Poetry, Imagination, and the Messianic Witness of the Old Testament
Poetry, Imagination, and the Messianic Witness of the Old Testament
Dr. Kevin Chen
Does poetry have anything to do with theology? In particular, can theology be derived from poetry, such as is found in the Bible?
Theology, Poetry, and Imagination
Paul certainly thought so, as can be seen in his citation of several psalms in Romans 3:10–18 to seal his argument for the universal sinfulness of humanity. Likewise, the author of Hebrews cites many psalms to make his point, including Psalm 110 repeatedly to establish and explain the priestly ministry of Christ (Heb 5:6; 7:17, 21).
Nevertheless, the basic question remains as to how theology can be derived from a literary genre that frequently uses figurative language and is often seen as being less precise. This issue is heightened when we consider NT passages that are indirectly didactic compared to the Pauline corpus and Hebrews. For example, when the crucifixion account in Matthew 27 repeatedly refers to specific details in Psalm 22 (compare Matt 27:35, 43, 46 and Ps 22:1, 8, 18 regarding casting lots for Jesus’ clothing, the precise words used to mock him, and his cry of dereliction), why do we find Matthew drawing attention to these poetic texts being fulfilled so literally?
Insofar as poetry especially appeals to the imagination through its form and literary devices such as imagery and metaphor, we may ask a related question: does imagination have any positive role in theology? If Christian theology engages with all Scripture in its varied genres, it would seem then that the answer must be “yes,” even if we might not fully understand how this works or the implications.
In Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination, Malcolm Guite argues that poetry and the imagination were marginalized in favor of reason and exactness during the Enlightenment.1 The result was atomization and the relegation of “those very faculties which alone were capable of integrating, synthesising and making sense of our atomised factual knowledge…to a purely private and ‘subjective’ truth.”2 The impact was also felt on Western Christianity, which had to choose between “something subjective, not there, essentially made up, or to become a pseudo-science, reducing the great mysteries embedded in the ancient story-telling of scripture to quantifiable exactitudes, patient only of a literal interpretation.”3
Guite further points out that classic Calvinism has emphasized the effect of the Fall on the human imagination, which leads to conceiving of and presenting theology “in highly syllogistic and logical form.”4 Nevertheless, Guite points out that reason has equally been affected by the Fall and instead calls reason and imagination “two ways of knowing [that] are mutually enfolded and depend on one another.”5 Guite concludes, “Like reason, its twin faculty, our fallen imagination is shadowed and finite, but like Reason it is also, under God’s grace, illuminating and redemptive. Imagination informs reason and is in turn informed by it.”6
Poetry, the Pentateuch, and the Messianic Witness of the Old Testament
Guite’s insights into poetry and imagination from the perspective of a theologically informed literary criticism are especially significant when seen alongside John Sailhamer’s seminal work on the Old Testament’s direct witness to Christ.
Sailhamer’s argument does not employ typology but relies upon direct prophecies that both predict and identify the Messiah. What should not be missed is that Sailhamer saw this testimony as largely dependent on poetic passages in the Pentateuch, which in turn echo throughout the rest of the Old Testament. His argument is thoroughly exegetical (or, “compositional”) and begins with the observation that the literary structure of the Pentateuch consists of a sequence of narrative-poetry-epilogue that repeats four times and encompasses the entire work.7 This scheme serves to highlight the Pentateuch’s four major poetic sections in Gen 49:1–27; Ex 15:1–18; Num 23:7–10, 18–24; 24:3–9, 15–24; and Deut 32–33. Remarkably, three of these sections (except Ex 15) involve a main human character calling others to hear what will happen “in the last days” (Gen 49:1; Num 24:14; Deut 31:29). Accordingly, Sailhamer argues that each of these poems prophesy of a Messianic king (Gen 49:8–12; Num 24:7b–9, 17–19; Deut 33:7) and concludes that the Messiah plays a central role in the meaning of the Pentateuch.8
This is not the place to go into detail regarding the exegetical issues and debates concerning these texts and others, which are treated both in his work and my recent follow-up, The Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch.9 For the present purposes, the key is to note how much Sailhamer’s argument for the Messianic meaning of the Pentateuch depends on its poetry and the interpretation of poetry. In his own words, “careful attention to the details of the songs (poems) clarifies the message of the Pentateuch.”10 In particular, “It is that [eschatological] king who is the center of focus of the poems in the Pentateuch. Each major (and minor) poem in the Pentateuch sets its sights on his coming.”11 Indeed, reading the Pentateuch through its poetry yields different results from reading it through its laws (as “law”), or even through its narrative (as only a narrative from creation to the brink of the Promised Land). Although the proportion of poetry is far less than laws or narrative in the Pentateuch, Sailhamer supports his emphasis on poetry through its strategic role in the literary macrostructure of the Pentateuch, even while maintaining that the Pentateuch as a whole is still a narrative that both includes legal corpora and suggests their secondary role in the Pentateuch’s central message.
The significance of the Pentateuch’s Messianic witness through its poems is not only that these poems are central to its compositional strategy but also that these poems reverberate throughout the rest of the Old Testament. Sailhamer explains, “Throughout the whole of the OT are numerous echoes of the poems in the Pentateuch.”12
One example is Hannah’s prayer that the Lord exalt “the horn of his Messiah” (1 Sam 2:10).13 Another involves the victor whose clothes are stained red from treading a winepress in Is 63:1–3, which Sailhamer interprets as intentionally drawing together Gen 3:15 (involving a victor) and Gen 49:11 (involving a king’s clothes stained by grapes).14 Sailhamer also cites “all the nations will be blessed in him” in Ps 72:17 echoing Gen 12:3 (“all the families of the land will be blessed in you”), “his enemies will lick dust” in Ps 72:9 echoing Gen 3:14 (“you shall eat dust”), and “out of Egypt I called my son” in Hos 11:1 echoing Num 24:8 (“God brings him out of Egypt”).15 According to Sailhamer, these echoes of the Pentateuch’s Messianic poems (the echoes often also poetic themselves) reveal that later prophetic authors recognized the importance of the Pentateuch’s poems.
