Hebrew Poetry

April, 2017
In this lesson, Mike reviews the various literary devices that make Hebrew poetry unique.
40 min

Review: The title of the book of Psalms means to praise. It was written over a period of 1000 years by several writers with the earliest psalm recorded by Moses (Psalms 90), and the latest in 400 BC (Psalms 150). David wrote approximately 70 of the 150 psalms contained in this book.

The psalms were originally assembled in groups and booklets but eventually put together into the format we have today (150 psalms divided into five sections). These, however, do not include all the psalms that appear in the Old Testament. The psalms were used in Old Testament times as a Jewish hymnal, and many were sung to the accompaniment of instruments in David's time. It was later used in synagogue worship in this way during the time of Jesus and carried over into early Christian worship as well.

Psalms is the most quoted book in the New Testament. It contains many Messianic references and Jesus Himself confirmed its Divine inspiration. For nearly 30 centuries it has had a universal and timeless appeal.

Old Testament Style of Writing

We usually concentrate on the content of the Old Testament, but rarely discuss the style in which that content was presented. Most of the Old Testament was written in poetic as opposed to narrative form. This is in line with what we know about the writings of other ancient civilizations of that era. Lyrical poetry is the earliest example of all literature as seen in early Egyptian and Babylonian cultures, thousands of years before Christ. It is the oldest form of written communication. In ancient Greece the poets sang their songs long before the philosophers and historians arrived on the scene. Among the early Germans and English, the art of poetic composition developed before the art of writing in prose. The earliest quotations from the Bible, for example, are in poetic form. Note that Lamech's boast, recorded in the book of Genesis, is both a song and poem (Genesis 4:23-24).

23Lamech said to his wives,
"Adah and Zillah,
Listen to my voice,
You wives of Lamech,
Give heed to my speech,
For I have killed a man for wounding me;
And a boy for striking me;
24If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold."

When we say poetry versus prose or narrative, we mean a style of writing that is distinguished from prose and narrative. Poetry expresses the emotional and imaginative character of the writer's thoughts. Poetry has the power of imagination and relies on the emotional impact of its verse to convey ideas rather than simply recounting the story in facts. Poetry uses exalted diction, lofty ideas and noble expressions, thereby making the medium in which it communicates equally important to the content of its message. Having noted this about poetry in general, it is important to understand that one significant difference between ancient Hebrew poetry and much of English poetry is that the poetry of the Hebrews has rhythm of thought rather than the beat of syllables or a rhyming scheme.

Not all Hebrew poetry is contained in the Old Testament. I Kings 4:29-34 refers to 3000 proverbs and 1005 songs of Solomon. It also mentions ancient poetic collections like, "Book of the Wars of the Lord" (Numbers 21:14), "Book of Jashar" (Joshua 10:13).

So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, Until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies. Is it not written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.
- Joshua 10:13

What we do have, however, has been collected and preserved throughout the Old Testament under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We have 39 books in the Old Testament written mostly in poetic style as was the custom of writing in the days when this material was produced.

Classification of Hebrew Poetry

Not all Hebrew poetry is written in the same style. Most poetry found in the Old Testament can be broken into two main categories:

Gnomic (Knowledge)

Knowledge or Wisdom poetry. These were works of thought and reflection; observations on the human condition and society. For example, Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are examples of Wisdom literature or poetry.

