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Poetry Study

The Bible contains many examples of poetry. Throughout the Bible we will read of songs, such as Miriam’s song after Israel’s crossing the Red Sea.   We will find many forms of poetry in the Psalms and in the Song of Solomon.  Therefore, we need to look at this form of literature to help us in our study.

Poetry is seldom meant to be taken literally.  Poetry focuses on images and feelings to convey the main point.  When studying poetry, we look at the impact of all the images and what they mean.  We search through the figurative language to capture the essence of what the writer is saying.

Therefore, we need to look at a few literary terms.  First, Hebrew poetry does not rhyme the way we usually think of poetry.  Second, poetry makes use of similes, which are comparisons using like or as.  For example, “she is like a mother to me.”  Now, the “she” in the sentence is not my mother, but she is like one.  Therefore, we need to look at the characteristics of a mother to create the image of what type of person is being discussed. 

Metaphors are also comparisons but they do not use like or as.  For example, “The LORD is my shepherd.”  The LORD is not a shepherd, but He is like one.  Again, we need to look at the image created by the word shepherd so we can fully understand Who the LORD is and how He relates to us.

Hyperboles are extreme exaggerations used to make a point very clear.  For example, if I told you once, I have told you a thousand times.  This phrase does not mean we have counted the number of times we told someone something.  It does create the image that we have said it many times.  Another example: 
Psalms 84:10 (NIV) 10    Better is one day in your courts     than a thousand elsewhere;     I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God     than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

Parallelism is a poetic device where an idea is stated in several different ways.  Each way is stated in similar fashion, thus they are parallel.  These various images are to be taken as one to help us grasp the main point.  For example: 
Isaiah 9:6 (NIV) 6    For to us a child is born,     to us a son is given,     and the government will be on his shoulders.     And he will be called     Wonderful Counselor,£ Mighty God,     Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  We see the parallel ideas of “a child is born” and “a son is given”.  Put these together and we have the idea of a child being born and being given at the same time.  Also, we see the parallel descriptions of this son:  Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.  These are not different descriptions but different aspects of one. 

There are other types of figurative language that can be found on the internet or in many resource books.  It is not that important that you know the type of figurative language, but that you simply recognize it as figurative language.

Also, we have many types of Psalms, which will usually be identified for you in your Bible.  We have Psalms of ascent, of prayer, of praise, of anguish.  Knowing the type will help us understand the images and meaning.


1.     Read the section of poetry or the psalm several times.  Focus on the images within the piece of poetry and the overall feeling or impression.


2.    List the figures of speech or the images contained in the selection.  Again, like with our study of parables, we may encounter some images with which we are not familiar.  Therefore, we need to study those images using any of the resources available to you. 


3.    Also, use your concordance to find the meaning of key words that seem important to you.  For example, Psalms 1:1 (NIV) reads 1    Blessed is the man     who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked     or stand in the way of sinners     or sit in the seat of mockers.  We might use our concordances to look up blessed, counsel, wicked, and mockers.


4.    Next, write down your impressions.  Write down how these images affect you and what they reveal to you.  This will not be a literal interpretation as with other studies, but it will be based upon how you react to the poetry.  This allows for more impressions.  However, none of these impressions should ever contradict any other word in the Bible.  This is the power of poetry. 


5.    We may all react differently to an image, but we should all arrive at the same truth.  Let’s look again a Psalm 1.  Psalms 1:3 (NIV) 3    He is like a tree planted by streams of water,     which yields its fruit in season     and whose leaf does not wither.     Whatever he does prospers.  This verse contains a simile in which a person = a tree planted by water.  Now, what image does that bring to your mind?  What type of tree do you picture? 


6.    Finally, summarize the section of poetry, including your insights.  Look to expand on the ideas and revelations.  Record your overall impression or feeling.  What has this piece of poetry revealed to you?  How has it brought comfort or understanding?