Truth Claims and the Poetry Difference in Wisdom Literature

I've been critical of Psalm 14 and Psalm 137 recently. One criticism of me is that I'm ignoring that these Psalms are not prose but poetry. I know the difference, but one thing that cannot be said is that poetry does not contain truth claims. Here's an example said by me recently to Brad Haggard:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
You are an idiot,
Jim West is too.
Poetry eh? Doesn't have any truth claims, eh?

Okay, I guess.


Devin L said...

Even works of fiction contain truth claims. I mean last time I checked Harry Potter isn't real and London still exists. Just because the story of Saving Private Ryan never happened doesn't mean WWII never happened. Poetry is no exception. No offense or anything but this all seems kind of pointless to point out though John.

Brad Haggard said...

See my comment on the earlier post.

One example: Avatar has a lot of truth claims in it, and it uses a variety of methods to push its messages.

But it is not trying to claim that there is a moon on a far off planet that has a race of blue hominids that bear a striking resemblance to African tribal people. That would be a fundamental misunderstanding of the movie. That's what you're doing, in different degree, with the Psalms you're citing.

Anonymous said...

Pointless, eh DevinWL?

Enter Brad Haggard, who I don't have the time to teach about Hebrew poetry.

Brad Haggard said...

How about this, John, why don't you tell me what you think the propositional truth is that we get from Psalm 14:1 and 137. Not a restating of the Psalms, because you agree that they are poetry. Just translate the message of the Psalm from Hebrew poetry to English literal proposition, it is possible, and show me how you did the translating. Then we'll talk about "truth claims."

Anonymous said...

Brad I find better things to do that to deal with you. I'll just comment one more time about this to you. Tell me, oh wise one, since the NT writers take the falsely so-called Messianic Psalms as literal (not poetic) prophecies about Jesus' ministry and death, did they treat the Psalms incorrectly?

No double standards!


I'll let others carry on.

Brad Haggard said...

Wow, John. You can't get past your literalism. Ever hear of midrash? You did read Peter Enn's book, didn't you?

Anonymous said...

Damn it Brad, quit wasting my time. I could teach a college class on Midrash, pesher and NT hermeneutics.

What educational level did you say you have in the poll at the sidebar?

For people new to this blog I treat people respectfully, but there are just some people like Brad who have wasted so much of my time in past months that I tend to get frustrated with people like him.


Brad Haggard said...

John, I don't doubt that you've encountered midrash and pesher (though pesher doesn't help us with the NT). That's why I don't understand why you don't take this into account in your interpretation.

Maybe I should just stop asking tough questions.

Anonymous said...

Brad, said, "Ever hear of midrash?" And then now says, "I don't doubt that you've encountered midrash."

That's why you are a waste of my time.

Tough questions indeed. I've never yet heard a tough question from you. For you to think that you offer tough questions tells me you are not educated enough to understand the problems.

Brad Haggard said...

John, one more and I'll leave this.

When I said "ever hear of midrash?" that was a rhetorical question. What do you think the expected answer was? It was an assumed "yes". That's why in the very next post I can say that I don't doubt you have heard of it.

But you apparently took this question literally and not as a rhetorical question. Which is the same type of thing you are doing to the Psalms.


Anonymous said...

Yep, do an about face, Brad. Treat me like an ignoramus and then backtrack. Typical with you.

Brad Haggard said...

John, why do you take this so personally?

In just this thread, you've questioned my education twice and called me a "waste of time". But it's no big deal, it's all in the arguments. That is your mantra.

I know you have been unfairly attacked before, but you also know that I don't subscribe to that line of argumentation.

All I want to do is comment on what I think are faulty arguments, not on your education (which wouldn't say anything to the argument anyway).

So back to Psalm 14:1?

Anonymous said...

Brad, what I wrote about the Psalms stands irregardless. Show me wrong.

But I will say I admire the fact that you read this blog and interact with what is said. I wish more Christians were like you.


Piratefish said...

Just ignore him John, as you already know this'll go on and on and there're better things to do.

Brad Haggard said...

Here's the argument in a nutshell, John.

Psalm 14:1 clearly links a fool (nabal) with one who says "there is no God" in a moral sense. I am totally with you there.


This is poetry and not an absolute description. The writer is using hyperbole to make his point, and the "truth proposition" is a general statement about the character and motivations of "evil-doers." So to say that one moral atheist debunks inerrancy (I like infallible better) because of this verse misunderstands the actual scope of this verse. It's more like a proverb in its scope.

It's a pretty simple argument, really.

Anonymous said...

Brad this is the verse:

"The fool hath said in his heart, 'There is no God.'

They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that does good."

You do not explain this away and you don't do that with any other verse in Psalms. It's like with a little knowledge someone thinks he knows it all until he delves deeper. You need a better understanding of Hebrew parallelism.

And only simpletons think something is that simple.

Read several commentaries on this before responding.

Until you show me you understand the problem I won't bother responding.

Brad Haggard said...


Gerstenberger (219-220) explicitly agrees with me, and cites Gunkel in his treatment (couldn't get ahold of his work, though).

