From the Church of God, Seventh Day, Denver, CO, USA
MAKING SENSE OF OLD TESTAMENT POETRY
How much of the Old Testament is poetry? If you thought only
the books of Psalms and Proverbs, and maybe the Song of Solomon,
Of the Old Testament's 39 books, 15 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 Old
Testament books, such as Ecclesiastes and Zechariah, have
extensive sections in poetry, and some poetry is found in
Ezekiel, Daniel, and Jonah. Poetry is also sprinkled here and
there in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) and
in the historical books (Joshua to Esther). In all, over
one-third of the Old Testament is poetry.
That figure is surprising enough, but perhaps the biggest
surprise is that the majority of the books normally classified as
prophetic are written in poetic form. "Poetry! No wonder," you
say, "I have such a hard time understanding those books."
Psalms and Proverbs aside, the least read and most enigmatic
books of the Bible are indeed the poetic books. This is due in
part to a general unfamiliarity with the characteristics of
Hebrew poetry, which in turn creates a gap in understanding of
and appreciation for poetic material.
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 books in all the Bible. Here are a few things to keep
in mind when reading Old Testament poetry.
1. DISTINGUISH POETRY FROM PROSE
Prose is the ordinary way people speak and write. Sentences
can be of any length, with little correlation between the number
of words from one sentence to the next. A series of related
sentences form a paragraph.
In contrast, Hebrew poetry consists of two or more lines of
approximately the same length and containing roughly the same
number of significant words. A two line unit of thought is called
a coupler or distich. The couplet is the basic building block of
Hebrew poetry. Judges 5:22 contains a good example of a couplet:
Then the horses' hooves pounded The galloping, galloping of
Sometimes three lines, instead of two, will form a unit of
thought. This is known as a triplet or Iristich. Notice Judges
At her feet he sank, he fell, he lay still; At her feet he
sank, he fell; Where he sank, there he fell dead
A series of related couplets and/or triplets form a larger
unit of thought known as the stanza. The stanza is to poetry what
the paragraph is to prose. An author usually uses prose when he
wants to communicate information. The greater emphasis is on what
is said than 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 to what is said. Hence the
more imaginative forms of expression.
For a striking comparison of prose and poetry read Judges 4
and 5. Both chapters report the same event - the victory of
Deborah and Barak over the Canaanite commander, Sisera. Chapter 4
does it in prose, while chapter 5 is the poetic version. The
former gives a straightforward account of the victory; the latter
stirs the emotions over the victory.
One of the best aids to help you distinguish poetry from
prose is a Bible version which prints poetry as poetry. Some
versions, such as the King James Version, the American Standard
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 Bible readers
recognize how extensive poetry is in the Old Testament. To break
the prose barrier, choose a Bible version which 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.
2. LISTEN TO PARALLELISM, NOT RHYME
For most of us, a poem is just not a poem unless the lines
rhyme and there is a certain balance of sound. Rhyme and phonetic
rhythms or meters are the hallmarks of English poetry. They give
it its musical effect.
These features, however, are absent in Hebrew poetry.
Instead of rhyme and balance of sound, Hebrew poetry seeks a
balance of thought or a rhythm of logic, 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. It is to Hebrew poetry what rhyme
and meter are to English poetry. To interpret Old Testament
poetry property, you must pay attention to parallelism, for it is
the means by which meaning is conveyed and reinforced.
Parallelism generally falls into three main categories.
l. Synonymous parallelism - the second line repeats or rephrases
the same thought of the first line. This is the most common type
(line l) 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. Anthetic 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 l) 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 l) Blessed be the Lord,
[We might ask, Why should the Lord be blessed? Line 2 completes
(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.
In addition to the three main categories of parallelism,
there are a number of variations based upon the three main types.
Three of the most common variations are mentioned below.
1. Stairlike or climatic parallelism - a combination of
synonymous and synthetic parallelism involving three or more
lines in which the thought of the first line ascends to a climax
in the following lines.
(line 1) Give unto the Lord, O you mighty ones,
(line 2) Give unto the Lord glory and strength
(line 3) Give unto the Lord the glory due His name;
(line 4) Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness (Psalm 29:2).
(line 1) Their roaring will be like a lion,
(line 2) They will roar like young lions;
(line 3) Yes, they will roar
(line 4) And lay hold of the prey,
(line 5) They will carry it away safely,
(line 6) And no one will deliver (Isaiah 5:29).
2. Emblematic parallelism - a form of synonymous parallelism in
which one tine uses a simile to reinforce the literal statement
of another line.
(line 1) As the deer pants for the water brooks, [simile]
(line 2) So pants my soul for You, O God (Psalm 42:1).
(line 1) As a partridge that broods but does not hatch, [simile]
(line 2) So is he who gets riches, but nor by right (Jeremiah
3. Introverted parallelism - another variation of synonymous
parallelism in which four lines are arranged so that the first
and fourth lines and the second and third lines correspond in an
a:b:b:a pattern or similar variation.
(a) I cried out to You, O Lord;
and to the Lord I made supplication
(b) What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit?
(b) Will the dust praise You? Will it declare Your truth?
