, like historical narrative, drastically changes how we would apply it. Parables are pretty well always quite obvious, because Jesus will be preaching, and then begin telling a story, where He clearly wants the audience to grab some moral truth out of it, so it is usually very easy to tell when the genre is switching to parable. Additionally, within parables, names aren’t typically used, because they aren’t real individuals, so we can tell these characters are just poetic devices to make the deeper point of the story.
A second poetic genre in the Bible is called “wisdom literature”. The best example of this is the book of Proverbs, where we have a bunch of pieces of practical advice, or wisdom. A good example is one most people know, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another”, which is Proverbs 27:17, or one of my personal favorites from Proverbs 18:2, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing their opinion”. These examples of wisdom literature are quick little sayings, that give some sort of ethical guidance, or advice for life. Ecclesiastes is also understood as wisdom literature, and then Job and Song of Songs are also understood as wisdom at times. Wisdom literature is when the author is waxing philosophical. Proverbs is giving practical advice in attempting to live the good life. Ecclesiastes, in many ways, is the existential crisis of King Solomon. Again, when reading these areas of Scripture, it’s incredibly important to recognize the genre, because failing to do so can be disastrous. I’ve previously mentioned the Proverb about raising up your children, which works as a good example. If someone treats that passage as a promise, they can get depressed, blaming themselves for their kids leaving the faith, where if you understand that it’s a piece of wisdom literature, or a Proverb, you can tell that it’s a helpful piece of advice, that is generally true. Another good example of how important this distinction is comes from Ecclesiastes. Suppose for a moment you ripped the opening of Ecclesiastes out of its context, and didn’t even attempt to appreciate the genre. In this passage, Solomon writes about how everything in life is vanity, and how everyone works so hard toiling in the heat of the sun, growing weary, and how it all becomes nothing. Basically, life is pointless. He even goes on to say that wisdom is not only useless, but that wisdom will actually increase your sorrow. Now, if you were to rip that out of context, you would think the Bible teaches that wisdom is actually a bad thing! You would also feel like the Bible, and thus God, is telling us that life is pointless. That’s obviously not the correct application to come to here. If you think that sounds farfetched, I have read atheists you actually make this argument, because they haven’t bothered to try and appreciate where in the Bible these verses are found. In fact, if you ever look at a sheet that presents loads of contradictions in the Bible, a great deal of them will come from a poetic genre misunderstanding, with wisdom literature being quite common, and even the book of Ecclesiastes being one of the most common “contradictions” found in the Bible. The problem is that, if you treat the philosophical rambling of a man going through an existential crisis as being a scientific and objective view of the world, obviously you are not going to apply the passage properly.
Another poetic type of genre is the Psalms. These were explicitly poetic, where they are quite literally poems, and many times meant to be put to music. The Psalms are mostly songs written by king David, although not all of them are. They are filled with imagery, analogies, and deeply personal feelings. I’ve seen many cases where people will be debating some theological issue, and someone will use a verse from Psalms to try and make some theological point. This can be quite problematic, because the Psalms were never intended to be theological treatises. Again, we need to take a step back, and appreciate the point of the genre. As I’ve mentioned many times now, our goal is to understand the original intent of the author, and how the original audience would have understood the passages we study. While songs about God are going to obviously be theological, that doesn’t mean they’re meant as teaching moments. Also, their highly poetic and allegorical natures mean that, quite often, the exact wording of the passage is not meant to be taken perfectly literally. In many cases, the Psalms are the writers expressing their feelings, so obviously it would be inappropriate to take the emotional expression of a person during a difficult time in their life, and try to force it to be a theological teaching moment. A good example of this is Psalm 109. This passage is famous because it’s so aggressive. The writer of this Psalm was basically asking God to curse his enemies with death and destruction. This passage isn’t teaching us to hate people who do wrong to us, in fact, that would directly contradict the teaching of Jesus, that we should love our enemies. Psalms, more than probably any other area of the Bible, need to be appreciated for just how human they are, with them including a great deal of the personal struggle, suffering, and emotions of the writers.
