Monday, January 19, 2009

The Idea of Hebrew Poetry

The Idea of Hebrew Poetry
By Terry L. Pruitt

Americans dislike poetry, or at least claim that it is inaccessible. However, most parents do recite nursery rhymes to their children. Most children and parents seem to enjoy this ritual. While some of the words are crazy, like a cow jumping over the moon, few people find them inaccessible. Poets are not generally known to make a lot of money, however, when poetry is set to music it becomes a multi-billion dollar industry. Poetry is involved in the stables of these sections of the music industry: sheet music, radio stations, music recording CDs, DVDs of music videos, digital music such as iTunes and live concerts. The American culture does not care much about poetry for poetry sake but embraces poetry with outstretched arms and open wallets when presented with the right social context. In discussing poetry in the Bible, we may find ourselves lacking the right context to use as an excuse for embracing the literary form. Unlike many other genres of Scripture, the poetry of the Bible is given more contexts than simply a sermon and devotional reading. Many people sing the poetry of the Bible, at least the Psalms. Psalms are sung in high liturgy as a chant. Metrical Psalms are sung in the Reformed tradition of the regulative form of worship. The Jesus People of the 1970s sang Psalms and other Scripture in the style of a guitar folk song. These various forms of singing the poetry of the Bible do not appear to have a unified, comfortable form of which the American church as a whole can embrace. Even so, the Scripture merits our study and careful meditation so as to make it accessible to the individual and to groups. Part of the solution to making the poetry of the Scripture more accessible is to understand the forms of this important literary genre.

Defining Hebrew Poetry

Meter and rhyme by and large define poetry in the English language. On the other hand, “Hebrew poetry is a type of literature that communicates with terse lines employing parallelism and imagery in high frequency”. (Futato, p. 24.) While parallelism and imagery are the defining attributes of Hebrew poetry, many other literary devices such as acrostics, repetition, and chiasmus are also used. The writer of the Hebrew poetry was not confined to a prescriptive set of rules as to what could or could not be done as a literary devise and was free to innovate with the form. What follows is an analysis of some basic features of Hebrew poetry.

Basic Components: Colon, Line, Strophe, and Stanza.

The line is the basic element in Hebrew Poetry. It may have more than one sentence in a line. A line is not necessarily the equivalent of a verse, though often one verse is made up of one line. One verse of Hebrew poetry may also have two or more lines in it. (Futato, p. 27) Verses simply refer to the reference system to help the reader located a certain part of the text and may or may not accurately reflect a literary unit of the line. A line is composed of two or more colons. Two colons make up a bicolon or a line. Colons can also be grouped as three for a tricolon, or four for a tetracolon. The grouping is not arbitrary but is discerned by the reader by the ideas and flow of thought. Familiar lines of Hebrew poetry come from Psalm 23:1,2.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.<---- First line
He makes me lie down in green pastures. <---- 2nd line is two sentences
He leads me beside still waters. <----/
-- Psalm 23:1,2 (ESV)

The first line talks about God's leadership of the person and the result of that leadership. The second line has two colons describing the types of places the Lord leads his people.
The grouping of lines together is called a strophe, somewhat like a paragraph in English prose. In the English Bible a strophe is set off by the use of white space on the page. A strophe has an extra blank line before and after it. A group of two or more strophe on one topic is called a stanza. (Futato, p. 29-31) The poem as a whole, a stanza or a strophe may be identified by the literary device called inclusion. Inclusion is the use of the same or similar grammar or same content at the beginning and end of a section. These repetition of ideas or language usage serve as book ends to grouping the section or piece. But repetition is heavily used in other techniques of Hebrew poetry too.


The premier work on Hebrew poetic use of parallelism is by James L. Kugel in his work called The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History. (Grossberg, p. 3) Kugel departed from merely relegating the second colon in a line as simply a restating of the first colon. Sir Robert Lowth in 1753 had advocated that the second colon in a line as synonymous in meaning as the first in his work De sacra poesi Hebraeorum.. Other scholars such as Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) had also seen the second colon as rhetorical repetition. (Grossberg, p. 3) Kugel sees that parallelism is more of a restatement of nuance, tell it and then tell it with more added. Parallelism often shows in the second colon “and what's more”. While the meaning of the content is often what is echoed, other aspects of the colon can also be echoed such as grammatical features, lexical items, and phonology. (Wendland, p. 61) But where meaning is the main item in the parallelism, the second colon is most often intensified. (Grossberg, p. 4) The difference between interpreting that the second colon as restatement or interpreting it as a nuanced retelling has a great effect on how one reads, studies and translates these texts. If some one considers the parallelism to be a restating, then one can relax in his reading and study. What is not caught the first time can be picked up the second time. This approach believes the learning environment to be friendly to the reader. If the wording is unclear, just wait for the second part. However, if someone believes the parallelism is explaining “and what's more”, then the reader must be alert and thoughtful; able to discern subtle, less explicit relationships. While the first explanation of parallelism as simple repetition allows one to read like one does the headline of the paper. The second explanation of parallelism as nuanced comparison forces one to be contemplative to gain the benefit.
There are three basic types of parallelism; synonymous parallelism, antithetical parallelism, and synthetic parallelism. (Wendland, p. 67-97) Use of the term synonymous parallelism need not mean that a line is rhetorical repetition, but rather, there is an echo in the content. Psalm 19: 1 is an example of synonymous parallelism:

