How does poetry help this description of God?
The semantic building block upon which Hebrew poetry is built is Metaphor. Metaphor operates by taking two seemingly incongruent terms and placing them side-by-side in an attempt to force the reader to perceive something differently. Metaphors present a violent collision of language resulting in what Kearney labelled “semantic shock”.
This semantic shock teases the reader into active thought as it creates uncertainty of meaning. As the reader is forced to come to terms with how two such incongruent terms could be united they are driven into a deeper understanding of the text and indeed forced to move beyond the surface of the text to the deeper reality existing behind it. “Metaphors could be seen as peepholes through which we glimpse the meaning of a poem”. These peepholes exist in the frame of the imagination or as Vos aptly describes; “metaphors are sparks ignited by the imagination”.
Our imagination is not a ‘passage into nothingness but the prerequisite of a redemption to the real’. That is, to create an image is to ‘renovate our power of seeing the world which for so long has been smothered in lazy familiarity’. As such the imagination is not un-reality as much as a sur-reality.
It has the power to surpass reality in order to change it.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Psalm 90 through which the poet sweeps the reader into the eternal realm of the God so that they may gain a healthy perspective to their own mortal existence. The opening 11 verses juxtapose the eternal God with mortal man.
O Master, You have been our abode
in every generation
Before the mountains were born,
before you spawned earth and world
from forever to forever you are God.
The poet builds this poem upon a cosmic scale upon where the largest mountains were ‘spawned’ or ‘given birth’ by God. This image certainly creates a ‘shock’ as our imaginations drift to the eternal God giving birth! Yet this single poignant picture the poet declares God’s size, power, authority and intimacy with this creation. Contrasted, is a the imagery of humankind as finite and limited.
You engulf them with sleep
in the morn they are like grass that passes.
In the morning it sprouts and passes
by evening it withers and dies.
Certainly this image ‘arrests’ the reader and drives them beyond the familiar to consider the transience of mortality. A daily and well-known image for those who lived in the barren lands of the Middle East. With such contrasting and humbling imagery the reader is made ready to receive the imperative of verse 12
To count our days rightly, instruct,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
True wisdom is not to ignore our mortality, not to lament over it. Rather the poem draws us to see our mortality with joy in the light of an eternal, loving creator God. In relationship with such a God we can have purpose and know that the ‘work of our hands’ can be ‘firmly founded’, a huge contrast to the imagery of wilting grass.
Thus, one of the significant features of imagery and metaphor is its power to surpass reality in order to change it, as seen through the example of Psalm 90.