The implication is that so should we.
The Old Testament’s Direct Witness to Christ Depends Heavily on Messianic Poetry
No wonder the Old Testament’s direct witness to Christ has been and continues to be so contested. So many key texts are poetic, whether the seed of the woman prophecy (Gen 3:15), the Lion of Judah prophecy (Gen 49:8–12), the star of Jacob prophecy (Num 24:17–19), the climactic Suffering Servant passage (Is 52:13–53:12), or the many passages from the Psalms cited in the New Testament as fulfilled in Christ.
From another angle, Rambam in the 12th century highlights the frequently figurative nature of prophecy: “It is undoubtedly clear and evident that most prophecies are given in images [meshalim, or ‘proverbs’], for this is the characteristic of the imaginative faculty, the organ of prophecy.”16 While there certainly are less figurative, non-poetic exceptions such as the promise of a prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15–18), the Immanuel prophecy (Is 7:14), and others (e.g., Hos 3:5), the nature of the Old Testament’s direct witness to Christ still depends heavily on how key poetic passages are interpreted.
The problem, of course, is that poetry can be difficult to interpret and is especially disputed when it concerns the Messiah, since the inherent interpretive difficulty is compounded by Jewish and Christian theological interests as well as historical-critical ones. Controversy and complexity can easily lead to effectively sidelining these poetic passages, but Guite’s argument against marginalizing poetry and its imaginative mode of communication equally applies to Messianic poetry in the Old Testament. As for poetry’s ambiguity, he even argues that for subjects characterized by mystery, transcendence, and/or beauty, “an ‘inexactitude’ may be, paradoxically, more adequate—indeed, more exact—than a supposedly exact expression.”17
Whereas Guite is after “the full consequence and meaning of the incarnation” and focuses on the poetic imagination helping us to understand “the salvific action of the Word made flesh,”18 we suggest that poetry is also especially suited to express and engender prophetic hope for the Incarnation and the Messianic kingdom in advance.19
The Old Testament does not give us a tidy checklist for use with those who claimed to be the Messiah, as if all that is needed is to make sure we get the right person. Instead, the Old Testament helps identify the Messiah through heavy reliance on poetry that first and foremost activates our imagination and stirs up expectation for this future king and his coming kingdom. In a way that a mere checklist cannot, Messianic poetry gives us a taste, a glimpse, even a vision and a longing for the glory that is to come.20
What is the way forward? Let us notice, ponder, enjoy, study, discuss, rethink, and even debate the Messianic poetry of the Old Testament—practically anything but ignore or gloss over it. Poetry often requires a lot from readers in order to unlock its meaning. So let us “meditate” on it, as the Old Testament itself commends (Josh 1:8; Ps 1:2). We may yet discover that these poems, some just bits of poetry and others full-fledged, are interconnected and have a brilliant vision of the Messiah hidden within.
Kevin Chen (PhD, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate professor of Old Testament at Christian Witness Theological Seminary in San Jose, CA. Previously he taught biblical studies at Union University in Jackson, TN. He is the author of The Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch (IVP, 2019), the Old Testament study notes in the Worldview Study Bible (B&H, 2018), and Eschatological Sanctuary in Exodus 15:17 and Related Texts (Peter Lang, 2013).
- Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), 1–9.
- Ibid., 4.
- Ibid., 10–11.
- Ibid., 12.
- Ibid., 15.
- John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 35–37.
- Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 242, 321, 335, 467–473.
- Kevin Chen, The Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2019).
- Sailhamer, Meaning of the Pentateuch, 243.
- Ibid., 244. In saying this, Sailhamer places Ex 15:1–18 on a lower level (pp. 332–334).
- Ibid., 225.
- Ibid., 225–226.
- Ibid., 239. Sailhamer does not explicitly explain the connection he sees between Gen 3:15 and Is 63:1–3, so our mention of the common theme of a “victor” is an educated guess. He further believes that Is 63:1–3 relates to the “son of man” in Daniel 7 and to the “rider on the white horse” in Revelation 19.
- Ibid., 239–240.
- Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, 2.47. In the same work, see also Introduction, Prefatory Remarks, 9, “The key to the understanding and to the full comprehension of all that the Prophets have said is found in the knowledge of the figures [meshalim], their general ideas, and the meaning of each word they contain,” and 2.43: “the prophets sometimes prophesy in allegories [meshalim]…the prophets see things shown to them allegorically [meshal].”
- Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry, 6, emphasis original. Cf. pp. 8, 16.
- Ibid., 11, 14.
- Here I have adapted Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), 1, “[poetry] is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.” As a matter of fact, understanding this Messianic hope is part of understanding the “the full consequence and meaning of the incarnation.”
- Again I have adapted Heaney, Redress of Poetry, xv, who explains a poem in the preceding context as “offer[ing] a clarification, a fleeting glimpse of a potential order of things … a glimpse that has to be its own reward. The poem provides a draught of the clear water of transformed understanding and fills the reader with a momentary sense of freedom and wholeness.”
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