This is part of our series on genre in the Bible. You need to understand the different genres of the Bible if you want to hear what God has to say to us today. This post looks at poetry found in the Old Testament (Hebrew Poetry) and how to read it.
The Old Testament is full of poetry. You might immediately think of the Psalms, and you’d be right, but there’s lots of poetry in other places as well. The prophets use poetry. Song of Solomon is all poetry (no surprise there! It’s a love poem). And sometimes people just break out into poetry under intense emotion, e.g. Moses, after the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-18), Hannah, when she dedicated to God the young child Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Most Bibles today indicate poetry by the way the lines are formatted.
Poetry has various ways of making us feel what we are reading. In the providence of God most of the ways in which Hebrew poetry was written work just as well in English as they do in Hebrew, and just as well today as they did three thousand years ago. Hebrew poetry wasn’t metrical, and didn’t rhyme, so nothing is lost there in translation.
In the providence of God most of the ways in which Hebrew poetry was written work just as well in English as they do in Hebrew, and just as well today as they did three thousand years ago.
What do you think? Do you love poetry, or are you one of the 93% who hate it? Let us know!
Parallelism in Hebrew Poetry
The first thing you’ll notice about poetry in the Old Testament is its use of what we call “parallelism.” An idea stated in the first line is followed by some variation of it in the second line, either restating it in different words:
I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever;
with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. (Psalm 89:1)
following it with a contrast:
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous.
But the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1:6),
or elaborating on it in some way:
The fear of the Lord is pure,
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
and all of them are righteous. (Psalm 19:9).
Figures of Speech
Then there are many indirect ways of saying things that capture the imagination. These include
- simile, when we say one thing is “like” another (The words of the Lord are flawless, like silver purified in a crucible Psalm 12:6)
- metaphor, like simile, without explicitly saying “like” (The Lord is my rock Psalm 18:2),
- metonymy, substituting a similar idea (Their throat is an open grave Psalm 5:9; two instances here, “throat” and “open grave”),
- rhetorical questions, that don’t expect an answer (How long, Lord, will the wicked be jubilant? Psalm 94:3),
- hyperbole, or exaggeration (“my heart has turned to wax” Psalm 22:14. This is a metaphor as well.).
- personification (“the seas have lifted up their voice” Psalm 93:3).You may have noticed that these categories are not necessarily clear-cut
(Our ordinary speech is full of examples like this. As I am writing this the radio is on, and the host is saying that the comment section on Facebook is a “cesspool” (metonymy). We say things like “I had to wait for hours” (hyperbole), “Why didn’t I think of that?” (rhetorical question)).
Other Features in the Psalms
There are two other features to note in the Psalms. One is repetition, especially noticeable in Psalm 136, where every verse ends with “his love endures forever.” This is intended to be read responsively. I was recently in a prayer meeting where this psalm was read aloud. We got the point, (his love endures forever!) and it coloured all our prayers.
The other is the use of acrostics, in which each line begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The best known is Psalm 119, in which the letter changes every eight lines. Most translations indicate this. Psalms 25, 34, 37, 111, and 112 are also acrostic psalms.
This is the one feature of the Psalms that can’t be translated. It helps to know that the psalmist was working with this extra self-imposed constraint—we won’t be looking for a logical structure.
It helps to know that the psalmist was working with this extra self-imposed constraint—we won’t be looking for a logical structure.
You’ll be surprised how often you now notice Hebrew poetry throughout the Old Testament. Next time you come across it give God praise that thousands of years later these beautiful words, translated over the years, still speak to our hearts.