Engaging Exposition (12): Analysis of Poetry

The development of a thematic outline will help you discover the author’s MIT when you encounter Poetry in the Scriptures. It is essential to consider rhyme and meter and the use of figurative language when interpreting Poetry.

Poetry Type and Pattern
There are a variety of poetic styles in the Scriptures. Determining the type and pattern of a poem is one of the most challenging aspects of studying poetry, especially for young interpreters. For instance, Psalm 4 is a Psalm of trust-it reminds the reader of God’s faithfulness in life’s trials. If you do not know what type of Psalm you are studying, you will run the risk of misinterpretation.

Produce a Thematic Structural Diagram

When dealing with poetry, you are not attempting to identify the plot like you would in a narrative. You are not concerned with producing the kind of intensive structural diagram required by an epistle. Rather, you are attempting to trace the development of the poem’s themes and movement. As a result, you want to produce an analysis of the poem that will identify these.

In Psalm 4, David addresses several primary themes: a) God is righteous, and he hears the prayers of his people (4:1); b) man’s natural inclination is to participate in destructive activities (4:2); c) God’s people fear and trust him (4:3-5); d) God alone is the source of provision and safety for his people (4:6-8).

Identify Figurative Language

Poets use figurative language to describe the issues and emotions of life. Furthermore, the theological content of poems is often contained in their poetic devices. Consequently, interpretation requires an ability to understand a poem’s figures of speech and their connotations.

Identify the Theological Themes
As is true for every other genre, biblical poetry is about God and humanity. Consequently, it contains theological themes about God and his work among his people. The thematic structure that you develop will reveal the theological themes in the poem. Trusting God is the overarching theological theme of Psalm 4. He can be trusted to hear our prayers, to set us apart to fulfill his purposes, to infuse our hearts with joy, and to provide safety and security as we follow him.

Analysis of Wisdom Literature
Wisdom literature is a genre that incorporates both narrative and poetic elements. When you are studying in either Job or Ecclesiastes, use the narrative analysis form in the appropriate places and apply the appropriate criteria. When you are studying Song of Solomon, Proverbs, and the poetic parts of Job, use the poetry analysis form and apply the appropriate criteria. Note that there are significant similarities between Poetry and Wisdom Literature.

Analysis of Apocalyptic Literature

Apocalyptic literature is a very challenging genre to interpret. Because of its unique forms and language, Apocalyptic literature incorporates both narrative and poetic elements. As is the case with Wisdom literature, use the analysis form that works best for the text under consideration, whether narrative, epistolary, or poetic. To see how I have treated this genre, you can go to www.danielakin.com where you will find almost 40 verse by verse studies of Revelation.


Every biblical genre requires a unique model of outlining. You must properly identify the key elements used by the author in his writing. Rushing through the inspection stage may rob you of the joy and significance you will find in letting a text “speak.” Your haste, often influenced by personal presuppositions, may hinder you from “hearing” the text in the way God intends. Make the commitment to study the Scriptures carefully. Your close inspection of every biblical text will help you discover the author’s MIT. It will also yield rich expository fruit!

Engaging Exposition (9): The Author’s Method of Communication


Walt Kaiser notes that Poetry “is important enough to occupy about one-third of the Old Testament.”* It is a medium of communication that uses figurative language to explore the intricacies of life, and it has the capacity to provide an extraordinary view of ordinary things. Grant Osborne notes,

Semitic poetry had its origin in the religious life of the people, both corporate and individual. Prose was inadequate to express the deep yearnings of the soul, and poetry as an emotional, deep expression of faith and worship became a necessity. The many types of religious needs called for different types of hymns. Hebrew poetry was not recreational but was functional in the life of the nation and its relationship with Yahweh.**

It is important to understand a primary pattern found in Old Testament poetry-semantic parallelism. Kaiser describes semantic parallelism as of “major importance both for identifying the literary form and for getting at its meaning.” He further states, “The basic idea of parallelism is that two or more lines of poetry express either a synonymous idea by use of an equivalent but different word, or an antithetic idea by some type of contrast. The parallelism may be semantic (dealing with meaning) or grammatical (pertaining to form).”

