The Challenge and Importance of the OT’s Prophetic Poetry

Reading the poetic portions of the Old Testament in English, especially in the Prophets, can be challenging. There are several reasons for this. First, from the start Hebrew poetry is more difficult to read and understand than Hebrew prose. It uses more difficult and unusual syntax as well as rarer vocabulary (far more hapax legomena – that is, words that occur only once in the OT – are found in the OT’s poetry, especially the Prophets, than in the OT’s narrative literature). In English versions, this results in more questionable and uncertain translations, and very often even where educated translators make a good guess, the significance of the guessed translation is not always clear.

Second, English translations on the whole do not do a very good job of translating the aesthetic qualities of their source texts. More effort is spent (justifiably) trying to communicate the literal meaning of the words and phrases of the poetic texts than capturing the aesthetic beauty and raw power of the poetic mode of expression. This is mostly unavoidable, but the fact is that translators do not typically understand translation of their source text’s aesthetic value as falling within their job description (this, actually, is one of the real distinctive strengths of the KJV). So little to no effort is made in this regard in most translations.

There are translations that at least claim to attempt this. The Voice, which included poets and songwriters amongst its aesthetic review panel, is one. The Message, arguably, is another. The Gods’ Word translation attempts to match the difficulty of the translated text to the difficulty of the source text (a method the translators call Closest Natural Equivalence), and indeed I have found the God’s Word Translation refreshingly readable in Isaiah (a book that, in the KJV, is often practically unreadable, and even in the ESV is jarringly difficult), regardless of questions about its accuracy. But attention to these kinds of details is by far the exception rather than the rule. So the result is that Hebrew poetry comes across to the English reader as anything but poetic.

In fact, the main impression Hebrew poetry makes in the minds of many modern English readers is that of repetitiveness. A cursory reading of the poetic portions of the Prophets will reveal that not infrequently when Hebrew poetry says something, it immediately after says something very similar. This is but one manifestation of one of the most important characteristics of Hebrew poetry: parallelism, which is the extensive use of synthetic and antithetic parallel phrases, typically with syntactic and phonetic parallels, as well (though these latter parallels are typically lost in translation). Many Christians may be familiar with this term, but arguably most are not certain how parallelism differs from mere repetition, so the impression left is that Hebrew poetry is repetitive and boring, and rather than slog through it to master it and appreciate it, most would rather retreat from it, relying upon the (it is thought) more accessible and relevant New Testament. Because it is commonly believed that, whatever the difficult parts of the OT might say, they have been explained and fulfilled in the NT.

So as a result, very often the most well known portions of the Prophetic books are the narrative portions: Isaiah’s prophecy to Ahaz about Immanuel; Amos’ vision of the plumbline and confrontation with Amaziah the priest; the visions and experiences of Ezekiel; Jeremiah’s potter and clay parable or oxgoad parable; Hosea’s (typically misunderstood) experiences with Gomer, his wife; the book of Jonah (almost entirely narrative). On the other hand, few English speaking Christians are as familiar with the poetic sections of the Prophets, even very important sections, such as Isaiah 40. We might know about the suffering servant, but how many Christians can quote much of anything from those passages other than a portion of the last one (he was despised and acquainted with grief … etc.).

But the fact is that the more familiar one becomes with the poetic sections of the Prophets, the more one sees that they are absolutely, vitally central to the NT, and an unprepared reading of the NT is by no means in itself a reliable guide to understanding these difficult OT passages. On the contrary, it has become increasingly clear to me as I have studied the Prophets that they must be understood on their own terms in order for us to truly understand what the NT means when it appropriates them in service to Christianity. Otherwise, what we are left with are apparently arbitrary misuses of isolated phrases by the NT writers in a dishonest attempt to somehow prove that Jesus was “predicted”, even unwittingly, by the Hebrew prophets. When we accept this view of the NT writers’ appropriation of the OT, and worse when we actually endorse it, we make the claims of the early Christians seem to be nothing more than the willful fraud that many have accused them of being. The value of the Prophets is not found just in random prooftexts cut out and pasted into a convenient and therefore likely artificial narrative about Jesus, but in their understanding of God, the world, Israel, the flow of history, and Israel’s place in that history. When we begin to grasp the coherent worldview of the Hebrew prophets, seeing Jesus as the fulfillment of that worldview becomes practically inescapable, and what had before seemed to be merely prooftexts are now shown to be highly significant intertextual shorthand invoking not just the quoted phrase but an entire religious, historical, and ideological context connected to that phrase. The NT’s ability to communicate to the reader using this shorthand is impaired when we are not immersed in the poetry of the Prophets.

Strategies for Reading Prophetic Poetry in English

So what can an English speaking reader of the Bible do to more effectively engage the poetry of the OT? Some simple suggestions include:

  1. Use more than one translation:
    1. Use a word-for-word translation as your primary to get as transparent a first engagement with the poetic language as possible. Though I am not generally a fan of the NASB, for this purpose I think the NASB is one of the most transparent English translations because of its almost wooden formal equivalence. Other word-for-word translations that can work for this purpose include the NKJV, the RSV, or either of the RSV’s two child translations, the NRSV and the ESV. I personally think the RSV is superior to either of its two children in most respects, including aesthetics. The importance of this word-for-word translation will become more apparent in the next post, where I will show you how to read Hebrew parallelism closely.
    2. Use a translation with strong attention to aesthetics as your second translation. This could be either The Voice, The Message, or perhaps the God’s Word Translation. The point of this second translation is to assist you in engaging the text on a more emotional level.
  2. Choose either (preferably) a single column format or a two column that uses carriage returns and indentation to reflect the text’s accentuation and meter.
  3. Spend time thinking about the real life situation of an original hearer of the poetry. Put yourself in their shoes. Think about, for example, the horror of a locust plague for a subsistence agrarian society when reading Joel. Ponder the fear and dread of seeing your city besieged by the Assyrians when reading Amos. Do some historical research (use a Bible dictionary). Think about why an Israelite might resort to idolatry. Try to feel what the implied reader would feel.
  4. Dwell on a small piece of text for an extended period of time. Memorize it. Recite it daily. Talk about it with your friends and family. Journal about it. Chew on it over and over to see if new details or questions present themselves.
  5. Maybe expand your memorization efforts to encompass several chapters or the whole of one of the shorter books of the Minor Prophets (Joel, Obadiah, Nahum, or Zephaniah, for example, would be excellent candidates for this).

In short, the way to make OT poetry interesting and understandable is not by retreating from it or by letting someone else digest it for you (i.e., relying on commentaries), but by making an even more intensely focused effort in studying it. Next post, I will talk about how to read Hebrew parallelism closely, what to look for in it, and what questions to ask of it.

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