Introduction. The significance of studying biblical poetry lies largely in the amount of the Bible that is penned in poetic style. No doubt many readers will conjure images of the so-called poetic books in the Old Testament (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon) upon hearing the term "biblical poetry." Unfortunately, this preconception is not wholly accurate for at least two reasons.
First, the books deemed "poetic" do not always yield solid examples of biblical poetry. For instance, Ecclesiastes does not consistently exhibit examples of verse. Major sections of the book are prosaic. The Book of Job manifests prosaic sections that frame the book (cf. chaps. 1, 42).
Second, the term "poetic books" implies that the other Old Testament material is not poetic. This simply is not the case. Some of the most sublime poetry in the Bible lies in such diverse texts as Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy 32-33 in the Pentateuch, to Judges 5 and 2 Samuel 1 in the historical books, to the majority of the Book of Isaiah in the prophets, to name only a few. Indeed, one should note that most of the prophetic books are poetic. Although there is some difference of opinion among scholars about certain texts between one-third and one-half of the Old Testament is written in a poetic style. Clearly, when such a large portion of Sacred Writ occurs in poetic shape, one should note carefully the distinguishing characteristics.
Another reason for studying poetry rests with the unique effect it produces on the reader. Although we will develop this point later, poetry is particularly appropriate for numerous types of passages because of its powerful ability to communicate an emotional message. Thus, for emotions as diverse as laments, oracles of judgment, and paeans of praise, poetry is perfectly suited.
Definition. There are basically two schools of literary thought on how to define the basic nature of poetry. One approach attempts to make the matter purely subjective, arguing that if a text "feels" poetic and impresses itself upon the mind of the reader as such, then the text is indeed poetic. The other school analyzes texts for diagnostic features that could delimit a passage as poetry.
A genuinely poetic text should impress itself upon the reader as poetry on an emotive level. However, there are characteristics of poetry that can be objectively described.
The Old Testament. When many think of poetry, common characteristics of English poetry such as rhyme, alliteration, and assonance come to mind. However, Old Testament poetry does not rhyme, and examples of alliteration and assonance are rare.
Hebrew poetry does possess some form of meter, but there is no agreement about how to analyze it with precision. For instance, some would try to count larger stressed units such as words, while others seek to count syllables. The former method is much more widely utilized, although all recognize great uncertainty regarding their analyses. Despite the uncertainties, enough texts exhibit clear metrical patterns that meter cannot be dismissed outright (for example, Gen. 49 generally manifests a 3:3 pattern ).
Perhaps one of the two most distinguishing features of Old Testament poetry is the presence of figurative language. Of course, both formal prose and casual conversation are well sprinkled with figurative language. However, in poetry, the frequency and sophistication of the figures rise dramatically.
When one encounters a text where figurative language might be present, two issues arise. The first relates to knowing how to determine whether an expression is a figure of speech. In other words, should the expression be taken "literally" (many interpreters prefer either the word "normal" or "plain") or "figuratively"? The second matter concerns the proper interpretation of the figure once it is identified as such.
It would be misleading to imply that one can always know without the slightest uncertainty if an expression is a figure. Despite this qualification, however, one can be confident about the author's intent the overwhelming majority of the time. The basic question the reader should ask when looking for a figure is, "does this text make sense in its normal sense?"
When presented with a figure, the reader must then attempt to understand it precisely. One of the biggest misunderstandings at this point is the notion that figurative language cannot be interpreted as accurately as can nonfigurative expressions. This is a common misapprehension. Figures can be interpreted with as much accuracy as can nonfigurative language. The difference lies in the figure's ability to communicate on an emotive level in addition to the cognitive.
Finally, how does one begin to analyze a figure of speech in a biblical text? Some figures are relatively simple and easy to analyze. For instance, most metaphors and similes offer few difficulties. Other types, such as metonymy, are significantly more challenging. Unfortunately, the diversity of figures makes it impossible to study the different types of figures here.
The second characteristic of Old Testament poetry, one that is unique to poetry in the ancient Near East, is parallelism. In the mid-nineteenth century Robert Lowth formulated the understanding of parallelism that still prevails today in modified form. Parallelism is an analogy drawn from geometry that assumes that two (or sometimes more) lines are paired in such a fashion that the meaning of one line relates to the meaning of the other line(s) in one of several predictable ways.
The basic unit in the parallel lines is the word pair, that is, two or more words that naturally pair together as synonyms, antonyms. or amplifications of one other. "Day" and "night, " "sun" and "moon, " and "earth" and "world" serve to illustrate this phenomenon. Much of the poet's ingenuity lies in the ability to use well-known stock pairs in surprising and innovative ways.
Although word pairs are the building block of parallelism, the basic unit is the poetic line. Usually biblical poetry utilizes pairs of lines called couplets. Less frequently, three lines (or triplets) occur. Four paired lines are called a quatrain. Old Testament poetry only rarely utilizes strophes, unlike much English poetry.
In the Old Testament one encounters several different types, or aspects, of parallelism, each demonstrating a different semantic relationship between the lines. Although not one of the most common aspects, "synonymous" parallelism is one of the simplest. In synonymous parallelism the second line of the pair essentially restates the meaning of the first.
It is misleading to describe the two lines as being synonymous in the strict sense since the meaning of the two lines is not precisely equivalent. The second line gives a subtly different view in comparison to the first, contributing more than a simple restatement or paraphrase of the first. To illustrate, consider the perspective on an object seen with binocular vision. If while viewing that object, one closes one eye and then opens it and closes the other eye, the perspective from either eye singly will be quite similar to that of the other. However, the differences will be perceptible. The perspective given by both eyes together, like that of the pair of synonymous lines, yields a unique perspective and a depth of perception available only in tandem.
Consider the following example:
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows. ( Isa 53:4a )
The lines emphasize the same message by creative restatement. In the following case,
The heavens declare the glory of God; br the skies proclaim the work of his hands. ( Psalm 19:1 )
we also see synonymy. However, the context of the couplet helps us understand "glory of God" as basically equivalent to "work of his hands." Without the context the reader might not make such a connection, but the poet guides his readers to this conclusion with a skillful use of parallelism.
A second expression of parallelism has been named "antithetical" parallelism. Antithetical parallelism sets the paired lines in opposition to one another. One line restates the other, but negatively. Most examples of antithetical parallelism occur in the Wisdom Literature, where the two paths, the way of wisdom and that of folly, are contrasted for the one who would be wise. The following couplet illustrates this type of parallelism:
Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid. ( Prov 12:1 )
The third aspect of parallelism, called "synthetic" (or "formal") parallelism is the largest grouping, and also the most controversial. With synthetic parallelism, the second line presupposes the thought of the first and advances the thought of the initial line. Before we proceed with the discussion, it might prove helpful to examine examples:
Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord ( Psalm 139:4 )
I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted.
The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea. ( Exod 15:1 )
Some have argued that this type of parallelism is no parallelism at all because the second line typically differs so significantly from the first that the meaning of the pair seems to be more akin to prose than poetry. However, the symmetry of paired lines, figurative expressions, and occasionally meter argue convincingly that synthetic parallelism is a legitimate understanding.
Although synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic parallelism comprise the major types of parallelism, several additional types of parallelism occur. We will mention only two. In emblematic parallelism, one line states a poetic proposition while the other illustrates with a simile. A well-known example is:
As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. ( Psalm 42:1 )
Another kind of parallelism is chiastic parallelism, where the second line restates the first in reversed order. Note the following example:
Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah, nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim. ( Isa 11:13b )
The New Testament. The New Testament does not include extended sections that could be designated as poetic in the same sense as in the Old Testament. However, there are several brief passages that are generally regarded as poetic. The kenosis passage in Philippians 2:6-11 offers an excellent example. Another is 1 Timothy 3:16. A cursory comparison of several modern translations of the New Testament reveal disagreement over which passages are rightly considered poetic. In a slightly different vein, Paul quoted "some of your (Greek) poets when he stated, "In him we live and move and have our being" ( Acts 17:28 ).
Conclusion. Finally, we should ask, "Why was the Bible written in poetic style?" Although no specific biblical answer is given to this query, a reasonable reply can be offered. Of paramount importance is the emotional quality inherent in poetry. Although one must recognize that prose is not devoid of emotional content, poetry conveys feelings with singular effect. In the prophetic oracle of judgment, the reader senses the fury of God's wrath, effectively communicating nuances of God's emotions ranging from cajolery to sarcasm. With love poetry such as the Song of Solomon, lovers express much of the deep emotions they hold for each other. Poetry serves the psalmist with equal dexterity as he expresses lament, praise, or thanksgiving. From complaints concerning the tardiness of God's salvation to hymns extolling the Lord's great Acts of salvation, poetry conveys the deepest emotions of the author.
A second reason for poetry is the memorable quality of verse. Poetry impresses itself more effectively upon the hearer's memory, allowing far easier recall than with a comparable prosaic text. It is no coincidence that the effectiveness of a great deal of poetic literature is contingent upon the audience's ability to remember specifically what the text said. For instance, the wisdom writer's message demanded that the proverb would be precisely recalled. The prophets' sermons also had to be remembered (and applied to life) by the recipients in order for the intended effect to occur.
Finally, one should note that poetry is inherently esthetic, particularly with its extensive utilization of figurative language. Again, this is not to say that prose is not esthetic. Indeed, current studies in narrative strategies, for example, well illustrate a concern with style. The convergence of manifold, sophisticated figures of speech, including parallelism, reveal that poetry was very concerned not only with what was communicated, but also how the message was disclosed.
The esthetic quality of poetry is particularly appropriate in God's Word, for the Lord is a God who is both creative and places great value upon beauty. The creation itself manifests God's creativity and esthetic nature. How appropriate that his word reveals the same qualities.
George L. Klein
Bibliography. R. Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry; E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible; G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible; G. L. Klein, ed., Reclaiming the Prophetic Mantle; N. W. Lund, Chiasmus in the New Testament; L. Ryken, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible; L. Ryken and T. Longman III, A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Poetry'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".