Bibliotheca Sacra 147(July 1990) 259-69

          Copyright © 1990 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

 

The Bible as Literature

    Part 3 (of 4 parts):

 

 

   "I Have Used Similitudes": The

  Poetry of the Bible

 

 

 

Leland Ryken

        Professor of English

        Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois

 

 

This article explores some of the dynamics of biblical poetry and

inquires into implications of the prevalence of poetry in the Bible for

Bible teaching and preaching. Before launching into that inquiry,

however, the high proportion of poetry in the Bible should be noted.

Poetry is identifiable chiefly by its being written in verse form

rather than prose, and by its use of a poetic idiom. Whereas English

verse depends on regular meter and rhyme, the verse form of biblical

poetry is parallelism-two or more lines in which the thought and

usually the grammatic structure as well are at least partly parallel.

It has often been observed that this verse form survives in transla-

tion, while meter and rhyme do not.

The importance of parallelism has been overemphasized in re-

cent scholarship on the poetry of the Bible. Verse is not the primary

touchstone of poetry. If a poet has not expressed his or her content in

a poetic idiom, the result is versified prose, not poetry. The essence

of poetry is a reliance on concrete imagery, metaphor, simile, and

other figures of speech. These can characterize prose writing as

well, but the higher the incidence of such an idiom, the more claim a

piece of writing has to be called poetry. Literary people sometimes

speak of poetic prose-discourse that is not written in verse form but

employs a high concentration of the techniques of poetic language.

Given the combined presence of parallelism and a heavy re-

liance on figurative language, how much of the Bible ranks as po-

etry? One-third of the Bible is not too high an estimate. Whole

 

259



260      Bibliotheca Sacra / July-September 1990

 

books of the Bible are poetic: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon.

A majority of Old Testament prophecy is poetic in form. Jesus is one

of the most famous poets of the world. Beyond these predominantly

poetic parts of the Bible, figurative language appears throughout

the Bible, and whenever it does, it requires the same type of analy-

sis given to poetry.

It is obvious then that when in Hosea 12:10 God stated, "I have

... used similitudes" (AV), the statement expresses a principle that

extends to the whole Bible. Equally obvious, biblical expositors and

readers must learn to feel comfortable with handling biblical poetry.

But this is not generally true.

 

The Primacy of the Image in Biblical Poetry

 

As stated in an earlier article, a literary approach to the Bible

is one that rests partly on an awareness of the concrete, experiential

content of literature.1 Given this criterion of concreteness of expres-

sion, there is a sense in which the Bible is not narrative, as recent

scholarship has asserted, but poetry. The first principle of poetry is

the primacy of the image. "Image" here means any word that names

a concrete object or action. Poets think in images. This is the most ba-

sic rule of poetry.

This is not as widely recognized as it should be. When I ask stu-

dents to assemble a list of the subject matter found in the Book of

Psalms, the resulting list is typically abstract and theological: God,

providence, trust, guilt, forgiveness, suffering, joy. Once the list is as-

sembled, I proceed to write a second list on the board: honey, thunder,

broken arms, razor, snow, dog, horse, grass, butter. The second list

represents the language actually used by the writers of the Psalms,

confirming my point about the primacy of the image in poetry.

In the language of current brain research, poetry is right-brain

discourse. The two hemispheres of the brain perform specialized

functions and respond differently to stimuli.2 In general the left side

of the brain responds more actively to language and abstract con-

cepts. Its forte is analysis, reason, and logic. In keeping with this

tendency toward analysis, the left hemisphere processes information

sequentially and is dominant in the perception of rhythm.

 

1 Leland Ryken, "'Words of Delight': The Bible as Literature," Bibliotheca Sacra

147 (January-March 1990): 8-9.

