Lecture 17: Hermeneutics for Poetry (Part 1)
Course: Biblical Hermeneutics
Lecture: Hermeneutics for Poetry (Part 1)
What we are going to talk about in regard to poetic literature will to a certain extent reinforce some of the things we have said with regard to prophecy. There is a difference between prose and poetry and we are really very fortunate that in the Bible and two instances and this was not only an aid to teaching, but an aid to understanding, there are two accounts of the same event placed side by side.
One of them is prose – narrative. The other is poetry. Let me show you. Chapter 5 over here. I don’t know if you can see the broken type, that is the poetic rendering of this account. Chapter 4, followed over here and if I turn the page, followed here again, the narrative.
So translators to help us understand the difference, four in a kind of solid block form to show that it is narrative and chapter 5, you find this material, not in narrative but in poetic form. Now if you read chapter 4, it is a story about Sisera, the enemy who has comes to do battle against the people of Israel, and you have Deborah and Barak, live by the Lord to lead the people of Israel against Sisera. Actually it is more Deborah than Barak. She kind of takes his hand like a child and leads him to do what he needs to do. And she seems to be the leader in this. Now Sisera gets all of his chariots, 900 of them together, they go with him to do battle and beginning at verse 14 of chapter 4, Deborah says to Barak,
“For this is the day which the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. The Lord is indeed going out before you. So Barak went down from Mt. Tabor with 10,000 warriors following him. And the Lord threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic before Barak. Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot, while Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth Hagoyim. All the army of Sisera fell by the sword. No one was left.” No one was left. I bet there was one left somewhere. I just have a funny feeling some guy got away.
“17 Now Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite. 18Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.’ So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19Then he said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. 20He said to her, ‘Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, “Is anyone here?” say, “No.” ’ 21But Jael wife of Heber took a tent-peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. 22Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, ‘Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.’ So he went into her tent; and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent-peg in his temple. 23 So on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites. 24Then the hand of the Israelites bore harder and harder on King Jabin of Canaan, until they destroyed King Jabin of Canaan.”
Now I mean as you read this, there is nothing that is difficult to understand, it reads pretty much straight forward. You have pretty much a realistic account, in using terminology. It is easy to understand and I don’t know anything here that I would say, You know I think it's exaggerated. I think it is figurative language. It looks like it is all very literal. It is not quite the military report of a general and U.S. Army giving of the battle, it wouldn’t be that technical, but it looks pretty much straightforward.
Now chapter 5 however is prose and at the very beginning, the author is telling us something,
“5Then Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying:”
This is a song – not prose. It is a ballad. It is the kind of thing you sit at your campfire and you strum your guitar and you make a song of it. I mean that is a little different than telling a prose account of what happened. You are ready for a song and you are ready for some kinds of exaggeration. Let me share with you some of the songs and choruses that we sing.
Here is one.
“You shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace.
The mountains and the hills will break forth before you.
There will be shouts of joy, and all the trees of the field will clap, will clap their hands.
And all the trees of the field will clap their hands,
the trees of the field will clap their hands. The trees of the field will clap their hands.
While you go out with joy.
Come on now. Trees clapping hands. Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. But it is a song. You can do that in songs. You can do that with songs. You have other songs like, “You are Lord of Creation, Lord of my life. Lord of the land and the sea. You are Lord of Creation before there was time, Lord of all Lords you will be.”
How can He be Lord of the Creation before there is a creation?
You say, “Come on Stein, don’t be … these are songs. Get with it. You see. That’s just the point. Isn’t it? They are songs and you have to kind of get with songs and accept things like that.”
I remember one, my wife and I attended a Christmas concert of the Bethel choir in Minneapolis, St. Paul and at the end of the song, the choir sang, thanking God for this glorious myth of the birth of Jesus.
