Last week’s post ended with my encouraging you to record the images, or metaphors, that David uses to describe his God. Good poets carefully choose their images to be more than what they are– that is, to transport the reader or listener beyond the “thing” itself to a deeper level of understanding. Poetic images generally call out to us to respond not only with our minds but also our senses – and when the images are in the psalms, we can add our hearts and our spirits – as well as with our own experiences to uncover their meaning. Yes, understanding poetry and the images on which it turns is, in part, experiential. Therein lies a conundrum. On whose experiences should we rely and on whose does and should meaning rest?
My surmise is that your introduction to poetry may have been similar to mine. You were in grade school, the teacher presented a poem and then asked something like “what does the image (or poem) mean to you?” The nearly universal mean-to-you question seems a good or at least sincere place to begin, because if a reader is not able to connect with it, then the whole exercise of studying the poem is, well … meaningless!
But that should be only a beginning. I believe that, posed alone, the well-intentioned mean-to-you question can impede a complete and right understanding and can lead in a direction that the poet did not envision. To avoid that, we need to ask what I call the accompanying question: “What might the image have meant to the psalmist?”
Let’s take one image and examine it together. Psalm 27 begins “The Lord is my light…” We know what light, or a light is, right? We all rely on light to help us see in order to go about the activities of our lives. So, why do we need to consider what light was to David? Because (I’m guessing it’s getting obvious to you now) David did not have the access to, and almost constant presence of, light that we moderns do. Surely he did have the heavenly lights – sun, moon and stars. And he relied on them absolutely, in a way that it is hard for most of us who are urban or suburban dwellers to understand.
We have an opposite problem. For us, it is often difficult to apprehend the full brightness of those celestial lights because our artificial and ambient light interfere. Or we just take the presence of light for granted. But for David much of the time, and especially at night, there was no seeing at all without those celestial lights. Without that, his very life would often have been in danger. After all, he lived as a young shepherd boy alone for days and nights on end in the dark, desolate, remote and rugged Middle Eastern hills. There, as he tells us, he faced lions and bears and all sorts of other threats and challenges. There, without light, he would have been particularly vulnerable. There David came to know, by experience and by heart, the importance of light — and that God was the source of light. He came to realize and embrace an absolute dependency on His light. In that context, and only that context, can we imagine what he means when he calls the Lord “my light”.
Imagine is what we must do as we examine David’s images. At the same time we should engage the two accompanying questions. But the first one we ask should always be “What did the image, what did light, mean to David?” Only after we have contemplated that should we ask “What does light mean to me?” That second inquiry should spawn its own series of questions: “What do I know of light?” “Why do I need it?” “What would I do without it?” “How do I apply those answers in more than a literal way?” “What is the metaphorical meaning of light?” “Of my light?” “How should I consider light from a spiritual perspective?” “Do I turn to the Lord as my light when I am particularly vulnerable?”
The next time you encounter a Davidic the Lord is my … image, take the time to examine the metaphor and ponder the questions. I am certain it will enrich your understanding. Or, I should say, bring more light.