POETRY - BIBLE'S SOUNDTRACK
OLD TESTAMENT POETRY: THE BIBLE'S SOUNDTRACK
Listen to the Music. After narrative, POETRY is the second most
common form of literature in the Bible. Extending beyond Psalms
and Proverbs, poetry is present in more books than people
imagine. Fifteen of the Old Testament's 39 books are written
entirely or almost entirely in poetry. They are Job, Psalms,
Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Hosea,
Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. Other
books, such as Ecclesiastes and Zechariah, have extensive
sections in poetry, and some poetry is found in Ezekiel, Daniel,
and Jonah. Poetry is sprinkled here and there in the remaining
books, also. In all, OVER ONE-THIRD of the Old Testament is
Perhaps the biggest surprise to most people is that the majority
of the books normally classified as prophetic are in poetic form.
"Poetry," you say. "No wonder I have such a hard time
understanding those books."
If the thought of poetry makes your knees buckle in apprehension,
rest easy. With a few pointers (and a little study on your part),
you can come to know the poetic books as some of the most
interesting, creative (at times even humorous), and rewarding in
the entire Bible. Here are a few things to keep in mind when
reading Old Testament poetry.
Distinguish poetry from prose.
As we noted in Lesson 8, prose is the way in which people
ordinarily speak and write. Sentences vary in length, following
no set pattern of arrangement. A series of related sentences form
In contrast, Hebrew poetry consists of two or more lines of
approximately the same length containing roughly the same number
of significant words. A two-line unit of thought is called a
couplet, or distich. The couplet is the basic building block of
Hebrew poetry. Psalm 42:1 contains a good example:
As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So pants my soul for You, O God.
Sometimes three lines instead of two will form a unit of thought.
This is known as a triplet, or tristich. Notice Isaiah 1:8:
So the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard,
As a hut in a garden of cucumbers,
As a besieged city.
A series of related couplets or triplets form a larger unit of
thought known as the stanza. The stanza is to poetry what the
paragraph is to prose.
As we also noted in Lesson 8, an author usually uses prose when
he wants to communicate information. The greater emphasis is on
what is said than on how it is said. Hence, the more direct and
In contrast, poetry is usually used when an author wants to stir
the emotions. To achieve this effect, greater emphasis is given
to how something is said than merely to what is said. Hence, the
more imaginative forms of expression.
One of the best aids to help you distinguish poetry from prose is
a version of the Bible that prints poetry in stanzas. Some
versions, like the King James Version and the Living Bible, print
poetry in sentence and paragraph form just like prose. This makes
it more difficult to recognize the poetic structure. When poetry
is printed to look like prose, it is not surprising that so few
readers recognize how extensive poetry is found in the Bible. To
break the prose barrier, choose a version that indents poetic
lines and spaces between poetic stanzas. It is amazing how such a
small innovation can improve your awareness and grasp of poetic
sections in Scripture.
Listen for parallelism, not rhyme.
For most of us, a poem is just not a poem unless words rhyme and
there is a certain balance of sound. Rhyme and phonetic rhythms
are the hallmarks of English poetry. They give it its musical
These features, however, are absent in Hebrew poetry. Instead of
rhyme and balance of sound, Hebrew poetry seeks a balance of
thought, or a "rhyme of ideas," if you will. This balance of
thought is called parallelism - that is, the thought in one line
has a counterpart in the following line. Parallelism is the
hallmark of Hebrew poetry. Fortunately for us, because it is a
rhyme of ideas rather than sounds, much of it still comes across
in our English translations. To interpret Old Testament poetry
properly, you must pay attention to parallelism; it is the means
by which meaning is conveyed and reinforced.
Parallelism generally falls into three main categories.
1. Synonymous parallelism - the second line repeats or rephrases
the same thought of the first line, so that both lines say
essentially the same thing. This is the most common type.
(line 1) The voice of the Lord is powerful;
(line 2) The voice of the Lord is full of majesty. (Psalm 29:4)
(line 1) Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
(line 2) And cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51:2)
2. Antithetic parallelism - the second line contains an opposite
or contrasting thought to the first line.
(line 1) A soft answer turns away wrath,
(line 2) But a harsh word stirs up anger. (Proverbs 15:1)
(line 1) They have bowed down and fallen;
(line 2) But we have risen and stand upright. (Psalm 20:8)
3. Synthetic parallelism - the second line completes or amplifies
the thought of the first line.
(line 1) Blessed be the Lord, [We might ask, why should the Lord
be blessed? Line 2 completes the thought.]
(line 2) Because He has heard the voice of my supplications!
(line 1) The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of
men. [Why does He look down? Line 2 amplifies the thought.]
(line 2) To see if there are any who understand, who seek God.
The three main types of parallelism are the building blocks for
numerous variations, such as stairlike or climatic, emblematic,
and introverted parallelism. To learn more about these, consult
the recommended reading list in the back of this booklet.
Parallelism aids interpretation:
The value of parallelism as an interpretation tool should be
obvious. Recognizing the various types of parallelism will help
you better understand the connection between lines and verses.
For instance, if the meaning of one line is vague, the parallel
thought from the next line may clarify the vague phrase.
Absorb the imagery and figurative language.
Old Testament poetry is loaded with figures of speech and vivid
word pictures. It uses all the figures of speech discussed in
Lesson 7: simile, metaphor, word association (metonymy),
personification, euphemism, hyperbole, synecdoche, irony, merism
- and then some. For added emphasis, Hebrew poetry is also fond
of repetition, exclamations, and sudden questions.
Of course, the poetic imagery comes from the life-setting of the
times. The poets draw from such things as nature, agriculture,
military imagery, and religious life to illustrate their points.
Keep this in mind when you ponder the meaning of some obscure
simile or metaphor. Instead of reading into a figure of speech
some modern concept or cultural connotation that makes sense to
you, always try to relate the figure of speech to its original
context. Also, because Hebrew poetry is so highly figurative, you
will make a big mistake if you take a strictly literal approach.
Read, instead, for the overall impact of the words.
For example, in his opening chapter, Isaiah describes the nation
of Judah's rebellion against God. In verses 5 and 6 he
personifies the nation as a sick person:
Why should you be stricken again? You will revolt more and more.
The whole head is sick, And the whole heart faints.
From the sole of the foot even to the head, There is no soundness
in it, But wounds and bruises and putrefying sores; They have not
been closed or bound up, or soothed with ointment.
Now, Isaiah could have simply written in prose that the people
are far from God. But his poetic expressions bring the situation
to life. We not only hear and see the nation's problem, we also
Never overlook the context.
As discussed in Lesson 5, the importance of context cannot be
over emphasized. It is the lens that brings any poetic passage
into proper focus. Pay attention to the literary context (the
progression of thought from verse to verse and passage to
passage) and the historical context (the historical and cultural
background of a given text).
Concerning the literary context, remember the five W's:
who, what, when, where, and why.
For instance, when reading a verse from Job, it is absolutely
essential that you know who is speaking and in what context. Is
it Job? Or one of his friends? Or God? Many who have overlooked
the context have quoted the bad advice of Job's friends as if it
were a message from God.
Also in regard to literary context, there's a unique feature in
Old Testament poetry, especially in the prophetic books, that
needs your special attention. Watch out for scene shifts.
When you read biblical narratives, you are used to seeing the
story move from scene to scene in linear fashion - that is,
roughly in the order in which the events occurred. Movement from
one scene to the next is usually clearly marked by transitional
In Old Testament poetry, however, time and place settings often
shift abruptly without transitions. The story moves in concentric
rather than linear fashion. An Old Testament poet may present one
scene in the present, the next in the past, the next in the
future. One scene may be in heaven, the next on earth, one in
Jerusalem, the next in Babylon. There may also be an abrupt
change in speakers - from an "I" to a "we" to a - "they."
Like flashbacks in a movie, the Old Testament poet presents each
scene as a self-contained moment in space and time. The next
scene may shift without warning or transition to another space
and time. An example of this is in the Class Exercise.
