Poetry as we come to the end of an era.

Signposts, 24th Nov, 2013: Jer.23:1-6; For Ps. Luke 1:68-79; Col.1:11-20; Luke 23:33-45

The translators of the Bible I look at* before I write these articles, always put the words written as poetry in Hebrew or Greek into poetry in English. The two last verses of today’s Jeremiah reading are poetry, the whole of Luke’s reading being used instead of a Psalm is poetry, as is most of the passage of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Only the Gospel reading from Luke is wholly prose. The dictionary has one meaning of prose as “matter-of-fact”. I guess that too would describe the execution of a bunch of rascals by nailing them to crosses in those days.

I began to wonder what poetry really is, and came to the conclusion that it is the extreme opposite of the contracts and specifications which I used to write when I was a practicing engineer. Every significant detail that a bridge needs to carry particular weight loads for more than a hundred years has to be defined with words, and made just so.

The sort of poetry we are talking about puts in words all that is good, but doesn’t specify the details. A little example would be me and my wife, Margaret. She likes certain sorts of music and a good dance floor to dance on, but couldn’t make one. I love the music and the dancing, and could make a dance floor, but I can’t dance (I gave up trying many decades ago!).

So, let’s have a look at the poetry in our readings. Jeremiah sees the whole of the Jewish nation under David’s rule as like a flock of sheep, scattered by careless shepherds. But at verse 5 Jeremiah foresees a wise king, who is able to re-unite the northern tribes of old Jacob (Israel) and southern tribes (Judah). Well, that unifying was never achieved in the Hebrew family, and the only Christian teacher who I would guess achieved Jeremiah’s ideal was Francis of Assisi.

Now, the Benedictus, the song of Zechariah, the father of the baby who is to become John the Baptiser. My translator says, “Like the Magnificat this canticle (song**) is a poem which Luke has drawn from elsewhere to put on Zechariah’s lips.” The original author (probably not Luke himself, see Lk. 1:1-4) has used five quotations from the Psalms, three from Isaiah, two from Jeremiah, and one each from Leviticus, Genesis, Malachi, and Zechariah, and few others. Wow, the author sure knew his Bible!

Our reading from Paul starts in the middle of a sentence of seven and a half lines of small type. I just imagine Paul dictating to his secretary in a slow but continuous output.*** The hymn starts at verse 15; it is probably one of the most powerful pointers in the Bible to the concept of the Trinity. That didn’t get fixed until all the Bible writers were long dead and gone. It was forced on the church as a necessary concept by a roman emperor, whose own Christian faith was a bit doubtful, to say the least. My bet is Paul would have turned in his grave when he knew that his mystery concept was turned into a bread and butter fact.


* The New Jerusalem Bible.
** My interference, you probably know what a canticle is.
*** But anyway they didn’t have full-stops in those days.

Brye has told me that this will have to be his last Signpost. I am personally going to miss him enormously, and this last one is a superb example of why I love Brye’s Signposts so much. Paul


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