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How Poetry Forms Us

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series

"Sing to the Lord a New Song"

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Singing both helps us express right affections to God in response to God’s character and works, and it also helps to form those affections when we make present through the art realities that are past, present, and future. But our affections are also formed by the art itself; in the case of Psalm 96, the poetry forms the singer.

Remember, this is not just a prose narrative of who God is and what he has done. This is a psalm; it is poetic; it uses various artistic devices to form and shape our minds and our hearts as we consider God’s nature and works and respond rightly toward him.

Let’s look at some of those artistic devices. We have already noticed the groupings of threes in parallel to one another. This poetic technique provides structural identifiers that help us to recognize where the progression of thought lies, and it helps to develop and expand our understanding of what it means to sing in worship. But these repetitions of three—particularly Sing…Sing…Sing, Ascribe…Ascribe…Ascribe, and Let…Let…Let are poetic ways of denoting emphasis; as we sing this psalm, we cannot help but be drawn to those three groupings of three.

Poets call this Anaphora: repeating the same word in successive lines, but then developing the idea further which each line. In other words, it is not just mindless, undeveloped repetition; it is repetition that progresses an idea. Sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord all the earth, sing to the Lord, bless his name. Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the people, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength, ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name. Let the heavens be glad, let the sea roar, let the field exult. This is not repetition intended to stimulate a mindless trance, as New Age mantras intend, this is repetition intended to stimulate deep contemplation of the mind and heart.

There are other poetic devices in this psalm that shape and form us. Some would have been more poignant in Hebrew than they are in English. For example, in verse 5, the Hebrew employs a play on words when it says, “For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols.” The Hebrew word for gods is Elohim, and the Hebrew word for worthless idols is elihim. The Elohim are elihim.

Others are translated well in English. Verses 11 and 12 contain both a poetic device called apostrophe—directly addressing inanimate objects like the earth, or seas, or fields—and personification—attributing human characteristics to non-humans. The heavens can’t really be glad, the earth can’t rejoice, the field cannot exult, and the trees cannot sing for joy, nor can they hear our commands to do so. But by using these poetic descriptions, this song shapes our hearts in ways that mere prose would not.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.