Poetry and the People of God

Poetry is very influential within cultures. Through poetry, truth is portrayed in a way that seems less intrusive than straightforward argumentation. Through being playful with words, the poet can highlight a deep truth. In a sense, a poem is a bit like a parable. It discloses, but it also reveals. Those who have “ears to hear” can understand, while others may not get it.

The American poet Emily Dickinson is well-known for writing the poem “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” The poem contains the line,
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

We may not realize it, but much of the Bible is poetry. We readily realize that the Psalms are poetry. The Psalms make up a fairly large portion of the Old Testament—as they are divided in our Bibles, there are 150 of them. But the Psalms are not the only poetic portions of the Bible. There is some disagreement among students of Scripture as to just how much of the Old Testament is poetry, but a conservative estimate is that about 1/3 of the Old Testament is written within the poetic genre. Large portions of the prophets are poetic. Flip through your Bible and notice how your translation spaces much of the text in verse. The prophets are essentially preachers who preach through poetry. The book of Job is largely poetic. And, even in books that we don’t think of as being poetic, there is poetry. For example, Exodus 15 is a poetic expression of praise after the people have crossed the Red Sea.

The New Testament continues this poetic tradition. It is widely accepted that the portion of text commonly called “The Lord’s Prayer” is a piece of poetry (Matthew 6:9-13). Your translation of the Bible likely sets it off in verse like it does a Psalm. Other poetic portions of the New Testament include Luke 1:46-55, 68-79; 2:29-32; Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:11-13. Your translation of the Bible may indicate that these are poetic as well.

Poetry remains a powerful tool in the hands of the people of God. We continue to use poetry to be encouraged and to teach. Although we may not think of our hymns as poetry, this is exactly what they are. If you have a songbook, you’ll notice that there are usually several names on the page of the song. Usually, the writer/poet is identified as well as the person who put the poem to music. Sometimes, one person does both.

It was once said that if you want to overtake a kingdom, you should start by capturing the poets. As long as the poets are free, the people will continue to have morale. We are in a battle “against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Throughout the history of God’s people, the forces of wickedness have always tried to silence the poets—David, the prophets, and the early church. In this battle, we are armed with the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17). Interestingly, our sword contains a lot of poetry.