(a) Hear, O Lord, and have mercy on me; Lord, be my helper!
(a) Our soul has escaped as a bird
(b) from the snare of the fowlers;
(b) The snare is broken,
(a) and we have escaped (Psalm 124:7).
[Words in bold type make the correspondence easily
A variation of the a:b:b:a pattern:
(a) Make the heart of this people dull,
(b) And their ears heavy
(c) And shut their eyes;
(c) Lest they see with their eyes,
(b) And hear with their ears,
(a) And understand with their hearts,
and return and be healed (Isaiah 6:10).
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.
Take a look at Proverbs 30:18.
There are three things which are too wonderful for me, Yes,
four which I do not understand:
Verses of this kind have caused confusion among a lot of
Bible readers. Are there three or four or seven things the poet
doesn't understand? When one recognizes that line 2 of verse 18
is synthetic parallelism and serves to amplify the thought of
line 1, then the answer is obvious, There are four things the
poet doesn't understand, and he lists the four in verse 19:
The way of an eagle in the air, The way of a serpent on a
rock, The way of a ship in the midst of the sea, And the way
of a man with a virgin.
But what is it about the "way" of these four things that the
poet has in mind? No doubt, you could speculate about the meaning
of this verse, as many have done. But if you do, you will tend to
read your own cultural experiences and answers into the text,
just as the many have done.
Or you could notice verse 20 and recognize it as a climatic
extension of the synthetic parallelism of verse 18. There is
actually a fifth "way," analogous to the first four, which causes
the poet to marvel: the way of an adulterous woman [who] eats and
wipes her mouth, and says, "I have done no wickedness."
Whatever it is about the "way" of the four things mentioned
in verse 19, it is related to the way in which the adulterous
woman regards her sin - perhaps as untraceable, like the
tracklessness of an eagle in the sky, etc. Thus the climatic
parallelism of verse 20 provides a clue for understanding the
less clear statements of verse 19.
3. ABSORB THE IMAGERY AND FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE
Old Testament poetry is loaded with figures of speech and
vivid word pictures. It uses simile, metaphor, word association
(metonymy), personification, euphemism, hyperbole, synecdoche,
etc. (See the article, "Figures of Speech in the Bible.") For
added emphasis, Hebrew poetry is also fond of the repetition of
words and refrains, of exclamations, and of sudden questions.
Much of the poetic imagery is drawn from nature and from the
agricultural, military, and religious life of ancient society.
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
cultural context. Because Hebrew poetry is so highly figurative,
you will make a big mistake if you take a strictly literal
approach to this material. Read instead for the overall impact of
the words. Read with your ears, not just your eyes.
To illustrate this point, read Isaiah 1:2-10 out loud to
yourself. In his opening chapter, Isaiah describes the nation of
Judah's rebellion against God. In verses 5 and 6, the nation is
personified 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
Note the agricultural and military similes in verse 8,
indicating that the nation now stands abandoned and alone:
So the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, As
a but in a garden of cucumbers,
As a besieged city.
In verse 9, Isaiah uses another simile to compare Judah with
Sodom and Gomorrah. And in verse 10, he simply refers to Judah
metaphorically as the "rulers of Sodom" and the "people of
Gomorrah." To miss this metaphor could lead to the mistake of
thinking Isaiah was literally addressing the cities of Sodom and
Gomorrah (cities which no longer existed in Isaiah's day).
In verses 12-15, Isaiah uses the concrete imagery of the
temple worship to reveal that the people were only going through
the motions concerning their devotion to God. Their sacrifices
and assemblies were no longer acceptable to God, because the
people were hypocritical - they did not practice what they
Finally in verses 18-20, the Lord invites the nation to
repent and return to Him. Notice the series of similes and
metaphors used in 18b-20a:
Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as
snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as
If you are willing and obedient, You shall eat the good of
the land; But if you refuse and rebel, You shall be devoured
by the sword .
In his opening chapter, Isaiah could have simply written in
prose that the people are far from God. But his poetic
expressions bring the situation alive. We not only hear and see
the nation's problem, we feel it.
Not only were the Old Testament poets and prophets fond of
imagery, but they also liked to reverse its meaning right within
the context of a given passage. For example, an Old Testament
poet may use a metaphor to refer to the people's sin, but then
turn that metaphor around and use it as God's response or
solution to their sin. As an interpreter, you need to be alert to
this twist of irony. Such a twist occurs in Isaiah 10:33-11:2. In
10:33 and 34, Isaiah uses the metaphor of chopping down trees to
refer to the fall of the kings of Judah. But even though the
kings of the Davidic dynasty will be "hewn down," the prophet
proclaims in 11:1 and 2 that from the stump of Jesse's tree
(i.e., the Davidic line) a new "Shoot (Rod)" or "Branch" will
spring forth. This Branch, of course, is a reference to the
Messiah. The imagery is therefore reversed. A negative is turned
into a positive. Out of the ruin of the Davidic dynasty will grow
another "Branch," Jesus the Messiah.
This type of reversal can also be seen in Isaiah 28:9-13.
