It was a great eye-opener for me to learn, many years ago, the rudiments of how Hebrew poetry works. I have found that this greatly assists in the appreciation and understanding of many parts of the Bible.
Hebrew poetry is characterised
- not by rhyme (phonetic agreement; parallelism of sound)
- or by rhythm (metric agreement, parallelism of time)
- but by thought-parallelism.
Among the several varieties are:-
1. Synonymous parallelism
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple
Deliver me from my enemies, O God,
Protect me from those who rise up against me.
Occasionally, the stanza involves triple parallelism:-
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers.
2. Synthetic parallelism
Oh that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
Synonymous couplets may be built up synthetically:-
The eye that mocks a father
and scorns to obey a mother
will be picked out by the ravens of the valley
and eaten by the cultures
Or antithetical parallels may be used:-
Some boast of chariots and some of horses
but we will boast the name of the Lord our God
They will collapse and fall;
but we shall arise and stand upright.
3. Antithetical Parallelism
The house of the wicked shall be overthrown,
but the tent of the upright shall flourish.
A wise son makes a glad father,
but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother.
Synonymous parallels may be contrasted:-
Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look well at his place he will not be there.
But the meek shall possess the land,
and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.
(Psa 37:10f) See also Prov 3:5.
4. Climactic parallelism
For, lo, they enemies, O Lord,
for, lo, thy enemies shall perish;
all evil-doers shall be scattered.
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
5. Chiastic parallelism
a) The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
b) the work of men’s hands.
c) They have mouths but they speak not,
d) they have eyes, but they see not,
d) they have ears, but they hear not,
c) nor is there any breath in their mouths
b) Like them be those who made them!
a) yea, every one who trusts in them.
(Psa 135:15-18) See also Psa 5:1; Hos 13:14; Mt 7:6; Jn 10:14f
The sayings of Jesus are strongly reminiscent of the poetry of the Old Testament, especially that of Proverbs.
He who finds his life will lose it,
and he who loses his life for my sake will find it
(Mt 10:39) See also Mk 4:25; Lk 14:11; 13:30.
[Biblical quotations are from RSV]