Week 78: Hebrew Poetry Part 6
Poetry in God’s Word
Our study of Hebrew poetry shows us how appropriate it is that it should be included within God’s Word.
Modern chorus writers have found the Psalms rich in inspiration. But when psalms are used verbatim, it is rare that a whole psalm is included. Thus we do not have the words in their original context. This can mean that the balance of the psalm is lost and, in some cases, the meaning is changed.
Hebrew poetry is easy to translate into other languages because its emphasis is on content rather than sound. If I quote English poetry when preaching to a non-English-speaking congregation through a translator, the translation kills the poem dead, because English poetry is often based on sound, and those English sounds will not survive the translation process. But Hebrew poetry can be translated into any language, so it is easy to see why God chose such a medium.
Poetry in worship
Many people argue that we should be spontaneous in our approach to God and that it is artificial for us to plan what we are going to say. There is some truth in that, but there is enormous value in first thinking through what we wish to say. The Psalms give us a model of how to address God so that we are not over-familiar, and they powerfully reveal to us God’s greatness and majesty. On the other hand, they also describe an intimate relationship with God that many people may not yet have enjoyed, and so they can spur us on to seek a greater experience of God’s goodness.
The planned wording that we find in biblical poetry is a necessary part of our corporate worship. If we merely sang what we wanted to sing when we came to worship, it would be chaos – not to mention a dreadful noise! Corporate worship is made possible because choruses and hymns are designed for a congregation to sing them. Those who argue that we should only sing what we ‘feel’ forget that there is value in voicing responses that we may not feel, as an encouragement to respond genuinely and also to remember the truth for the future.
There used to be a family tradition in our house. Our three children used to come and wake me up at an ungodly hour on a certain day in the year, and then stand in a row at the foot of my bed and address me in a most artificial way with poetry. They finished by giving me a bag of their favorite sweets. The poem (or song ) was ‘Happy birthday to you’!
Of course, in a sense this was artificial – three children standing in a row, all saying the same thing. Wouldn’t it have been nicer if each of them had come separately and told me what they really felt? No, because they would then not have been doing it together as my family. The fact that they came to me together and sang to me together – in a relationship with one another – made the little tradition much more special to me.
In a similar way, it pleases the Lord when we say something together, even though we have to use words that someone else has written. God loves to see us together. We may be standing in a row, singing to God in a somewhat artificial
way, but we are corporately expressing our love for God. Poetry enables us to do this.
We noted earlier that psalms lend themselves to antiphonal singing, where choirs sing to each other. It is also possible to shout psalms as well as sing them. Psalm 147 is an example of this.
Psalms can also aid our sense of corporate identity. Psalms using the words ‘I’ and ‘my’ are best for private worship, but those using ‘we’ and ‘our’ remind us that we are praising together as the whole family of God.
Just as poetry touches the heart of man, it also touches the heart of God. We have noted that poetry is used in all the Psalms and also in many of the prophetic books. The Holy Spirit chose this form as a way of communicating the mind of God and as a means for us to respond to him. Those who are skeptical about the idea that poetry touches God’s heart need to remember the bold language that Scripture uses to talk of God’s feelings.
For example, Psalm 2 says that God ‘laughs’ when he views the futile attempts of humanity to defy him. Zephaniah 3 tells us that God ‘rejoices’ over us ‘with singing’. So God is musical! Music is not something that modern people have invented but is part of what it means to be made in the image of God.
So when God addresses us with poetry we know that he is communicating his feelings from his heart to our hearts, and so we can ask what such biblical passages tell us about God’s feelings. Understanding H ebrew poetry can be a key to understanding the very heart of God.