This concept of poetry as an aspect of genre can be very helpful, not just in the explicitly poetic books of the Bible like Psalms and Ecclesiastes, but also in the various books of the Bible that will include a poetic moment to explain some point. As an example of how appreciating the genre of poetry can be helpful, I’ll give you a popular example among atheists, and sadly a handful of Christians as well. Some will try and argue that the Bible teaches the earth is flat. This is because there are a few verses that refer to the “circle of the earth”. Again, we need to try and understand what the passage is conveying. So let’s look at a specific example, found in Isaiah 40:22, where it reads, “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;” The purpose of this passage is not to comment on the geometry of the planet; the purpose is to glorify God, talking about how awesome He is, and it just happens to refer to the earth. We recognize this sort of thing as being poetic, even just by a quick glance at how it’s written, since it’s using metaphors, saying the inhabitants of the earth are like grasshoppers. To treat this as literal would be like us taking the concept of a “sunrise” literally. Do we really believe the sun rises? After all, we know the earth rotates on its axis, which is what gives us the impression of the sun rising. So when we refer to the sunrise, are we making a scientific statement about the spatial relationship between the sun and earth? No, that’s not the point, and to interpret everything in such a rigid and objective way will end up killing a lot of the real meaning of the text. In this way, recognizing poetic devices when we read can be quite helpful in trying to return to the original intent behind what was written.
The last two genres we’ll deal with in this episode are quite difficult; prophecy and apocalypse. As I go into these, you should be aware that there’s a lot of debate in these genres, and tons of disagreement about how to accurately interpret these sorts of passages and books of the Bible. In fact, I’m quite tempted to do an entire series of episodes of the podcast just on these genres, but I’ll deny myself that pleasure, at least for now. The reason I bring this up is to help you appreciate the difficulty of these genres, which means that, even more so, we should try and recognize when a passage is prophetic or apocalyptic in nature, while also recognizing the controversial aspects of such passages, so that we can be even more careful when trying to interpret them. We won’t be able to go into much detail on this as I’d like to, but it’s good to at least be aware of some of these things.
For prophecy, the important thing is to learn about what that specific prophet’s purpose was. The genre of prophecy is mostly found in the Old Testament, with the last large group of books all being what’s referred to as the “major” prophets, and then the “minor” prophets. The terms “major” and “minor” just refer to the length of the books. Then we also find random bits of the genre of prophecy in various books of the Bible. Prophecy is a little bit tricky to define, but the very broad definition would be, “a word from God”. Many people have the understanding of prophecy that it’s telling the future, and in a sense that’s right, but in a sense it’s wrong. Prophecy definitely does include telling the future, but it also includes God rebuking sin, warning against calamity if people fail to repent, and conviction of wrongdoing. So for example, the prophet Jeremiah wrote two books in the Old Testament, the book of Jeremiah, and then Lamentations. Now we won’t go into Lamentations here, because it’s a bit of an odd duck when it comes to genre, because it involves aspects of a funeral dirge. For our sake in discussing prophecy, Jeremiah was a prophet, because God spoke to him, and told him to tell other people things, so he was essentially God’s mouthpiece, which is what a prophet is. Jeremiah’s main purpose, or rather, God’s purpose when speaking through Jeremiah, was to convict the people of Israel of their sin, and warn them of the punishment of exile that they would face if they didn’t repent, and turn from their wicked ways. They did not repent, in fact, they even hated Jeremiah, so then they went into the Babylonian exile. While there is a lot of future telling, where God tells His people that He’s going to punish them, but then restore them, a lot of the focus is on Israel’s relationship with God. Yes, it’s prophecy in the sense of predicting the future, but the more important aspect of the prophecies are the warnings against wickedness, the threat of punishment, and the wish for renewed relationship. This is a great deal of what prophecy is. Even if a prophet never tells the future, and instead, just speaks to people on behalf of God, trying to convict them of their sin, and lead them to repentance, that would still be considered prophecy. So with that in mind, the important thing to understand prophecy is first of all to grasp the correct idea of what it means to be a prophet in the Bible, and then secondly, to understand the role of that specific prophet. In our case of Jeremiah, his goal was to convict Israel of their backsliding, and warn them of the punishment awaiting them if they didn’t repent. It’s also very helpful if you do a little bit of historical research first, to grasp the context of when the prophet wrote, so that you can appreciate what’s being written even more. Coming to the text with that information can greatly aid you in properly interpreting prophecy.
