Much to my chagrin, when I learned what it meant to study the Old Testament, I quickly realized I needed to develop a love for poetry. Creativity was—and is—not my forté. Yet, the more I read Scripture, the more I recognized the writers were, in a sense, singing in harmony with one another. What I discovered is that the theology of the OT often rides on the harmonics created by the songs and poems breathed out by the Holy Spirit through the skillful pen of His prophets. Any reading of the Old Testament for the church will demand at least some attention to the way in which the writers employ poetry. Here are a few examples to consider:
1. Poetry complements narrative.
Authors frequently gain the attention of a reader by interspersing poems within their prose. From Adam’s poem (Genesis 2:23) to Jacob’s blessings on his sons (Genesis 49) to Hannah’s prayer (1 Samuel 2), poems consistently show up as part of the story. Examples like these are numerous, but consider the Song of the Sea that appears in Exodus 15. Having just written about the crossing of the Red Sea in the narrative of chapter 14, Moses inserts a poetic interpretation of that event (15:1–18). The Song allows the reader both to exult in Yahweh’s great salvation and to learn what the narrative teaches about the Lord, especially as it demonstrates that the incomparable Yahweh (15:11)—not Pharaoh—is the eternal King (15:18).
As we read the stories of the Old Testament, we should pay particular attention when the author breaks from prose and inserts a poetic section. These are theologically loaded and often provide a lens for the reader to focus properly on the author’s purposes.
2. Poetry focuses attention on the future.
The authors use poems in their writings to move from interpretation to prophetic extension. Exodus 15 also provides an example of this method when the Song transitions, beginning in verse 13, to the nations’ response to Yahweh leading the people into the land: “All the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away” (v. 15). According to the poem, the nations who will hear of God’s work for Israel will cower at His power. In fact, Rahab will echo this in her declaration to the spies in Jericho: “And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for Yahweh your God, he is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11).
A skill we should develop as readers is to observe where the author has used the poem in concert with the plans God has for the future, especially the promises He has made to David. This is a common feature of the Psalms, as well, as attention is drawn from the present situation of the writer to the future work of the Lord (see: Psalms 72 and 132).
3. Poetry resonates with poetry.
Poetry reverberates across the pages of the Old Testament. Writers frequently took important lines from earlier poems and crafted them into something new. Although what they created was a unique composition, it harmonizes with the other texts. For example, consider these two verses:
“Yah is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation; this is my God and I will praise Him, my father’s God and I will exalt him.” (Exodus 15:2)
“Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. For Yah, yes Yahweh, is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation.” (Isaiah 12:2)
The theological lesson of Exodus 15 provides the foundation for the song of Isaiah 12, which will be sung by those who enjoy the security and peace of the Messiah’s kingdom (Isaiah 11). The same King who delivered Israel through the Red Sea will again deliver a people into His kingdom. And they will praise Him with the same words.
So, while reading poetry, we should always be asking the question, Where have I seen this before? This helps us determine where this belongs within the rest of the OT’s masterpiece.
As we hone our skills of reading biblical poetry, we will refine our understanding of the theology of the Old Testament. A direct result of this will be a more profound understanding of our Messiah as we discover that the songs the Old Testament authors are singing are about our Savior.