Fortress Press

Vast as the Sea: Hebrew Poetry and the Human Condition

Vast as the Sea

Hebrew Poetry and the Human Condition

Samuel Hildebrandt (Author)


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The poetry, imagery, speeches, and emotions readers encounter in texts like Job, Psalms, and Jeremiah are abundant resources for articulating the painful experiences of the human condition. These compositions are sacred scripts that normalize and articulate the anxiety, loneliness, and despair that mark life on earth. In Vast as the Sea, Samuel Hildebrandt presents an accessible, exegetical study of these scripts that demonstrates how the Bible's ancient poetry speaks today. In conversation with current psychological research, Hildebrandt's poetic analyses invite readers to discover the personal and expressive contours of the biblical text, as well as its liberating and healing potential.

Vast as the Sea models an approach to the Old Testament that navigates a critical and creative balance between ancient contexts and contemporary life. Hildebrandt joins these two worlds together by maintaining a conscious focus on poetic language. By reflecting on individual words, engaging selected metaphors, and unpacking expressions and their underlying worldviews, Vast as the Sea gifts to its readers a reservoir of language for putting the pain of being human into words. The world, woe, and wonder of Old Testament poetry is a vast yet overlooked resource for readers who are left speechless by the tumults of life and who struggle to reconcile such experiences with their faith. Promoting emotional literacy and wrestling with the tensions between confession and experience, Vast as the Sea will become a long-held, treasured resource for scholars and everyday readers of the Bible, as well as for practitioners in psychology and pastoral counseling.

  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Paperback
  • ISBN 9781506485492
  • eBook ISBN 9781506485508
  • Dimensions 6 x 9
  • Pages 252
  • Publication Date December 5, 2023


Beautifully written with a poetic feel, this study of the human condition as seen through selected poetic texts of the Hebrew Bible is a rich feast for any reader. Samuel Hildebrandt tackles difficult human issues such as loneliness, despair, trauma, imagined hope, the disintegration of known reality, and musings on time, death, and the good life. These are all viewed through the lenses of a rich appreciation of the power of Hebrew poetry and a deep engagement with the findings of modern psychological method--the findings of each individual chapter wrapped up in the metaphor of the sea of life with its characteristic tosses and turns.

Katharine J. Dell, professor of Old Testament literature and theology, University of Cambridge

Vast as the Sea provides a navigational chart for the ocean of human emotional well-being, carefully mapped out with the aid of Hebrew poetry and taking frequent bearings from contemporary psychology. Samuel Hildebrandt does not shy away from the challenges that this task presents. He explores anxiety amidst chaos and combat, plotting a course to calmer waters; loneliness as a place that can lead to creativity; hope in the wake of trauma and despair; the plight of theology amidst shattered assumptions; the tyranny of time; and the quest for wisdom amidst seeming meaninglessness. This beautifully written book should be of interest to all who wish to explore what the Bible has to teach about mental health and well-being.

Christopher C. H. Cook, emeritus professor, Institute for Medical Humanities,Durham University, United Kingdom

Samuel Hildebrandt begins Vast as the Sea with a mesmerizing word picture of the sea and its moods, painting a backdrop for his thoughts on what it means to be totally human, both in pleasant times and, most especially, in difficult times. He focuses on the connections between Hebrew poetry and human experience, and draws a clear path between aspects of poetry such as the shape of the text, the role of imagination, and the power of poetry for expressing emotions. This path leads through reflection on human psychology and the effects of trauma and then comes full circle as Hildebrandt demonstrates the power of words and of poetry to address the difficult things--the anxiety, loneliness, and despair that often come with the human experience. Hildebrandt chooses his words with artistic care, and his understanding that the biblical poetry offers "a language for acknowledging and articulating the unspeakable" is invaluable, as finding words to express the vastness of trauma can be the primary step in recovery. This trip to the seaside is not to be missed. The combination of well-explained biblical text, big life questions, and beautiful words is both compelling and productive.

Elizabeth Hayes, affiliate professor of Old Testament, Fuller Theological Seminary

Here is a book that sets forth the intimate, honest, agonizing, yet somehow life-giving relationship between the human condition and human words, even biblical poetic words. While avoiding mechanical analysis or finalized interpretations, and illustrating adept engagement with psychology and trauma, Samuel Hildebrandt turns Hebrew poetic texts such as Jeremiah, Job, and Ecclesiastes into soul friends in the struggle to face anxiety, instability, loneliness, despair, finitude, and other painful vicissitudes of our own humanity. In Hildebrandt's able hands, the difficult poetry of these biblical texts is a gift to anyone seeking language to wrestle with the hard realities of human life--and so is this book.