Lyric

The discovery that most of the Old Testament was written in poetic form was made in the 18th century by Bishop Robert Lowth (Treatise on Hebrew Poetry). This discovery helped scholars more accurately discern the meaning of the Old Testament writings. We can see the impact of Lowth's insight when reading different versions of the Bible. For example, the King James Version of the Bible was published in 1611, long before Lowth's demonstration that most of the Old Testament was in poetic form. Note the way Genesis 9:25-26 is presented in the King James Version of the Bible:

25So he said, "Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants He shall be to his brothers." 26He also said, "Blessed be the Lord, The God of Shem; And let Canaan be his servant.
- Genesis 9:25-26 (KJV)

Note how the same verse in the New American Standard version is presented taking into consideration Lowth's 18th century discovery:

25So he said,
"Cursed be Canaan;
A servant of servants
He shall be to his brothers."
26He also said,
"Blessed be the Lord,
The God of Shem;
And let Canaan be his servant.
- Genesis 9:25-26 (NASV)

Another example of this change is seen in another verse from Genesis:

And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.
- Genesis 24:60 (KJV)

Note the difference in the New American Standard Bible that allows for poetic form:

They blessed Rebekah and said to her,
"May you, our sister,
Become thousands of ten thousands,
And may your descendants possess
The gate of those who hate them."
- Genesis 24:60 (NASB)

The term "lyric" comes from the word "lyre" which was a stringed instrument used by the Greeks. Lyric was a term used to describe poetry that was meant to be sung. Examples of these contained in the Old Testament are:

  • Psalms: Praises.
  • Lamentations: Mourning (Jeremiah and his book of Lamentations).
  • Blessings/Curses: Forewarning of things to come based on attitudes. Noah (Genesis 9:25-26), Laban and his family blessing Rebekah (Genesis 24:60), Moses (Deuteronomy 33:1-29).
  • Tribal Songs: Commemoration of special events in the history of a family. Song of Lamech (Genesis 4:23).
  • Mashals: Lessons or parables. Samson's riddle (Judges 14:14).
  • Paeans: In reference to some historical event. Songs of Victory. Moses at the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-18).
  • Dirges: Funeral songs. A common form of poetry. David's song at Saul and Johnathan's death (II Samuel 1:17-27).

Within each Old Testament book we can find a variety of the aforementioned styles.

Characteristics of Hebrew Poetry

Rhythm

Most scholars agree that there is rhythm in Hebrew poetry, but not the type of rhythm found in Western style poetry. As I mentioned earlier, the rhythm in Hebrew poetry does not follow the number of syllables but rather the pattern of ideas (I will explain this later on). Hebrew poetry was divided into lines and each line broken into two or more parts called "stichs" (pronounced "sticks"). Usually, two to three stichs with several words each. For example, Psalms 54:1-2; 19:7.

1Save me, O God, by Your name,
And vindicate me by Your power.
2Hear my prayer, O God;
Give ear to the words of my mouth.
- Psalms 54:1-2
(Here, there are two lines and four stichs)
The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple.
- Psalms 19:7
(Here, there is one line and three stichs)

The stressed words in a stich might have a variable meter indicating where the emphasis should be in pronunciation (e.g. in Psalms 19:7 the stressed words would be: law, perfect, testimony, sure, wise).

Rhyme

There was no planned rhyme scheme in Hebrew poetry (a significant difference between this and much of Western poetry). When there was rhyme it occurred because of coincidence.

Devices

Hebrew poetry used several devices to enhance its form and challenge the reader. For example:

A. Assonance

Similar sounding words with different meanings. For example, in Jeremiah 1:11-12, the word for almond is "shaqued," while the word for watching is "shoqued".

11The word of the Lord came to me saying, "What do you see, Jeremiah?" And I said, "I see a rod of an almond tree." 12Then the Lord said to me, "You have seen well, for I am watching over My word to perform it."
- Jeremiah 1:11-12

The idea here is that the almond tree is first to bud in the spring, and in the same way God is always first to see how people will react to Him. This similarity is highlighted by the device of assonance, where the two key words (almond and watching) sound alike. Assonance was a very subtle form of accentuation.

B. Acrostic

Lines in a poem that began with the succeeding 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. For example, the 22 verses in Psalms 25 form an acrostic where every verse begins with a successive letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Another example is in Lamentations chapter 3. This section contains a triple acrostic in that the verses are arranged in such a way that they repeat the alphabet three times.