And my wife looked at me and I looked at her “Glorious myth?” Now I knew Bob Berland the choir director. He is very conservative. He certainly believes literally the virgin birth stories. There is no question about that. And I don’t think anybody in the choir who sang it didn’t believe in the virgin birth stories. But why were they talking about this glorious myth and then somehow I remember the verse before and I noted that to make it rhythmic, they needed a single word and it had to end with kind of a “-ith” sound to it.
And you know when you are writing songs, you don’t have an awful lot of words available. You are kind of limited and don’t we talk by the way in poetry of poetic license. Whats poetic license mean? It means that sometimes you have to use a word that is not the exact one that you want because it has to fit the rhythm and you have to fit the rhyme if you are using rhyme. And so he had to use the word, the song writer of this particular hymn – “myth” – glorious myth.
Now for me, I dislike the word “myth” for the Biblical story so much that I would have rewritten the whole bloody thing and have avoided that. But I can understand how a hymn writer can use that, because this is a ballad and here we are singing a ballad, Deborah and Barak sing this song. So now, when they describe this great and glorious victory, how do they describe it?
In verse 4,
4 ‘Lord, when you went out from Seir,
when you marched from the region of Edom,
the earth trembled,
and the heavens poured,
the clouds indeed poured water.
5 The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai,
before the Lord, the God of Israel.
You don’t read anything about earthquakes in the prose section. If you read chapter 4, nothing is said of earthquakes, nothing about mountains quaking. But this is a poet describing it. How do you describe God leading people in battle? You do it this way:
“When God led His people out to do battle,
The earth shook, the mountains quaked because
God was with them.”
Well. This is figurative language which described the certainty of God being with them. You really don’t want them to say,
“When the Lord led them to battle,
He increased the accuracy of their arrows through 12.86 % which was decisive in the battle.”
Or that somehow they were able to throw their javelins an extra 10 feet, which was critical. I mean that’s not the way you sing ballads. You say, ““When the Lord led His people, the earth shook, the mountains quaked because God was with His people that day.” That is the way poets describe it.
Nothing wrong with that. In fact it is very effective, because God did lead His people into battle and to victory. So what the author intends to understand by this, I take very literally. That day, when Sisera led the armies of Syria, God led Deborah and Barak and his people and He was with them and He gave them a great victory. And the victory would be the Lord’s because it was His doing. It didn’t try to explain their archery competence having increased or anything like that. It just said, “God was with them.”
Then it goes on, verses 19 and 20,
19 ‘The kings came, they fought;
then fought the kings of Canaan,
at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo;
they got no spoils of silver.
20 The stars fought from heaven,
from their courses they fought against Sisera.
Now if you look at any of the 17th century commentaries on this passage, they will talk about this probably refers to God having sent meteor showers upon the enemy. See, they did not know about poetry in the OT in the 17th century. Their translations all had this kind of solid black type.
So you translate it like it was prose supposedly using sight of the fact that this is a song written in poetic form. In poetry, you can describe that. How do you describe God being with His people?
Where does God reside? He resides in Heaven, where the stars are.
From Heaven fought the stars is another way of saying, “from Heaven, God fought for His people.” And you take that understanding, it's poetry, you would interpret it therefore differently. Ok. Now, let me stop there and see. Makes sense?
Student: [Hard to Hear] interpret it that way.
Dr. Stein: Alright. Good. Good question. For people who have a great ability in Hebrew, what do we have to go by? One of the things is good translations have people who know Hebrew well. And they see this as poetry and they set it off for us. So modern translations unlike earlier ones, like the King James, set aside poetry for us, to tell us that. So we have a clue from the translator that’s there, but how did the translators get this.
Well. As I said in the early introductory chapters, you can tell this by the use of frequent particles in the Hebrew language. You can understand it by the general length of the statements. In poetry, the stanzas or sentences or phrases if you want to use the word, but stanzas is the word used – tend to be the same length. All of a sudden, you go from a chapter on prose, Chapter 4, where the sentence are none. Some are short. Some are long. Some are medium size to a place where all of a sudden, they all seem to have a similar length. That’s another clue that way.
