The Lord is my shepherd,
I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul (ps. 23:1–3a).
Skim quickly through the Old Testament. Even without reading a word, you’ll be able to tell the difference between the poems and the stories. The poems are the ones with all the white space on the page. While the stories of the Old Testament have sentences and paragraphs, the poems have short lines that form stanzas.
If you leaf through the Old Testament from Genesis through Malachi, you’ll notice that there’s a lot of poetry. Most books have poems in them, and some books are completely or almost completely poetic. Books that are mostly or completely poetry include the wisdom books (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) and most of the prophetic books (especially Isaiah, but also Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Minor Prophets). Other booklets in this series cover those books of the Old Testament in greater depth, but learning how to read poetry in this booklet will deepen your understanding of them as well. This booklet, however, will focus on exploring three poetic books in the Old Testament: Psalms, Lamentations, and Song of Songs (Song of Solomon).
So there is a lot of poetry in the Old Testament, but why? I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest with myself, I’m not a big fan of poetry. I love a story; they seem so much easier to understand and follow. If the purpose of the Bible was to communicate facts, there’s nothing like a good prose statement to do so.
But God apparently is interested in doing more in the Bible than just giving us facts. And that’s where poetry comes in. Poetry does a great job, not only of informing our intellect, but also of arousing our emotions, stimulating our imaginations, and appealing to our wills. God is interested in us as whole people, not just brains.
But what makes the poetry of the Old Testament distinct? How does understanding the distinct characteristic of Hebrew poetry help us better appreciate Scripture?
How Is Biblical Poetry Unique?
Why all the white space?
Poetry says a lot using a few words. It’s compact language. The poets who wrote portions of the Old Testament spoke Hebrew, and since Hebrew poetry is slightly different than poetry written in modern languages, we need to ask how poetry worked in that ancient Near Eastern culture. Today we might be familiar with poetry that has rhyme and meter (a patterned rhythm). A popular poetic proverb goes:
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Hebrew poetry, on the other hand, does not use either rhyme or meter. We come to know better how to read Hebrew poetry when we become familiar with the tools that the ancient poet uses, particularly parallelism, imagery, and acrostics.
Parallelism may be the single most important poetic tool to understand, because it is used so frequently in Hebrew poetry and affects how we should read it. Parallelism is a term that is used to describe the echoing affect within a single poetic line or verse. Notice the echoes within each verse of the first three verses of Psalm 2:
Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord
and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles” (psalm 2:1–3).
Do you hear the echoes between “nations” and peoples” and between “conspire” and “plot” in the first verse? How about between “kings of the earth” and “rulers” and “rise up” and “band together” in the second verse? And what about “let us break their chains” and “throw off their shackles” in the third verse?
But is the second part of each parallel line simply saying the exact same thing as the first part only using different words? That’s the way some people read a Hebrew poem like Psalm 2, but that would be mistaken. While such a reading would not completely misunderstand the verse, it would not get all the rich meaning out of it.
The truth is that in Hebrew poetry the second part always takes the meaning of the verse further than the first part. The second part continues by sharpening or intensifying the thought of the first part. In other words, referring to the first part as A and the second part as B, A does not equal B (A≠B), but B furthers the thought of A.
I know that this discussion is getting a bit technical, but if your eyes are beginning to blur, just consider what this means for reading Psalm 1:1:
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers.
First of all, notice that this poetic line has three parts rather than only two. Typically the Hebrew poetic line has only two parts, but occasionally they can have three or four or, more infrequently, even more parts. But even so, these longer poetic lines work the same way as those with only two parts.
So how should we read this first verse of Psalm 1, in light of the knowledge that Hebrew parallelism is not just repeating the same idea but carrying forward the basic idea and expanding on it in the following parts? Well, it’s clear that all three parts of the verse are pronouncing a blessing on the person who does not associate with bad people. On the other hand, there is also an intensification as we move from A to B to C. We can see this intensification as the verbs move from walking to standing to sitting. When we walk with someone we associate ourselves with them, but can easily break away. To stand with someone requires more energy to move away, and then to sit with someone shows a really settled connection with them. Further, the reference to “the wicked” and then to “sinners” and finally “mockers” also involves an intensification. All three are bad, but sinners are worse than wicked people and mockers are the worst of all since they are not only bad, but they try to shame the innocent.
What can we learn from this study of parallelism? We’ve already mentioned that poetry is compact language, packing a lot of meaning into a very few words. That means we need to slow down when we read and carefully reflect on the words that are used. Our understanding of parallelism encourages us to pay attention to how the echoes within a poetic verse continue but carry forward the thought of the first part.
The other frequent characteristic of Hebrew poetry, like that which we find in the book of Psalms, is the frequent use of imagery. The use of imagery, or figurative language, is not unique to Hebrew poetry, so we might be able to understand it more quickly than parallelism, but still it is helpful to take a look at the typical type of imagery we get in Old Testament poetry.
The book of Psalms, for instance, is full of figurative language, mostly metaphors and similes, in which two things are compared to each other that are essentially not alike except in some specific way. In the psalms, God is compared to a shepherd (see Psalm 23:1 cited above), a storm (psalm 29), a king (psalm 47), a mother of a weaned child (psalm 131), and more. In the book of Lamentations, the suffering people of God are likened to a weeping widow (lamentations 1) and a man of affliction (lamentations 3). The man and woman in the Song of Songs speak to each other with passionate compliments dripping with figurative language. The man lovingly tells the woman that she is “like a lily among thorns” (song 2:2) and the woman responds that he is “like an apple tree among the trees of the forest” (2:3).
These are just a few examples of the figurative language that occur in biblical poetry. We can again see through imagery how poetry causes readers to slow down and reflect on the rich meaning of the poem as we have to unpack the image by asking questions like “in what way is God like a shepherd?” We can also see how the imagery of poetry heightens the emotional impact of a poem. To think of God as a shepherd is not only more vivid than to simply state “God guides us, sustains us, and protects us,” but warms our heart in a way that the non-figurative statement does not.
Hebrew poets love to write using few words to convey deep meaning. They carefully consider their word choices as they create parallels within a poetic line (parallelism) as well as striking images that stimulate the reader’s imagination.
But this survey of poetic devices just skims the surface by looking at the poet’s most frequently used tools. There are others. The poet sometimes uses sound plays and word play, for instance. But I will focus on just one other poetic device, in Psalm 119, because most it comes through in translation into English.
When you turn to that (long) psalm, you will see that each eight verses are divided into separate sections, and that the translators have put a Hebrew letter at the start of each section. Those who know Hebrew can see that the first section is marked by the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph) and the last one by the last letter (tav). There are twenty-two sections, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Even though Psalm 119 is the only one that is clearly marked in this way in the Old Testament, there are about a dozen examples of such poems in Psalms, Lamentations (see chapter 3), and Proverbs. Today we refer to these poems as acrostics, and they are a way of communicating that the poet is giving us a complete presentation of his topic, an A to Z so to speak.
We have already acknowledged that poems may be found throughout the Old Testament. But we will look at three books that feature poems that express the inner emotions of the poet: Psalms, Lamentations, and the Song of Songs.