No one else addresses this issue explicitly, but they (Mays, Terrien, Kraus, Weiser, Kirkpatrick, Phillips, Jeremias) are unanimous that this isn't some sort of "theoretical" atheism but a "practical" atheism. The scope is expanded to all "sons of men" in verse 2, so your restriction to a theoretical atheism in verse 1 falls apart in 2-3.

(Thanks Google Books!)

Anonymous said...

Brad, until you dispute something I said or until you show that you understand the problem I won't respond.

Fei Meng said...

Brad, what is the distinction between "theoretical atheism" and "practical atheism"? It's all just "atheism" to me. Either you believe in God, or you don't. If you believe in God, then you will act accordingly. A person's behavior is shaped by his/her beliefs. That's how the human mind works.

But then when we talk about "belief in God," or the "existence of God," we must define what is meant by "God." As a Christian, your definition is more than just "intelligent designer." Your god is not the god of Deism. So when a Psalm says, "The fool hath said in his heart, 'There is no God,'" what exactly is meant there?

What puzzles me is that you make claims about how the "poetry" of the verses in question demonstrates that they mean something other than what they say at face-value. But you haven't actually offered a clear interpretation for what the meanings really are. That's something that always annoys me when theists retreat behind the "poetry" and "metaphor" claim whenever they are faced with a passage that they don't like: They rarely bother to explain the figurative, "intended" meaning, as if declaring that something should not be taken literally excuses them from the problem of the text.

Brad Haggard said...


I didn't want you to think that I ignored what is a good question, but I just now found some time to respond.

Let me give what I think is a clear interpretation of the Psalm, and hopefully that will show how it affects John's argument.

This psalm is a lament psalm, which is a standard genre of psalm in the OT, there's even a whole book dedicated to it, Lamentations. Most scholars believe that this psalm was written sometime not long before the exile of 586 because of the Zion theology expressed in verse 7, but some place it after the exile. The situation of the community (called sitz em leiben) seems to be one of struggle with opressors and decadence even within the community. So this psalm has definite political undertones for the worshipping community. The psalm then goes on to use a judgement motif to bring its argument to bear. Verse 1 is the exposition, or the charge, and verses 2-3 call Yahweh as a witness.


When verse 1 talks about the fool (nabal) who says there is no God (ein elohim) the force of the verse is directed to someone who chooses to live their life as if there were no accountability for their actions. God isn't present or doesn't see their actions. You also have to note that the word for God, elohim, is not the generic word for God. The "oh" in elohim marks it out as a distinctive God among the general gods. So when Yahweh comes and brings His charge against all "the sons of men" we can see how those who "seek God" are absent and that "all have turned aside" and "there is no one who does good". The moral implications of the psalm are clear here.

The "atheist" in verse one, then, is not the modern day phenomenon of a person who rejects the idea of God or gods. It is a person who wants to live life with immunity toward the moral directives of the Hebrew religion (a "practical" or "pragmatic" atheist rather than the modern day "theoretical" atheist), and not one who would explicitly deny the existence of any gods (especially since the scope of elohim is specifically the Hebrew god). In other words, the problem with the pre-exilic nation of Judah is that people have abandoned their religion and live only by their personal code.

Yahweh's witness is the final blow to the community. No one seeks Him or His ways (reminiscent of the prophetic message in that time, see Jeremiah), and even Judea will be subject to judgment. Make sure not to forget the corporate nature of Yahweh's witness. "There is no one who does good" is a hyperbolic charge against the people. It isn't to say that there is no one on the whole earth who ever does any good deed, but that the community is all judged the same for the corporate wickedness. That is the reason for the lament, the breaking down of the social and religious structure at that time.

Paul picks this psalm (or maybe 53) in Romans 3 to highlight the need for grace in the life of the believer. But once again, notice that when Paul applies this to all humanity, he isn't saying that there is no one ever who has done anything good. Paul still has the judgment motif in mind and Yahweh's condemnation of the world as a corporate whole, which leads very directly into the corporate mercy extended to humanity through Jesus (see Romans 4-6). I think it is a Calvinist mistake to take the message in Romans 3 too literally, especially when we have the judgment motif in mind.

Brad Haggard said...


So coming back to John's argument, there are two problems with his interpretation. The first is that he wants to read back into 14:1 a modern-day atheist. This, he knows well, is the cardinal sin of hermeneutics: eisegesis. So he tries to defend that reading by appealing to the ANE culture which didn't allow for the theoretical atheism, and then goes on to say that Christians were called atheists by their Roman neighbors for denying the pantheon (which is true). This muddles the argument, though, because it doesn't change the fact that John is reading something in the text that just isn't there. Atheism is a modernist reponse to the rise of classical theological liberalism. A much better contemporary application would be to indict political or corporate powers who act only in their own interests irrespective of the hurt they cause to the majority population (see: sweatshops, unilateral wars, etc.), or in smaller scale, the monsters who perpetrate human sex trafficking.

This is why commentators are quick to point out a distinction between "theoretical" atheism and it's concomitant materialism, and "practical" atheism which is based on a volitional choice to act without accountability. John's reading of modern atheism into this passage is at best anachronistic and at worst eisegesis.

