Pastors, Read Poetry

Eugene Peterson, In his book The Contemplative Pastor makes a fascinating observation. He says, “Isn’t it interesting that all of the biblical prophets and psalmists were poets?” [1] Indeed, this is interesting. 

If all the biblical prophets and psalmists were in some sense poets, why is it that only a few handfuls of pastors today are interested in poetry? Have we lost this gift of the Spirit (Eph 5:19)? Why aren’t we interested in poetry?

We Have a Great Poetic Heritage

The God of the Bible is the source of all excellent poetry. An observant eye can see this just by glancing at His inspired book,  the Bible. Surprisingly, one-third of Scriptures is poetic in nature. This includes books like Job, Psalms, Lamentations, Proverbs, and Song of Solomon that strictly follow the genre of poetry. However, it also includes both the Old Testament prophetic books, as well as many New Testament narratives, that are filled with psalms, hymns, songs, and imaginative and evocative language. In other words, the Lord, who reveals himself in His inspired word, is a poet. 

Church history is full of pastors who were poets. We can see poetic craft in the early church liturgies. St John Chrysostom’s divine liturgy knows no competition in its beauty, theology and creativity. Or consider Dante and his Divine Comedy, Charles Wesley and his marvellous hymns, George Herbert and his heart-warming, Christ-centred poetry, or John Milton or C. S. Lewis. The list goes on and on. The point is this: we have a great heritage of God-exulting poetry. So why have we abandoned it?

Poetry Is Good For Your Ministry

We Reformed believers firmly hold that the essence of Christian ministry is preaching of the word of God. This is at the heart of our calling as ministers.  But what does poetry have to do with preaching? Much in every way! 

1. Poetry is an essential tool for language 

Firstly, as preachers we use language. Preaching without language is simply not possible. Since language is a prerequisite for preaching, language must be learnt well in order to preach well. Poetry is that schoolmaster which teaches us language. It teaches us the way to express and expound the deep truths from the wells of scriptures that mere propositional declarations aren’t able to.

2. Poetry is a key ingredient in evoking passions

Secondly, preaching to the heart requires us to use language which evokes the passions. For example, in 1 Peter 5:8, the apostle could have said, ‘Your enemy is after you, so be alert.’ But he says, ‘Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour’. Why does he use poetic language? Answer: To grip the hearts of his readers, to inflame their hearts.  Preachers of God’s word are called to preach to the heart (passions and affections), and not just the mind. Poetry can serve as a faithful handmaiden in achieving this purpose.

3. Poetry speaks to the imagination 

Thirdly, preachers are appointed by God to speak to the congregation from his word. This happens through exegesis and application, that is, opening God’s word with people, helping them to understand it, and applying it to their lives. This application takes a lot of imagination. It requires that we preachers enter into the lives of our hearers and survey the landscape to see where the flowers of righteousness have been planted and where thorns of evil still exist. Without imagination, the application of any sermon would be bland and tasteless.  

Given that we have a great poetic heritage in both Scripture and Church history, and that poetry is helpful for preaching, let’s grab hold of this ancient treasure. It is a gift from the Holy Spirit for the good of our people, and the joy of our hearts. Let’s use it!  

[1]Quote is taken from Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1993), 155.

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