Feel the Rhythm—Smell the Roses
Reading biblical poetry in an age of Facebook and Twitter
Some people love it; others struggle to get it. Poetry is not everyone’s cup of tea—or at least that’s how it felt in school when our English (or, in my case, German) teacher pulled out the heavy anthology containing poetry.
Intriguingly, more than one third of the Old Testament has been written in poetry. 1 Poetry can be found in crucial locations in the Pentateuch (Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy 32 immediately come to mind, even though there are other places as well) and the historical books (Judges 5; 2 Samuel 22). Poetry is the standard mode of communication in the Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and large sections of the prophets.
Poetry in Scripture does not only represent an important biblical genre—it is also located at crucial intersections of the biblical canon.
Who can forget Moses’ song celebrating God’s mighty victory over Pharaoh and the liberation of His people (Exodus 15)? Who would switch off the lyric description of the shepherd metaphor in Psalm 23:1? “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” immediately calls up images of safety and bountiful exuberance that a prose text will struggle to convey. Like all other biblical genres, poetry speaks of a Creator who loves colors, a Savior whose blood-stained cross points heavenward, and a Judge whose righteousness is indisputable and irrefutable. Its presence in Scripture highlights God’s desire to save to the utmost, by any means, and communicates broadly God’s love story with humanity.
What Is Biblical Poetry Like?
Biblical poetry is mostly found in the Old Testament. There are smaller poems in the Gospels and the Epistles, yet there is no single poetic book in the New Testament. 2 Since few of us read biblical Hebrew and even fewer are familiar with Hebrew poetry as a genre, it may be a good idea to consider consciously what appears to be—at least at the outset—a strange way of writing.
Hebrew poetry has three main characteristics, namely, it (1) is terse and concise; (2) prefers parallelism; and (3) uses extensively figurative language. Hebrew poetry does not use rhyme or meter as we are accustomed to in English (or German) poetry. There is, nonetheless, rhythm in biblical poetry; but it does not focus on line endings but embraces sounds and stress and syllables.
The basic unit in Hebrew poetry is called a line (or sometimes a colon, half-line, stich, or hemistich). A line may be a complete sentence, but more often it is part of a larger syntactic unit. Consider the poetic expression of joy and exuberance when God finally brings Eve to Adam in one of Scripture’s first poetic lines in Genesis 2:23.
“This (is) now bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh;
this one shall be called wo-man, for out of man this one was taken.” 3
Line lengths can vary; Hebrew poetry is not purely a matter of counting syllables or stress in a word. There is a preference for twos and threes (also known as couplets and triplets) in Hebrew poetry. Sometimes a poet used the 22 consonants of the Hebrew alphabet as the ordering principle. We know these specialized poems as acrostic poems; some examples are Psalms 111, 112, or 119 (which actually has an acrostic rhythm of eight verses per consonant, resulting in 176 verses).
Before actually reading a poem together, it will be helpful to review the three main characteristics of Hebrew poetry.
Terseness—or, Keep It Short, Son
Poets are word economists. In Hebrew poetry, lines seldom include conjunctions (“and”), definite articles (“the”), relative pronouns (“that, who, etc.”), or direct object markers. Things can get a bit compact, which also explains the fact that my Hebrew students usually struggled more when working with poetry than when they translated a narrative text. Ambiguity is definitely a way to stoke up creativity.
At times, poets in Israel were also stingy with their verbs. Psalm 114:4 provides an excellent example of this type of ellipsis:
“The mountains skipped like rams,
the hills like lambs.”
As readers we intuitively insert a second “skipped” or something similar in the second line. In fact, the imagery of mountains and hills romping about like rams and exuberant lambs is not only foreign, but also intriguing. Three verses down we are told why mountains skip and seas flee (verse 3). “Before the presence of the Lord tremble O earth” (verse 7) reminds us of an all-powerful Creator who controls nature and, yet, makes Judah His sanctuary (verse 2).
Parallelism—or, Say It Again, Sam
Hebrew poetry makes frequent use of parallel ideas. Facets of this type of poetry include repetition (also called synonymous parallelism, cf. Ps. 77:11), contrast (known as antithetic parallelism; cf. Ps. 30:5), or a parallelism involving grammatical patterns. A good example of this last one is Isaiah 11:3: 4
“And-not-according-to-the-vision-of-his-eyes will he judge” is followed by
“And-not-according-to-the-hearing-of-his-ears will he decide.”