The other problem I see with this is that John (along with many reformed theologians) want to take this psalm as an absolute dogmatic description, as if it were teaching that there literally (see that word again) was no person in the entire history of the world who ever did a good act. This is not what this passage suggests and it is not what Paul suggests in Romans (chapter 1 allows for the possibility of such a person). Rather, going along with the judgment motif, this is a corporate indictment and not meant to be taken as literal anthropology. If it is a psalm, which it obviously is, then you have to allow for hyperbole in its language.

So even if John's re-reading of modern atheism into the text stands (it doesn't), his claim that "one lone moral atheist" (Peter Singer, I guess?) upsets the whole cart completely misses the purpose of the passage, both in Psalms and in Romans. Once again, it is a corporate judgment, meant to be read as a lament for the people in worship. Gerstenberger makes this clear in his commentary, which I cited above. The only way to read this out of the text is to take the poetic language literally, as if it were some sort of systematic theology. It isn't, and to take it as such would violate genre.

You also have to realize how this psalm fits into the wisdom tradition of Proverbs. It makes a lot of sense in light of Proverbs 1-2. And, once again, Proverbs uses poetic language any hyperbole to give general insights into the human condition, not literal, modernistic, propositional theology.

So to sum up, John's literal interpretation of the language violates the genre and nature of the psalm, the purpose of the psalm, the main argument of the psalm, the sitz em leiben of the psalm ,and doesn't do justice to the lexical data (like nabal or elohim).

I hope that helps at least explain my position. I used to be suspicious of an appeal to "metaphorical language" as well, but that's because I didn't understand genre at all.

Anonymous said...

Hey Brad, use this same type of exegesis when discussing Psalm 22, or Psalm 110, okay?

I'd really like to see this.

No double standards. Go ahead. Show us the correct interpretation given its sitz en leben and then how the NT writers misrepresented it.

It's quite ridiculous to me that you think you're correct and the Calvinists are not. Go start a blog about this and invite the Calvinists there okay?

This is why I said I usually do not tell Christians what the Bible means. I don't do it precisely because Christians themselves cannot agree. Whenever I try there will always be someone who shows up and disagrees with me because the Bible can be taken to means so many different things.

Hell, if you get Donald McKim's massive 600 + book, "Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters" Christians cannot even agree on the proper methods for interpretinmg the Bible.

You truly amuse me. Anyone who thinks he has the answers to these questions doesn't understand the problems. That's why I say you must first understand the problems before you can answer them.

Brad Haggard said...

Do I not understand the problem because I'm not Calvinist?

You know good and well that the NT writers didn't interpret these passages grammatical-historically, they appropriated them to Christ. The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive (it's not even as layered as Origen).

The method I used was an inductive method, so it's open to change. All of my interpretation was verified by the commentators I read. Just show me the evidence and we'll weigh it together. But YOU show it because you're the one who published the argument.

I've heard this "Christians can't agree" line a few times, too, and I don't think it holds much weight. You know that our emotions and histories color our perceptions of reality. We can't operate under the modernist ideal of "absolute knowledge" anymore, we know it's a myth now. We deal with our perceptions of the world (the objective text of the Bible, in this case) as best we can and do it publicly in order to verify our perceptions. Difference of opinion is unavoidable, and for a skeptic like you it should be praised because it is a hallmark of critical thought.

I just tried to present why I don't think your argument is a good one, because it is based on incomplete hermeneutics. If my interpretation is wrong, well, then show me.

Anonymous said...

Brad, if you want to interact with me you must deal with what I wrote and say why it is wrong. Care to try that, just once?

Again, read what I wrote and then show why it is wrong.

And then start a Blog that says "I know how to interpret Psalm 14, 22, and 110, and see if Christians can come to an agreement, okay? You are soooo naive.

Rob R said...

There's a fallacy and I don't know if it has a name. If it doesn't, i'd call it appeal to controversy (which is kind of the inverse and mirror image of a falacious appeal to authority but no more rational) which is to suggest that just because the authorities disagree, one is not justified to weigh the evidence and reasoning in a matter and come to a decision about it. If it hasn't been pointed out in the philosophical literature, someone ought to publish it.

I don't know what you are talking about John to insist on the sitz en leben of psalm 22 and 110 and accuse Brad Haggard of not dealing with it. To put these psalms into the historical context, if I understand your intention would suggest that they were not intended as messianic prophecies. If that's the conundrum you wish to highlight, it seems to me that Brad did address this noting that NT authors did not use the historical-grammitcal method when appropriating these psalms. If I understand Brad right (and I'm too lazy to reread what he said) this is an admission that that original intention of the psalm was not messianic even though we believe that the appropriation by the NT authors was appropriate and guided by God.

NT Wrights discussion on the poem "The Listeners" in The New Testament and the People of God I think serves as an excellent argument which is well in line with current analysis of literature that a text can indeed have more than one legitimate usage and interpretation. And He pointed out that such is even affirmed in scripture when we read of Caiaphas claim that Jesus would die for the nation as he participated in the plot to Kill Jesus.