The last genre we’ll go into in this episode of the podcast is apocalypse. Now like prophecy, it uses a lot of strange symbols and imagery, and can be difficult to read. The obvious case of apocalyptic genre in the Bible is the book of Revelation. However, there are other books that follow this genre, with the other biblical example being the second half of Daniel. There are also quite a few non-biblical ancient books, written around the time of the New Testament, that follow the genre of apocalypse. There is actually a field of study where people look at specifically Jewish apocalyptic literature. For those familiar with the Bible, perhaps growing up in church, it might seem weird that I’m saying apocalypse is an entirely different genre, when you would probably just call things like Revelation and the second half of Daniel “prophecy”. There’s good reason to have apocalypse as a separate genre, though. A text is apocalyptic when it’s a revelation given to someone, like John or Daniel, and it’s given to them by an angel (or something similar). The angel brings a message about something beyond our realm, like heaven or hell. Also, it typically has a heavy eschatological focus. Eschatology is just a big fancy word for the study of “end things”. Eschatology focuses on things like death, the afterlife, the end of the world, the judgment of all humans, et cetera. It’s also important to note that, in many cases, apocalypses use incredibly vivid, allegorical, and even abstract language to reflect the current crisis the people during the time of the author were going through. The apocalypse then brings hope to the readers, giving them assurance that their religious convictions will save them.
Now even though I tried to simplify that, I know it’s still a bit confusing. If you’ve ever tried to read the books of Daniel or Revelation, you were probably quite confused during the process. Apocalypse is a very difficult genre to study. It takes learning about the historical context the book was written in, but in a different way. Yes, you need to learn the historical context in order to understand the crisis the author’s culture was in, in order to see how the different pieces of imagery line up in the text, but even more difficult, you need to understand the context in order to appreciate the allegories and metaphors being used. As an example of this, it’s a common ancient theme that beasts and monsters come out of the sea. This is because, in ancient times, not only was the sea dreadfully dangerous as a means of travel, but there was also a lot of superstition revolving around the sea being a place where the monsters live. I will grant the ancients this, there are some pretty terrifying things in the ocean, so I can definitely understand why this sort of belief would come about. So when we read, for example, in Revelation 13, how it describes the great beast, where does it come from? It comes from out of the sea. So understanding how the ancients viewed the sea can help you a bit here to appreciate the imagery being used.
