ABOUT HEBREW POETRY

INTRODUCTION

We have now come to the third section of books of the Old Testament. The books of this section are called the Books of Poetry or the Poetical Books. When we think of modern poetry, we probably think of something written in measured lines, with rhythm, often in colorful language, and probably with rhyme. An example of the kind of poetry that we are used to hearing would be these famous lines:

“Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.”

Though colorful language may be absent from these particular lines, they definitely do have rhythm and rhyme, and they are measure lines. We should not expect Biblical Hebrew poetry to be exactly like the poetry we are used to today. There is almost no rhyme to Hebrew Poetry. The lines are not always exactly measured, and sometimes a definite rhythm is difficult to find. But there are a number of features that make Hebrew poetry a poetry of the highest level and that make it very enjoyable to read and hear.

PARALLELISM

The main feature of Hebrew poetry is called PARALLELISM. Parallelism means a repetition or echoing of a thought. Read this verse from Psalm 83:1 and notice how the same thought is repeated or echoed:

“Oh God, do not keep silent;
be not quiet, O God, be not still.”

There is really only one thought expressed in that verse; but is expressed three times with slightly different words. That is what we mean by PARALLELISM of expression. When we read the Poetical Books of the Old Testament we can notice three main kinds of parallelism. First is SYNONYMOUS PARALLELISM. In this kind of parallelism the same thought is repeated in almost the same words. (Remember that a synonym is a word that means the same as another word.) A good example of synonymous parallelism can be found in Psalm 49:1:

“Hear this, all you peoples;
Listen, all who live in this world.”

Does the first line say anything different from the second line? No, it simply repeats the same thought in different words. To repeat the thought makes the thought very strong and clear and at the same time makes the expression poetically beautiful. Second is ANTITHETICAL PARALLELISM. In this kind of parallelism something is contrasted with another. (Something that is antithetical is something that stands in contrast or is the opposite of something else.)Proverbs 15:1 is an example of antithetical parallelism:

“A gentle answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

A “gentle answer” stands in contrast to a “harsh word,” and “turns away wrath” stands in contrast to “stirs up anger.” The final form of parallelism is  SYNTHETIC PARALLELISM. In this kind of parallelism the second part adds to or completes the thought from the first part. Note this example from Proverbs 4:23:

“Above all else, guard your heart,
for it is the wellspring of life.”

You can see that the second line adds on to the thought of the first line.

ACROSTIC CONSTRUCTION

Another feature of Hebrew poetry is called ACROSTICISM or ACROSTIC CONSTRUCTION. In this type of poetry the letters of the alphabet play a special part. In Old Testament acrostic poetry each line or each stanza begins with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. That is, line one would start with the letter “A”, line two with the letter “B”, and so on through the alphabet. A number of the Psalms and sections from Proverbs and Lamentations are written with Acrostic Construction in the original Hebrew. Because it would be very difficult to do properly, translations generally have not tried to keep the acrostic arrangement found in the original Hebrew. Psalm 119 is a special acrostic poem. Look at the footnote in your NIV Bible to see how the Psalm arranged acrostically in Hebrew. Some other acrostic psalms are Psalms; 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, and 145.

OLD TESTAMENT POETRY AND INSPIRATION

We know that ALL of the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit. That includes also the Books of Poetry. Why did the Spirit write part of His Word in poetical form? We can guess that one reason was that he wanted His Word to be as beautiful and appealing to us as possibleso that we would want to read it frequently. Hebrew poetry with its parallelisms is indeed beautiful and appealing. We can also guess that the Spirit wanted His Word to be easy for us to memorize so that we may constantly carry it with us. It is usually easier to memorize poetry than prose. That is certainly true of Old Testament poetry also. For the Jews, the acrostic constructions also served as a great memory aid since they would know with which letter each line was to begin.

POETRY IN OTHER OLD TESTAMENT BOOKS

Hebrew poetry is not limited to the five books you have listed above. Do you remember where we have already observed examples of poetry in previous books of the Bible? How about the song of Moses in [Exodus 15:1-18] or David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan in [2 Samuel 1:17-27]. Other sections are also written in poetry such as [Genesis 4:23-24] or Judges 5.

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