I love reading Paul’s letters and have been studying them for over 50 years. I was initially impressed as a young Christian by the fact that God could use a man of such great intellect. Especially when, then as now, intelligence and reason seemed to be held in little esteem in the Christian community that I was part of. I still believe that, next to Jesus himself, Paul was one of the smartest men who ever lived.
I loved (and still love) his well-reasoned arguments and his “Socratic” style of engaging his readers. When I attended seminary and learned to do exegesis in the original Greek, I was even more impressed.
Yet there are many other facets of Paul, which are unfortunately often neglected in doing detailed exegesis. We often overlook the forest for the trees. Paul was more than a brilliant scholar, logician and rhetorician. He was a man of passion. He was a man with a deep love for his Savior. And he was a poet.
Now I’m not a poet. My eyes glaze over when I attempt to study the mechanics of poetry. But I think I know beautiful poetry when I see it. I love the poetry of the Old Testament and have even taught it, even though its forms often have eluded me. And Paul wrote some of the most beautiful poetry in the Bible, rivaling that of David or Solomon or the other Psalmists.
The problem is, we may often miss it. Our translations don’t always print it in poetic form. Even printed Greek texts may miss it. Early Greek texts often simply ran words together without much regard for form. Much is left up to the reader to find.
Then too, commentaries and commentators can also be a hindrance. Even when they recognize what is obviously poetry, many seem unable to give Paul credit. They’ll tell us things like “Paul is here quoting from an ancient hymn (or ‘fragment’)”, or “Paul may be alluding to some Old Testament passage.” But why couldn’t Paul simply be waxing poetic on his own? This would seem to be the simplest understanding. Often the poetry fits in perfectly with his argument. His best known poem – the ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13 – fits perfectly between chapters 12 and 14, his lengthy argument concerning the use and abuses of spiritual gifts.
I have attempted to translate this chapter as literally as I could. I’ve supplied only a few words that are not in the Greek text.
1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13:
12:31b And now I'll show you the most excellent way:
13:1 If I talk with the tongues of men -- even of angels,
but I don't have love
I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.
2 And if I have the gift of prophecy,
and I know all the mysteries and all the knowledge,
and if I have all the faith -- so as to remove mountains,
but I don't have love,
I am nothing.
3 And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor,
and if I hand over my body that I may be burned,
but I don't have love,
I gain nothing.
4 Love is longsuffering,
love is not jealous,
does not brag,
is not puffed up
5 does not behave shamefully,
does not seek its own,
does not get provoked,
does not take a wrong into account,
6 does not rejoice in injustice
-- but rejoices together with the truth,
7 covers all things,
trusts all things,
hopes all things,
puts up with all things.
8 Love never fails;
but if prophecies, they will be done away with,
if tongues, they will cease,
if knowledge, it will be done away with.
9 For we know in part,
and we prophesy in part
10 but whenever the perfect comes,
that which is in part will be done away with.
11 When I was a child,
I used to talk like a child,
I used to think like a child,
I used to reason like a child.
Now that I've become a man,
I have done away with the things of the child.
12 For now we see in a mirror,
with an unclear image,
but then face to face.
Now I know in part,
but then I will fully know,
just as I have been fully known.
13 And now remain faith, hope, love -- these three,
but the greatest of these is love.
There’s also another poem on love in the twelfth chapter of Romans that fits perfectly with the rest of the chapter. I have also attempted to translate this one as literally as I could. Most of the verbs are usually translated as imperatives, although Paul didn’t use imperatives. He could have, but he chose instead to use participles, for poetic reasons, I believe. It should also be noted that the participles are masculine in gender while the word “love” is in the feminine gender. Though the poem seems to end at verse 15, I have translated through verse 21.
12:9 Love unhypocritical.
Abhorring the evil;
clinging to the good;
10 in brotherly love to one another, devoted;
In honor to one another, taking the lead;
11 in earnestness, not lazy;
in the Spirit, boiling;
the Lord, serving;
12 in hope, rejoicing;
in tribulation, enduring;
in prayer, persisting;
13 in the needs of the saints, sharing;
the love of strangers, pursuing;
14 -- bless those pursuing you – bless and don’t curse.
15 Rejoice with those rejoicing;
weep with those weeping.
16 Having the same mind with one another,
not setting the mind on high things,
but with the lowly being carried away together;
-- don’t be wise in yourselves –
17 To no one paying back evil for evil;
taking forethought for good in the sight of all men;
18 if possible, as much as is in you,
With all men being at peace;
19 not avenging yourselves beloved,
but give place to the wrath,
for it is written, “To me (belongs) vengeance,
I will repay,” says the Lord.
20 But “if your enemy is hungry feed him;
if he’s thirsty give him a drink;
for by doing this, coals of fire
you’ll heap on his head.”
21 Don’t be conquered by evil,
but conquer the evil with the good.
The most beautiful of all is the poem to Christ in Philippians 2:5-11 (See: HOLIDAY IMAGES and WHAT’S IN A NAME?). Paul could teach heavy theology in poetry.
Other texts are Colossians 1:15-20; 1Timothy 3:16; 6:15, 16.