Teaching Sunday School How to Read Biblical Poetry

This past Sunday, I subbed for our Sunday School class. Much as I love teaching Sunbeams, it was a great change of pace to discuss scripture with adults. And part of the challenge (and fun) was looking for ways to not just introduce Jacob’s wonderful discourse in 2 Nephi 6-10, but also to talk about the elephant in the room: Isaiah, who dominates the next two weeks.

The lesson was met with some positive feedback, and I had several people come up and let me know how much they liked it. So in the spirit of sharing, here’s part of what I did for the lesson, and here’s the handout I gave people a link to for later reference.

Reading Biblical Poetry

The first thing I wanted to do was help people know that Isaiah is mostly poetry, and so think about how to read Biblical poetry. I borrowed heavily from The Bible Project’s great video on how to read Biblical poetry, which you can see here:

I unabashedly love The Bible Project.

While I could have shown the video in class, probably, I decided just to hit the main points myself, keeping it really high level:

  • I explained that 33% of the Bible is poetry. So how do we read it?
  • Biblical poetry doesn’t use rhyme to mark something as poetry, but rather couplets set parallel to each other.
  • The first line of each couplet makes a basic statement.
  • The second line either completes, deepens, or contrasts the first line. (This is really general, but hey, rule of threes.) I drew these points on the board.
  • Let’s see an example of this. Jacob uses chapter 6 to comment on Isaiah 49:22-23. But that’s actually part of a larger poem, Isaiah 49:14-23. Let’s take a look at it.
  • At this point, I passed around this as a handout, which showed the larger passage in poetic form. I also made a couple of notes regarding the “setup” of the poem.
Isaiah 49:14-23
  • I took a minute to observe that, unlike the KVJ or our own Book of Mormon, this translation shows the couplets. It helps to see the couplets when you read poetry, and you should try to do that whenever possible!
  • We spent a couple of minutes reading through the couplets, and I asked them each time what they thought the second line was doing. Verse 14? Deepening. The first half of verse 15? Deepening. The second half? Contrasting. Verse 14? Deepening or completing. It was fun, and they really got into it.

Isaiah’s Two Halves

At this point, I had them break into groups and read the poem again, looking for the answer to these two questions: what is the poem about? And why would Nephi and Jacob have taught this to their people? What message did it have for them? After a fruitful discussion, I asked them what it might mean for us. We had a great time.

One of the things that came up in the discussion was that the Isaiah passages Jacob was quoting to his people were basically hopeful. And this makes sense, if we know something about the book of Isaiah! I only spent a couple of minutes making this point, but it proved helpful for several people in our group:

  • Isaiah has two halves!
  • I drew a picture of a book, and wrote “Isaiah 1-39 / Judgement” on the left side, and “Isaiah 40-66 / Hope and Comfort” on the right side. I take this basic idea from the Bible Project, commentaries, and BYU’s Joseph Spencer, who said this:

The simplest or most obvious literary feature of the Book of Isaiah is the fact that it comes in two halves… whether we divide the book between chapters 33 and 34 or between chapters 39 and 40, what’s important for our purposes is the fact that the two halves are literarily and theologically different. The first half of the book is taken up primarily with the theme of judgment (both of covenant peoples and of Gentile nations), while the second half of the book is taken up primarily with the theme of restoration (of the covenant people thanks in part to the assistance of the Gentile nations). Other major prophetic books are similarly organized, with prophecies of peace and restoration coming after prophecies of destruction and judgment…

Joseph Spencer, “The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record”, Chapter 2
  • I explained that (generally speaking) it’s helpful to ask which “side” of Isaiah the passage is from. If Jacob or Nephi (or Jesus or Abinadi) is quoting from the first half, like most of next week’s readings, it’s from the “judgement” section. If it’s from the second half, it’s from the “hope” section.
  • I asked them which “side” today’s reading is from–the “hope” side!–and which “side” next week’s reading is from. And then, with that very brief note about Isaiah’s larger structure, we moved on.

Making Isaiah Approachable

After this, we launched in 2 Nephi 9-10, which is, I think, where most lessons on 2 Nephi 6-10 spend their time. (It’s certainly where the manual focuses us.) But I wanted to make sure we spent some time on the Isaiah chapters–learning how to read the poetry and making Isaiah’s own book a little more approachable. This handout I gave people a link to also helped to point people toward some of the YouTube videos and directions.

I’m always trying to learn how to make Isaiah more inviting. These are little “hooks” that have helped me into a very daunting but powerful testament, a testament that bears witness of God’s covenant love for His people–anciently, and today. I hope it helps!

If you have any other ideas or things that work for you and your class, let me know.

2 Replies to “Teaching Sunday School How to Read Biblical Poetry”

  1. I love this, and it’s helping me. Thanks for posting! I’m glad I stumbled upon you staggering onward. Look forward to further insights and approaches to the scriptures, etc.

  2. This is so useful! I love the poetry of Isaiah, but I know it can get weighed down in archaic language and ancient political mechanizations, and I’ve struggled to move past that with my class of 14 year olds. Totally going to use this next time!

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