Before beginning a series on the Book of Psalms I thought it would be appropriate to discuss what makes poetry “poetry.” There is poetry throughout the Bible and what you find here will be helpful in other areas of the Scriptures too (including the parts that are not poetry). This is the first post on the style of Biblical Poetry and we will talk about the cultural disadvantages we face when it comes to the poetic, the linguistic disadvantages we face — primarily concerning translation and what translation cannot do, definitions of poetry, English poetic conventions compared to the conventions of Biblical poetry, and begin to examine how to understand some of those conventions — especially the one we call parallelism, which is why Biblical poetry sounds so redundant but really isn’t. While this introduction may not sound all that exciting the content is fascinating…
Our Culture & Poetry
We suffer from three cultural disadvantages when it comes to understanding Biblical Poetry:
1. Our culture is largely non-poetic. We have poetry in our music, but that is just about it.
2. Our expectation for poetry is that it must rhyme and have meter in order to be poetry.
3. We think that poetry is not “true” or is less than the whole truth. This can be seen with the way we use the phrase “poetic license.”
Our Language & Poetry
We also suffer from a linguistic disadvantage that can be seen in the common phrase: ‘poetry is what gets lost in translation.’
1. There are poetic conventions that cannot be replicated when translated: i.e., alphabetic acrostics.
2. Even when the text is translated the imagery and other poetic conventions need to be translated.
The conventions of “Hebrew” Poetry found in the Old Testament are not bound to the Hebrew language. The poetry written in Greek in the New Testament follows the same conventions. There is no reason that we cannot do the same in English.
Conventions are widely used and accepted devices or techniques. Poetic conventions would include imagery, alphabetic acrostics, etc.
The Bible & Poetry
More than 1/3 of Scripture is poetic by some measures. This is more text than the entire New Testament.
Therefore, God thinks that poetry is an important way to reveal Himself and His will to us.
We need to have a proper aesthetic appreciation of poetry. We need to see the beauty of the language because God could have just told us these things in prose but there is just something about putting it in poetry. Having an aesthetic appreciation of poetry is important to being able to grasp the meaning of a large portion of God’s word.
Prose and Poetry exist on a scale.
The fewer poetic conventions in a short section the more prosaic, the more poetic conventions in a short section the more poetic. Some people call many portions of Jeremiah “elevated prose” because it is not pure prose but it is not quite poetry.
Essentially we are defining poetry by its formal characteristics. Poetry is patterned language. The author manipulates language often so that they will make certain ‘poetic’ effects. So formal definitions are appropriate.
But we could also define poetry with reference to the poet or the reader. Like the definition attributed to Robert Frost: “Poetry is what gets left out in translation.” Some people would say that the reader simply knows that they have read a poem.
There is no Hebrew word for “poetry.” We have terms like psalm, song, etc. But no word for poetry. But it is clear that while there is no word for it, it is not just our imagination that there is a difference between Exodus 14 and Exodus 15.
But being saved (i.e., Exodus 14) often leads to writing poetry (i.e., Exodus 15). And this poetry is often meant to be sung as it is in Exodus 15.
English Poetic Conventions
There are a number of forms used for English poetry. One of the most dreadful assignments in English class as a teenager is being asked to write a sonnet for someone of the opposite gender in class.
A sonnet is a fourteen line poem usually in iambic (_ / _ /) pentameter, with one of several rhyme schemes.
A poetic paraphrase of Jeremiah 12 written as a sonnet:
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ way prosper? And why must
Disappointment all I endeavor end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost,
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
Gerard Manley Hopkins “Justus Quidem Tu Es, …&c.” as quoted by Fred Putnam.
English poetic conventions come from the western tradition – i.e. Greek poetry. The major conventions of meter and rhyme in western poetry are not found in Biblical poetry.
The only exception to the rule one might argue is the quina “rhythm” in laments.
Biblical Poetic Conventions
The form limits what the poet can say. The sonnet allows for a total of 140 syllables in a particular rhythmic and rhyming pattern.
The Biblical poet is not limited by rhythmic and rhyming patterns. Instead, they are limited by terseness and parallelism. Terseness is characterized by being brief. Terseness sometimes gets lost in translation because it may take a few more words to translate the Hebrew into English than there were in the Hebrew. We will discuss parallelism in depth.
The Biblical Poet can also chose to limit himself by use of an alphabetic acrostic. This means that the letter that begins each line of the poem is already decided by the alphabetic acrostic form. Examples in Scripture include Psalms 9-10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, Proverbs 31:10-31, and Lamentations 1, 2, 3, and 4.
An alphabetic acrostic suggests completeness (A-Z) and order. Using this form tells us something about the meaning of the text.
We have observed that the Hebrew language is by nature a terse language. They simply use less words than we would in English to say almost anything. Every word is important.
This is even more the case for poetry. For example, in poetry the verb sometimes goes missing in order to make the line shorter. And to make sense of the line you have to look to the parallel line to see what verb to think.
Chiasms and Alternating Patterns
Biblical poetry can also exhibit the same outline patterns that we have discussed before – chiasms and alternating patterns, for example. It is frequently common to see these patterns in a short amount of space. Fred Putnam notes the Hebrew word order of one verse as below:
Psalm 121:5 is also a good example of a merism. Merisms often appear in poetry. A merism is usually a pair (sometimes three things) that make up a whole. Thus the pair day and night means “all the time.” Why not just say “all the time” – because it is poetry!
This merism has a dependent nominal pair – sun and moon.
Other common features include:
Inclusio (even repeating whole lines)
Repeated Refrains (Psalm 136)
Fixed pairs of words (wise/foolish, wicked/righteous – some of these fixed pairs can be merisms)
One of the most important features of Biblical poetry is parallelism.
For a long period of church history the belief was that God would not repeat Himself. Therefore, two lines of Scripture must be saying something different from each other.
Then Archbishop Robert Lowth delivered lectures entitled: On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews.
Lowth said there were three types of parallelism:
Synonymous: b restates a
Antithetic: b contrasts with a
Synthetic: b adds something to a
An example of synonymous parallelism might be Psalm 51:2 – “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”
It uses different words arguably to say the same thing.
The Hebrew words are actually in chiastic order: the (verb) to wash, from (noun) iniquity, from (noun) sin, (verb) to cleanse. For some reason the ESV did not imitate the chiastic order of the parallelism.
An example of antithetical parallelism: Proverbs 10:1 – “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother.”
Note the alternating order:
wise son, glad father,
foolish son, sorrow/grief to his mother.
James Kugel later suggested instead that there really is no such thing as purely synonymous parallelism and that all three “types” fit into the same pattern.
This pattern is: “A is so, and what’s more b is so.” B does not simply restate a, it goes a step further than a. The key to this understanding is that b comes after a. B looks back to a, but it also looks beyond.
Thus Psalm 51:2 – “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” means wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and what’s more cleanse me from my sin. Iniquity and sin are not simply two words for the same thing – the second line advances the first.
And what about Proverbs 10:1 – “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother”? Here the progression is a regressive one – a wise son is being contrasted with a foolish son. Solomon could have simply said “a wise son makes a glad father, a foolish son make a sad father.” There is something of an advance made by saying the foolish son is a sorrow to his mother. So the relationship between the lines is this is true, but what’s more. A foolish son, why even his mother will be grieved.
There can also be grammatical parallelism. In one line the text may describe God in the third person and in the next in the second person.
Psalm 44:8 – “In God we have boasted all day long, and we will thank your name forever” (Putnam’s translation).
Or an indefinite reference becomes particularized:
Psalm 49:5 – “I will bend my ear to a proverb; I will open my riddle on the harp.”
In any case, one important thing to remember when trying to understand a verse is to explore how are the clauses related to one another.
One more example before we move to the next topic:
Blessed is the man
Who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
Nor stands in the way of sinners
Nor sits in the seat of scoffers
Notice the progression: walk, stand, sit.
Putnam helpfully notes that it is difficult to disern any other progression in Psalm 1:1 but that it is set up against Psalm 1:2. The wicked (no matter what type of wickedness) versus YHWH and their advice or way of life versus YHWH’s Torah. So we do not want to make every difference like within Psalm 1:1 into a major point.
Next time we will talk about another characteristic of poetry that is important – imagery.
Many of these thoughts are things that I have gleaned from courses taken at WTS, and I relied on the handouts from a DiscipleMakers (a college youth ministry) senior summer course taught by Fred Putnam and from a course on Poetry & Wisdom at WTS as taught by Pete Enns.