2 A summary of right brain/left brain theory can be found in these sources: Sid J.

Segalowitz, Two Sides of the Brain (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1983);

Michael C. Corballis and Ivan L. Beale, The Ambivalent Mind (Chicago: Nelson-

Hall, 1983); and Sally P. P. Springer and Georg Deutsch, Left Brain, Right Brain, rev.

ed. (New York: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1985).



"I Have Used Similitudes": The Poetry of the Bible                    261

 

The right side of the brain largely complements these functions.

It responds intensely to visual and other sensory stimuli. It domi-

nates in nonlanguage functions involving visual and spatial pro-

cesses, and in seeing whole-part relationships. The right hemi-

sphere is also more active than the left in the hearing of music

(though not in analyzing it), and it dominates in the exercise of emo-

tion and humor. It is also the part of the brain that grasps

metaphor.

These distinctions also extend to people and vocations. In one

test of college students, those in literature and the humanities

showed right-brain dominance, with the reverse being true for more

analytic science and engineering students. But within the humani-

ties group, English majors showed more left brain preference than ar-

chitecture majors, confirming the equation of verbal with the left

hemisphere and visual with the right.

The implications of this data for how people should preach and

teach the Bible are immense. Evangelical preaching has largely

followed the model of Paul rather than Jesus. The discourses of Jesus

are predominantly concrete, poetic, anecdotal. The writings of Paul

tend toward theological abstraction. Evangelical preaching and

teaching are overwhelmingly oriented to the left side of the brain.

They are heavily conceptual and theological in vocabulary and con-

tent. They often starve the right side of the brain. They have ap-

pealed to the minds of churchgoers. In some traditions they have

also appealed to the emotions. But they have not captured the

imaginations of people.

What does all this have to do with the poetry of the Bible?

The prevalence of poetry in the Bible, not only in its poetic books but

also by virtue of figurative language in the narrative and epistolary

sections, is an open door to do justice to the whole person. The poetry

of the Bible stands as proof that people can know the truth through

image as well as through abstraction. The truth about godliness can

be pictured as a productive tree by a stream as well as by means of

logical discourse. Knowing this should influence both the selection

of biblical passages for teaching or preaching and the way the pas-

sages are handled.

The Bible is filled with images as well as theological ideas.

Life is a journey down a path, God is a shepherd, depression is a val-

ley, salvation is a feast. These images, and not only doctrinal ideas,

should be prominent in biblical teaching and preaching. Tracing

them through the Bible is as valid an approach to doctrinal content

as is systematic theology. God trusted such images to communicate

the truth people need to know.

The church I attend sponsored a Sunday evening series on

preaching that included films on famous preachers from history. Be-



262      Bibliotheca Sacra / July-September 1990

 

fore showing the film on John Bunyan, a colleague stated that the

sermon would not be as thoroughly an exposition of a biblical passage

as one might wish. In the film, scriptwriter Denis Shaw had Bunyan

preach a specimen sermon in which he expounded on a master image

of the Bible. Taking as his point of departure a passage from an

epistle that compares the Christian life to a race, Bunyan in effect

explicated that image instead of a specific text from the Bible. He

spoke about the conditions under which the race is run, the course,

the goal, the actions required, and so forth. The approach was re-

freshing and I was left with the impression that I had in fact heard

an expository sermon based on the Bible.

The language of the Bible is much more concrete and imagistic

than one would guess from most sermons and from most modern trans-

lations of the Bible. It is as though the Bible itself tries to do justice

to the right side of the brain, while scholars today translate the

images into abstractions. A good antidote to the love of abstraction

is to choose poetic parts of the Bible for teaching and preaching. But

the usual tendency to impose a framework of conceptual generaliza-

tions on the passage must be resisted. Poetic images should be expe-

rienced as images first of all. Among other things more photo-

graphic commentary on the poetic parts of the Bible is needed.

