As a literature major I am learning so much about the functionality of the elements of a poem, a story, or a novel. All of that information translates beautifully to Biblical literature. Consider Psalm 1, the classic Hebrew poem about the blessings of a godly person. The fact that this Psalm is poetry matters. (The Literary Study Bible is great for highlighting the importance of reading the Bible in its true literary context.)
1Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. 4The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6for the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
The literary style of Psalm 1 uses contrast and imagery to point toward a desireable quality. Hebrews 11 is the famous Hall of Faith in this style. Psalm 1 contrasts the godly person and the wicked person through the imagery of a tree. (I love this rendering of a tree in my neighborhood. It was created by my cousin Caleb.)
When it comes to poetry, Hebrew poetry is quite different from anything we read in English. This is when Bible translations are really important. I like to read Eugene Peterson’s The Message for poetry because he is a poet who also translates the Bible. It makes a difference. Peterson’s version of Psalm 1 is here.
Culturally, it is also important to note that any mention of a tree in Biblical literature is significant because the bible lands are not a heavily forested area. When a Hebrew reader read the phrase “You will be like a tree planted by streams of water,” the image from Genesis of the Tree of Life was an inevitable connection. God had to hide that tree away from humankind after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He couldn’t let us live in our sin forever. He wanted to give us a way out.
That Tree of Life shows up again at the end of the Book. It is a symbol of the health and vitality of a life reborn, a forever in perfection and productivity. Revelation 21 is one of my favorite books of the Bible because it reminds me that I’m living for more than just this life.
In between these fruitful, leafy images is another tree: the one Paul and Peter both refer to as the tree where Jesus died for our sins. The tree that makes it possible for us to get back to the Tree of Life. These are the kinds of thoughts that should go through our minds when we read about the blessings of the person who “delights in the law of the Lord.”
The contrasting image is of chaff – the leftover material after the heavy grains of wheat fall onto the sifting pans. Chaff is the flimsy, puny material that gets burned up in refiner’s fire or blown away in the wind. It is plant material, similar to the material of that tree, but it is useless and weak. Contrast those images: chaff and a tree. That choice is pretty clear, which is the whole point of the poet in the first place.