Essay by guest writer Art F. Verschoor, Hawkes Bay NZ

Not the poem which we have read, but that to which we return possesses the genuine power and claims the name of essential poetry.   Biographia Literaria  

The Bible's influence on the development of Western literature is impossible to ignore. There are more than a thousand biblical references in the works of Shakespeare alone.  Authors and poets like John Milton, Charles Dickens, Matthew Arnold, William Wordsworth, Mark Twain, Robert Frost and Emily Dickenson shaped their literature with allusions and metaphors taken from the pages of the Bible.

Its influence extends also to the language we speak, the laws we uphold, the names we have been given, the metaphors we use and the similes we employ for emphasis in our daily communications.  To this day, we continue to use biblical phrases like: ”Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3);  “The powers that be” (Romans 13:1); “My brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9);  “The salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13); “A law unto themselves” (Romans 2:14);  “Filthy lucre” (1 Timothy 3:3);  “Fight the good fight” (I Timothy 6:12) and many more. And yet, Chuck Stetson, founder and chairman of the Biblical Literacy Project states: "We are the first English speaking generation to have lost the biblical narrative. And that's amazing. And that's not right." 

As a youngster, I have had the Bible read to me from beginning to end several times.  It was read to me not for its rich literature or poetry, but ostensibly for the purpose of religious instruction.   In the conservative evangelical Protestant environment in which I was brought up, it was customary for the head of the household to read a chapter from the Bible every day, usually immediately following the evening meal. This perpetual reading ritual would commence in Genesis 1, typically at the rate of a chapter at the time, through to Revelation 22 after which the programme would start all over again. 

The Bible contains 1189 chapters and based on a rough estimate it would have taken about two years or so to get through the whole Bible by reading just a chapter a day, given that some of the shorter chapters would have been combined with the one following.  For instance, Psalm 117 would have been combined with Psalm 118.  The same procedure was applied to other short chapters. Conversely, Psalm 119, which happens to be the longest chapter in the Bible, was recited in two or three components in order to avoid unnecessary prolixity.  And after church on Sundays, two chapters would be read.  While this type of instruction, which was often performed in a perfunctory fashion, may be regarded as anachronistic indoctrination, it was nevertheless a reality experience for me and many of my generation that were born and bred in the Netherlands.  Yet, for all its faults, at the very least it acquainted the hearer with the mainspring of authority and language of the Scriptures.     

Whereas my immature mind experienced problems listening to the liturgical mono tones of this type of instruction, it nevertheless awakened in me an enduring sense of respect for biblical authority.  As a result, this religious discipline had a measure of success even though I experienced it as a daily rudimental endurance test, especially when chapters with extended genealogies like Genesis 10 were read with difficult to pronounce names.  But while it is true that I didn’t find the Bible reading I had to listen to as a youngster all that interesting, I hasten to add that my elders believed in all sincerity that their method of teaching was correct.  Furthermore, they acted in what they believed to be in accordance with the instructions as recorded in the 11th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy verse 19:

Therefore you shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and your soul and bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  19.  You shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. 

However, it is self-evident that in order to profit from Bible reading, it is essential that the reader understands the meaning of what the Bible has to say and what its instructions are in terms of personal application.  Simply reading a chapter every day in a perfunctory fashion is obviously of little benefit other than to install in oneself a sense compulsion which inevitably carries the danger of containing an element of spiritual self-flagellation.     

During a visit to my paternal grandfather in the Netherlands in the late 1970s I was visibly reminded of the impact this kind of repetitive biblical reading can have on an individual.  My grandfather, who was then 96 years old, had read the Bible from beginning to end many times over during his long life.  He had been a North Sea fisherman for all of his working life, working on a fishing trawler of which the entire crew, including the skipper, belonged to the same protestant denomination.  Their religion was practiced in the same way on board ship as it was at home, including daily Bible reading, a duty performed invariably by the skipper. 

In spite of my grandfather’s advanced age, his mind was still very much alert.  I was struck by the Biblical character of his speech in which his thoughts seemed to find their natural expression.  He had made the phraseology of the Bible almost part of him.  He lived in an old people’s home in the little town where he had always lived.  I noticed that in the middle of his small dining table a large old leather-bound family Bible was the silent witness of the ‘Word’ being the centre of his life.  The leather was cracked with age and the pages showed the signs of having been turned numerous times.  It was probably the only book that he had ever read; it was certainly the only book he ever possessed.  As I looked at this simple setting, I recalled the time when my grandmother was still alive and how they both lived in their modest house less than half a mile away.  It had always been a home where the Bible literally took centre stage, physically and spiritually; it was always visible on its permanent place in the middle of the table and a chapter was read from its pages every day. 