Of course saying it is a song is a real clue.
Let us look at another example, Exodus, chapter 14, once again, chapter 14 is an example of prose. Notice the solid type. You don’t have your own Bible? Then in chapter 15, broken type, lot of white space. Not a very technical way of describing it by the way, but hopefully is effective.
Now in chapter 14, we have the discussion of the crossing of the Red Sea and you know it pretty much straightforward. If you look verses 26 and following,
“26 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ 27So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.”
Earlier you have some reference to the struggle of the Egyptians, for instance in verse 23,
“23The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24 At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25 He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty.”
You get the sense that, they are getting caught in the mud and the water as the water comes back so. Pretty much straightforward and you say “What about the water being a wall on the left and the right?” Yeah. You have to figure that out on how literally you want to take it, but in general, you have the people of Israel walking through the sea, and the Egyptians following through, the waters begin to return, the chariot wheels become clogged. The water overcomes them in their heavy armor, they are drowned and so forth.
But when you get to chapter 15, the poetic one, it is spoken a little differently. Once again
“Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord …” It is ballad time again. We are singing choruses. Ok.
‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
Here you have the language of God - the God of Israel - picking up the army of Pharaoh in His hand and throwing him out into the ocean to drown. Figurative language I assume. Then you go to verse 4,
“4 ‘Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea;
his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.”
“7 In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries;
you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble.”
Now tell me something here. What is the metaphor consumed them like stubble? What is the picture here? Of fire burning the stubble fields to make it easier to farm. Not a very good practice because it burns up too much of the material that you want to put back into the soil but burning of stubble, burning a field and a picture of judgment.
But they didn’t burn up did they? They drowned. I wonder if the author of this had read the rest of this story. I think he knew the rest of the story, right? What you have here is an image of judgment, burning up like stubble, which is being applied to what happens to them. They are destroyed. They are burned up like stubble even though they are drowned. They are not burned. It is a perfectly good judgment imagery that’s being used here.
It is not confusing. No one is trying to say that you should take these words literally, that they are being burned to death. What you need to do is, you say, what does this image refer to? It refers to judgment. That is right. That is what happened.
“8 At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up,
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.”
Then verse 12,
12 You stretched out your right hand,
the earth swallowed them.
And then finally one more. Verse 21
21And Miriam sang to them:
‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’
Once again, you have that imagery. So what we have here then is a poetic description. It shows that poetry is a different kind of genre than prose. You have more room for freedom - much more room for the ability to use figurative language. Yes?
Student: [Hard to Hear]
Dr. Stein: I guess what I would say would be if I was talking about the first example, I would talk about how God leads His people, and how joyously in song we celebrate this. And how do we describe God leading His people? I want to tell you, when God leads His people, the earth shakes, the mountains quake because once God is with you [Hard to Hear]
I think you can preach that quite effectively to the people. Remember we are not in any way denying the truth of what is being said. We are simply trying to point out what the author meant by this and what the words literally taken in isolation from the authorial meaning may be different. But words mean what the author intends them to mean and the author here is ascribing how God leads His people in great victory.
If I were preaching I might say “How else might you describe God leading His people in battle?” I had some other suggestions of that that would be poetic in nature, people would probably … “Yeah, that’s right. This is what God did. This is the way we can joyously sing.” And then you go and you start talking about other examples of that. For instance I give to you an example how in song, we describe certain things and ways that if you pressed them literally, you would not accept them.
For instance when you say in the Christmas carol, “Hail. The heaven born prince of peace. Hail the Son of righteousness. Lighten life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings.”
“Lighten life to all He brings?” Is this a universalism? No. It's not. The guy isn’t a universalist. What do you want him to say, “Light and life to all he offers. Risen with healing in His coffers?” or something ridiculous like that?
