I. Formal Essay
The Nature of Biblical Poetry: the Challenges Created by the Ancient Poet
Poetry is a literary form dating as far back as any other kind of literature, if not the farthest, because of the way in which poetic verses are easily called to memory. Ancient Biblical poetry presents a number of difficulties to modern readers because the original poets had a specific goal in mind that was couched within their particular historical situation. How does Biblical poetry challenge the modern reader? In general, Biblical poetry uses figures of speech and other language structures that were specific to its time and context and that are not often obvious in the present day. Specifically, as is the focus of this essay, the Psalms present further poetic challenges through their many purposes and forms. The original goal, the several different types, and the language of the Psalms are the three main barriers to understanding the vast and wonderful content of the Psalms.
The original goal of the Psalms is buried beneath years of history, presenting a challenge to modern readers when they try to understand the purpose of these ancient song-poems. Psalms were originally meant to be heard in the context of a worshipful conversation with God, and each psalm “served the crucial function of making connection between the worshiper and God” (Fee 210). Biblical Psalms were usually “sung in worship at the temple” and were highly valued by the Israelites as well as other ruling nations (Klein 354). As such, the Psalms, like most poetry, are individual and independent from each other; each psalm is “its own literary context” (Klein 358). This means that each psalm does not depend upon any other psalm for the meaning of its context, but this does not separate the psalm from a certain sense of historical context (358). Again, this historical context would normally place the psalm as an element of temple worship. The historical context being such, the modern reader of psalms can use the psalms as “a guide to worship,” a demonstration of honest dialogue with God, and a reminder of the positive benefit of “reflection and meditation on things that God has done for us” (Fee 223). However, the modern reader is also challenged not to “overexegete” the psalms (207). The psalms are “addressed to the mind through the heart” (207), so the interpretation of a psalm should lead to an emotional effect rather than a purely mental effect. Using the Psalms as a tool to allow emotions to flow to God is perhaps the best way to understand the original goal of the psalmist.
Another challenge to readers is the challenge of understanding the original purpose behind each psalm. The historical function of the biblical Psalms was to make a connection between people as they express their emotions to God as He listens. However, as much as there is a wide array of emotion to be expressed, so too are there many genre of psalms found within the Biblical collection. Understanding the genre of a psalm better aids the reader in understanding the emotional and worshipful goal of the original author. There are several different types of Psalms: lament, thanksgiving, hymns of praise, salvation-history, celebration, affirmation, wisdom, songs of trust, and imprecatory (Fee 212-214, 220). Identifying what type of psalm is being read then allows the reader to read the poetic language of the poem in light of its specific function. For example, a lament expresses deep sorrow and distress regarding the true-to-life experience of the author. Knowing that a psalm is a lament will aid the reader in understanding the type of emotional poetic language being used.
The Psalms employ figurative language from an ancient time where useful analogies and other relationships between words may be lost to modern readers. Common to all psalms is a use of metaphor and simile. Both figures of speech make comparisons between two essentially different things in order to add color or to infer a new meaning based upon the juxtaposed relationship. When interpreting ancient metaphors and similes, the savvy interpreter should try to “listen” for the original “intent” of the language (Fee 208). Likewise, when hyperbole, asyndeton, synecdoche, repetition, or personification confront the reader, identifying the genre of each individual psalm as well as the original goal of the poet will help flesh out the possible meanings of figurative language (Tremper 34-36). Having a firm understanding of figurative language is essential to understanding the Psalms since poetic language is not usually literal in any way.
Many challenges face both the casual reader and the experienced Bible scholar when interpreting psalms. The distance of time between the ancient days and modern days makes understanding Biblical psalms difficult for three reasons: the original goal, the genre, and the figurative language all stand as barriers to proper hermeneutics. The way to overcome these challenges is to carefully reconstruct the original intent of the psalm as well as the social environment in which it was read. With this understanding, describing the psalm in terms of its genre helps the informed reader gain valuable insight into the many figures of speech found therein. The Psalms are challenging but not impossible. The most important thing to remember about interpreting the Psalms is to focus upon the emotional impact of the psalm and to not use the psalm in a setting much different than its original setting of worshipful connection with God.