by Loren Gjesdal
As a holder of an English degree, I suppose I should love poetry, but I don’t. It has always been my least favorite form of literature. In my simple mind poetry should rhyme, but even to my simple ear, that grows old quickly. As a Pastor I suppose I should not admit that I have struggled to appreciate the Psalms, but I have.
There is no rhyming and very little rhythm in our translations, and many of the structures and descriptions are foreign to our minds. Much of the original beauty is lost to me. As I grow older, however, I am growing in my appreciation for the books of poetry in the Bible. The heart of the authors pierces through the ages and speaks honest, raw truth that is poignantly relevant today.
The Poetic Books of the Bible
Each of the poetic books of the Bible has a unique theme. Together they round out our picture of God in the contexts of real life. Job probes why bad things happen to good people, Psalms sings the praises of God’s glory (although there are other types of Psalms), Proverbs gives godly wisdom for daily living, Ecclesiastes seeks the meaning of life, and Song of Songs celebrates romantic love.
Together they paint a picture of a sovereign God who is attune to the wonder, mystery and even frustration of our real-world living.
In the curious book of Job, we find a righteous man (1:1,8) whose life is suddenly filled with tragedy, poverty, and pain (1:21; 2:7). How can this be? It does not fit the theology of Job, his friends, or the general pattern of the historical books of the Bible. Job and his friends take turns trying to tackle the problem.
No one seems to get the answer entirely right. In the end God speaks up to assert His wisdom and sovereignty (40:2; 42:2-4) but without ever answering, “Why?” The story of Job reminds us that God does not behave like a machine—where inputs define outputs. We find in Job the admonishment to hold fast to faith even when circumstances seem to contradict our theology, even when we don’t have answers to the “why” questions.
Psalms begins with a poem of wisdom (1:1), follows it with a view of the Messiah (2:7), laments the pursuit of enemies (3:1), flows into imprecatory prayer for their destruction (5:10) before finally arriving at the praise of God that we usually associate with the Psalms (8:1).
There are also Psalms that seek forgiveness of sins (25:7) and blessings for the king (45:1), but primarily we hear the character and power of God praised, even in the midst of other types of Psalms (1:6, 2:11, 3:8, 5:4 etc.).
The encouragement of the Psalms is the freedom to cry out to God with all the passion of our heart, whether it be in joy and awe of the creation, or in fear of a circumstance, or even in anger at mistreatment. God’s shoulders are big enough to hear us out.
Each type of Psalm, however, typically ends with a remembrance of the mighty and holy God that the Psalmist is talking to and encourages trust in that God (45:17, 59:17, 140:12-13 etc.).
The book of Proverbs is mostly a series of short memorable statements of wisdom in two to four lines. Neither promises nor commands, these pithy verses are good advice centered around a wise God who has structured His creation so that choices made in line with His character and law typically bring about a better life (1:3).
The Proverbs help us find the application of God’s principles to specific life situations such as minimizing debt (22:7), choosing good friends (22:24-25), staying sober (20:1), avoiding infidelity (5:15-19), disciplining children (13:24), and working with care and diligence (22:29, 24:27).
These sound pieces of wisdom combine to illustrate that God’s ways are meant for our good and, when applied consistently to real world situations, produce healthier nations, homes, businesses, and wallets.
Ecclesiastes is a good follow up to Proverbs. It reminds us that the good advice of Proverbs is not a promise of a guaranteed outcome. Like Job, the author also observes that life doesn’t always go as expected—the strong, the wise, and the talented alike may fail (9:11). We live in a sin-broken world in which God gives room for free will to run its often-destructive course (3:16-17).
The big question of Ecclesiastes is, “If time and chance can overcome wisdom and talent, why try to do things right or well?” Or, as the author of the book would probably put it, “What purpose is there to all our efforts?”
To these questions the author poses at least two answers. One is the joy of simple things—a job well done, a good meal, a good wife (2:24, 5:18, 9:9 etc.), and the other is the duty to obey the sovereign God who will hold us accountable for our choices and actions (3:17, 12:13-14).
Song of Songs
The Song of Songs illustrates the Preacher of Ecclesiastes’ admonition to “Enjoy life with the woman whom you love…” (Ecc. 9:9). God must have known that the impulse of religious people to pursue purity would sometimes overreach and cause what He created to be enjoyed to be thought of as a necessary evil.
Descriptions of embrace (2:6), of physical beauty, attraction, and desire (1:16, 2:14, 3:1 etc.) teach us it is right and good to enjoy sexual intimacy in the context of a marriage of one man to one woman.
As I grow older, I hear my questions, feel my heart cry, and find expression for my awe and wonder in the Bible’s books of poetry. I increasingly see a sovereign God who takes note of individuals, who gives good advice and provides good things to be enjoyed in life, but who is not a robot or a machine.
All the books speak with honest transparency about the human existence, much of which I can now relate to, from the imprecatory Psalms to the ecstasy of the Songs of Songs. Each book encourages my faith in the creator who oversees all things and works out all things to His will, even if it is sometimes inscrutable from my perspective. I might still prefer a dramatic story, but I have grown to appreciate the passion of poetry.