As his eldest grandson, he surprised me that he was in the habit of addressing me in the polite form third person singular, a kind of Dutch equivalent for the old fashioned English ‘thee’ and ‘thou.’  And when I said my final good byes to him, his parting words were: “God be with thee wherever thou goest.”  It was touchingly obvious that the Biblical language of the Dutch equivalent of the old King James Version had soaked into his mind. 

For some time afterwards I asked myself the question whether or not my ancestors’ methodology to read the Bible from beginning to end as one would read a book ought to be encouraged.  The answer to this question is not as simple as it appears.   Part of the answer is that whenever the Bible is read from beginning to end as one would read a book the value of such an exercise obviously depends entirely on how it is read and on how it is understood. The answer is certainly in the negative if the objective is no more than simply going through the motions of reading the chapters in a consecutive fashion without the power of understanding and meditation.  The end result of such an exercise would be no better than what I experienced when it was read out to me.

The noted literary critic and Cambridge University Professor Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who lived in the latter part of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century, once gave three lectures titled On Reading the Bible.  After his lectures, which proved to be very successful, he made a plea to the examination authorities of the university to include certain portions of the Bible in the English final honours examinations for a BA degree at Cambridge.  He said: “The English Bible should be studied by us all for its poetry and wonderful language as well as for its religion – the religion and the poetry being in fact inseparable.”  I find his last statement an interesting observation and his hypothesis that the religion and the poetry of the Bible are inseparable warrant further examination.

The word Bible comes from the Greek word ‘Biblia,’ a plural noun which simply means ‘the books.’  It consists of 66 books that about 40 men of diverse backgrounds over the course of 1500 years have been inspired to write.  In fact, the diversity of these men is quite remarkable – just to name a few:  Isaiah was a prophet, Ezra was a priest, Matthew was a tax-collector, John was a fisherman, Paul was a tentmaker, and Moses was a shepherd.   Contrary to worldly custom, few of the books of the Bible specifically name their human author. From a literary point of view, it is absolutely astounding that despite having being written by so many different authors from so many different backgrounds over a period of fifteen centuries, the Bible does not contradict itself and does not contain any errors.  

In his lectures, Sir Arthur voiced the opinion that the reason the Bible is so often neglected is because of the format in which it is traditionally presented.  On one occasion he asked his students to imagine a volume of writing composed of 66 separate famous works of English literature beginning with Milton’s Paradise Lost and concluding with John Donne’s sermons.  Then he asked his students: “Will you next imagine that all the poetry is printed as prose; while all the long paragraphs of prose are broken up into short verses, so that they resemble the little passages set out for parsing or analysis in an examination paper?”

“But,” he went on to say, “That is not all.  Having effected all this, let us pepper the result over with italics and numerals, print it in double columns with a marginal gutter on either side, each gutter pouring down an inky flow of references and cross references.  Then, and not till then, is the outward disguise complete.”

Was Sir Arthur correct in stating that these things are just an outward disguise?   Whilst it is true that they cannot be found in the original manuscripts, it is blatantly incorrect to assert that these things were designed for the purpose of disguise.  The best that can be said about this statement is that it was a tongue in cheek remark designed to embellish his gushing eloquence.  As a professor of literature in one of the most prestigious universities in the world, Sir Arthur, of all people, would have been aware that Shakespeare’s plays as well as those of other playwrights are similarly notated into acts, scenes and numerical lines for the purpose of easy reference. 

In any event, Sir Arthur passionately called for a purely literary edition of the Bible and in response to his call the Folio Society in London published a two volume Bible in 1952 that was designed to be read as literature.  The poetry was written in verse form and the prose was printed in a single column without the marginal gutters; in fact the pages have the appearance of any other book of literature.  So, did Sir Arthur have a point? 

All that can be said about it is that the novelty of printing the Bible as a single column book without references was not as popular as he expected it to be, evidenced by the fact that most, if not all Bibles continue to be printed with the references that he seemed to despise so much.

Does the Bible contain literary sections?  The question must be answered in the affirmative. In fact, it contains quite a few stunning literary sections; however, the crucial point that is often overlooked or ignored is that those sections were not specifically written for the sake of making good literature; the literature is, without exception, used for specific purposes.  And those purposes are clearly expounded in many places in the Bible itself.  As one of its most prolific authors succinctly stated in verse 16 of the third chapter of his second letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”

All this does not mean that we don’t need to focus on the literary methods the biblical authors employed or how it was written and why.  Nor should we ignore the specific literary methods they used to convey the quintessence of its central message.  Within this context we also need to be cognisant that the first book of the Bible was written about 3500 years ago and the last book about 2000 years ago.  Since the last book was written, the world has gone through more scientific changes than all of its previous history.  And the last 200 years have seen more scientific changes and developments than in all of history before it.  It is often overlooked that with those scientific changes, modern languages have changed accordingly.  Our vocabulary now contains simple words like commercialisation, decentralise, resource, electricity and a host of other words that simply did not exist when the Bible was being written.   There are literally thousands of words that belong to the 20th century in addition to a host of technical and scientific words and phrases.  The American essayist Logan Pearsall Smith – in his book The English Language, which was published in 1912, says:

“Science is in many ways the natural enemy of language.  Language, either literary or colloquial, demands a rich store of living and vivid words – words which are ‘thought pictures’ and appeal to the senses and also embody our feelings about the objects they describe.  But science cares nothing about emotion or vivid presentation; her ideal is a kind of algebraic notation, to be used simply as an instrument of analysis; and for this she rightly prefers dry and abstract terms, taken from some dead language, deprived of all life and personality.”

