|Psalm 114 Ė A song of the Exodus
An unwarranted presumption of those in the know is that most Americans feel that literary flights of fancy never get very far off the ground. Often obscure, hard for the schoolboy to understand, maybe less so the schoolgirl, poetry was something to be endured and embarrassing to perform. Why take a simple thought and make it incomprehensible, as in the onomatopoeia of the bells, bells, bellsóa phony pretending to which a lot of kids have a natural antipathy. And often never get over it. They are more into lines like the boy stood on the burning deck, eating peanuts by the peck, and men never make passes at girls who wear glasses. So goes the wisdom of youth. Listen to Paulís imaginative answer to the problem of wasted youth:
When I was a child I spoke as a child,
I understood as a child;
I thought as a child;
but when I became a man,
I put away childish things. (1Cor 13. 11)
The holy scriptures-- in case you didnít know--are one third poetry, maybe more. They are expressions in a language by which we can better appreciate the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, and most powerfully, the prophets. Can you hear the heartbreak in the Song of Moses, which he wrote at Godís behest?
The Lordís portion is His people;
Jacob (Israel) is the lot of his inheritance.
He found him in a desert land, and in the waste, howling wilderness;
He led him about, He instructed him,
And kept him as the apple of His eye. . . .
But Jeshuran (pet name for Israel) waxed fat, and kicked . . .
Then he forsook God which made him,
And lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation. (Deut 32. 9, 10, 15.)
So begins the biography of the nation of Israel. Later in the history of Israel we feel deep in our hearts the pure poetry in Davidís lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, (2Sam 17. 27), ending with the words How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished. Read it in its entirety and you will find out how magnificent an obituary can be.
We make excuses and say we canít read Hebrew or Greek. Itís tempting to make this claim because often its beauty is lost in translation. Letís not be hasty; perhaps we can learn to love it that way. Itís hard to find fault with the magnificent King James Version of the Holy Bible. Do you think the Hebrew language can sound any more wrenching than these mournful words of exiles in Babylon?
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows
In the midst thereof.
For there they carried us away captive
Required of us a song;
And they that wasted us
Required of us mirth, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lordís song in a strange land? (Ps 137. 1 Ė 4)
The first thing we need to understand is that the rules for Hebrew poetry are different from the rules of English poetry, notable for rhythm, meter and rhyme. English poetry includes many different rhyming patterns that the poet must follow, depending on the mood he intends to create. Although meter is seen to be rudimentary in Hebrew poetry, other methods are diverse and original: the acrostic, the stanza by alphabet, best seen in the 119th Psalm, or synonymous triplets, and antithetical couplets such as,
Answer a fool according to his folly; Answer not a fool according to his folly, (Prov 26)
Now thereís an idea. Food for thought. The poem continues to further define the Ďfoolí, each verse topping the next in abasement. Great stuff. Parallelisms are very characteristic of Hebrew poetry. There is poetry in sameness, i.e., Psalm 102. 7, 8: the Pelican in the wilderness; owl in the desert; and also in antithesis, as in Ecclesiastes 3:
A time to be born ,and a time to die; . . .
A time to kill, and a time to heal,
A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak, and so on.
You might search out the many complimentary parallels such as, Man proposes but God disposes. (Prov 19. 21) . The Bible is a veritable treasure trove of poetry at its finest.
The prophet Isaiah in his prophecy of Christ is pure poetry and truth that will evoke thankfulness and wonder in the heart of every Christian:
He shall grow up before him (the LORD) as a tender plant,
and as a root out of a dry ground:
he has no form nor comeliness;
and when we shall see him,
there is no beauty that we should desire him . . .
Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him:
he has put him to grief:
when thou shall make his soul an offering for sin,
he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days,
and the pleasure of the LORD
shall prosper in his hand. (Is 53. 2, 10).
Poetry has its origins in emotionóemotion recollected in tranquility. The purpose is more to transfuse feeling than transmit thought, something we can observe in the following proclamation by the prophet Joel:
Blow ye the trumpet in Zion,
And sound an alarm in my holy mountain
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble:
For the day of the Lord cometh,
For it is nigh at hand.
A day of darkness and of gloominess,
A day of clouds and thick darkness
As the morning spread upon the mountains:
A great people and a strong;
There has not been ever the like,
Neither shall be any more after it,
Even to the years of many generations. (Joel 2. 1, 2)
The rules for Hebrew poetry, if indeed there are any rules, are different from the rules for English poetry. When the poet can set up in the reader a vibration that corresponds with his own, he succeeds. Above all, poetry is an emotional experience, created by mood. Poets with whose works Iím acquainted seem to strive to create not only a mood, but to almost hypnotize you, if you will. Hear what the Preacher says:
Or ever the silver cord be loosed,
Or the golden bowl be broken,
Or the pitcher be broken at the fountain,
Or the wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was,
And the spirit shall return
To God who gave it. (Ecclesiastes 12. 6, 7)
This contemplation of the inevitability of death touches every man sooner or later, a universal from which there is no escape. How often have tears filled your eyes at the sound of Jobís lament Ė
Man that is born of woman is of few days,
And full of trouble.
He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down,
He flees also as a shadow and continues not. . .
If a man die, shall he live again?
All the days of my appointed time will I wait,
Til my change come. (Job 14. 1 Ė 3, 14, 15).
You will be doubly moved when you read this poetry aloud and the ear and the eye partner in understanding. It follows that early morning and late evening are prime times for this. Quietness contributes to a reflective moodóa must for those who crave insight into what they read.. The unstated premise here is that poetry is best appreciated in meditation. Does anybody meditate anymore? Or are we too involved with getting and spending, laying waste the feeble powers we do have. If you canít or donít choose to take time to reflect on the things that transpire around you in life, you will be missing a large part of Godís truth. Be still and know that He is God, so you can be moved to say with total conviction,
May the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.