Language is powerful. Wars have been fought, souls have fallen in love, nations have risen and fallen, all at the hands of the tongue. So what is it that makes words so persuasive and so powerful?
Okay, maybe I’m giving the words a little too much credit. It’s not the words themselves that wield the power of love, life, and death. Words are simply the medium by which a person takes a thought, an idea, or an experience out of their own head and implants it into another person’s head.
It’s amazing to think about. As you’re reading these words, I’m essentially placing thoughts in your head. I’m controlling your mind. I’m forcing you to think whatever thoughts I want you to think.
But the true power of words is not the ability to make someone else think a certain thing.
I think America needs a political revolution, and I’m going to vote for Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primaries.
No matter which side of the political pendulum you swing, I just made you think about voting for Bernie Sanders. But it would be naive of me to think that this act of inception is actually going to affect the way you vote next year.
That’s because the true power of words is not making someone think a certain way, but in making someone feel a certain way.
This is why political rhetoric from every side is about more than words. It’s about more than the issues. It’s about more than policy. It’s about emotional manipulation. Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Socialist. Every candidate out there doesn’t just want to capture your mind. They want to capture your hearts.
Manipulation tends to have a negative connotation, but I’m not trying to judge whether this is good or bad. Certainly using words to manipulate emotions in people can be misused. I believe our current president is a prime example of this. But any time you tell a story, any time you open up and share a piece of yourself with someone else, your words are manipulating emotions in other people.
Emotional manipulation isn’t bad in and of itself. In fact, it’s the foundation of human empathy.
Okay, enough about language. I could go on and on, and I probably will in other posts. But for now, I want to turn our attention away from human language and toward divine language.
How does God speak?
I think that’s a tricky question, because to answer it would be to limit God’s speech. I think the best thing to say is that God speaks however God chooses to speak. God reveals himself however God chooses to reveal himself.
So is the Bible God’s Holy Word? Well, yes, in a sense. God definitely can and does speak to God’s people through scripture on a daily basis. I think this is one of the best ways to hear God’s voice. But it’s important to note that God is speaking through the words of scripture. We cannot equate the divine voice of God with scripture itself because, again, once we start defining God’s voice we start limiting God’s voice.
But scripture is a good place to start. Especially those pieces of scripture that begin with the classic prophetic introduction…
“Thus Sayeth the Lord”
Many times throughout scripture, God’s actual spoken words are recorded. Whether these words were audibly heard, or whether they were lain on the hearts of the prophets. Whatever the case may be, we are presented with words that are to be understood as the very words of Yahweh himself. So what do these instances look like?
God speaks in a variety of genres. He appears as a character in narratives. He is often the source of the laws in legal literature. You can find his voice recorded in prose of all shapes and sizes. But more often than not, when God speaks in scripture, his voice is recorded in poetry.
I’ll propose three very simple reasons. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, as I’m not sure there is an answer to the question. But hopefully these descriptions will help us to think a little more deeply about the use of poetry.
Mastery over Language
First, I believe God often speaks in poetry because it’s the highest form of language. This makes sense. If God, the ultimate source of life and creativity, were to speak, it would make sense that he would speak with words and literary devices that make use of the highest and most creative structures of language. In other words, God speaking through poetry reveals that he is a master of language.
A Springboard Into Reflection
Second, poetry is a springboard. Very rarely does a poem contain every word, every thought, or every image that the poet wishes to convey. On the contrary, sometimes the best poems are the shortest poems. These poems provide just enough details to pull us into the world that the poet constructs. The feelings and images of these poems last long after we finish reading the words.
I believe God’s words given to us in poetic verse are meant to do this as well. These words draw us into another world, a lingering world. These words stick with us and they make us think deeply about who God is and what is important to him.
Imagination and Subversion
Finally, and I think most importantly, poetry is beautiful. It’s creative. It’s imaginative. It brings people into a world where prose just doesn’t quite suffice.
Taking this a step forward, poetry is often subversive. It breaks the rules of language in a way that leads one into a deep sense of imagination. It breaks rules, overturns language systems, and makes people think in new and fresh ways. The poetry of the prophets, for instance, goes directly against the social order, challenging and subverting the royal consciousness of Israel. And it has the power today to challenge and subvert our own constructed realities.
God often speaks in poetry, but not all biblical poetry reflects the words of God. In the next post we’ll take a look at poetry as a means of prayer. Then we’ll jump into some examples of narrative and poetry.
But first, I want to leave you with a poem by Billy Collins, called Introduction to Poetry. My aim in bringing us into a study of biblical poetry is not to analyze poetry, but to appreciate it. I don’t want us to pick apart the phrases and the imagery and the metaphors, or dig into the original Hebrew (too much), or try to be too academic. I want us to experience the poetry in the Bible the way all poetry is meant to be experienced.
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hoseIntroduction to Poetry, Billy Collins
to find out what it really means.