Poetry in the Old Testament: At a very early date poetry became part of the written literature of the Hebrew people. Many scholars believe the song of Moses and the song of Miriam (Exod. 15:1-21), celebrating the destruction of Pharaoh's army in the sea, is the oldest existing Hebrew hymn or poetic work, dating perhaps from the 12th century B.C. Three of the greatest poetic masterpieces of the Old Testament are the Song of Deborah (Judges 5); the Song of the Bow - David's lament over the death of Saul and Jonathan (II Sam. 1:27-27) - and the Burden of Nineveh (Nah. 1:10-3:19).
Approximately one-third of the Old testament is written in poetry. This includes entire books (except for short prose sections), such as Job, Psalms, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and Lamentations. Large portions of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Minor Prophets are also poetic in form and content. Many scholars consider the Book of Job to be not only the greatest poem in the Old Testament but also one of the greatest poems in all literature.
The three main divisions of the Old Testament - the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings - contain poetry in successively greater amounts. Only seven Old Testament books - Leviticus, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, and Malachi - appear to have no poetic lines.
Poetic elements such as assonance, alliteration, and rhyme - so common to poetry as we know it today - occur rarely in Hebrew poetry; these are not essential ingredients of Old Testament poetry. Instead, the essential formal characteristic of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. This is a construction in which the content of one line is repeated, contrasted, or advanced by the content of the next - a type of sense rhythm characterized by thought arrangement rather than by word arrangement or rhyme. The three main types of parallelism in biblical poetry are synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic.
Synonymous parallelism: A parallel segment repeats an idea found in the previous segment. With this technique a kind of paraphrase is involved; line two restates the same thought found in line one, by using equivalent expressions. Examples of synonmous parallelism are found in Genesis 4:23: "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; / Wives of Lamech, listen to my speech! / For I have killed a man for wounding me / Even a young man for hurting me." Another example is found in Psalm 2:4: "He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; / The LORD shall hold them in derision." Yet a third example is Psalm 51:2-3: "Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, / And cleanse me from my sin. / For I acknowledge my transgressions, / And my sin is always before me." (Also see Ps 24:1-3; 103:3,7-10; Jer. 17:10; Zech. 9:9)
Antithetic parallelism: By means of this poetic construction, the thought of the first line is made clearer by contrast - by the opposition expressed in the second line. Examples of antithetic parallelism may be found in Psalm 1:6: "The LORD knows the way of the righteous, / But the way of the ungodly shall perish"; in Psalm 34:10: "The young lions lack and suffer hunger; / But those who seek the LORD shall not lack any good thing"; and in Proverbs 14:20: "The poor man is hated even by his own neighbor, / But the rich has many friends."
Here is one good example of this poetic technique: "He shall be like a tree / Planted by the rivers of water, / That brings forth its fruit in its season, / Whose leaf also shall not wither; / And whatever he does shall prosper" (Ps. 1:3).
Another poetic form found in the Old Testament is the alphabetical acrostic, a form used often in the Book of Psalms (Psalm 9; 10; 25; 34; 37; 111; 112; 119; 145). In the alphabetical psalms the first line begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the next with the second, and so on, until all the letters of the alphabet have been used. Thus, Psalm 119 consists of 22 groups of eight verses each. The number of groups equals the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The first letter of each verse in a group is (in the original Hebrew text) that letter of the alphabet which corresponds numerically to the group.
Many of the subtleties of Hebrew poetry, such as puns and various play-on-word allusions, are virtually untranslatable into English and may be fully appreciated only by an accomplished Hebrew scholar. Fortunately, many good commentaries are available to explain to the layperson these riches of Hebrew thought.
The Bible is full of numerous figures of speech, such as metaphors and similes. For example, the psalmist metaphorically described GOD by saying, "The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My GOD, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold" (Ps. 18:2).
Moses gave this remarkable simile describing GOD's care of Israel in the widerness: "As an eagle stirs up its nest, / Hovers over its young, / Spreading out its wing, taking them up, / Carrying them on its wings, / So the LORD alone led him" (Deut. 32:11-12).
Such figures of speech are not to be interpreted literally but as poetic symbolism for GOD. He is the firm ground of life and a solid defense against evil. The worshiper sings for joy because of His protecting presence and the soaring power of His loving care.
Poetry in the New Testament: Very little poetry is found in the New Testament, except poetry quoted from the Old Testament or hymns which were included in the worship services of the early church. The Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-10; Luke 6:20-26) have a definite poetic form. The Gospel of Luke contains several long poems: Zacharias' prophecy, known as the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79); the song of Mary, known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55); the song of the heavenly host, known as the Gloria in Excelsis (Luke 2:14); and the blessing of Simeon, known as the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32).
Examples of parallelism may be found in the New Testament. For instance, synonymous parallelism occurs in Matthew 7:6: "Do not give what is holy to the dogs, nor cast your pearls before swine." Antithetic parallelism occurs in Matthew 8:20: "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." Synthetic parallelism occurs in John 6:32-33: "Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of GOD is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."
In the writings of the apostle Paul several poetic passages may be found: his lyrical celebration of GOD's everlasting love (Rom. 8:31-39); his classic hymn to love (I Corinthians 13); his glorious faith in the triumph of the resurrection (I Cor. 15:51-58); and his thoughts on the humbled and exalted Christ (Phil. 2:5-11).
Who can deny the poetic passion in Paul's words to the Corinthians? "We are hard pressed on every side, yet not cruched; / we are perplexed, but not in despair; / persecuted, but not forsaken; / struck down, but not destroyed" (II Cor. 4:8-9).
The Music and Instruments of the Bible
Introduction to the Book of Psalms
Song of Songs
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