Hebrew Poetry

A. Poetry in general

  • Poetic form—there are lots of standard forms (Allen p.28)

There was a young lady from Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger
  They came back from the ride
  With the lady inside
And the smile on the face of the tiger

  • The nature of poetry: not a “pretty rhyme” but intensified language Allen p.41–50
    • The Eagle by Alfred Tenneyson
      He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
      close to the sun in lonely lands,
      Ringed with the azure world he stands.
      The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
      He watches from his mountain walls,
      And like a thunderbold he falls.
    • unfortunate that some Bible paraphrases remove much of the poetry
  • Misconceptions in poetry
    1. The idea that literal meaning and poetic meaning are somehow opposed
      • We use poetic language all the time in everyday speech, even something as mundane as a sports commentary
      • “the bases are loaded”, “It’s not over till the fat lady sings”
    2. The notion that poetry is always imprecise and ambiguous

Where do we find poetry in the Bible?

  • Old Testament: almost 1/2 of the Old Testament is poetry.
    • Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Psalms
    • Large parts of the Prophets: Hosea (entire), Micah, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Isaiah, Jeremiah
    • Songs in narrative books: Genesis 49, Exodus 15:1–18, Deuteronomy 32 and 33, Judges 5, 1 Samuel 2:1–10, 2 Samuel 1:19–27, 1 Kings 12:16, 2 Kings 19: 21–34
  • New Testament: we do not find as much poetry in the New Testament as in the Old Testament.
    • However there is some
      • Quotation from O.T. poetry
      • Songs are included in several places (e.g. Col 1:15–20)

B. Parallelism

(Much of this section is borrowed from Ross)

  • The basic feature of biblical poetry is the recurrent use of a relatively short sentence-form that consists of two (or more) brief clauses:
    By day the Lord sends forth his love
    and at night his song is with me. (Psalm 42:9)
  • The clauses are regularly separated by a slight pause, for the second part is a continuation of the first and not a completely new beginning.
  • On occasion, four parts may form the line.
  • The relationship between the parts of a line is called “parallelism”.

C. Types of Parallelism

  • Robert Lowthe is the man credited with the “discovery” of biblical parallelism (in 1753).
  • He distinguished three types: synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic.
  • The third category, “synthetic,” became sort of a catch-all for what would not fit the others.

1. Complete Parallelism

  • Every single term or thought unit in one line is parallel to an equivalent term or unit in the other line.
    • Find an example in Psalm 6
  • Complete parallelism can be subdivided into:
  1. Synonymous Parallelism
    • where the thought is repeated by the second line in different but synonymous words.
      Then Israel / came / to Egypt;
      Jacob / sojourned / in the land of Ham. (Ps. 105:23)
    • another example (Isaiah 1:3).
      The ox knows his master
        the donkey his owner’s manger,
      but Israel does not know
        my people do not understand
    • The order of the parallel terms need not be the same in both lines;
    • Find another example in Psalm 6
  2. Antithetical Parallelism
    • balances the parallel lines through the opposition or contrast of thought, as in 90:6:
      In the morning / it flourishes / and is renewed;
      in the evening / it fades / and withers.
    • Any in Psalm 126 ? What about Proverbs 10
  3. Emblematic Parallelism
    • one of the parallels is literal, the other a simile or a metaphor
      As the deer pants for the waterbrooks, literal
      So pants my soul for you, O God” figurative (Psalm 42:1)
      As a father / has compassion on / his children,
      so the Lord / has compassion on / those who fear Him. (Ps. 103:13)
    • see also Psalm 18:16
  4. Inverted or Chiastic Parallelism
    • strictly speaking a form of synonymous parallelism;
    • the main difference is that the order of the terms is inverted, like a mirror image
    • A clear example is found in Isaiah 11:13b:
      Ephraim / shall not be jealous of / Judah,
      and Judah / shall not harass / Ephraim.
    • These are not always complete or perfectly balanced
    • Another example from Isaiah 1:18
Though be your sins
as scarlet
as snow they shall be as white
Though they         be        red
as crimson,
as wool
they shall be.

2. Incomplete Parallelism

  • This type of parallelism is very frequent with many variations.
  • Only some of the terms are parallel
  1. Incomplete Parallelism with Compensation
    • only some of the terms are parallel e.g. Psalm 6:1
    • but each line has the same number of units (usually clear in English, but clearer in Hebrew).
      You will destroy / their offspring / from the earth,
      and their children/from among the sons of/men. (21:11)
  2. Incomplete Parallelism
    • one line is longer than the other, as in 6:2 (MT 6:3):
      O Lord, / rebuke me / not in your anger,
      nor chasten me / in your wrath.
    • On occasion Lowthe’s old category of synthetic parallelism may be helpful.
    • In that type the second part further develops the first:
      For the Lord is a great God,
      and a great King above all gods (Ps. 95:3).

3. Formal Parallelism

  • Not really parallelism
  • the second colon simply continues the thought of the first
    I have set / my king
    on Zion / my holy hill. (Ps. 2:6)

4. External parallelism

  • the correspondence occurs between successive verses, as in Isaiah 53:5:
    But he was pierced / for our transgressions;
        he was crushed / for our iniquities;
    upon him was the punishment / that brought us peace,
        and with his wounds / we are healed.
  • see also Psalm 6:1,2

5. Climactic (Staircase) parallelism

  • A type of synthetic parallelism. A part of the first line is repeated, and then newer elements are added to build up to a climax.
  • Example: Psalm 29:1, 2a
    Give unto the Lord,
        O you mighty ones,
    Give unto the Lord
            Glory and strength.
    Give unto the Lord
                the glory due to his name;
    Worship the Lord
                    in the beauty of holiness.

Understanding parallelism helps in interpretation.

  • When we know that lines of poetry are related, then we can look for the relationship, and that will help us to understand the meaning.
  • Example (Psalm 22:16):
    For dogs have surrounded me;
    The congregation of the wicked has enclosed me,
    They pierced my hands and my feet.
  • Understanding the Psalm:
    • It is possible that the psalmist was surrounded by a pack of real dogs, but it is unlikely. If this is an example of emblematic parallelism, then we realize that “dogs” is a figurative way of speaking about the “wicked” in the second line.
    • When we read the rest of the psalm, the context of this verse, we notice references to several other animals: “worm” (v.6), “bulls” (v.12), “lions” (v.21), and “oxen” (v.21).
    • Rational thinking would tell us that they are not literal animals. This lends support to our interpretation.
    • The third line reinforces it further.
    • This psalm is typological: although rooted in history, it points ahead to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The animal imagery emphasizes the horror of that terrible event.

Praise! A matter of life and breath by Ronald Barclay Allen (Nashville:Nelsons, 1980)