Biblical Poetry—Psalm 1

Music and poetry in Israel were a fundamental part of worship and even daily life. The further one goes into the complexities of Hebrew poetry, the more one realizes that the ancient Hebrews must have even thought in artistic patterns!

A Bible that breaks up poetic verses into lines or units of thought will show poetry not only in the psalter (the book of Psalms) but in many other parts of the OT, including the books of prophecy, and even scattered throughout the narratives. Often when the author or the speaker in a narrative makes an important pronouncement, they resort to poetical forms such as Adam’s naming of Eve (Gen. 2:23) or Balaam’s attempt to curse Israel (Num. 23).

Unlike most English poetry that uses rhyming sounds, Hebrew (and other ancient) poetry employs a kind of thought rhyming, in which the writer states an idea (a verset or sentence), then develops it in different ways to complete the thought. He or she could (1) repeat the same idea using different synonyms, (2) state the opposite of the idea, or (3) carry forward the first idea. These three main ways of “rhyming” in Hebrew poetry are called synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic parallelism, respectively.

The beauty of this system is that unlike sound rhyme that depends on specific words for its rhyme (like “rain” and “plain”), Hebrew poetry’s system of thought rhyming is easily translatable into any language without distorting the poetry, contributing to the Bible’s universal, transcultural nature as Scripture.

Synonymous Parallelism

Perhaps the most easily recognized parallelism is synonymous. Here, the author makes the same point in parallel versets by repeating the idea by using synonyms. For example:

“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
And by the breath of His mouth all their host [were made]” (Ps. 33:6).

These two versets are 4 and 3 Hebrew words, respectively, making them about the same length. Each verset says the same thing but uses different synonyms. Another example:

“So God created the man in His image;
In the image of God he created him,
Male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27).

The first verset states a thought, the next two versets repeat that thought, and the third adds a more specific “male and female” but not repeating the word “image.”

Antithetical Parallelism

Here the writer makes the same point in parallel versets but through terms that are opposite instead of synonymous. Example:

“One who keeps the commandment is one who keeps his life,
One who despises his way will die” (Prov. 19:16).

The main concept is the same here but stated in opposite ways.

Advancing or Synthetic Parallelism

Here the versets are not strictly parallel. The second (or additional) ones add new information or a new dimension to the topic. Example:

“Oh, sing to God a new song,
For He has done marvelous things” (Ps. 98:1)

The first verset introduces a thought, and the second verset expands that thought instead of repeating it or saying the opposite. In this verse, the expansion is a reason for singing.

Other Literary Devices

In addition to parallelism, Hebrew poetry also uses literary devices to enhance one’s experience and to convey truth in a fresh and new way that touches the senses and emotions. Below are several of these. Although only briefly touched on, they will give you a start in recognizing them when you read biblical poetry.

Poetry has vibrant and sometimes wild Imagery, touching one’s imagination by representing one thing by another and creating a connection not previously known. God is a dwelling place (Ps. 90:1), a rock, fortress, shield, stronghold (Ps. 18:3). The wilderness and the dry land will be glad and the desert will rejoice (Isa. 35:1–also an example of Personification).

Similes use imagery to describe something by its being “like” something else. Jeremiah 17:7, 8 compares the one who trusts God to a healthy, well-nourished tree.

Metaphors also employ imagery and are close to similes, but they declare the object under discussion as actually being the thing it’s compared to. “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Ps. 23:1) is a metaphor.

Poetry is terse and often leaves words out of a verset. When this omission or ellipsis occurs, one is expected to fill in the words with the verb or noun from the first verset, or vice versa. Psalm 33:6 (above) omits the verb from the second verset, but based on the first verset, it is obvious what that verb is.

Chiasms are common in both poetry and narrative in the OT. They have lines structured in ABCBA fashion, like a mountain that one climbs up one on one side, and then descends on the other. The climax and main point are at the top—in the middle of the literary unit. Sometimes the chiasm is a simple ABBA as in Psalm 51:1 (word order may vary in different translations, but this is the Hebrew word order):

A    Have mercy on me, O God,

B   According to Your steadfast love;

B-1   According to Your abundant mercy,

A-1    Blot out my transgressions

Merisms are word pairs describing opposites or extremes, but one recognizes that everything in between the two words is included in the thought. Psalm 91:5-6 illustrates this. We will not fear the terror by night nor the arrow by day, nor pestilence in darkness, or destruction at noonday. Such word pairs include all other times between night and day, and between darkness and noonday. It’s a poetic way of saying that there is no time we ever should be afraid.

Acrostic psalms begin each line or stanza with the next succeeding Hebrew letter. Psalm 119 is the most well-known acrostic, utilizing all twenty-two Hebrew letters, with each line of an individual stanza beginning with the theme letter of that stanza.

Refrains or inclusios sometimes occur. Psalm 46:7 and 11 is a twice-repeating refrain. Psalm 42:5, 11 and 43:5 suggest that the two psalms were once one psalm with a thrice-repeating refrain. Psalm 8:1, 9 is a good example of an inclusio, having the same words at both beginning and end.