C. Parallelism

Old Testament scholar Robert Lowth (1700's) discovered the use of this device, especially in the Psalms. Lowth realized that unlike Western poetry where the rhythm and beat were demonstrated in a poem by stressed words or rhyme (e.g. In Flander's Field the poppies grow, between the crosses row on row; War poem by John McCrae). Hebrew poetry, on the other hand, had a definite pattern of rhythm (not rhyme) between its ideas, especially in the book of Psalms.

By studying and comparing the Psalms, Lowth recognized that the authors purposefully rhymed their ideas, not their words. Further investigation showed that this important poetic device had been abandoned by Hebrew writers after the 2ndcentury AD and this is why it had not been noticed until Lowth rediscovered it in the 18thcentury. Study by Lowth and others managed to catalogue six major types of this "rhyme of thought" which they called parallelism (the most important device in Old Testament lyrical poetry):

  1. Synonymous parallelism: Saying the same thing but in different words in successive lines. This is the most common type of parallelism. Example:
1How blessed are those whose way is blameless,
Who walk in the law of the Lord.
2How blessed are those who observe His testimonies,
Who seek Him with all their heart.
3They also do no unrighteousness;
They walk in His ways.
4You have ordained Your precepts,
That we should keep them diligently.
- Psalms 119:1-4

2. Antithetic parallelism: The second line contrasts the first line. Example:

For His anger is but for a moment,
His favor is for a lifetime;
Weeping may last for the night,
But a shout of joy comes in the morning.
- Psalms 30:5

3. Synthetic parallelism: The second line completes or amplifies the first. Example:

5Then He will speak to them in His anger
And terrify them in His fury,
saying,
6"But as for Me, I have installed My King
Upon Zion, My holy mountain."
- Psalms 2:5-6

4. Introverted parallelism: The first and last line in a stanza are similar, as are the second and third. This is often referred to as Chiasmus or ABBA. Example:

A –15My son, if your heart is wise,
B – My own heart also will be glad;
B –16And my inmost being will rejoice
A – When your lips speak what is right.
- Proverbs 23:15-16

5. Climactic parallelism: Stairlike, where one line picks up words from the previous line and builds as does the next. Example:

The floods have lifted up, O Lord,
The floods have lifted up their voice,
The floods lift up their pounding waves.
- Psalms 93:3

6. Emblematic parallelism: Lines that use "like" or "as" to compare ideas. Similar to a synonymous parallelism. Example:

12As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
13Just as a father has compassion on his children,
So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.
- Psalms 103:12-13

The understanding of parallelism helps us better interpret the Psalms because we can know who the author is referring to when he speaks. For example, in Psalms 8:4, David uses synonymous parallelism in describing God's mercy in caring for human beings. David's reference to the "son of man" in the context of the psalm refers to a human being because in the first stich the writer refers to a human being with the term "man." This helps us understand that the term, "son of man" in the second stich also refers to a human being (and not God) because these two stichs are expressed as synonymous parallelism.

What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
- Psalms 8:4

It is left to the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews to take this Scripture, and in the light of New Testament revelation, connect it to Christ:

6But one has testified somewhere, saying,
"What is man, that You remember him? Or the son of man, that You are concerned about him? 7"You have made him for a little while lower than the angels; You have crowned him with glory and honor, And have appointed him over the works of Your hands; 8You have put all things in subjection under his feet."
- Hebrews 2:6-8

Summary

Most ancient writings are in poetic form as is the Old Testament. Old Testament poetry is divided into two main categories: Gnomic (wisdom) and Lyric (expressive, meant to be sung, helpful style for memorizing). Old Testament poetry has its own particular rhythm, no planned rhyme and uses a variety of devices: Assonance (similar sounding words with different meaning), Acrostics (verses beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet), Parallelism (the comparing and balancing of thoughts in successive lines and verses). There are different types of parallelism, however synonymous parallelism is the most common form.