(For more on this text, see the article, "The Importance of
Context.") Note the metaphoric language of verses 9 and 10. The
drunken priests and prophets of Judah complain to Isaiah that he
is treating them like children. They mock Isaiah in verse 10 as
if his words were so much stammering.
The metaphor is then reversed in verses 11-13. If the
drunken priests and prophets want to regard the clear words of
God as babbling, so be it. If they want stammering, that's what
they'll get. God will respond to them in like fashion. He will
punish the nation by allowing it to fall captive to foreign
invaders whose languages will sound like so much stammering to
Jewish ears. Listen to the irony of verses 11-13:
Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God
will speak to this people [Judah],
To whom he said, "This is the resting place, let the weary
rest"; And, "This is the place of repose, But they would not
So then, the word of the Lord to them will become: Do and
do, do and do,
Rule on rule, rule on rule; A little here, a little there.
So that they will go and fall backward. Be injured and
snared and captured
4. NEVER OVERLOOK THE CONTEXT
The importance of context cannot be over emphasized. It is
the lens that brings any poetic passage into proper focus. There
are two levels of context you should be aware of; literary
context (the progression of thought from verse to verse and
passage to passage), and historical context (the historical and
cultural background of a given text).
Let's comment on the historical context first. This topic is
often intimidating to the average reader of the Bible. Yet, you
do not have to become an expert in ancient Palestinian culture in
order to understand Scripture. The study of ancient history and
archeology has its rewards for those who pursue it, but you can
gain enough insight right from the Bible itself if you pay close
attention. When reading the Bible, keep your eyes and ears open
for clues about the history and culture of the period.
For example, many of the Psalms contain small notations just
above each Psalm. 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 origin, character, music, or
liturgical use of the Psalms.
For instance, the notation above Psalm 51 says, "To the
Chief Musician. A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to
him, after he had gone into Bathsheba."
This notation helps to place Psalm 51 in its proper setting.
And it also makes the words of the Psalm come alive. Instead of
reading David's remarks as some generic cry for repentance, we
can have a much better idea of what David is referring to when he
says, "Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil
in Your sight" (verse 4).
So before turning to outside references, let your Bible be
your first source of information. One word of caution however.
When the Bible does not give sufficient historical or cultural
information, it is better to admit ignorance than to assign a
text arbitrarily to a particular historical event or time period.
Now, a few words about the literary context. Always pay
attention to the five W's of any passage; who, what, when, where,
and why. (These often help with the historical setting as well.)
Who is speaking? What is happening? When is it happening? Where
is it happening? And, if the information is given, why is it
To answer these questions, you will often need to read the
verses or chapters before and after the passage you are studying.
For example, 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? You wouldn't want to read
the bad advice of Job's friends as if it were God's answer to
Also when reading Old Testament poetry, pay attention to the
information unfolded by the biblical writers, rather than
searching for answers to questions which the writers did not
choose to address.
The above points about context are of course true for any
passage of Scripture, not just poetry. There is, however, a
unique feature of Old Testament poetry, especially in the
prophetical books, that needs your special attention.
When you read biblical narratives (prose) you are used to
seeing the story move from scene to scene in linear fashion, that
is, in roughly the order in which the events actually occurred.
Movement from one scene to the next is usually clearly marked by
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.
Like flashbacks in a modern movie, the Old Testament poet
presents each scene as a self-contained moment in space and time.
The next scene then shifts to another space and time.
The Song of Deborah in Judges 5 contains a good example of
poetic scene-shift. Verses 24-27 describe the death of Sisera,
the Canaanite commander, at the hand of Jael, the wife of Heber
the Kenite. Verse 27 gives the final details: "He [Sisera] sank,
he fell, he lay still at her [Jael] feet; at her feet he sank, he
fell; where he sank, there he fell dead" (RSV).
Verse 28 continues: "Out of the window she peered ..."(RSV).
At first thought we might assume that the "she" refers to Jael.
But the synonymous parallelism of the second line of verse 28
makes it clear that the "she" refers to Sisera's mother, who in
verses 28-30 looks out her window and wonders why her son is so
long in returning from the battle.
Thus, in one scene we are in the tent of Jael and witnesses
to the death of Sisera, and then, without transition, we are
whisked away to the home of Sisera's mother. These rapid shifts
in time and place can create trouble if the interpreter doesn't
pay close attention.
Failure to notice scene-shifts has lead some interpreters to
misread texts and make foolish conclusions.
The key, therefore, to reading poetic stories involves two
steps: 1) detecting the individual poetic scenes, and 2)
discovering the relationships, if any, between the separate
5. PARTICIPATE WITH THE POETS
In conclusion, the last point to keep in mind is to try to
enter into the experiences of the biblical poets. As mentioned
earlier, Hebrew poetry was made more for the ear than the eye. It
was sung rather than read. Because Hebrew poetry was originally
an audio experience, it always helps to read it aloud for its
As you read, listen for the balance of thought in the
parallelism between lines. Fill your senses with the vivid
imagery and metaphoric language. Harken to the context of
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, failures, and
victories of real people and into God's own message for human
Scripture quotations were rakes from The New King James Version,
unless otherwise noted.
TO BE CONTINUED