“Words are thought pictures that appeal to the senses and embody our feelings about the objects they describe” - that is precisely why the poetry and literary sections that we find in the Bible are not purely coincidental as the following example shows.    It is one of the many prose and poetry sections in the Bible that show us how important they can be in terms of the impact they make when we read them as intended.  In the fourth chapter of the book of Luke is a clear example how Jesus Himself used the Scriptures – and by that I mean in the way He presented them to His audience, both in terms of His reading from the Scriptures and His subsequent explanation. 

By way of a prologue we can read in this particular chapter that Jesus had traveled to Nazareth and, as it is recorded, as His custom was He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath Day.  In the synagogue Jesus indicated that he wanted to speak which He did, according to the accepted custom at that time, by standing up.  After Jesus had stood up, indicating that he wanted to speak, the text continues: And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah.  From this statement we can deduce that the books of the Old Testament were kept as separate volumes in the form of scrolls:  And when he had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me

Because He has anointed Me

To preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To set at liberty those who are oppressed;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

Jesus quoted directly from chapter 61 of the book of Isaiah.  The quote was originally written in Hebrew poetry.  Even in the English rendition it is not difficult to see that the poetic structure is still in tact.   But these verses weren’t written just for the poetry, nor did Jesus recite them specifically for their poetic beauty or impact.  However, it was the same poetry that had been originally recited by the prophet Isaiah to more effectively convey the message he wanted the people to hear, and Jesus’ audience was similarly cognisant of its impact.  Both Isaiah and Jesus used a literary device in order to get their message across more effectively.  It confirms Sir Arthur’s statement that the religion and poetry of the Bible are inseparable; however, they are inseparable for the purpose of instruction and easy recall, not just for their literary beauty. 

But this is not all, as we read on we find that we begin to see the word picture develop before our eyes as this particular incident comes to a conclusion, or the denouement in literary terms;  a climax in which the whole matter is put in an all-inclusive perspective:

Then He (Jesus) closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him.  It is easy to picture the scene:all those in the synagogue at that time were staring at Jesus as if to say:  “why did You read this particular section of the prophet at this time?”  The timing of the incident was crucial even though the audience was unaware of it, making the denouement the more effective.  And He began to say to them, Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.  Nothing else needed to be said, Jesus’ statement was all-inclusive.

From this example it can be seen that Sir Arthur was referring to Scriptures of this nature as being ‘beautiful literature.’  But this literature is not beautiful for its own sake; it is used to convey the importance of what Jesus declared in the synagogue at that time, and by extension, for our better understanding.

Does the Bible contain specific poetical works as Sir Arthur suggested?  This question has to be answered in the affirmative also.  In fact, the Bible contains no less than five specific poetical books – they are: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.  In addition, much poetic phraseology can be found in most of the other books as well.

It is difficult to put in exact words the difference between poetry and prose because the dividing line is sometimes unclear.  Some prose has poetic qualities and a good deal of poetry has prosaic qualities.  Sometimes a biblical theme that has been composed in rhyme and meter can lack any spark of poetic fire even when written by famous poets, whereas the actual biblical phrase by itself has unquestionable poetic power.  A typical example of this is David’s lament over Jonathan as depicted in 2 Samuel 11:26

“Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”

This phrase is instinct with the breath of poetry, whereas Pope’s metrical paraphrase of this deeply meaningful expression is not much more than artificial affectation:

Thy love was wondrous, soothing all my care,

Passing the fond affection of the fair.

We find that the same artificiality is present in Addison’s hymn which is a rendition of Psalm 19:

The spacious firmament on high,

With all the blue ethereal sky,

And spangled heavens, a shining frame,

Their great Original proclaim.

Compared with the succinct and striking Biblical equivalent:

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.

But while the Bible contains specific literary and poetic sections, we need to keep in mind that its primary purpose is that God uses His Word, the Bible, to reveal Himself and to communicate with us.  True religion is based on the entire Word of God as it applies to the individual Christian as well as the Church.  These are the vital points that Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch overlooked in his plea to simplify the presentation of the Bible.