 

Metaphoric Thinking in Biblical Poetry

 

If the primacy of the image is the first rule of poetry, the second

is the importance of comparison. The specific forms that such com-

parison takes are metaphor (an implied comparison, as in "the Lord

is my shepherd") and simile (an explicitly stated comparison, as in

"he is like a tree planted by streams of waters"). In keeping with

current practice, the term "metaphor" is used in this article to cover

both.

The nature of metaphor has been the object of enormously de-

tailed academic study during the last two decades. What has

emerged from the discussion is that metaphoric thinking is more

than a poetic phenomenon. Metaphoric thinking is a form of knowl-

edge that extends to all the intellectual disciplines. It plays a key

role in scientific theories and models, for example. Metaphor is used

to organize, explain, and illuminate reality. For example many

aspects of good teaching fall into place the moment a teacher is de-

fined in terms of a metaphor like the travel guide.

The most impressive finding of research on metaphor in preach-

ing is not that audiences found metaphoric statements more emo-

tional, imaginative, and appealing than propositional statements.

This could be predicted. What is truly informative is that people

taking a test found metaphoric statements from sermons clearer than



"I Have Used Similitudes": The Poetry of the Bible                    263

 

propositional statements.3 For example they praised the clarity of a

metaphor comparing the Christian life to surfing, whose basic prin-

ciple is that one has to get out where the white water is instead of

playing around on the shore.

Not every biblical expositor has the gift of discovering.

metaphors, but every one has an obligation to deal responsibly with

those found in the Bible. What hermeneutical principles underlie a

proper handling of the metaphors and similes of the Bible?

Correspondence is the essential ingredient of a metaphor. A

brief comment in Aristotle's Poetics remains the basic text: "to make

good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances."4 Metaphors are

bifocal utterances that require looking at two levels of meaning.

They are a form of logic in the sense that the comparison between A

and B can be validated by ordinary means of logic or observation.

What demands does the bifocal nature of metaphor impose on a

reader or expositor? The first is to identify and experience the lit-

eral level of a metaphor. Metaphors are images or pictures first of

all. Their impact depends on letting the literal level sink into one's

consciousness before carrying over the meaning to a figurative or sec-

ond level. If this is not done, the whole point of speaking in

metaphor evaporates.

Much biblical commentary is unhelpful at the level of identify-

ing the literal picture. Here are specimen passages from commen-

taries interpreting a metaphor that occurs seven times in the

Psalms-the image of raising up a horn: God's "nearness and pres-

ence convey to the people of God both assurance of salvation and new

vitality (this is the meaning of the image of the 'exalting of the

horn')."5 This is "figurative for granting victory or bestowing pros-

perity."6 "Among His people His glory is redemptive love, in raising

up a horn for them, i.e., a strong deliverer."7 "Horn here symbolizes

strong one, that is, king."8

The commentators' whole energy is poured into telling what the

metaphor of the horn means or symbolizes. Not one of these sources

 

 

3 Michael P. Hilcomb, "An Examination of the Use of Metaphor in Preaching"

(MDiv thesis, Bethel Theological Seminary, 1982), pp. 116-17.

4 Aristotle Poetics XXII.

5 Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press,

1962), p. 838.

6 Mitchell Dahood, Psalms, 3 vols., The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Double-

day & Co., 1970), 3:355.

7 Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (London: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 451 (italics

his)

8 New International Version of the Bible note on Psalm 148:14.

 



264      Bibliotheca Sacra / July-September 1990

 

tells what kind of horn the psalmists were talking about at a literal

level. Information about that comes from a series of pictures in an is-

sue of the National Geographic that shows animals defending them-

selves by means of their horns.

Some bold new photographic commentaries on the Bible are

needed, especially on the poetry of the Bible. I make extensive use

of slides when teaching the poetry of the Bible. When the literal

picture of a metaphor is grasped, the utterance is experienced in more

than verbal ways. This is one of the powers of metaphor: it para-

doxically uses words to express meanings that go beyond the verbal

level. People have feelings and experiences surrounding green pas-

tures or still waters or home that cannot be wholly expressed in

words. These are part of the meaning of the images and comparisons

that appear in biblical poetry-proof that people assimilate the

truth with the right side of the brain as well as the left. Biblical

readers and expositors need to find ways to enhance their ability to

assimilate biblical truth in such a way.