The difficult aspect to apocalyptic literature is in the imagery. Even just in this podcast, even though I’ve tried to be a bit vague on where I stand on the different interpretations of Daniel and Revelation, I will probably upset some people, because they have a different interpretation. The real difficulty is that the genre is caught up in so much imagery and metaphor, while at the same time trying to describe both transcendent heavenly realities, while also describing earthly historical situations, that it just becomes very difficult to piece it all together, especially if you’re new to the realm of Bible study. I do still recommend reading these parts of the Bible, because they are still God’s Word, and offer incredibly rich and important truths. So I want to go over one of the pieces of imagery used, which is largely agreed upon, so that we can see how an apocalypse plays out in terms of interpretation. In the book of Daniel, we read of a vision Daniel had of four great beasts. The first was a lion with wings, the second was a lopsided bear, the third was a leopard with four wings and four heads, and the fourth beast was terrifying, powerful, had iron teeth, and ten horns. Then lastly, we see one like a Son of Man coming with glory and sovereign power, and everyone worships Him, and His reign lasts forever. If you were just to sit down and try to make up an explanation, you might get that the last part is about Jesus, but for the beasts, you’d probably be wrong. So how do we go about understanding this? Firstly, we need to look at the surrounding areas of these passages, which we’ll talk more about in the next episode of the podcast, but for now, if you continue reading the second half of that chapter, you’ll see an aspect of interpretation. While it doesn’t explain all the imagery involved, it does explain that these four beasts represent four kings, or world governments. These beasts are definitely not literal, where there will be an actual four winged leopard running around at some point in history. If you study world history, you can piece together a bit of a timeline, and see how the different world powers fit into this story, and see how the different aspects of the imagery fit in as well. We had Babylon, then the Medes and Persians (which were considered one power by the ancient Israelites), then the Greeks, then the Roman Empire. So each of those beasts corresponds to one of these political powers. When grasping the imagery involved, it does get speculative, so it’s good to get different opinions and their reasons for their views, but I do think in many cases we can arrive at good answers. For example, why was the bear lopsided? One of its halves was stronger than the other half, which is what we find with the Medes and the Persians; the Persians were stronger. Next, if the third beast is the Greeks, we see the imagery used is that of a leopard with four wings. The leopard is a very fast animal, and wings typically denote swiftness, so have two pairs of wings would show an extra fast type of speed. Considering this is referring to Alexander the Great and his Greek Empire, it’s interesting to note that Alexander took over the world extremely quickly. He was only 20 years old, and speedily expanded the Greek Empire, which is why his beast is depicted this way.
As an interesting side note on this topic, even though this imagery of beasts is confusing at first glance, the book of Daniel is so specific in some of its prophecies, that non-religious theologians refuse to date the book according to when the book itself, and Jewish history, claims the book was written. The reason is because Daniel was apparently making prophecies about future events, and his descriptions are so accurate, that it’s obviously describing the way things actually turned out. Because of this, in order for a non-religious person to make sense of it, they have to say that this book must have been written after all the events have already happened. For example, the leopard had four heads. In apocalyptic literature, heads typically denote rulers. While Alexander was the ruler of the Greeks, when he died, his empire was split between his four generals, which is why the leopard had four heads. In fact, it’s so explicit in what it’s referring to, that apparently when Alexander the Great was still alive, he met with an Israelite high priest, went to the temple, and even offered a sacrifice to God. During this time, he was shown the book of Daniel, and saw this leopard beast as defeating the second power, which were the Persians, and he interpreted this passage to be referring to himself! Which ended up being true.
It’s quite difficult for me to give you advice on how to move forward in interpretation of difficult passages of prophecy and apocalyptic genres, but there is one piece of advice I have. Basically every time you see these difficult portions, the interpretation of each person seems largely based on their presuppositions. All of us bring our biases and previous opinions to the table, no matter how hard we try not to. If someone takes a very liberal stance in ethics and theology, you can be basically guaranteed they’re going to arrive at a liberal interpretation on a piece of apocalyptic literature. And if someone is inclined towards conspiracy theories, you can bet that they’re interpretation of the same passage will look entirely different. My recommendation would be to try and learn as much as you can about the history and culture behind the text, then learn as much as you can about the various forms of symbolism used in that culture, and lastly, look at a few commentators that have different perspectives on the issue. When you’ve done all that, genuinely try and find which answer accounts for all the data, rather than just which answer fits your preferences.
Next time, we’ll be taking a look at one last genre, the Law, and then we’ll be going through a few helpful ways to check the literary context by evaluating the surrounding areas of Scripture. So I hope you’ll join me next time, on the Ultimate Questions Podcast, from Power to Change – Students.