Shakespeare’s sonnet number 18 is arguably regarded as his most famous poem; it certainly is his most popular.  The first line begins with the question:  Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?  And he is not addressing his beloved or anyone else.  As confirmed by the sestet of this sonnet, the poet is addressing the endurance of the written word, particularly the words of this particular sonnet.  However, from a literary point of view, the subject matter is secondary to the beauty of the poetic expressions; the subject matter is not the most important aspect and does not make this sonnet famous.  What makes it famous is the manner in which Shakespeare expressed the subject and crafted the poem.  Biblical poetry is written for the opposite purpose. The poetry is used to get the message across more effectively, hence the subject matter is the most important issue and the poetic way in which the subject matter is expressed is secondary in the sense that it is used to make the subject matter primary.  It is an important distinction that appeared to have escaped Sir Arthur.

The opening verse of Psalm 42 shows that even when the Bible uses a simile or metaphor in its poetry, referred to as emblematic parallelism – (in other words, an emblem is used to clarify its meaning) it is still evident that the message is paramount and the poetry merely the vehicle. 

As the deer pants for the water brooks    (simile)

So pants my soul for You, O God.

It doesn’t take all that much imagination for the reader to imagine the words of Psalm 8 being recited with the accompaniment of soft harp music.  This is not just a sentimental suggestion but one based on fact because this psalm was addressed to the chief musician on the instrument of Gath.  The content and message of this particular psalm is a kind of paradox about mankind.  This is what the New Bible Commentary has to say about it:

“This poem is meditative and philosophical and has the lyrical fragrance of David’s earlier years.  The tune may have been associated with work in the winepress and refers to a melody from Gath.”

 So we can understand from this statement that David almost certainly sang this psalm whilst playing the lute or harp.  In fact that was the way in which poetry was originally recited – that is the reason why, till the present day, poetry is on occasions still referred to as “the kingdom of the lute.”

The first and last phrases of this poem are identical – they form a frame for profound ideas concerning God’s essential being and His work on earth.

O Lord, our Lord,

How excellent is Your Name in all the earth,

Who have set Your glory above the heavens!

Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants You have ordained strength,

Because of Your enemies, that You may silence the enemy and the avenger.

Here David begins his meditation which is also the beginning of the paradox:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,

The moon and the stars, which You have ordained.

What is man that You are mindful of him

And the son of man that You visit him?

When we lived in Christchurch, we were only about an hour and a half traveling time from Mount Hutt.  Often, on weekends during the winter months, my son and I would pick up our skis and take off for a day skiing in the nearby Alps.  On one occasion, after we had arrived at the top of the mountain I told my son to ski ahead of me and that I would meet him at the bottom at the ski-lift a little later as he is a much faster skier than I am.  I decided, before skiing all the way down, to take a rest away from the crowd on a small rock that was protruding out of the pristine powder snow. 

From where I positioned myself I could observe both the west coast of the South Island with the Tasman Sea in the distance and on the opposite side the east coast with the Pacific Ocean forming the horizon.  For a few moments in this perfect solitude I felt very small and I realized then that it was much easier to see how small we human beings really are in the enormous expanse of mountains and valleys with the vast oceans in the far distance.

What is man that You are mindful of him?

It is sad that in our society today there are so many diversions that seem to bar deep thought and meditation reflecting on the biblical narrative and its inseparable poetry that so vividly create the word pictures of its enduring message.    The television and the internet are always there, waiting, tempting; with shallow programming that provides a daily menu of violence, implicit fornication, and aberrant behaviour of every possible description.  Its pervasiveness seems to want to silence the voices of our former Judeo-Christian values as basic standards of morality.  It is true, as the chairman of the Biblical Literary Project claims; we are the first English speaking generation in danger of losing the biblical narrative.  Unfortunately, it is also true that his organization fails to lead its students away from clear-cut biblical conclusions but instead tends to guide them to modern situation ethics by avoiding the teachings of biblical absolutes.  To look at the biblical text solely from its literary and historical perspectives rather than teach its theological message leads to knowledge of the biblical narrative without recognizing its redemptive power.  And that too, is not right. 

Notwithstanding Sir Arthur’s misgivings about the way the Bible is customarily presented, his urgent appeal that it should be studied by us all for its poetry and wonderful language as well as for its religion comes much closer to the mark, as does his final conclusion that “the religion and the literature of the Bible being in fact inseparable.”

Works cited:

Schippe, Cullen and Chuck Stetson.  The Bible and its influence.  New York: Blp Publishing, 2006.

Bates, Ernest Ed. The Bible Designed to be read as Literature. London: The Folio Society, 1952.

Davidson, F. Ed. The New Bible Commentary.  London: The Inter Varsity Fellowship, 1962.

Smith, Logan Peursall.  The English Language.  Home University Library, 1912.

(4450 words)


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