Interpreting metaphoric statements in the Bible begins by expe-

riencing the literal level of the comparison. The second task is in-

terpretation, which consists of carrying over the meaning(s) from

level A to level B. The very word "metaphor" speaks volumes in

this regard. It is based on the Greek words meta< and ferei<n meaning

"to carry over." To undertake such interpretation is to accept the

poet's implied invitation to discover the meaning of an utterance.

Whenever a biblical poet speaks in metaphor or simile, he entrusts

to the reader the task of completing the process of communication.

He leaves it up to the reader to discover how A is like B.

When expositors begin to make the transfer of meaning from one

sphere to the other, they will almost certainly find that the mean-

ings are multiple. To picture God as a father, or to think of God's

providence as a fortress, for example, at once invites people to see a

multiplicity of correspondences. Several things are learned about

the godly person, not just one thing, when he or she is compared to a

tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season

(Ps. 1:3). Again, what types of restoration are contained in the pic-

ture of sheep cresting in an oasis at midday (23:2)? The answer is, as

many as the types of restoration that believers experience.

It might seem that a literary approach to the Bible is on a colli-

sion course with the biblical scholar's concern for controls on interpre-

tation. To some small extent this may be true. The more literary a

text is, the more likely it is to retain the complexity and multiplic-

ity and many-sidedness of actual experience. A literary text is more

open to misinterpretation than an expository text. Its strategy is

first to portray human experience, and everyone knows how many-

sided real life is. Yet cults frequently quote the propositional parts



"I Have Used Similitudes": The Poetry of the Bible                    265

 

of the Bible, and not the literary parts, in support of their aberra-

tions. So it would be wrong to suppose that even the most exposi-

tional and nonliterary texts are free from being misinterpreted.

The multiplicity that literary critics find in biblical texts is

likely to be at the level of human experience. For example the

meanings that one attributes to the psalmist's metaphor comparing

slander to swords are likely to depend on an interpreter's experience

with swords and slander. In a sense the literary parts of the Bible

will yield their meanings to the degree to which a reader's experi-

ence of life equips him or her to meet the text. It is in this regard

that a Jewish scholar's theory of foolproof composition seems useful.

Sternberg explains this theory:

By foolproof composition I mean that the Bible is difficult to read, easy

to underread and overread and misread, but virtually impossible to ...

counterread.... The essentials are made transparent to all comers: the

story line, the world order, the value system. The old and new contro-

versies among exegetes, spreading to every possible topic, must not

blind us (as it usually does them) to the measure of agreement in this

regard.9

Applying this to biblical poetry, even when a given expositor or

member of a Bible study group finds slightly too many or too few cor-

respondences between the two halves of a biblical metaphor, the ba-

sic meaning of a passage remains intact.

 

The "Fictional" Element in Biblical Poetry

 

A third principle of poetry (including biblical poetry) is its

"fictional" (i.e., metaphorical) and even "fantastic" nature. Poets

are always busy playing the game of make-believe, asserting what

is not literally true.

At a semantic level, for example, a metaphor is not literally

true. Omitting the formula "like" or "as," it makes an assertion that

is false at a factual level. God is not literally a rock, for example.

The opening verse of Psalm 1 states that the godly person "walks not

in the counsel of the wicked" and does not sit "in the seat of scoffers"

(RSV). Wicked people do not literally walk down a path called "the

counsel of the wicked." Nor do they have legislatures that issue

handbooks of evil behavior called "the counsel of the wicked." Peo-

ple who are in a cynical mood do not take turns sitting in a chair

with a sign over it that reads "the seat of scoffers." Metaphoric

statements, while not true literally, are means of conveying literal

truth in a striking way.

