It has been claimed that over sixty percent of the Bible is written in poetry. I guess that’s not surprising when you consider that some of the largest books — the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job — are entirely, or almost entirely, made up of poems. Most of the minor prophets wrote poetry, as did the wisdom writers, and time and again the people in the Bible sing songs. This reminds us of an important truth: that when God communicates through words, he doesn’t just give us bare facts. He doesn’t settle for the lowest common denominator. God has filled the Bible with rich metaphor, guiding his prophets and psalmists as they searched tirelessly for better words, better ways of connecting with people. When we say ‘we live by the word of God’ we aren’t saying that we are the boring, black-and-white Christians, while some other brands of Christians get full-colour. We are saying that we trust in God’s rich, varied, and beautiful words.

The search for better words is perhaps one of the most obvious characteristics of all poetry. A poem is set apart from prose by the care the poet has taken in choosing his or her words. What’s especially interesting is that biblical poetry has this search for words built into its form. Biblical poetry is filled with parallelism: the poet will say something, and then say it again in the next line, often repeating the order of words or the meaning. But the second line isn’t a word-for-word copy: it offers a metaphor, another way of looking at the topic. And often the second line intensifies the first, stating it more powerfully, or more vividly, asking us not just to observe the words, but to enter into the experience of the writer. Let me illustrate with an example from Isaiah.[1] First the prophet states an objective fact, but he states it twice, using the parallel words justice and righteousness:

So justice is far from us,
and righteousness does not reach us.

               (Isaiah 59:9a)

He then repeats this idea of a city without justice, this time using the idea of light. Once again, there is an internal parallelism: light becomes brightness; darkness becomes deep shadows.

We look for light, but all is darkness;
for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.
(Isaiah 59:9b)

Then Isaiah really pulls us in. He intensifies the image by introducing the picture of a blind person, and the parallel, people without eyes.

Like the blind we grope along the wall,
feeling our way like people without eyes.
(Isaiah 59:10a)

Now we get it. If we weren’t sure how bad a city without justice could be, we can certainly feel it after that image. And that’s what makes poetry so good for us. A Christian can’t afford to be just an observer – we need to step into the experience that the Bible presents to us. Eugene Peterson writes: ‘Poetry is not the language of objective explanation, but the language of imagination. It makes an image of reality in such a way as to invite our participation in it. We do not have more information after we read a poem, we have more experience.’[2]

Would you like to experience grace? Do you ever read your Bible and feel like it’s just the same old truths, over and over again? God’s answer is not to direct you elsewhere, to a new grace, but to tell you the old story in a new way. Or perhaps, if you’ve never spent time reading Old Testament poetry, to tell you the new story in an old way. Let’s look at how the gospel of grace was expressed in Isaiah’s poetry.

Isaiah describes the return to Jerusalem of God’s exiled people. They walk along a highway, free from fear of attack, and singing as they go.

And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
and those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
(Isaiah 35:8-10)

Let’s take some time to enjoy this picture of grace. You are on a highway – a wide road, with enough room for large crowds of people. It’s not a difficult road, but a smooth, straight way, and as you look around you can’t see any of those people who have caused you so much trouble – all you see are the people of God. You are returning to God’s city, and as you walk, you sing. What words could describe the atmosphere of joy that surrounds you? It’s as though everyone is wearing a crown of joy on their heads, a crown that can never be taken away. It’s as though joy and gladness rush through the crowd like a wave, nearly bowling you over. Even as you sing you feel like laughing because you feel the memory of your sorrows being chased away.

That’s one picture of salvation that God gives us. Let’s try another:

Sing for joy, you heavens, for the Lord has done this;
shout aloud, you earth beneath.
Burst into song, you mountains,
you forests and all your trees,
for the Lord has redeemed Jacob,
he displays his glory in Israel.
(Isaiah 44:23)

What would it sound like if the heavens sang? Would it be a glorious choir, or more like the shimmering strings of an orchestra? What noise does a mountain make when it bursts into song? Recently, when Big Ben was being repaired, the famous bell had to be disconnected, because the noise of its chiming would have been unsafe for the workmen. If that’s the noise a great bell can make, how much more a mountain? I remember a family holiday to the Swiss Alps, looking up at mountains that rose up through the clouds, and kept on going. I remember staring at the face of the Eiger, fascinated by the size, and wishing I could climb it. It didn’t occur to me at the time to think that this mountain was on my side, cheering for my salvation!

Consider the forests: we know the roar a crowd can make in a sports stadium, but that doesn’t even come close to the number of trees in a forest. Every one of these trees is being called to sing! Why? Why such a global celebration? Why, even, is the globe not enough, but the heavens need to be called in as well? Because God has redeemed his people! Our salvation is news that shakes the whole of creation. God calls everything there is to join in the celebration.

One of my favourite of Isaiah’s poems is in chapter 55. He pictures creation sharing in the joy of God’s people, and it’s as though the mountains, hills and trees can’t contain themselves at the joy of seeing God complete his plan to save.

You will go out with joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
(Isaiah 55:12)

These are powerful metaphors, and we have to admit they are hard for us to picture in our minds. But when we try to picture them our imaginations are filled with glorious possibilities. And in those times when we struggle to rejoice in our salvation, these verses of poetry can shine a light into our hearts. I think this is what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he prayed his famous prayer in Ephesians 3. Paul prayed that we would have power ‘to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.’ (Eph. 3:18-19) How can you grasp something that is far beyond your reach? How can you understand something that surpasses knowledge? How can you be filled to the same measure as God without bursting? For this, you need poetry, and not just any poetry, but the poetry God has given us in his word. Do you doubt that God’s love is big enough to cover all your sin? Do you doubt that God has a place for you in his heaven-bound people? Take courage from the words God has chosen to express his love. When God saved us — to put it poetically — he moved heaven and earth.

At this point you might object that this is all sounding a bit too stuck in the Old Testament. Isn’t God’s love most perfectly revealed at the cross? Doesn’t the real, historical sacrifice of the Son of God eclipse all other pictures of God’s love? Yes, it does. But don’t forget that even at that moment, the centre-point of history, poetry played a hugely important part. When Jesus neared his last breath, cursed as a sin offering, crushed under the weight of abandonment, forsaken by his Father, where did he turn? He chose the words of a song: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ he cried, quoting from Psalm 22 (Matt. 27:46). In doing so, he signalled to us that the words of that psalm described his own experience. And so, as we read Psalm 22 today, we are given a window into the agony Jesus suffered. Our understanding of grace is enriched by the poetry Jesus spoke. Not long after this, the Holy Spirit led Philip to explain the good news about Jesus to the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-39). Where did the conversation begin? The poetry of Isaiah’s servant song. The poetry of the Old Testament isn’t forgotten in the New – it is enriched as it is given new significance, as God reveals the details that justify the extravagance of his imagery. And the poetry of the Old, in turn, enriches the New, as it leads us to see in vivid picture-language how wonderful and immense God’s love and salvation are.

We live by the word of God. Let’s take the time to read the Bible in all its fullness. Let’s not be content with learning facts about God, when God has given us so much beauty. The poetry of the Bible is rich, and we will be richer as we listen to God speak through it.

This article first appeared in Co-Mission’s magazine ‘Articles’, Jan. 2018

[1] I’m indebted to Robert Altar for his brief treatment of these verses in The Art of Biblical Poetry, p. 14-15.

[2] Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder, p. 5