You don’t worry about some of those things. This is a song. And you need a kind of poetic license to permit you to say things like that. But the meaning is the joy of Jesus coming and offering salvation to all. Not bringing salvation to all, because we know from the rest of the Bible that is not true, but in this hymn, you have to allow room or some of those kinds of terminology.
Student: Like Deborah and Barak sang this song on that day also is figurative language meaning they were plenty-pleased as evidenced by the emotion that [Hard to Hear]
Dr. Stein: I would say Deborah and Barak composed this song whether it is that exact day or the next day or something like that I am not sure. [Hard to Hear] that day, Ok. Then it was that day if you want. My question is I don’t … the battle goes on for some time. There is not much room for the day left to sing something like that. I don’t think that the writer of Scripture is really that concerned with that day … Here that day might be after that they sang, this song, made up this song and celebrated.
Now I were preaching a sermon, I wouldn’t preach that. Someone asking a question on Sunday School, you deal with that. I might just simply say, “After that they made up a song, and here is the song they sang, and the joy of knowing that God was with them and gave them this great victory, they celebrated.
Alright let us look at some more examples of the need for poetic license. In the book of Colossians, there is a hymn here that most translations of the Bible do not write out as a hymn. There are a lot of hymns in the New Testament that are not written out as clearly as hymns as in the OT. For instance, in Colossians 1:15-20, my Greek New Testament has it in poetic form. My RSV doesn’t. I doubt that any of your translations have 1:15-20 broken down into poetry.
Do any of you have a translation that is broken down that way? Here is the problem. It says,
“15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning, …”
Dr. Stein: I mean… Stein whats your problem? I don’t have any problems yet.
“ … 18 He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through Him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
Reconciling all things to Himself. That looks pretty universalistic. Well, what have you got against that? Well, if my vote matters, I’ll vote for it, but you know voting doesn’t change anything. It’s the problem that the rest of the New Testament and the Bible doesn’t seem to speak about a universalism. It talks about a separation of the sheep from the goats, a separation of the wheat from the tares and of eternal judgment. Again, I want to remind you, we as Christians don’t believe in eternal judgment, because we like it. If I had my way, there would be none. There would be universalism or annihilationism or something like that.
I have relatives who are not Christians. The thought of their perishing eternal doesn’t make me happy. So if I had a chance I would vote this way, but I don’t think God in heaven is waiting for me to vote on this to make His decision right? So we are obligated to believe what the Biblical teaching is.
The problem I find is that this passage seems to conflict with the normal Biblical teaching. On the other hand maybe what we have here is a hymn that because of its very nature makes it difficult not to use universal language. I looked up some material about ancient hymns, and it is interesting that ancient hymns that speak about creation tend to use universal language. The word “all” appears in statements about creation or passages on that in very very frequent terms and the word “all” or “all things” occur four times each in this passage and what we have is a rhythmic passage.
Let me show you something. I have it in Greek, but don’t worry about it. I just want to show you exactly. It says,
“Who is the image of the invisible God” Now you have to go down to verse 18b, and you start out again with another “who is”. Then you have “the firstborn of all creation” found in verse 15, “the firstborn out of the dead” found in verse 18.
Then you have “because in Him, all things were created.” Then you have later on, that would be up in verse 16 at the end. Here you have verse 19, “because in Him was pleased all the fullness of God to dwell.”
“All things were through Him and for Him. Through Him all things are for Him” at the very end. So you have repetition in the poetic meter of this song. It’s a hymn probably something interestingly enough that Paul did not create but was pre-Pauline.
For those who say for instance that Paul is the one who deified Jesus – took the religion “of Jesus” and made it a religion “about Jesus.” Here he quotes something of the Colossians something that he did not create that already existed, which is very very high Christologically in its theology.
So it is in this context where it says “He did this for all… He did this for all… He did this for all… He did this for all…” What else you going to do when you come to the end of the hymn but to say to reconcile somethings ? but all things to Himself and you have that ... you are bound to continue that kind of rhythmic analogy here.
