Poems, or the Lyric Poetry of the Bible

The foregoing unit dealt with poetry—the distinctive language that poets use.  This unit deals with poems—compositions constructed out of this poetic idiom.  Much of the time when we use the designation poem, we mean a lyric poem, so that will be our focus.  But it is important to note that many poetic parts of the Bible are not poems in this sense.

For example, the book of Proverbs is poetic in its form of expression, but it consists of individual proverbs rather than lyric poems.  The oracles of the prophetic books are usually expressed in poetry, but we would not call these oracles lyric poems.  Having set the record straight in this way, the rest of this unit will explore the nature of lyric poems in the Bible.

A lyric is a brief poem containing the thoughts or feelings of a speaker.  It is condensed, self-contained, and packed with meaning.  Most lyrics have a three-part structure, consisting of an introduction to the subject, development or elaboration of this central subject, and a concluding resolution and note of closure.

Lyrics typically have a single theme that unifies the poem.  The theme is then developed by units that can be thought of as variations on the main theme.  After the introduction, the poet develops the theme using one or more of the following formats:

  • Repetition: restating the theme in different words and images
  • Contrast: presenting an opposite emotion or phenomenon as counterpoint to the central theme
  • Listing or catalog: delineating specific aspects of the theme
  • Association: branching out from the original subject or image to a related one.

Lyric poetry is personal, with the poet using the first person pronoun in the singular (“I”) or plural (“we”).  Lyric poets express their thoughts and feelings directly, without projecting them onto external characters as stories do.

So far as the content of a lyric poem is concerned, two primary possibilities exist.  If a poet shares a process of thinking with us, or a series of ideas on a subject, we can call the poem a meditative or reflective lyric.  The other option is the poet shares a series of feelings, in which case we call the poem an affective or emotional lyric.

As personal, subjective verse, a lyric is often not directed to us as readers but to a specific audience — God, the nation, the starry night sky.  We are merely overhearing the poet’s moment of thought or feeling.

As a retrospective on the two preceding units on poetry and poems, we might think of the two in the following way.  When we talk about poetic idiom, we are discussing the content of poetry—the “stuff” out of which it is made.  A lyric poem or other type of poem can be viewed as falling into the domain of form—the organization or arrangement of the poetic material.