Concerning the historical context, keep your eyes and ears open
for clues from the text itself. Let the Bible be your first
source of information before turning to additional help. For
example, many of the Psalms contain small notations just above
them. These notations, called superscriptions, became part of the
ancient manuscripts at an early date and often supply historical
information. They preserve for us the earliest Jewish
understandings regarding the authorship, background, and musical
or liturgical use of the Psalms. A typical example is Psalm 3,
where the superscription reads: "A Psalm of David when he fled
from Absalom his son."
Participate with the poets.
In summary, try to enter into the experiences of the biblical
poets. As mentioned earlier, Hebrew poetry was intended more for
the ear than for the eye. It was sung rather than read. Because
it was originally an auditory experience, it always helps to read
it aloud for its full impact.
As you read, listen for the balance of thought in the parallelism
between lines. Fill your senses with the vivid imagery and
metaphorical language. Listen to the chord changes between
concentric scenes as the poets move through space and time to
compose their melodies. The whole of the universe is their
musical instrument, and they use its full range, shifting keys
from one scene to the next.
Finally, let the symphony of the words, not just the individual
notes, transport you into the poets' world - into the struggles,
sins, sorrows, aspirations, joys, and victories of real people.
It's music to the ear.
For specific information on the Psalms and Wisdom Literature
(composition, genres, and guidelines for interpretation), consult
the Teacher's Guide. The Teacher's Guide is available for $5.00
from the Bible Advocate Press, P.O.Box 33677, Denver, CO 80233-
Class Exercise: Interpreting Poetry
In Lesson 8 we examined the narrative account of Deborah and
Barak's victory over the Canaanite commander, Sisera, in Judges
4. Now turn to Judges 5 for the poetic version, often referred to
as the "Song of Deborah," one of the oldest poems in the Bible.
The first 18 verses praise God for the victory and commend the
leaders and those tribes of Israel who answered the call to do
battle, while chiding the tribes who stayed home.
1. Read and compare the narrative and poetic accounts of the
battle scene in Judges 4:12-16 and 5:19-22.
A. What immediately strikes you concerning the literary styles of
these two accounts?
B. What type of parallelism is used in 5:20? Also, what figure of
speech is used in this verse?
What type of parallelism is used in 5:31? And what kind of figure
of speech is used in the second line of that parallelism?
C. What role did the River Kishon play in the battle according to
the poetic version? Judges 5:21.
Does the narrative account mention that the river played a role
in the victory? Judges 4:15.
To harmonize the two accounts, some suggest that the river
flooded, making the surrounding plain too soft for Sisera's iron
chariots, which bogged down in the mud. What do you think? Is the
poetic version giving us a detail overlooked by the narrative
account? Or is the poetic version taking poetic license, perhaps
using hyperbole, for dramatic effect? Consider 5:20 in your
answer, where the poet also says that the stars from heaven
fought against Sisera. Also note 5:22, where the horses' hooves
are pounding and "galloping, galloping," supposedly after they
have been swept away by the torrent of the previous verse.
2. Compare the accounts of Sisera's death in Judges 4:21 and
A. Which is more vivid and perhaps more stirring?
B. What Hebrew poetic technique is used in 5:27?
3. What scene is portrayed in 5:28-30?
Is there any kind of transitional statement between the scene in
5:27 and the one in 5:28? In literary terms, what would this be
4. Do you suppose Deborah witnessed the scene in the home of
Should we understand this scene as a literal statement of fact
(perhaps revealed to the poet by the inspiration of the Holy
Spirit) or as a poetic device (also inspired by the Holy Spirit)
to dramatize the irony of Sisera's defeat? Consider in your
answer the purpose for which an author uses narrative and the
purpose for which he uses poetry (see the Lesson Commentary).
Does the Holy Spirit recognize and respect the difference in
genre? And what about our own expectations as readers? Do we
expect poetry to be as literal as narrative? And on the flip
side, do we expect narrative to be as figurative or imaginative
as poetry? How readest thou?
TO BE CONTINUED