 

9 Meier Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington, IN: Indiana

University Press, 1985), pp. 50-51.



266      Bibliotheca Sacra / July-September 1990

 

The same is true of other figures of speech that biblical poets

employ. Hyperbole, for example, always exaggerates the literal

truth of a situation: "My tears have been my food day and night"

(Ps. 42:3); "By my God I can leap over a wall" (Ps. 18:29); "If your

right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away" (Matt.

5:29, RSV). Equally "fantastic" is the poet's use of apostrophe, in

which he addresses someone or something absent as though it were

present and capable of responding: "Lift up your heads, 0 gates" (Ps.

24:7); "Away from me, all you who do evil" (Ps. 6:8, NIV). Personifi-

cations are yet another example: "Their tongue struts through the

earth" (Ps. 73:9, RSV); "Let the rivers clap their hands" (Ps. 98:8).

This element inherent in all poetry becomes openly fantastic in

the visionary or apocalyptic sections of the Bible. Here we are

transported to a world where a river can overflow a nation (Isa. 8:5-

8), where a branch can build a temple (Zech. 6:12), and where a great

red dragon with seven heads and 10 horns can sweep down a third of

the stars of heaven with his tail (Rev. 12:3-4).

It is with good reason that the world has evolved the phrase

"poetic license." There are several lessons to be learned from the

metaphorical nature of biblical poetry. Chief among them is the

need for a moratorium on the cliché that "we always interpret the

Bible literally." No one interprets poetic license literally. Even the

staunchest literalist does not believe that Jesus is really a door, or

that following Him literally involves building a house on a rock.

Why then do expositors mislead the public by advertising a princi-

ple they do not in fact practice? What is meant by that misleading

statement is that evangelicals believe that the historical narra-

tives of the Bible record the facts of events that really occurred.

Evangelicals also believe that the Bible includes figures of speech,

especially in its poetry.

The presence of metaphor in the Bible should also lead believ-

ers to respect these modes as a vehicle for expressing and assimilat-

ing truth. In the Bible God used the imaginary to express reality.

God gave people capacity for imagination and creativity for a pur-

pose. Francis A. Schaeffer was right when he said that "the Chris-

tian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars."10

 

How Poems Work

 

Thus far this article has discussed poetry, a distinctive type of

discourse. To handle the poetic parts of the Bible competently one

also needs to know something about poems-self-contained works

 

10 Art and the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 61.



"I Have Used Similitudes": The Poetry of the Bible                    267

 

that employ poetic language. This has to do with how poems are

unified and structured.

The basic principle is theme and variation. A working assump-

tion must be that a poem is about one thing. It might be an idea, an

emotion, a mood, or a human situation (such as the psalmist's re-

sponse to his crisis in the lament psalms). This theme must be formu-

lated in broad terms that sufficiently cover the entire poem. For

most readers of the Bible, an individual psalm is a collection of iso-

lated fragments instead of a unified whole.

Having identified the "umbrella" for the entire poem, the sec-

ond task is to lay out the poem into its constituent parts. These are

the variations on the theme. The basis for dividing one section from

another will be one of three things: changes in imagery; in idea or

topic, or in emotion.

Applying the scheme of theme and variation works wonders

with poems. It is the necessary framework for tracing the progres-

sion of a poem. It allows an expositor or reader to follow the actual

path of a poet's utterance and to experience that utterance as a uni-

fied and coherent whole. It solves the problem of knowing what to

"do" with a psalm when using it as the basis of a sermon or Bible

study. When people read or analyze a psalm, they should begin

with the premise that they are sharing the thought process of the

poet from beginning to end. The whole poem is the meaning. The

model must be resisted that treats the poem as a bag into which the

expositor dips to illustrate three points. Readers and expositors must

trace an ongoing arc of thought and feeling.