Brad E. Kelle, professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, Point Loma Nazarene University

This wonderful book examines the difficult question of the human condition (conditio humana) through texts like Psalms, Jeremiah, Job, Qohelet, and others. As Hildebrandt's poetic analyses show, each of these voices has its own evaluation of what it means to be human. But all of them have a common ground: the belief in the God of life and his empathy for the human condition.

Professor Bernd Janowski, Evangelisch-theologische Fakultät der Universität Tübingen

This beautifully written text offers an interpretation of Hebrew poetry that speaks to the experiences of many of us living during these stressful and anxiety-filled days. I would not hesitate to recommend this book for use in a parish or a classroom. It is accessible and clearly demonstrates how the imagery and language of Hebrew poetry connect with the psychological struggles of being human today. Hildebrandt is a skilled writer who has given to both the church and the academy a creative view of Hebrew poetic imagery that will help readers discover its value and relevance.

The Rev. Dr. Maryann Amor, adjunct lecturer in Hebrew Bible, St. Stephen's College, University of Alberta, and rector, Anglican Parish of Christ Church,Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada

As a mental health therapist, I am all too familiar with the challenge of articulating the tensions and contradictions of human experience. Samuel Hildebrandt is not afraid to enter the deep end of the chaos, despair, and disappointment familiar to the ancient and modern person alike. Vast as the Sea gives us words--honest, compassionate, and hopeful words--that normalize and authenticate what it means to be human. It is a gift to me and to my clients.

Karen Gibson, marriage and family therapist, Saskatoon, Canada

Plumbing the language of loneliness and alienation in the Old Testament's major prophets and wisdom literature, Hildebrandt brings to voice its questions of meaning and human existence, looking also to various psychotherapeutic models for healing of mental affliction. The book offers a creative approach to biblical theology.

Kathryn Greene-McCreight, PhD, Episcopal priest and author of Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness and Galatians: A Commentary

Hildebrandt's gentle, poetic book is a beautiful and scholarly contribution to an increasingly prominent area of biblical studies. He unpacks and explores the Psalms' language and what lies beyond language to speak of mental health, well-being, and the journey that all human beings are on in an uncertain world.

Rev. Prebendary Dr. Isabelle Hamley, secretary for theology and theological adviserto the House of Bishops, Church of England

In Vast as the Sea, Samuel Hildebrandt takes his readers on an insightful and accessible journey through biblical poetry to unveil the texts' expressions of often negatively associated aspects of the human condition. In carefully formulated prose, he shows how biblical texts such as Psalms, Job, Jeremiah, and Ecclesiastes provide a language for loneliness, worry, despair, and hope to their ancient readers as well as their contemporary counterparts. A timely book on a timeless topic.

Dr. Karolien Vermeulen, affiliate postdoctoral research fellow,Institute of Jewish Studies, University of Antwerp

Hebrew poetry as a lifeguard in the turbulent, roaring waters of human existence--this is what Hildebrandt makes us see. He shows us a delicacy for those appreciating the Bible, consolation and help for all seeking orientation, and new strength in their various struggles on earth with anxieties, loneliness, and despair but also hope, imagination, and creative language.

Georg Fischer, SJ, professor emeritus, University of Innsbruck, and author of commentaries on Genesis 1-11, Exodus, and Jeremiah

Samuel Hildebrandt's Vast as the Sea is a remarkable union of expert biblical scholarship and careful pastoral insights conveyed in striking and beautiful composition. It takes the rich expressions of emotion in Scripture and makes them intelligible to the wide array of human experiences. The academic will find much to appreciate. The pastor will find, at many points, observations to assist in caring for the church.

Andrew Kelley, teaching pastor, Hope Chapel, Hermosa Beach, California, and author of Thaumaturgic Prowess: Autonomous and Dependent Miracle-Working in Mark's Gospel and the Second Temple Period

In this stunning short book, Samuel Hildebrandt dives into the oceanic depths of Hebrew poetry. He plumbs the biblical poets' depiction of the human condition--from the raw realities of anxiety, loneliness, and despair to the perennial possibilities of hope and comfort. Elegant, lyrical, and engaging, the book draws out ancient poetic wisdom for the complexities of human life, which confront us afresh each day.

Suzanna Millar, chancellor's fellow in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament,New College, University of Edinburgh