“Poetry” calls to mind a Western pattern of balanced lines, regular stress, and rhyme. Hebrew manuscripts do not distinguish poetry from prose in such a clear-cut way. Hebrew poetry has three primary characteristics—parallelism, meter, and the grouping of lines into larger units called stanzas. Parallelism appears as two or three short lines connected in different ways. Meter may be reckoned in various ways. The most straightforward is a word count of the individual parallel lines. Stanzas may be recognized by a change of theme or the presence of a refrain. The distinction in Hebrew between poetry and prose is not so much a difference in kind as a difference in degree. Each of the three elements mentioned may be found to a lesser extent in prose.
One third of the Old Testament is cast in poetry. Poetic sections of the Old Testament are listed below in the order they appear in the Protestant canon.
Poetry in the Old Testament
Genesis 27:27-29,Genesis 27:39-40;
Exodus 15:1-18,Exodus 15:21
Numbers 21:17-18,Numbers 21:27-30;
Numbers 24:3-9,Numbers 24:15-24
Judges 14:14,Judges 14:18;
Ruth 1:16-17,Ruth 1:20-21
1 Samuel 2:1-10;
1 Samuel 15:22-23,1 Samuel 15:33;
1 Samuel 18:7;
1 Samuel 21:11;
1 Samuel 29:5
2 Samuel 1:19-27;
2 Samuel 3:33-34;
2 Samuel 22:2-51;
2 Samuel 23:1-7
1 Kings 8:12-13;
1 Kings 12:16
2 Kings 19:21-28
1 Chronicles 16:8-36
2 Chronicles 5:13;
2 Chronicles 6:41-42;
2 Chronicles 7:3;
2 Chronicles 10:16;
2 Chronicles 20:21
Ecclesiastes 1:2-11,Ecclesiastes 1:15,Ecclesiastes 1:18;
Ecclesiastes 10:1-4,Ecclesiastes 10:8-20;
Song of Solomon 1-8
Jeremiah—poetic selections throughout except for 32–45
Daniel 7:13-14; 7:23-27Hosea—all poetry except for 1;
Joel—all poetry except for
Parallelism The predominant feature of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. In parallelism, two or three short lines stand in one of three relationships to one another: synonymous, antithetic, or synthetic.
In synonymous parallelism, the succeeding line expresses an identical or nearly identical thought:
My mouth shall speak wisdom;
the meditation of my heart shall be
Psalms 49:3 (NRSV)
The lines are not synonymous in the sense that they express exactly the same meaning. To the contrary, slight differences color the parallel lines expanding or narrowing the theme brought forward in the first line.
In antithetic parallelism, succeeding lines express opposing thoughts:
The wicked borrow, and do not pay back,
but the righteous are generous and keep giving.
Psalms 37:21 (NRSV)
Line two is a positive expression of line one, but the psalmist's choice of words does more than reflect a pair of mirrored images. Each line means something more as it is linked with the other.
In synthetic parallelism, succeeding lines display little or no repetition
How good and pleasant it is
When brothers live together in unity!
Psalms 133:1 (NIV)
There is no one-to-one correspondence between the word groups. Continuity joins the parallel lines. Synthetic parallel lines may describe an order of events, list characteristics of a person or thing, or simply modify a common theme.
Meter Various methods for determining meter have been developed. Attempts to establish a classical system of meter (iambic feet, for example) have failed. Other theories use letter counts, vowel counts, stress counts, and word counts. The last mentioned is one of the most effective methods.
Hebrew word units may be illustrated by the use of hyphens:
As-a-deer longs for-flowing-streams,
So-my-soul longs for-you, God.
This example shows a 3+4 meter. Particles and other words which play minor roles in the syntax of Hebrew are generally excluded from the count. Individual lines range from two to four words each, even though these “words” may be translated as two or three words in English. 3+2 and 2+3 meter is common. Parallel lines may also be 3+3. Groups of three parallel lines may express a 2+2+2 pattern or 3+3+3. Numerous metrical systems are possible. Consequently, Hebrew meter is described in terms of general patterns rather than absolute uniformity. Systems of meter, unlike parallelism, are apparent only in the Hebrew language and not in English translations.
Stanzas Sets of parallel lines are often, but not always, divided into larger units. Such stanzas may be set off by identical lines or by parallel lines expressing similar thoughts. These introductions may take the form of a refrain not unlike a musical refrain. Sections separated in this way may be dissimilar in theme, form, and vocabulary.
Psalms 42-43 present a good example of clear-cut stanzas. The two chapters together form a single poem. A refrain is repeated three times:
Psalms 42:5,Psalms 42:11;
Psalms 43:5. The refrain subdivides the poem into three sections.
Poetry provides imagery and tone for inspired writers to drum God's word home to His people. Awareness of poetic form alerts the reader to listen for the images and moods of a passage.
Donald K. Berry