The heavens declare the glory of God, <--------colon A
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. <--------colon B
-- Psalm 19:1 (ESV)

Colon A tells the reader that the glory of God is declared by the heavens, while colon B says almost the same thing. Heavens (A) and sky (B) seem to be pretty close to the same thing. Declare (A) and proclaim (B) also appear to be synonyms. That is the retelling part. When one comes to the object of the verb, that is where the nuanced difference comes in. Glory of God (A) is not synonymous with his handiwork (B). The reader should meditate on the relationship between the two to catch the value of the parallelism. The glory of God is not an abstract thing, but we should understand that the sky declares God's glory because he made it. His creative product, the heavens, is something that earns him fame and dignity. (Wendland, p. 69)
Antithetical parallelism is parallelism that emphasizes a difference or a contrast. This contrast may actually be two sides of the same coin. Psalm 145:20 is an example of this sort of contrast which explains the same idea in both negative and positive terms.

The Lord preserves all who love him, <----------- colon A
but all the wicked he will destroy. <----------- colon B
--Psalm 145:20 (ESV)

Preserving and destroying are opposite actions of God. (Wendland, p. 74) Those who love the Lord (A) are contrasted with the wicked (B). We might not thing that the opposite of the wicked (B) are those who love the Lord (A), our natural inclination might be to contrast the wicked with the righteous. These contrasts are worthy of our contemplation.
Synthetic parallelism involves adding a new concept to colon A. Psalm 25:13 is an example:

His soul shall abide in well-being, <----------- colon A
and his offspring shall inherit the land. <----------- colon B
-- Psalm 25:13 (ESV)

While in someways we could say there is similarity of thought in colon A and B, the subject is different in each, the verb is different, and the object is different. The concept is of adding a blessing to the subject of colon A, that his children will also have a blessing at a later time. While this addition is a temporal addition but there are also causal additions and completive additions. (Wendland, p 77-96)

Sharpening As a Function of Parallelism

The refinement of an idea, or sharpening is done in Hebrew poetry by a large variety of literary devices. The synonymous parallelism often includes ellipsis, that is words are left out that are understood from context. The ellipsis helps tie the two cola together since they share a common element. (In the example that follows they share a common subject.) This also helps the reader look at what has changed from colon A to colon B. The difference in the two halves of the line has a sharpening effect. Psalm 9:9 has synonymous parallelism but includes an ellipsis:

The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, <---------- colon A
a stronghold in times of trouble. <----------- colon B
-- Psalm 9:9 (ESV)

The Lord is the explicit subject in colon A but the implied and easily understood missing subject from colon B. Note also that for whom the Lord is a stronghold is a different but related idea as compared to when the Lord is a stronghold. The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed when troubles come is the relationship to be drawn from the line. So the colon B sharpens colon A. This sharpening is a key concept for understanding Hebrew poetry. This concept of sharpness is related to proverbs, which often take a Hebraic poem form.

Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard
is a proverb in the mouth of fools.
-- Proverbs 26:9 (ESV)

In this proverb, sharpness is something that is present, but not discerned. So someone without understanding does not discern the sharping effect of the proverb. Again this points to the need to read Hebrew poetry in a contemplative way to discern the subtlety of the lines.

The words of the wise are like goads,
and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings;
-- Ecclesiastes 12:11a (ESV)

The goad is a sharp stick to prod a beast of burden to action. The sharp nature of the goad is also the sharp nature of words of the wise. The sharpness is what help the man to come to understanding so he acts, so that he goes in the desired path. Of course this is in contrast to current educational theory, that clarity helps one to act. The sharpness of the collected sayings are said to bring stability and firmness in colon B. Trendy advise and wise counsel are not the same thing. Sharpness in all these cases is the quality desired in Hebrew poetry, which means complex relationships must be meditated upon in order for the text to be accessible.


By its very nature, an analogy makes one compare and contemplate. Analogies show complex relationships between things that are not alike. Phrases like 'The Lord is my Shepherd' and 'I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys' have little application to animal husbandry or horticulture. The images the natural world and daily life help explain concepts beyond the everyday use of the words. These images are meant to capture the imagination so that it can dwell on the content of the Hebrew poetry.


Hebrew poetry is different from English poetry in its essential features. The original audience would have no more difficulty interpreting the poetry of ancient Israel than we do in interpreting the meaning of a nursery rhyme or a pop song. Understanding the basic structure that a poem is composed of cola, line, strophe, and stanza helps to understand the initial bearing on the piece. Recognizing the different types of parallelism will help the reader to understand if the cola should be seen as synonymous, antithetical, or synthetic. In all cases, the reader should step back to see the complex relationships being examined by both the human and divine author. Contemplating how the author uses sharping will help one to milk the full meaning from the text. Imagery is yet another way the author seeks to lead the reader into contemplation. This is intended to assist the reader in gleaning a full harvest from the text. While Hebrew poetry is significantly different from the common literary forms in America, with a little attention to the forms, it can be quite accessible.


Futato, Mark David. Interpreting the Psalms : An Exegetical Handbook. Minneapolis: Kregel Publications, 2007.

Grossberg, Daniel. Centripetal and Centrifugal Structures in Biblical Poetry. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars P, 1989.

Wendland, Ernst R. Analyzing the Psalms. New York: SIL International, 2002.
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