Power in Poetry

Almost half the Bible is written in poetry. This means something.

Celtic Spiritual Poetry (1)

Hearken, all you lovers of God…

  - Sechnall, Audite Omnes Amantes

Hear this, all peoples;
Give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
Both low and high,
Rich and poor together.
My mouth shall speak wisdom,
And the meditation of my heart 
shall giveunderstanding.
I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will disclose my dark saying on the harp.

  - Psalm 49.1-4

It is fruitful to ponder the question, “Why is so much of the Bible written in poetry?”

These days very few people read poetry. Their reasons vary: Some don’t read much of anything, and of what they do read, poetry is last on the list. Others explain they’ve never studied poetry, so they don’t understand it. Some will say they’ve tried reading some poems, but they just can’t figure out what the poet’s trying to say. Still others will say that poetry is too abstract, or too fraught with images and personal references to mean anything to them.

For whatever reasons, people don’t read poetry. And yet, presumably, Christians read their Bibles, and nearly half the Bible is written in poetry. Are we reading these poems the way God intends? Or do we read them the way we read the rest of the Bible, just to get through the day’s reading, or, at best, to find some nugget of truth to carry away into the day ahead?

But almost half the Bible is written using rhythm, alliteration, rich images, and a wide range of other poetic devices to reveal God and His will to faithful readers. Even to the unbelieving world: Look at the opening of Psalm 49. It is addressed to “all peoples” and “all inhabitants of the world” – then a pair of merisms, “low and high” and “rich and poor” – all people, all-inclusive. God has a message for the whole world, and He chose to set it in a poem.

Paul understood the value of poetry, even though he didn’t write it himself. Instead, he encouraged believers to think of themselves as “poems in the making” which God is writing to imprint His beauty, goodness, and truth on each of our lives. The Greek word for workmanship in Ephesians 2.10 is ποίημα – poiema, “poems.”

Clearly, God loves poetry. He loves the way it gets to our hearts almost before it gets to our heads, snaring us in images and sounds, rhythm and sometimes rhyme, word order, sentence structure, and even the architecture of an entire poem. When we read poetry as we should, something about the poem grabs us and holds us and invites us to linger and ponder and question until the meaning emerges from the images and other poetic devices, and we have that “Ahhh!” or “Ouch!” or even “Aha!” experience.

Celtic Christians understood the power of poetry. Much of the literature extant from the period of the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800 AD) is in the form of poems. Celtic poets understood that all people, especially all believers, should receive poetry and read and contemplate it until, like Jacob wrestling the angel, it releases its blessing to their souls. 

The opening line of the first Christian hymn written in Ireland – Audite Omnes Amantes – is simply, “Hearken, all you lovers of God…” A poem is coming. A long poem, celebrating the greatness of Patrick and his faithful work. And I’m going to sing it, or at least, you will receive it in all its rhythm and movement and images (“fish with nets of doctrine”, “precious talents of the Gospel”, “heavenly feasts”, etc.), which are crafted to impact your soul with admiration, wonder, and undying respect and gratitude for the man under whose ministry the Celtic Revival began.

Yeah, it takes a poem to get our attention for something as significant as that.

In this series of our Crosfigell teaching letter, we’re going to examine some of the poems that have been left to us by our Celtic Christian forebears. Some are anonymous; some were written by scholars or missionaries; others come to us from those who were trained in the art of versifying, and used their craft to celebrate God and His many great works.

So as we begin, I join with Sechnall and call on you to “Hearken, all you lovers of God” to the rich and varied spiritual poetry of our Celtic Christian forebears. It’ll do you good, really.

Questions for Reflection
1. Why do you think so much of the Bible is written in poetry? Are we missing some of the Bible’s message if we don’t know how to read poetry as poetry?

2. Do you have a favorite poem? What do you like about that poem?

Psalm 49.1-6, 15, 16-20 (Sagina: And Can It Be, That I Should Gain)
Hear this, you peoples, low and high; give ear as wisdom I proclaim:
My heart with understanding fills to hear and sing my Savior’s fame.
Why should I fear when foes arise, who trust in wealth and boast in lies?
Refrain v. 15 
My God redeems my soul from hell!
His grace and mercy let me tell!

Let the redeemed of God take heart, though fools and all their wealth increase.
Death shall deprive him of all he owns, the grave shall make his glory cease.
Thus though he boasts, no light he sees; his end in hell shall ever be.

Lord, thank You for the great poets of Your Word, and of Your Church. Help me to…

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All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter.Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore