Our study of poetic discourse will include more than just the figures of speech used in the Bible, for before we can understand more precisely and appreciate fully the various words used by the writers we must come to an understanding of the nature of poetic language.


Hunt has provided a definition that would include what most would wish to see included, saying, “Poetry is the utterance of a passion for truth, beauty and power, embodying and illustrating its conceptions by imagination and fancy, and modulating its language on the principle of variety in uniformity” (cited by Abrams). Scott characterized its communicative aspect by saying that the painter, orator, and poet each has the motive of exciting in the reader, hearer, or spectator, a tone of feeling similar to that which existed in his own bosom, ere it was embodied forth by his pencil, tongue, or pen.  It is the artist's object, in short... to communicate, as well as colours and words can do, the same sublime sensations which had dictated his own composition.


In effect the poet recreates his or her emotional experience by the choice of words so that the reader may imitate the sensation.  To communicate such emotions necessarily requires the use of figurative language.  People think in pictures and symbols, and their conversations are filled with such expressions.  Thus, beautifully written literature which employs effective figures of speech is both satisfying to the human desire for aesthetics and meaningful to the human need for images.


It should come as no surprise, then, that poetic language can be found on almost every page of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments.  God chose to communicate His truth to people with high and low figure!  Such language not only brings an aesthetic quality to the Scriptures, but also brings the Word of God to the level of human experience so that it may be understood in both its truth and its spirit.



The following summary captures the points we are making here:


“It may be helpful to note that ‘in turning’ the word the poet often juxtaposes or transfers the word into a semantic field of thought where it is not normally at home.  For example, in the sentence ‘the LORD is my shepherd’ the word ‘shepherd’ which belongs to the semantic range of animal husbandry is juxtaposed to apply to a spiritual Being.  When David prays: ‘Cause me to hear joy and gladness’ he juxtaposes a word referring to a psychological state as the object of a verb denoting physical activity.  Elsewhere the poet says: ‘the mountains clapped’ whereby he transferred a verb denoting human activity to an inanimate subject.  A juxtaposition of semantic ranges of thought also takes place when Caesar says of Brutus: ‘For Brutus is an honorable man; so are they all honorable men,’ for a word of virtue is transferred to describe men of vice as the rest of the composition makes clear.  It is this transference, this juxtaposition, of a word into a foreign semantic field of thought that often alerts the reader to the realization that the writer has used a figure of speech.


“Furthermore, when an author artfully turns his words he does not fully explain his meaning because he is also attempting to create a feeling in his reader.  In other words all figures are elliptical and many are evocative.  For this reason the exegete in his endeavor to recreate in his mind and viscera what was inside the mind and viscera of the author tries to fill in the unstated thought and unstated feeling.  For example, when David says: ‘the LORD is my shepherd’ he evokes the image of a shepherd tending his sheep, an image pregnant with the thought that the shepherd feeds (v. 1), refreshes (v. 2), guides (v. 3) and protects (v. 4) his sheep.  His full thought seems to be: ‘as a shepherd is good and lovingly loyal to his sheep, so the LORD is good and lovingly‑loyal to me’ (v. 6).  Then, too, by this image the author evokes a feeling of tender concern.  Since the author does not fully explain his thought or his intended feeling, the exegete must at first guess at the writer’s intention and then try to validate his guesses by other indications in the composition under consideration.  These reconstructions are mostly intuitive, and therefore the process is more in the nature of an art than in the nature of a science.  Then too, the twentieth century urban reader is greatly removed from an Iron Age agrarian man.  It is therefore imperative that the modern reader try to steep himself in the culture of the author in order to be able to think and feel with the inspired poet (Bruce K. Waltke).


Misconceptions of Poetry


It is sad that many who study the Scriptures do not take the time to work with poetic language, for it is basic to interpretation and cannot be cast off as an esoteric study unrelated to the exegetical procedure.  Such a reluctance to work with poetry is caused in part by a failure to understand its nature.


I. C. Hungerland in Poetic Discourse states that there persists among critics of poetry the notion that the literal meaning and the poetic meaning are somehow opposed.  She explains that this idea is expressed in both naive and sophisticated ways (pp. 107ff.). In its naive form, the notion amounts roughly to the belief that “fancy” language, language exhibiting many figures of speech, is peculiar to, or characteristic of, poetry.  In its more sophisticated form the notion is implicit in current doctrines to the effect that ambiguity, paradox, and irony are essential to poetry.


Whether expressed naively or on a more sophisticated level, there is a half truth at the basis of the notion.  In order to take care of this half truth and avoid the mistake of limiting the kind of language which poetry uses, it will be well to start our study of figures by thinking about them in everyday discourse.


We accept without question such expressions as: “the White House said today,” “He waited an eternity,” “She floated into the room,” “He’s a pig.” But other expressions, although commonly used, are a bit more puzzling to us: “She dropped her eyes,” “They faced the difficulty,” “It is crystal clear,” “They were up in arms,” “Her almond eyes. . . .”


Also, if we try to evaluate slang expressions we have a difficult time with some figures: “It’s raining cats and dogs,” “I’ll take a raincheck on that,” “He’'s the spit’n image of his father.” “This baby has four hundred horses under the hood,” “I needed that like I needed a hole in the head,” and the expression attributed to a pilot from the Bronx before take‑off, “Give with the woid, and I’ll make like a boid.”


The Criterion in Studying Poetry


What is our criterion for distinguishing literal and figurative in such common expressions?  We might formulate it provisionally in this fashion: a figurative expression is one which, when its component words are employed in the usual or customary way, turns out to be either a patently false or a nonsensical statement.  In brief, figures exhibit a violation of some rule of usage.  It must be noted, of course, that not all violation of usage will be figurative language.


This criterion will be qualified by the following considerations.  In the first place, it is well to remember that poetic language is commonly employed as a device in expository and explanatory discourse, whether of an everyday sort or of a scientific sort.  The use of figures will help to clarify and specify the subject matter.


Moreover, figurative expressions have paraphrases or translations which, taken literally, make sense.  Here we must be careful, though, for the meaning of a figure will not be exactly the same as the figure.  The translation of the figure will differ from the original in tone, line of suggestion, and information conveyed by the speaker.


So the conclusion that poetic language is merely fancy and figurative on the one hand, or ambiguous and mystical on the other, fails to understand the nature of poetic language.  Our two conditions provide a basis for interpreting and evaluating figurative language (I say evaluating because an important part of the study is to determine the effectiveness of the figure in the author’s intent):


1.       there must be some ascertainable point in the deviation from ordinary usage (the violation of usage must be deliberate), and

2.       there must be available a literal rendering of the expression in question.


Our procedure will be to identify the figure of speech used and articulate its literal meaning as well as the feeling conveyed with it. (It should be mentioned in passing that even though some figurative expressions may be deliberate deviations in usage and may have literal renderings available, they still may fall short of the high standards for good poetic language.  We hear the expressions so often in popular or country music, a lot of modern Christian music, advertising, or journalism‑‑especially in sports‑‑that we easily lose touch with effective poetic language.  It may be said that if figurative language is contrived and pedestrian it is not good poetic discourse).


We must recognize how poets uses words.  They have two sides to words they select: the straightforward, explicit meaning of the word (its denotation); and the implied, suggested meaning (connotative).  Each word, or group of words, then becomes a carefully chosen device or tool with which poets produce the double effect of conveying a statement or comment about something and suggesting feelings or ideas beyond what they have literally said.


The context in which the word appears, moreover, may often help to determine

our feelings about the word.  Consider these two statements:


1.       His father stood over him while he did three problems in subtraction.


2.       The little cousin is dead by foul subtraction.


The denotative meaning of subtraction applies to both sentences; but the connotation of the word in the second sentence, especially with “foul” in close proximity as well as the idea of death, creates an emotional potential for the word.  Here, in this context, a mathematical term has tragic overtones.  So we see that the context may start a normal word vibrating in an unusual manner.


Emotional connotations, intellectual connotations, allusion effects and sound effects all increase the reach of meaning in a word.  Note in “Fern Hill” (Dylan Thomas) the line


. . .  it was all

Shining, it was Adam and maiden


The word “maiden” has several implications: 1) emotional, for the word suggests freshness, beauty and joy; 2) intellectual, for the word implies innocence, lack of experience; 3) allusion, for the name Adam is part of the context and the reference is to Eve, the first woman, supporting the above connotations but adding the emotion of potential sorrow; 4) sound, for the word is soft and graceful when used in the phrase A‑dam and Maiden, thereby producing a musical, lifting quality.


We may observe these same elements in the word of the prophet Isaiah (1: 18):


“though your sins be as scarlet

they shall be white as snow;

           though they be red like crimson

they shall be as wool.”


Here we have the repetition of two similes to stress the point being made.  In addition, the word order makes the contrasts within these lines more glaring: the two nouns which form the contrast meet in the middle, and the first and last cola use yihyu while the second and third the Hiphil of verbs denoting colors.


The emotional and intellectual connotations of the words used here are striking.  The “scarlet” (sani) refers to the highly prized brilliant red color produced from the Kermococcus vermillio Planch  used to produce the famous dye (Sanskrit krmi; Persian Kerema, kirm;  Pahlevi kalmir;  Hebrew karmil; and our carmine and crimson.  See also Persian sakirlat and Latin scarlatum).  There is great symbolism in the Bible for colors.  In Revelation, for example, the great Whore is in purple and scarlet while the Saints are in white.  Why does Isaiah use red for sin?  Dreschler suggested it meant bloodshed‑‑a blood stained garment enwrapping the sinner.  Delitzsch interpreted it as a fiery life that was selfish and passionate, a life characterized by wild tempestuous violence.  These ideas may well have been in Isaiah's mind.  At least we may say that red signifies that which is most enflamed‑‑conspicuous and glaring.


In contrast to the scarlet and crimson is the whiteness of wool and snow.  Not only do these terms represent purity from the cleansing from sin, but they convey the sensations of softness and freshness.  The emotional overtones of peace and tranquility offset those of violence and passion.




1. Emotional Connotations.  Emotional connotations have to do with our

feelings about a word, how the word appeals to our emotions of fear, delight or disgust.  An example suggesting pleasant, happy feelings is seen in E. E. Cummings’ poem:


anyone lived in a pretty how town

with up so floating many bells down


The words “up” and “floating” and “bells” as used in the context all have a joyous emotional potential.


On the other hand, Richard Eberhart’s poem “For a Lamb” shocks us by its use

of two unexpected words:


I saw on the slant hill a putrid lamb,

Propped with daisies . . .


We expect the lamb, a creature of innocence, to be playing in the daisies there rather than being propped and putrid.  These two words stain the poem with the emotion of disgust and repulsion.


Finally, a less obvious example of emotional connotation comes from David

Ferry’s “Adam’s Dream”:


He was the lord of all the park,

And he was lonely in the dark,

Till Eve came smiling out of his side

To be his bride.


“Sweet Rib,” he said, astonished at her,

“This is my green environ!”

Eve answered no word, but for reply

The wilderness was in her eye.


As used in the context, the word “wilderness” strikes a note of fear or dismay.  The word does not mean “fear” or “dismay,” but denotes the surrounding natural, uncultivated scenes.  Yet the word has emotional overtones for the impending Fall.


Zechariah heightens the sense of abhorrence of sin by his choice of words:


“Now Joshua was clothed with excrement-bespattered garments,

and was standing before the Angel” (3:3)


Isaiah also conveys the worthlessness of man’s best deeds by using an emotionally freighted word:


“All our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (64:5)


The word ‘idda  refers to stains from menstruation.


2.   Intellectual Connotations.   Intellectual connotations have to do with the

additional intellectual meaning a word might have beyond its denotative meaning.  Words, as we know, often have several denotative meanings at the same time.  Emotional connotations register in our feelings or emotions, but intellectual connotations appeal to our minds and often involve a witty word play.


For example, W. H. Auden writes of a Chinese soldier killed in the war with Japan:  “Far from the heart of culture he was used.”   The word “heart” has a double meaning referring to the center of culture as well as referring to the emotional concerns; he dies in an indifferent, heartless world.


By employing a combination of semantic and syntactical ambiguity, poets gain depth or richness of meaning which straightforward prose writing rarely has.  Our challenge in reading poetry, then, is to become sensitive to the nuances of meaning possible in the artistic combinations of words of poetry.


A special case of intellectual connotation is irony which has to do with a double vision of experience where the words do not quite fully account for the reality of the situation.  Take a poem by Wilfred Owen, the British poet killed in World War I:


So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the firstborn spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt‑offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

And builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo!  An angel called out of heav'n.

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him.  Behold.

Abram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.


This is highly ironic when contrasted to the real story; Owen wished to dramatize that men allow wars to kill off their sons from generation to generation.  Man sets his own precedent for violence which ironically carries off his own sons.


In this we have the double view of reading the words and knowing the situation.

Ezekiel’s song of lament over the king of Tyre will serve to illustrate this from the Bible (Ezek. 28:11-19).


11   The word of Yahweh came unto me, saying,

12   “Son of man, take up a lament concerning the king of Tyre

    and say to him: ‘This is what the Lord Yahweh says:

You were the model of perfection,

    full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.

13   You were in Eden, the garden of God;

    every precious stone adorned you:

        ruby, topaz and emerald,

        chrysolite, onyx and jasper,

        sapphire, turquoise and beryl.

Your settings and mountings were made of gold;

    on the day you were created they were prepared.

14   You were anointed as a guardian cherub,

    for so I ordained you.

You were on the holy mount of God;

    you walked among the fiery stones ...

17   Your heart became proud

    on account of your beauty,

and you corrupted your wisdom

    because of your splendor.

 So I threw you to the earth;

    I made a spectacle of you before kings . . .’.”


This prophetic denunciation of the king of Tyre appears to contain references to Satan’s origin and fall.  Apparently they were analogous in the mind of Ezekiel.


3. Allusion Effects.   When a word in a poem has a specific reference to a place in geography, to an event in history or literature, or to a person, real or literary, this word is called an allusion.  The allusion in poetry is a particularly potent device for creating both emotional and intellectual meaning.


Notice the allusions in T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”:


Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water‑mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow. 

Then we came to a tavern with vine‑leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine‑skins.

But there was no information and so we continued

And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.


All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death: There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt.  I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.



Now observe the allusions in these passages from the Old Testament:


23.  “I beheld the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;

     and the heavens, and they had no light.

24.  I beheld the mountains, and lo, they trembled,

     and all the hills moved to and fro.

25.  I beheld, and lo, there was no man,

     and all the birds of the heavens were fled.

26.  I beheld, and lo, the fruitful field was a wilderness,

     and all the cities thereof were broken down

at the presence of Yahweh

at the presence of His fierce anger” (Jer. 4:23‑26).


Here the prophet is definitely alluding to the creation account of Genesis in his oracle of judgment, but his usage of the terms and phrases reverses the order, as if to say judgment will undo creation.


In a similar way Zephaniah alludes to the confusion of tongues at Babel in his message, using terms such as “pure language,” “Kush,” “dispersed,” “proudly exulting” and “mountain”:


9.      “For then I will turn to the peoples a pure

  language that they may call upon the name of Yahweh

  to serve Him with one consent.

10.    From beyond the rivers of Kush, my suppliants,

  even the daughter of my dispersed shall bring my offering.

11.    In that day shall you not be put to shame

  for all your deeds wherein you transgressed against me

  For then I will take your proudly exulting ones

  and you shall no more be haughty in my holy mountain” (Zeph. 3:9‑11).


The psalmists, too, drew heavily upon early images and motifs.  In this selection from Psalm 36 we note that David alluded to Eden (“pleasure”) with its fountainhead of life (in words that find their way into the New Testament as well).  But the portion of the priests in the sanctuary also provided him with an image of divine blessing.


8[7]      “How precious is Your loyal love, O God,

    that humans may take refuge under the shadow of Your wings!

9[8]       They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of Your house;

    and You will make them drink of the river of Your pleasures.

10[9]   For with You is the fountain of life;

    in Your light we see light” (Ps. 36:7‑9).



4.    Sound Effects.   We should now add the obvious fact that a word represents in written characters a physical sound‑‑unpleasant, pleasant, funny, odd, or neutral‑‑but a sound.  The poet exploits sound in his verse when he can, as a way usually of emphasizing meaning, or as a means of drawing his lines together into a more artistically compact form.  We should think of sound as a way of reinforcing meaning, or understanding the denotations and connotations of the words.


The repetitions of sound we call alliteration (initial syllable), consonance (consonants), assonance (vowels), and rhyme (syllable sounds).   Observe the sound effects in T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker”:


The wounded surgeon plies the steel

That questions the distempered part;

Beneath the bleeding hands we feel

The sharp compassion of the healer’s art

Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.


Our only health is the disease

If we obey the dying nurse

Whose constant care is not to please

But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,

And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.


The whole earth is our hospital

Endowed by the ruined millionaire,

Wherein, if we do well, we shall

Die of the absolute paternal care

That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.


The chill ascends from feet to knees,

The fever sings in mental wires.

If to be warmed, then I must freeze


And quake in frigid purgatorial fires

Of which the flame is roses and the smoke is briars.


The dripping blood our only drink,

The bloody flesh our only food:

In spite of which we like to think

That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood‑‑

Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.


One good example of the way the Hebrew used sounds to strengthen the meaning may be seen in the story of the dispersion at Babel (Gen. 11:1-9).  The narrative is arranged to reflect the ironic turn of events after the visitation of Yahweh: whereas the earth had been of one language, it was now confused; whereas they could speak to one another, now they cannot; whereas they wished to make a name for themselves, they were given an ignominious name; whereas they desired to come together, they were now scattered; and whereas they wished to make a tower reaching into the heavens, Yahweh came down to see it and they left off building it.


A    all the earth had one language

  B    there

    C         one another

      D         come let us make bricks

        E        let us build for ourselves

          F        a city and a tower

  X    and Yahweh came down to see

          F’  the city and the tower

        E’     which the sons of man began to build

      D’     come . . .  let us confuse

    C’       everyone’s language

  B’ from there

A’     the language of all the earth (confused)



This antithetical structure displays the divine reversal of man's enterprise.  In

fact, the key words of each section are the reverse of one another:


                “make bricks”




Moreover, these sounds lead to the word play on the name “Babel” in verse 9, which according to the structure and design of the passage is the message's climax.  The name bab-ili (“gate of god” in Babylonian) is explained by the narrator by balal ( in a clever phonetic word play--“to confuse”).  So that  ancient kingdom of power and pride becomes to Israel the prime example of judgmental confusion because of their disobedience.