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How to Understand Hebrew Poetry

More than a third of the Old Testament was written in poetry. Only the books of Leviticus, Ruth, Esther, Haggai and Malachi contain no poetry at all. Hebrew poetry was first rediscovered by scholars in 1753. Before then, no distinction was made between poetry and prose in the Bible, which explains why there appears to be no poetry in the King James Version of the Bible. The Revised Standard Version (RSV) was the first English version to lay out the text of poetry with each line separated, making it easy for us to identify. Modern translations normally print poetry clearly and distinctly.

In all languages, poetry is the means of expressing the longings of the human heart in an emotional and intense way. Poetry is the language of the heart, expressing moods from the highest extremes of joy to the depths of despair. It contains many figures of speech, so we need to take care not to try to take it too literally. Images are created using metaphors, comparisons and hyperbole which are used to express spiritual truth. The trees of the field do not really clap their hands (Is 55:12), and God does not sit on a throne (Ps 9:7) or breathe through nostrils (Ps 18:15), as God is spirit (Jn 4:24), and does not have a physical body. In passages such as these, spiritual truth is powerfully communicated through the images created using figures of speech.

Poetry helped people express their feelings to God, both positive and negative. It is often used to express struggles and joy in life. Questions are often asked, asking whether God has become silent, is ignoring the author, or whether his love has ceased. These are exactly the type of questions we ask when going through a hard time.

Poetry and songs were often the author's response to a situation in his life. For example, David's response when he heard of Saul's and Jonathan's tragic death is a song of lament (2 Sam 1:19-27).

Parallelism

Hebrew poetry does not rhyme in the way we might expect. The lines of English poetry often end with the same sound, instead, the key to Hebrew poetry is parallelism. This is when two consecutive lines run parallel to each other, saying either the same thing, or opposite things. It is rhyming thought, rather than rhyming sound. There are two main forms to be aware of:

The second line of a poetic verse repeats the thought of the first line in different words.

This is particularly common in the Psalms and in the prophets.

"The heavens are telling the glory of God;
   and the firmament proclaims his handiwork."
(Ps 19:1)

2. Two portions of a verse stand in contrast

Often the second line is a negative statement giving force to the positive affirmation in the first line. The second line often starts with "but". This is particularly common in Proverbs

"A gentle answer turns away wrath
   but a harsh word stirs up anger."
(Prov 15:1)


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