Poetic distress

by Barry Newton

Periodically throughout scripture, Biblical authors convey their inner turmoil. Sometimes that language moves beyond mere storytelling to providing the opportunity to vicariously experience the crisis.

When an author desires to vividly express the breadth and depth of his or her angst, perhaps even inviting the reader to identify with an experience, to merely unfold a narrative, even a descriptive one, simply will not do.

Enter the poet armed with powerful evocative imagery.

We are familiar with the narrative prologue of Job. Wave after wave of disaster crashes upon Job. Finally even his health is stripped from him as painful sores break out all over his body.

While such words cause us to pity him and consider his plight, we do so from a distance. It is the distress of his poetic words that enable us, if we choose, to experience something of standing in his shoes.

“Let the day on which I was born perish! … That day – let it be darkness, … Why did I not die at birth, and why did I not expire as I came out of the womb?” (Job 3:3,4,11, NET).

If we allow ourselves to consider the degree of suffering it would require for us to utter such words, we are drawn into identifying, at least partially, with Job’s tormented soul.

Should we extract from this biblical text a doctrine about cursing the day of our birth? Of course not. Job is describing in the strongest poetic language possible his utter despair.

Accordingly, when David poetically poured out with hyperbole his profound disgust over his sinfulness, we gain access to something of his turmoil and state of mind, not doctrinal truths or literal truths about him.

“I am forever conscious of my sin” (Psalm 51:3).

Really? David never had a moment of distraction where he forgot his sin? To press such a point would distort his message.

Similarly David’s utter contempt for his guilt causes him to envision his entire life shrouded in sin:

“a sinner the moment my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5).

Really? To press such a point would again distort the message.

We have heard people use similar language. “My whole life is a failure! I was born a failure!” Really?

Of course not and we understand how to interpret this language in everyday life. Why then are we tempted to resort to a wooden and stilted manner of interpreting the angst of real people in scripture?

Psalm 51 and Job 3 provide us windows into how biblical characters were feeling.

A responsible interpretation of such texts follows the author’s guidance. It does not artificially strain it through a theological grid disrespecting the genre and purpose.

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They are the parents of two young men.

4 thoughts on “Poetic distress

  1. Well, the CEV is about like the NIV when it comes to it’s “translation” (I use that term as lightly as I can make it). New International Perversion and the Contemporary English Perversion is would sum these versions up accurately.

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