Experiencing Scripture as Poetry

Andrew Collins: We need every generation to keep creating so we can see the old truths afresh.

I recently spent some time reading through the Psalms during my daily devotional time. They lend themselves well to being read that way – one song every morning. But when I got to Psalm 23 something happened. I read through the Psalm in a minute or two. And not a single substantive thought went through my head. I got to the end, and found my mind blank.

Because it’s Psalm 23. Everyone knows Psalm 23. I’ve probably had it memorized since I was seven years old. Over the years of route repetition and spiritual truisms it has dissolved into a mere sequence of words.

That’s a shame, but what can be done about it? How can I encounter these words on their own terms, in all of their soul-stilling power, as King David would have me read them? Enter Jon Foreman’s song House of God Forever. Take a moment to listen and contemplate:

“God is my Shepherd, I won’t be wanting
I won’t be wanting
He makes me rest in fields of green, by quiet streams
Even though I walk through the valley of death and dying
I will not fear, ‘cause you are with me
You’re always with me

The Shepherd’s staff comforts me,
You are my feast in the presence of enemies
Surely goodness will follow me
Follow me in the house of God forever.”

The lyrics are a paraphrase of the original text, but they make the Psalm come alive. The tender melody evokes its ancient Davidic vision, capturing the intimacy of the divine shepherd’s relationship to his sheep and the peace that only his flock can know. It reclaims the truth behind the cliche, showing us how the Psalm was meant to be heard and experienced. It comforts its listeners’ hearts and stirs up their affections and confidence in a melody that rarely fails to move my heart.

The Oh Hellos’ song I Was Wrong is another example of how poetry and song enliven my experience of Scripture. It opens with the following line: “I was born. I was born in the hands of the Potter.”

The hands of the Potter. It’s a reference to Scripture – and a controversial passage of Scripture at that. Romans 9:20,21 “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”

Books and treatises have been written and churches formed and split over this passage. Does God choose us or do we choose him? Do we have free will if we’re nothing but putty in the hands divine omnipotence? If not, why strive to change if our fate is already sealed? Theologically it is a profoundly difficult issue to work out and square with our human sense of fairness.

Such debates are good and necessary, but too often they lose sight of the beauty of the metaphor: the hands of the potter. Merged with the concept of birth, in the song the potter’s hands become a tender, comforting thing, suggesting that each and every life is a work of art in the hands of the Creator – precious, unique, and purposeful.

Listen as the song goes on to descend into fallenness. “I was torn from the start. I was torn between my god and my Father… I was young, stubborn to the bone, as I took from the tree that was rotting.” And then the wretched conclusion: “I knew you’d never forgive me. But I was wrong.”

I was wrong! Now go back to the opening metaphor of birth in the hands of the potter. As the prophet Jeremiah says, the divine Potter does forgive those who seek redemption from their evil ways. He is in the business of reshaping and restoring broken things.

These songs remind me why believers need poets and musicians. We need every generation to keep creating so we can see the old truths afresh, so we can remember what it felt like to see the light and to be loved for the first time.

And so I call on you, dear artist. String your guitar, take up your pen, lift up your voice, play it out. Show us those ancient truths like we’ve never seen them before.


For his day job, Andrew Collins manages social media and writes for a nonprofit news outlet. He harbors wistful dreams of being a screenwriter, loves living in a big city, strives to read promiscuously, and hopes to travel more.

[image: In the Style of Kairouan, by Paul Klee. Watercolor. 1914.]

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