A very figurative and metaphorical God
David Lyle Jeffrey on the poetic character of the voice of God
Some time back, I had a conversation with a pastor about a theologian whose work had excited some controversy. “I just wish he didn’t use so many metaphors,” he exclaimed decisively, this last word uttered (as I recall) with a vehement sense that some sacred standard had been violated. I immediately thought of replying, “Because God does,” but quickly realized that there was no room here for argument.
After telling his provocative story about a sower who went out to sow, Jesus received a sour complaint from his disciples. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” One wonders what they thought of all of the poetic speech ascribed to God in the Scriptures. The word of the Lord as spoken by his prophets is so energized with poetic power that John Donne once described God as a poet, “a very figurative and metaphorical God.”
Chapter one in David Lyle Jeffrey’s book Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination (discussed on Volume 149 of the Journal) is called “Poetry and the Voice of God.” In it, after citing many passages from both Testaments — including the remarkable and sobering imagery from the book of Revelation — he asks what we are to make of this manner of expression in what is obviously a matter of deep consequence.
“At the least, we are obligated to see that one of the many ways in which God’s thoughts are above our own, his ways ‘higher’ than our ways, is his preference for a mode of discourse that is the very opposite of simple indicative prose or reductive proposition: it is exalted, not casual. Though some much prefer plain speech in a series of commandments that could be mastered in a system, the God whose voice booms through the prophets, in Job, and in the vision of John, as in the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, does not so limit himself. Figural speech, irony, riddling aphorisms, paradoxes, melismatic Hebrew parallelism, metaphor, and story upon story are what we get instead. Caveat lector — it turns out that in neither Testament, when he is describing disclosing his nature and purpose, does the Lord of heaven and earth always talk like we do. In our own culture’s terms, God does not talk like a lawyer, a philosopher, or even a theologian, let alone a TV talk-show host. Very often, however, he speaks like a poet. We might wish it otherwise, or be lulled into imagining that the Word of God should be coming to us in the lingo of the coffee shop or the faux-authoritative patter of the newscast, but we would be hard-pressed to find much warrant for that in Scripture. The fact that God speaks poetry when the issues are most weighty suggests that appreciating his poetry might be an essential element in our knowledge of God; that is, we should understand him as a poet — the originary poet — the One who writes the world.”
“Beginning in the twentieth century, biblical translations have tended toward a more prosaic rendering, and the fashionable imposition of culturally chic paraphrases has deadened many an ear to the actual rhetorical manner of divine self-disclosure, which is seldom colloquial. The tendency to make it so is not exclusively a modern presumption; in our time, however, it has been the poets more often than the preachers who have heard the divine Voice in something more akin to its original register, and have responded in the spirit of admiration and respect. One of the goals of this study is to consider how poets have frequently been in this sense better translators, not least in that so many have understood intuitively that the manner of divine speech in Holy Scripture is not incidental to the matter of it. Certain Christian poets in particular have discovered that understanding something of the poetry of divine speech in the Bible gives us knowledge of the Holy that we can ill afford to be without if we truly wish to understand, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, ‘him with whom we have to do’ (Heb. 4:13). In short, if the witness of Scripture as it comes down to us is to be heeded, one of the most appropriate routes to a competent biblical theology may require us to get out of our prosy habits of mind and, at least occasionally, rise up and into the poetry of God.
“To some readers it may seem an infelicity that I have just used the figurations ‘down’ and ‘up’ to suggest a distinction between our usual way of speaking and the dominant way Scripture represents God speaking — awkward because today we resist hierarchies, even in genre, and typically see ‘leveling down’ as a virtuous activity and elevated speech of any kind as something of an affront to our democratic sensibilities. This is among the reasons that poetry in our culture has fallen into neglect in comparison to a century or so ago. Sometimes poetry is now seen as a kind of elitism; in yet other contexts, it is sometimes seen as childish. Ironically, both forms of denigration capture something true about poetry, but in a way that misses the point as we need to address it here — namely, that God seems disposed to use poetry in communicating with us concerning who he is.”
“Succinctly, a poem is a certain form of words, sometimes rhythmic or musical in character, in which meaning arises indirectly, not only from the lexical denotation of its constituent words but also from a synthesis of rearrangement such that new insight or fresh appreciation results. For ancient writers it is essentially alieniloquium, saying things in an unexpected or strange way. Almost everyone recognizes, even if deprived by poor education of familiarity with poetry, that poetic speech is not merely different from normal speech, but that socially it is often intended as a ‘higher’ way of communicating. There are analogues in other spheres of life. At festival seasons, our table may be furnished with tableware (such as fine china) that we don’t use every day. Guests at such times, even if they have no personal liking for a beautifully set table or are intimidated by the challenge of which fork to pick up for the salad, will understand at once that this tableware has been ‘set apart’ for special occasions, the best that the family’s hospitality can offer. Things ‘set apart’ (the literal meaning of the Hebrew qodesh, ‘holy,’ is just that, ‘set apart’) have the potential to elevate us all when we learn to understand and enjoy them as special gifts.”
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Read “Becoming a serious and receptive reader” for an excerpt from David Lyle Jeffrey’s essay “Read Wisely, Read Well.”