Let me show you some of that kind of rhythm also in other New Testament statements. In 1 Corinthians 15:22, you have a balance required here that makes a statement that if pressed literally is a problem.
"22 for as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
As in Adam all die, 1 Corinthians 15:22, so in Christ shall all be made alive. There is a rhythmic balance to this. You can’t change and say, "as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall some will be made alive.”
You need to maintain the balance. When you get to Romans chapter 5, in verses 15,17, 18 and 19, you have that same kind of thing. I will just read to you Romans 5, verse 18:
“18 Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for - ” [Hard to Hear]
You are going to have to have all men again right? You have “one man’s trespass led to an acquittal, a condemnation for all men. So one man’s act of righteousness leads to an acquittal in life for all men.” So the balance and the rhythm requires that.
Now, that indicates that when you find something in this rhythmic form, you should let the theology of non-rhythmic passages where you are not confined by rhythm in one way or the other, you don’t need poetic license to determine these kinds of things and it's very evident from the rest of Romans that Paul doesn’t believe that everyone is made alive in Christ that only those who have faith in Him.
Dr. Stein: Yes?
Student: We are not suggesting that Romans 5 is [Hard to Hear]
Dr. Stein: Yes. A balance statement is kind of like a rhythmic statement in the middle, “As in Adam all died, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” “As one man’s sin brought condemnation for all, so one man’s righteousness brings…”
And you can’t switch in the middle and say, “to some.” It breaks the whole rhythm of it. But I think the Biblical writer here, in Paul, certainly teaches elsewhere that he doesn’t believe that you should press that language to all all. But you know if you break it, Christ doesn’t come up as good as Adam. Because Adam does it for everybody, Christ only does it for some. You wouldn’t want to change in that way.
So rhythm here sometimes keeps you from having exacting statements, but what you have here instead are poetic statements which should be interpreted in light of the entirety of Christian and the like. Before I deal with the various kinds of poetry, let me just read to you the kind of poetry that the Psalmist refers to. Chapter 18 is a good one here.
1 I love you, O Lord, my strength.
2 The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
3 I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised;
so I shall be saved from my enemies.
No problems. Ok.
4 The cords of death encompassed me;
the torrents of perdition assailed me;
5 the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me.
6 In my distress I called upon the Lord;
to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears.
7 Then the earth reeled and rocked;
the foundations also of the mountains trembled
and quaked, because he was angry.
8 Smoke went up from his nostrils,
and devouring fire from his mouth;
glowing coals flamed forth from him.
9 He bowed the heavens, and came down;
thick darkness was upon his feet.
10 He rode on a cherub, and flew;
and came swiftly upon the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering around him,
his canopy thick clouds dark with water.
12 Out of the brightness before him
there broke through his clouds
hailstones and coals of fire.
13 The Lord also thundered in the heavens,
and the Most High uttered his voice.
14 And he sent out his arrows, and scattered them;
he flashed forth lightning, and routed them.
15 Then the channels of the sea were seen,
and the foundations of the world was laid bare
at your rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of your nostrils.
16 He reached down from on high, he took me;
he drew me out of mighty waters.
17 He delivered me from my strong enemy,
and from those who hated me;
for they were too mighty for me.
Here is David singing for joy, that when his enemies were against him, God heard his prayer and He shook heaven for him, to bring him deliverance. That’s poetic language and it's very powerful language as such. David himself when he talked about the former king Saul and his friend Jonathan states in a eulogy towards them in 2 Samuel 1:23, the following
21 You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. 22 From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty.
23 Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
How do you do an eulogy in honor to these great heroes? You are going to use literal language? You say they ran a mile in about 4 and a half minutes. You say, they could bench press 275 pounds. You don’t do that. You say, “they are stronger than lions, the mighty lions, they are swifter than eagles” and so forth. You use poetry. Perfectly legitimate. In fact delightful and impressive.
We are going to talk about specific kinds of poetry that occur in the Bible, but anything so far that we have questions about. Are we doing alright?