Despite the predominance of the Psalms as Old Testament poetry, there are many other examples of poetry in Scripture. In particular, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon all contain poetry. Further, large portions of the prophets are poetic.

Poetry is often difficult to interpret because it contains so much figurative language and there are numerous ways that poets may incorporate the use of figurative language. One of the primary figurative devices found in Scripture is the simile. Similes, like metaphors, are “used as a means of comparing things that are essentially unlike. The only distinction between them is that in simile the comparison is expressed by the use of some word or phrase, such as like, as, than, similar to, resembles, or seems.” (Perrine)

While similes express the comparison, metaphors imply the comparison. That is, “The figurative term is substituted for or identified with the literal term.”

Personification also is a type of figurative language found in Scripture. In personification, objects, animals, or ideas are given human attributes.

Paradox is yet another form of figurative language. A paradox is an apparent contradiction that is nevertheless somehow true.

Irony is a form of figurative language that occurs in Scripture, although it is not as common as those listed above. Irony is saying the opposite of what one means.

We must be careful not to over-exegete figurative language in Scripture. However, a commitment to allow the context to determine their meaning will put us well on our way to understanding Scripture’s rich use of figurative language.


Wisdom literature in the Bible is often associated with the books of poetry. In fact, the books of wisdom often utilize poetics. While all of Scripture may be described as containing God’s wisdom for his world, the books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon are unique in their discussion and treatment of God’s principles of wisdom for his people.

In his book The Hermeneutical Spiral, Osborne provides a wonderful overview of the ten forms that wisdom writing may take.*** First, he defines the proverb, the most prominent form of wisdom writing, as a “brief statement of universally accepted truth formulated in such a way as to be memorable.” Second, there are wisdom sayings. These differ from typical proverbs in that they may not be prescriptive in nature. Rather, they suggest possible outcomes based on potential choices. Third, is the riddle. This is used rarely in Scripture, yet the riddle was a key form of wisdom literature in the ancient world.

Fourth, is the admonition. This form of wisdom writing presents the hearer with a wise course of action and immediately provides positive or negative reinforcement by revealing a potential outcome based upon the choice made. Fifth, is the use of allegory in wisdom literature. Allegory, as a literary device, involves communicating a deeper meaning through the use of symbols or story (cf. Ecclesiastes 12:1-7).

Sixth, are hymns and prayers found in wisdom literature. Often these prayers are written as poetry. The same is true for the hymns. Seventh, there is the dialogue. The dialogue is found primarily in Job, but is used in Proverbs as well. This type of wisdom writing chronicles a conversation between people, with the goal of attaining wisdom or understanding.

Eighth, is the confession. Found primarily in Ecclesiastes, this form of wisdom writing functions as an autobiography of sorts, where life’s lessons are recounted-both the good and the bad. Ninth, is what is called onomastica. This type of wisdom writing, found rarely in Scripture, recounts the attributes of God (cf. Job 38). Tenth, are beatitudes. They are found throughout Scripture, but are most noted for their use in the Sermon on the Mount. Beatitudes provide examples of the kind of wise choices that result in the blessing of God.

Wisdom literature is one of the most challenging genres to interpret correctly. Because of their practical nature, it is easy to lose sight of the theology that supports them. It is also easy to lose sight of Christ if we forget He is the very wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:30)! For instance, the book of Proverbs contains practical advice on everything from marriage to personal finances. However, every proverb is built upon this truth: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7).” We can see clearly, then, that the foundation for every aspect of practical wisdom is an authentic relationship with God through the Messiah Jesus. As interpreters, we must be careful that our teaching reflects this truth when we deal with Wisdom literature.


* All quotes from Walt Kaiser found in Toward An Exegetical Theology (Baker, 1981), 92.

** Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (2nd Edition; IVP, 2006), 231.

*** See Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 247-250.