The syntax of both lines is very similar—yet at key places a new idea is introduced. “Vision” and “eyes” correspond to “hearing” and “ears,” pointing to two important human senses. Parallelism, however, is more than “saying the same thing twice in different words,” as C. S. Lewis noted. 5 It is a key technique of moving an idea forward. Psalm 1:1 is a great example of this aspect of parallelism:
“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
and in the path of sinners he does not stand;
and in the seat of scoffers he does not sit.”
While the ideas are parallel, there is a clear progression of thought when we consider the verbs used in the text. Walking, standing, and finally, sitting marks an increasingly more intimate relationship with those who have chosen evil.
Imagery—or, Paint Me the Picture
Most good literature includes imagery—so figurative language is not the exclusive province of poetry. However, because of the terseness and concision of Hebrew poetry, there is often a pileup of imagery. Metaphors and similes become word pictures. Similes are explicit comparisons, as a familiar one in Psalm 1:3: “He [namely, the righteous] shall be like a tree, planted by streams of water.” As we listen to this line, we can hear the gurgling sound of fresh water and see a tall tree whose roots are close to the source of life. Metaphors are harder to catch and decipher.
When David writes, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1), he writes from his heart and culture. We know that God is not in the agrobusiness. We recognize that God is so much bigger and better than an Israelite shepherd in the time of David. However, the disparity between the two objects invites our engagement. In my particular case, while I like the romantic notion of a shepherd leading his sheep, I know very little about the daily routine of shepherds. I may relate better to the metaphor of “God is my IT go-to guy” or “God is my pilot.” Yet, since familiarity also breeds contempt, fresh imagery may actually help us take a second look.
More can be said about Hebrew poetry. However, instead of reading about poetry, a better idea may actually be to read some poetry together and develop some helpful reading strategies.
Let’s Do It
I have chosen Psalm 121 for our lab work on Hebrew poetry. The first step to engaging Hebrew poetry is to find at least five different translations. Use a very literal translation (such as the NKJV), a more middle-ground dynamic translation (NIV comes to mind), and a paraphrase (I like The Message).6 There are many more versions, of course, but find a good spread. Note the differences and “taste” them.
Reading poetry is not just an intellectual enterprise—it should involve all our senses. In fact, since most biblical texts were originally written to be read aloud, reading poetry aloud will help you grasp its message. English Bibles usually include a title. In Psalm 121 it is a “Song for Ascents” and belonged to a group of 15 psalms bearing a similar title (Pss. 120-134). They were most likely sung when people traveled to Jerusalem for one of the feasts.
Did you note the difference between verses 1, 2 and verses 3-8? The psalm starts off very personal (“ my eyes” and “my help” attest to that) and then moves on to “you.” Six times we are told that God is our guard: He does not sleep, He helps us not to slip, He holds His hands over us—even when sun and moon, well-known ancient deities, threaten us (verse 6). Why would the author of Psalm 121 use so much space describing God’s ability to guard and protect? Could it be that there was some doubt in the author’s mind, or perhaps a sense of not being in control? Clearly mountains do not provide a feasible way out (verse 1)—only the Lord, described as the Creator in verse 2, is able to deliver. The psalm also includes a number of opposites, also known as merisms (e.g., heaven/earth, sun/moon, day/night, going/coming, now/eternity). These pairs cover time and space and emphasize God’s “comprehensive coverage.”
“Poetry,” somebody once said, “is an event.” Applied to biblical poetry, it marks the moment in which God engages human limitation, questions, distress, doubt, or joy. Reading poetry requires time and involves taking a risk. I need to open my heart to grasp the messiness of life without God. Poetry encourages me to think deeply by not giving quick and pat answers. As in Psalm 121, however, there is one unchanging and underlying foundation: my Lord, my Shepherd, my Rock, my Pilot is always around and in control. He’ll take care of me.
- Fred W. Dobbs-Allsopp, “Poetry, Hebrew,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), vol. 4, p. 550.
- Tremper Longman III, “Biblical Poetry,” in A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman III (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), p. 81.
- Genesis 2:23 happens to be one of the first poetic lines in Scripture. Unless otherwise noted, all translations in this article are the author’s. I have chosen to use “wo-man” to reflect the close proximity between Hebrew ’ishah, consisting of the term for man, ’ish, and the feminine noun marker -ah.
- For this example I am indebted to Dobbs-Allsopp, p. 552.
- C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958), p. 3.
- If you don’t own so many different translations, you can always go online and read them for free at www.biblegateway.com.