A great deal of the Old Testament is written in poetry. Like most of the Jewish Scriptures that Christians know as the Old Testament, it is written in Hebrew. It is typical of the poetry of the time. It does not rhyme, but has lines in pairs, which echo each other in meaning, imagery or rhythm. Occasionally there are technical devices that do not translate well into English, such as having the first letter of each line work its way through the Hebrew alphabet.
150 hymns make up the book of Psalms. They were a cycle of songs used by the Hebrew people (subsequently known as the Jews) in worship in the temple. Every imaginable sentiment that a human being might need to express honestly to God is found here. There is praise, pleading, fury, doubt, recollection of happy times, trust in secure times, and despair in times of suffering.
A large amount of the Bible’s poetry concerns whether it is possible to believe in a loving God when there is so much suffering in the world. It is the subject of the book of Job, which is presented as a play in verse. In it a faithful worshipper of God refuses to lose trust in him despite every misfortune that life throws at him.
There is an unexpectedly sympathetic hearing given in Ecclesiastes to the idea that food, drink, sex and sun are all you need on God’s good earth.
Song of Songs is an erotic poem. Christians have sometimes interpreted it as being about the love between God and his people, although this sits awkwardly with the sexier parts.
Proverbs is a collection of the sayings of Israel’s wise men and women. It gives advice on how to take a godly approach to friendship, work, health, shopping and family relationships. It does this using jokes, riddles and memorable sayings.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry out by day,
but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent.
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the praise of Israel.
In you our fathers put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
Where to find it:
About these words:
This is the beginning of a poem that attempts to hold together despair and hope in God. Jesus screamed it in the minutes before his death. It is one of many parts of the Bible that give voice to the uncertainty about God that is the experience of every human.
And they said…
Athanasius, 296-373, Bishop of Alexandria:
The Psalms are like a mirror, in which one can see oneself and the movements of one’s own heart.
Graham Kendrick, writer of songs for Christian worship:
I remember talking to a jeweller who was trying to justify the cost of a pair of diamond stud ear rings. He said that for every carrot of diamond you have to shift twenty-five metric tonnes of rock and dirt. We are in the same business. I sometimes feel that to mine a gem of a song you just have to dig a lot of dirt.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772-1834, poet:
I have found in the Bible words for my inmost thoughts, songs for my joy, utterance for my hidden griefs, and pleadings for my shame and feebleness.