The Key to Biblical Poetry
How can we increase in biblical understanding? One way is to learn more about biblical poetry. Several books in the Bible are written either totally or predominantly in poetry: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs and Lamentations. Moreover, many parts of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Minor Prophets are also written in poetry. And we shall see that the most important poetic effects in biblical poetry can be appreciated even in an English translation.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Jim Herst and Tim Finlay in the mid 1990s, posted on our website in 2003, and edited again in 2013. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
Translating poetry is notoriously difficult. Many translations of Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and Odyssey, for example, are in prose rather than poetry. Rhythm, rhyme, repetitive sounds and wordplays are not easily reproduced in a translation. However, the key to appreciating biblical poetry, and indeed most of the ancient Near Eastern poetry, is none of these. It is parallelism.
A typical verse of Hebrew poetry is divided into two or more complementary parts or members — and these members parallel each other in some way. In the books of Job, Psalms and Proverbs, the scribes often inserted gaps to separate the different members of each verse. Most English versions of the Bible retain the parallelism of the Hebrew text.
Look at Proverbs 6:20-21:
"My son, keep your father’s commands
and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
Bind them upon your heart forever;
fasten them around your neck."
Both verses divide into two members, with the second member repeating the thought of the first in different words. The next verse is divided into three parallel members:
"When you walk, they will guide you;
when you sleep, they will watch over you;
when you awake, they will speak to you" (verse 22).
Notice that in the above examples, it is not only the thoughts that are parallel but also the grammatical structures, especially in verse 22. Furthermore, the terms in one member have corresponding terms in the other member: "keep" and "do not forsake," "father’s commands" and "mother’s teaching," "bind" and "fasten" etc.
Parallelism is not simply repetition. The Hebrews used a wide variety of techniques to enable the final member of the verse to complete, intensify or give additional meaning to the earlier members. Biblical scholars have compiled extensive analysis of the grammatical, phonological, lexical and semantic changes used in moving from one line to the next. We will briefly look at some of the more common types.
In staircase parallelism, the second member repeats verbatim the beginning of the first member:
"Ascribe to the Lord, O mighty ones,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness" (Psalm 29:1-2).
This form, also called climactic parallelism, is used to build a series of climaxes in Psalms 29 and 94, for example.
Antithetical parallelism is often marked in English translations by the word but dividing the members:
"The Lord abhors dishonest scales,
but accurate weights are his delight" (Proverbs 11:1).
These sort of contrasts are particularly frequent in Proverbs 10–15, but throughout the Psalms also:
"The Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish" (Psalm 1:6).
In emblematic parallelism, one of the members is a simile or metaphor:
"As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God" (Psalm 42:1)
"Like a lily among thorns
is my darling among the maidens" (Song of Songs 2:2).
A chiastic parallelism, a form of envelope structure, inverts the word order in the second line:
"Long life is in her [wisdom’s] right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor" (Proverbs 3:16)
"The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness
according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me" (Psalm 18:20).
External parallelism is where an entire verse is parallel to the next verse, or perhaps the first verse is parallel to the third verse and the second verse is parallel to the fourth verse:
"Lift up your heads, O you gates
be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord strong and mighty,
the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O you gates
lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is he, this King of glory?
The Lord Almighty —
he is the King of glory" (Psalm 24:7-10).
Understanding even the basics about parallelism gives us a greater appreciation of the poetic sections of the Bible. If you want to study this subject further, you may wish to read James L. Kugel’s The Idea of Biblical Poetry, which is a detailed examination of parallelism, and Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Poetry, which has chapters discussing how parallelism is used to enhance the messages in the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs and the prophetic books.