In contrast to such an "organic" view of a poem, the usual han-

dling of biblical poems is too conceptual, too mechanical, too selec-

tive. People get the impression that expositors have translated the

poem, with all its concrete details and progressive development, into

a static outline of theological ideas. Expositors need instead to

think in terms of reenacting a drama that took place within the

poet's mind. It also helps to approach a poem with the assumption

of the poet's self-conscious composition, which means that the poet

carefully constructed the parts of the poem to fit together and flow

from one part to the next. In passing it may be noted that the frame-

work of theme and variation works equally well with nonnarrative

prose passages, such as paragraphs in an epistle.

 

Implications for Preaching and Teaching

 

The thesis of this series of articles is that the Bible is mainly

literary in form and that this should govern how Christians treat

the Bible in their reading, teaching, and preaching. This is another

way of saying they should aggressively choose the literary parts of



268      Bibliotheca Sacra / July-September 1990

 

the Bible for exposition, and should approach them with the ordi-

nary tools of literary criticism.

Whereas ordinary writing is transparent, pointing beyond itself

to a body of information, a work of literature invites readers to enter

a whole imagined world and to get inside it. The whole story, the

whole poem, the whole vision is the meaning. Therefore the whole

story, poem, or vision needs to be experienced. Reliving the text is

the first task of the expositor. Many of the meanings embodied in a

literary text get communicated indirectly and in mysterious ways.

Literature can be trusted to convey its meanings by literary means.

The corollary is that expositors must be willing to talk about aspects

of a text that may seem on the surface to be far removed from any-

thing "spiritual."

In view of this, a concluding plea is that preachers rethink

what constitutes a three-part sermon. What it means to most

preachers is to list three propositions, to impose that framework of

generalizations on a biblical text, and to reach into the text to sup-

port the generalizations. Much evangelical preaching is so topical,

moreover, that excursions into the text are bypassed almost com-

pletely. An entirely different version of a three-part sermon is pro-

posed in the following paragraphs.

Part one is to interact with the text itself in terms of its literary

genre. If the whole story or the whole poem is the meaning, then it

is entirely legitimate to interact with the passage fully as a com-

plete entity. By "text" is meant the whole story or poem, not a single

verse. I am at a loss to understand how the single isolated verse

could ever have become the customary basis for a sermon. This perni-

cious convention of contemporary preaching must go. Preachers need

to live inside the "world" of a complete passage, in the process talk-

ing about matters that seem far removed from any spiritual princi-

ples but that are part of the total impact of a passage. This interac-

tion with the passage might take as much as half the time allotted

to a sermon.

Part two of the proposed three-part sermonic approach is stat-

ing the themes or principles that emerge from the passage. Stating

these principles will not take long. The process of entering fully into

the world of the passage will have prepared the way. The princi-

ples, when stated, will come as a moment of insight that illumines or

explains the meaning of the passage. They will cast a retrospective

interpretive light on the passage. The third part of the sermonic

pattern consists of application of the principles. The principles de-

duced from a text and their application to the lives of people have

more impact if they are isolated by themselves instead of being in-

termixed with the analysis of the text.

This proposed three-part scheme allows a biblical passage to



I Have Used Similitudes": The Poetry of the Bible                     269

 

communicate first by literary means. It resists the usual tendency to

substitute three abstract generalizations for the passage. The power

of Scripture rests partly in the forms in which it speaks. Those forms

are prevailingly literary. Biblical passages must be allowed to

speak in their own voice, to unfold according to their own inner dy-

namics.

The idea that the Bible is in large part literary in nature is

more than the latest fad among scholars, though it is certainly that

too. A literary approach to the Bible can positively influence and

even revolutionize how people read the Bible, how they teach it,

and how they preach from it.

Editor's Note

 

This is the third in a series of four articles delivered by the author as the W. H.

Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, November 7-10, 1989.

 

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Dr. Roy Zuck

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204

Digital copy proofed by Dan James.  Thanks!

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu