Poetry on Steroids

Before David faced Goliath, he made an interesting point to show that he was the man for the job.  David said that this giant would become like the lion and the bear that he had caught by the beard and killed (1 Samuel 17:32-37).  Now catch that last detail.  By the beard implies that by hand, David had killed both a lion and a bear.  In all the Bible, only Samson is recorded as having done such a feat, for he earlier ripped into a young lion that had roared against him (Judges 14:5-6).  Since Samson had done his deed due to the Spirit of the Lord coming “mightily” upon him, it is presumably the same source that enabled David to do such a deed as well, for the Spirit had come upon both men (1 Samuel 16:13).  David.  As strong as Samson?  Apparently so.  He certainly sank that stone hard into the giant’s forehead!

Now ponder a bit with me.  If this beard-business is what results from the Spirit coming upon David’s physical abilities, what results from the same Spirit coming upon David’s poetic abilities?  You get the Psalms!  You get poetry on divine steroids!  After all, David is the sweet psalmist of Israel, by whom “the Spirit of the Lord spoke” (2 Samuel 23:1-2).

Poetry on steroids in exactly what I saw this past week with a few friends of mine–Tom Pryde, Troy Neujahr, and Randy Eilders–as we were working through portions of Psalm 110 together.  The key insight came on Tuesday night, when Randy let me look through his copy of Classical Hebrew Poetry, by Wilfred G. E. Watson.  Under the topic of sound, Watson noted that Hebrew poets frequently paired words with the same three root letters, almost like homonyms, though the letters may not necessarily be in the same order.  In doing this, a technique that Watson calls “rootplay,” the poet may actually invent one of the words (Watson cites ‘qb in Isaiah 40:4 as a possibility; see p. 240).  In English, rootplay would pair words such as “prod” and “drop”–something that is not rhyme, but yet is similar to rhyme in employing sounds to pair words.

This concept fascinated me!  Soon I realized that I had probably seen rootplay the week prior in Isaiah 32, but had not recognized it.  Now sensitized to this technique, Psalm 110 just seemed to pop with examples of similar sounding pairs.  Here, check these out:

In verse one, David wrote, “The LORD says to my lord [ladoni], “Sit at My right hand [limini].”
In verse three, David wrote, “…than the womb [merehem] of the dawn [mishhar].”
In verse six, David wrote, “He will judge among the nations [goi-word]; he will fill with corpses [goi-word].”

So what is the significance of rootplay for us, even for those of us who do not know Hebrew?

Twofold.  First, congregations should be aware that the Holy Spirit is concerned that the praise of God sounds cool.  There are some words in this psalm that apparently are chosen primarily for their sound, especially when another word could have conveyed basically the same meaning.  For example, there are many ways to say “at the right hand.”  In fact, the psalms employ four different prepositions to convey that thought (min in Psalm 16:8; b in Psalm 16:11; l in Psalm 110:1; and ‘al in Psalm 110:5).  So why is it l in Psalm 110:1, as seen above?  The word limini sounds cool with ladoni!  Do you see?  Christian, God is concerned that our songs of worship have poetic beauty, not just truthful content.  We should evaluate our hymns on both what is said and how it is said, for it is only right to sing the truth with beautiful words (cf. Ecclesiastes 12:10).  Even our translations of the Bible should strive for beauty in sound.  It is noteworthy that this was apparently a translation goal for the King James Version, accomplished, by the way, with great success.

Second, preachers should be aware that in poetry, a rare word or an odd phrase does not necessarily convey a significant meaning conceptually.  For example, the phrase “the womb of the dawn” may simply refer to the sun or to the sunrise, for the poetic rhythm of verse three in Hebrew seems to demand two nouns instead of one.  In other words, the two words may be there more for aesthetic beauty, both in sound and in conceptual imagery, rather than for great theological truth, though that possibility cannot be ruled out altogether.  Similarly, the word “judge” [din] in verse six is a rarer Hebrew word than the normal word “judge” [shaphat], but the semantic range is nearly identical according to The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament.  Therefore, it would probably be a mistake to see in the choice of this word a larger significance than that it simply sounds cool in Hebrew.  Perhaps my previous blindness to sound is partly due to the fact that I had first learned exegesis in the New Testament, where there is not much poetry.  How different is inspired Hebrew poetry!  And such a wonder!  Truly, it is poetry, as it were, on steroids.

Do you see?  God loves beauty as well as truth; and for truth, beauty is only right.  Congregations, do you value beauty in your worship?  Preachers, do you value beauty in your preaching or in your writing?  Christian, do we live lives of holy beauty, and thus “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things” (Titus 2:10)?  May it be so!  As one of our beautiful psalms says, “Let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us; and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it” (Psalm 90:17).

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