Christianity 201

July 19, 2014

Repetition in Scripture: Poetry or Emphasis?

Case for the PsalmsI am currently working my way devotionally through N. T. Wright’s second-newest book, The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential. Today I looked back at a section in the introduction that has been sticking with me:

The Psalms rely for their effect on the way they set out the main themes. They say something from one angle and then repeat it from a different angle.

NRSV Psalm 33:6 By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
    and all their host by the breath of his mouth.

Psalm 78:2 I will open my mouth in a parable;
    I will utter dark sayings from of old,

Psalm 139:3 You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even when this doesn’t happen line by line, it often happens between different sections of a psalm or in the balance of the collection, or a part of it, as a whole.

The important point here is that some of the most important things we want to say remain just a little beyond even our best words. The first sentence is a signpost to the deep reality, the second a signpost from a slightly different place. The reader is invited to follow both and to see the larger, unspoken truth looming up behind. This means that only can the effect be maintained in translation, but the effect itself is one of the deepest things the Psalms are doing, making it clear that the best human words point beyond themselves to realities that transcend even high poetic description.

But then, Wright makes another observation — in parenthesis — that really got me thinking:

(Something similar is achieved elsewhere in the Bible — for instance in the provision in Genesis for two creation stories, offering two picture-language images for a reality that lies beyond either.)

Let’s look at that:

NIV Genesis 1:1  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters…

31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

Genesis 2:4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth[a] and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams[b] came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed a man[c] from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

  1. Genesis 2:5 Or land; also in verse 6
  2. Genesis 2:6 Or mist
  3. Genesis 2:7 The Hebrew for man (adam) sounds like and may be related to the Hebrew for ground (adamah); it is also the name Adam (see verse 20).

One thing I have been taught from my youth is that where the scripture provides emphasis, the emphasis is there for a reason. It can happen within a single phrase. The angels don’t cry “holy;” they cry “holy, holy, holy.”  (Another author has more examples in this list.)

While I have no particular Bible-and-science agenda here, I think it is interesting that in today’s climate of creation controversy and a divided Christian community on the subject of creation — old earth creation, new earth creation, theistic evolution, etc. — that God would choose that the story should appear twice. What are we not to miss?

Sometimes the Bible seems to sanction repetition and sometimes it does not. We’re told in the introduction to The Lord’s Prayer not to keep repeating the same prayers over and over again, but in a Catholic article, written to defend the use of the rosary, the author appeals to the Psalms, stating,

Take Psalm 119… It is the longest psalm in the Bible, having 176 verses. On the whole, the psalm is a persistent repetition of the main theme, that is, of the excellence of keeping the law of God. It makes an excellent meditation and prayer of repetition — like the rosary — beautiful, pious, and thoroughly biblical.

(The article does make some points worth considering, though to many Evangelicals, the chanting of the Hail Mary prayer seems more pagan than Christian.)

Another author breaks down the variants of repetition we encounter in an article on Puritan Hermeneutics:

…Today I am typing out my notes from John Arrowsmith’s exposition of John 1:1-18.  It is entitled, ” Theanthropos, God made Man.”  I came across a very nice little hermeneutical discussion on what repetition signifies in Scripture.  In sum, Arrowsmith writes:

1.         In prayer repetition serves to express fervency and earnestness. Matthew 26:44

2.         In prophecies repetition serves to note the certainty of them.  Genesis 41:22

3.         In threats repetition indicates unavoidableness and, perhaps, suddenness.  Ezekiel 21:27

4.         In precepts repetition serves to note a necessity in performing them.  Psalm 47:6

5.         In truths repetition serves to show the necessity of believing them and of knowing them.  John 3:3, 5, 17

My point today is that when we encounter repetition in scripture it’s important not to simply say, “at this point the writing has moved into a poetic form;” but rather to say, “this repetition is for a reason, maybe God is trying to tell me something!