Recently my husband, stepsons, and I were discussing poetry over dinner. Rather, I was talking about poetry, and they were complaining about it. One of the boys was struggling with the subject in English class and had decided it was stupid. His brother and dad agreed.
“Why don’t they just say what they mean instead of using all that flowery language?” the poetry-studying son asked.
“How do the teachers really know what the author meant by each word?” my husband said.
“Yeah, I think they’re just making it up,” our other son added.
As a poetry lover, I got defensive. “It’s not about what it means,” I said, “ it’s more about how the words make you feel.”
“I feel that poetry is dumb,” one son replied, and we all laughed.
Later, as I reflected on my family’s experience with poetry, I realized many people feel the same way about the Bible. The language sounds flowery or outdated, depending on the translation. Sometimes the meaning is obscured in prophecy or verse, and readers often struggle to tease out what the Author really intended. Despite spending years reading Scripture, many believers still barely understand what it means. Could the reason be that they aren’t reading God’s Word the way it was meant to be read?
Because God’s Word comes to us as a text, with sentences and punctuation and paragraphs, one sure way to read as it was intended is to begin with the words themselves. Let’s examine Psalm 73:1-28.
Start With the Words
First, read the passage multiple times silently or out loud, or listen to another person read it. Use multiple translations if you like, but with each reading, be on the lookout for repetition, patterns, transitions, and descriptions. Sometimes I find it helpful to use highlighters or a pen to make note of how the words are working together. In one reading of Psalm 73, for instance, I might highlight with a different color every time the author says “they” or “their,” “I” or “my,” and “you” or “your.” With the colorcoding, it’s easy to see the psalm is divided into sections referring to the different pronouns, and I note that “they” are “the wicked,” “I” is the psalmist himself, and “you” refers to God.
During another reading, I discover that the word good, which refers to God, is used in both the first and last verses (vv. 1, 28). I also notice the psalmist uses the phrase “pure of heart” in two different places (vv. 1, 13) as well as two versions of the word “slip” (vv. 2, 18). Even seemingly ordinary words like until and but indicate transitions in the psalmist’s perspective. Likewise, analyzing the various phrases used to describe both they and I reveals that the psalmist is setting up a contrast between the two groups.
Connect With the Word Pictures
After reading thoroughly, move from the words themselves to the images those words evoke, pictures that create emotional responses and tap into personal memories. In verse 2, for instance, when the author talks about stumbling or slipping, I think of my own recent tumble that left me with a broken wrist and foot. I feel the panic of someone who has lost control. When the psalmist talks about the wicked, he says they wear pride as a necklace (v. 6). I think of ostentatious jewelry I’ve seen people wear—each necklace, bracelet, or pair of earrings a demand for attention. It’s as if the writer is saying that pride is something the wicked are flaunting. They’re also described as fat with bulging eyes and parading tongues (vv. 4-9) and in phrase after phrase are depicted as a violent, evil, manipulative group of people who mock God and look out only for themselves. I sense the psalmist may be exaggerating the description, possibly to make the contrast more evident, or maybe because of the envy he confessed back in verse 3—it calls to mind how easily I tend to vilify others when I’ve experienced even the smallest of slights.
A little later in the text, when the psalmist writes of entering the sanctuary of God (v. 17), we don’t know if he literally went to the temple or just came before the Lord in prayer. But we do see the effect of God’s presence. Previously, the writer’s heart was troubled, but now he understands the divine plan (vv. 16-17). When he clung to envy and strayed from God, he was a brute beast, senseless and arrogant (not unlike the wicked themselves). But after finding his way back to God, the psalmist pictured the Lord holding his hand, guiding him, and providing all he needs forever (73:21-24). I think of my parents, of course, who offered the same kind of protection, guidance, and provision throughout my life, even when I made bad choices. And when I read, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (v. 26), I remember His merciful provision for me during years of serious illnesses.
Ask the Big Questions
We can gain helpful insight by asking questions based on the emotions and memories the text evokes—such as When have I felt like this? and How has God moved in my life in similar ways? But we must ask bigger questions, too, like What point is the author making? and What might God be asking me to believe or do now as a result of reading this text?
At this point, you might seek answers outside the text by researching commentaries or study guides. You could find out more about the author, Asaph, and discover what was going on in his own life or in the history of Israel when he wrote Psalm 73. Or you could research the division of the Psalms into four “books” and learn why this particular psalm was the first of Book 3. But even without this academic knowledge, looking at the text itself can reveal meaning and help us grow.
For instance, look at the psalm as a whole, and you’ll see the writer starts with God’s goodness but then shows how a false view of prosperity made him question that goodness (vv. 1, 3). By drawing near to God and His truth, however, the writer is reminded that true prosperity isn’t about wealth or health or power but about a relationship with God Himself (vv. 25-26). In that way, prosperity—true prosperity—is available to all who draw near to Him. By the end of the psalmist’s song, not only has he reaffirmed God’s goodness, but he has also testified that being near to God is the ultimate good.
The Bible isn’t a keepsake we display on the mantle or a stale catalog of doctrines only an elite class can comprehend. It’s God’s love letter to us, which we pore over to learn more about our beloved. It’s His map of the spiritual universe, which we diligently study to find where we are and where we’re headed. And it’s the story of the Word made flesh, whom we get to know better every time we immerse ourselves in its pages. That’s the way God’s Word is meant to be read.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft