Understanding Biblical Poetry
By Don Ruhl
Why do we use poetry? It prevents a quick reading, causing us to pause and think about what is being said as we try to interpret the images. This reflection happens by seeing images rather than words. Poetry helps us to understand a more complex subject by using a simple one that we already know.
By using images (for example, from nature) that bring delight to us we can transfer that delight to the subject, as in the case of the Song of Solomon, about love. For example, what is the first thing that you see if I say, “[someone’s name] is as tough as an overripe banana”?
Read Song of Solomon 1.9–14. Notice how the passage appeals to our senses (such as the aroma of spices and perfume). We also imagine pictures. What pictures do you see? There is also passion, because the book shows us many emotions of love.
Metaphors are also obvious. She is not literally a horse, nor is he literally a bundle of myrrh. With these metaphors, and often throughout the Book, we are to transfer the value or excellence of an object to one of the two lovers. For example, the horses for Pharaoh’s chariots were the best of their kind, so she is to Solomon the best of her kind. Also note how many different images are used rather than staying with one image.
It is important to understand a figure of speech only as far as the writer intended!
People have the tendency either to make more of the comparison than the writer intended or to make a comparison that the writer never intended. Consider Jesus and a thief. Does Jesus have the characteristics of a thief? Of course not. Does it bother you to compare Jesus with a thief? If so, why? If not, why not? Does the comparison seem comical or insulting to Jesus?
In Scripture, Jesus is compared to a thief, “Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame” (Rev 16.15; See also Matt 24.42–44; 1Th 5.2–4; 2Pe 3.10; Rev 3.3), yet in John 10.10 the Bible is clear that Jesus is not a thief, “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” Jesus clearly contrasted Himself with a thief, that is, He did not come to steal, to kill, and to destroy, but He came to give life.
How can Jesus be compared to a thief, but turn around and deny that He is in any way a thief? There is only one point of comparison. Jesus at His second coming will not come like a thief to steal, but He will come like a thief in that the timing of His return is a surprise.
Consider Noah’s flood and baptism. In First Peter 3.20, 21 the Bible says, “who formerly were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us, namely baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Many people who do not believe that baptism is necessary for salvation try to blunt the force of this passage by misusing the comparison that Peter made by saying that Noah was not in the water or that if the comparison is true, we would have to be in something even as Noah was in the ark. Was Noah in the water? If not, does this nullify Peter’s comparison and the fact that baptism is necessary for salvation? Is Peter teaching that we must be in something, even as Noah was in the ark, to be saved through baptism? What is the one and only comparison between Noah’s flood and baptism? The element involved is water.
Going back to the Song of Solomon, think about how Solomon compared his bride to a lily. In Song of Solomon 2.2 Solomon said, “Like a lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.” Shall we understand this comparison in strictly a visual sense? To what is the bride compared in the verse? To what are the daughters compared in the verse? If we were to understand this verse strictly in a visual sense, then we might conclude that the Shulamite is as beautiful as a flower. But are all other women as ugly as thorns? If not, then what comparison did Solomon make? Is he not saying that even as a lily stands out among thorns, so his bride stood out among the daughters?
Of course, some people fail to see the metaphor at all and think only literally, so they miss the point completely. The problem with the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation comes from a failure to understand metaphors. This doctrine teaches that when the priest prays over the communion, the bread literally becomes the flesh of Jesus Christ and the fruit of the vine literally becomes the blood of Christ. They believe they take the Bible for what it says, because Jesus said concerning the bread, “This is My body,” and concerning the fruit of the vine He said, “This is My blood.” What did Jesus in Matthew 26.26–28? The comparison between Himself and the bread and the fruit of the vine is so strong that He used a metaphor, which sounds like it is literal, but common sense tells us that it is not, because Jesus Himself sat there as a man holding the bread and the cup. It is like taking a picture of yourself and saying, “This is me,” but everyone knows that it is a good representation of you and not literally you.
A metaphor is used to make a point strongly, but false teaching often arises from making the literal figurative and the figurative literal.