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Introduction to Hebrew Poetry


A. This type of literature makes up 1/3 of the Old Testament.  It is especially common in the "Prophets" (all but Haggai and Malachi contain poetry) and "Writings" sections of the Hebrew canon.

B. It is very different from English poetry. English poetry is developed from Greek and Latin poetry, which is primarily sound-based. Hebrew poetry has much in common with Canaanite poetry. It is basically thought-based in balanced, parallel lines.

C. The archaeological discovery north of Israel at Ugarit (Ras Shamra) has helped scholars understand OT poetry. This poetry from the 15th century b.c. has obvious literary connections with biblical poetry. 


A. It is very compact.

B. It tries to express truth, feelings or experiences in imagery.

C. It is primarily written not oral. It is highly structured. This structure is expressed in:

1. balanced lines (parallelism)

2. word plays

3. sound plays 

III. THE STRUCTURE (R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp.965-975)

A. Bishop Robert Lowth in his book, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1753) was the first to characterize biblical poetry as balanced lines of thought.  Most modern English translations are formatted to show the lines of poetry.

1. synonymous – the lines express the same thought in different words:

a. Psalm 3:1; 49:1; 83:14; 103:13

b. Proverbs 19:5; 20:1

c. Isaiah 1:3,10

d. Amos 5:24; 8:10

2. antithetical – the lines express opposite thoughts by means of contrast or stating the positive and the negative:

a. Psalm 1:6; 90:6

b. Proverbs 1:29; 10:1,12; 15:1; 19:4

3. synthetic – the next two or three lines develop the thought – Ps. 19:7-9

4. chiasmic – a pattern of poetry expressing the message in a descending and ascending order.  The main point is found in the middle of the pattern.

B. Charles A. Briggs in his book, General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture (1899) developed the next stage of analysis of Hebrew poetry:

1. emblematic – one clause literal and the second metaphorical, Ps. 42:1; 103:3

2. climactic or stair-like – the clauses reveal truth in an ascending fashion, Ps. 19:7-14; 29:1-2; 103:20-22

3. introverted – a series of clauses, usually at least four are related by the internal structure of line 1 to 4 and 2 to 3 – Ps. 30:8-10a

C. G. B. Gray in his book, The Forms of Hebrew Poetry (1915), developed the concept of balanced clauses further by:

1. complete balance – where every word in line one is repeated or balanced by a word in line two – Psalm 83:14 and Isaiah 1:3

2. incomplete balance where the clauses are not the same length - Ps. 59:16; 75:6

D. Today there is a growing recognition of literary structural pattern in Hebrew called a chiasm, which usually denotes a number of parallel lines (a.b,b,a; a,b,c,b,a) forming an hour glass shape, often the central line(s) is emphasized.

E. Type of sound patterns found in poetry in general, but not often in eastern poetry

1. play on alphabet (acrostic, cf. Ps. 9,34,37,119; Pro. 31:10ff; Lamentations 1-4)

2. play on consonants (alliteration, cf. Ps. 6:8; 27:7; 122:6; Isa. 1:18-26)

3. play on vowels (assonance, cf. Gen. 49:17; Exod. 14:14; Ezek. 27:27)

4. play on repetition of similar sounding words with different meanings (paronomasia)

5. play on words which, when pronounced, sound like the thing they name (onomatopoeia)

6. special opening and close (inclusive)

F. There are several types of poetry in the Old Testament.  Some are topic related and some are form related.

1. dedication song – Num. 21:17-18

2. work songs – (alluded to but not recorded in Jdgs. 9:27); Isa. 16:10; Jer. 25:30; 48:33

3. ballads – Num. 21:27-30; Isa. 23:16

4. drinking songs – negative, Isa. 5:11-13; Amos 6:4-7 and positive, Isa. 22:13

5. love poems – Song of Songs, wedding riddle - Jdgs. 14:10-18, wedding song - Psalm 45

6. laments/dirge – (alluded to but not recorded in 2 Sam. 1:17 and 2 Chr. 35:25) 2 Sam. 3:33; Ps. 27, 28; Jer. 9:17-22; Lam.; Ezek. 19:1-14; 26:17-18; Nah. 3:15-19)

7. war songs – Gen. 4:23-24; Exod. 15:1-18,20; Num. 10:35-36; 21:14-15; Jos. 10:13; Jdgs. 5:1-31; 11:34; 1 Sam. 18:6; 2 Sam. 1:18; Isa. 47:1-15; 37:21

8. special benedictions or blessing of leader – Genesis 49; Num. 6:24-26; Deuteronomy 32; 2 Sam. 23:1-7

9. magical texts – Balaam, Num. 24:3-9

10. sacred poems – Psalms

11. acrostic poems – Ps. 9,34,37,119; Pro. 31:10ff; and Lamentations 1-4

12. curses – Num. 21:22-30

13. taunt poems – Isa. 14:1-22; 47:1-15; Ezek. 28:1-23

14. a book of war poems (Jashar) – Num. 21:14-15; Josh. 10:12-13; 2 Sam. 1:18 


A. Look for the central truth of the stanza or strophe (this is like a paragraph in prose.)  The RSV was the first modern translation to identify poetry by stanzas. Compare modern translations for helpful insights.

B. Identify the figurative language and express it in prose.  Remember this type of literature is very compact, much is left for the reader to fill in.

C. Be sure to relate the longer issue-oriented poems to their literary context (often the whole book) and historical setting.  Try to express the central truth in your own words.

D. Judges 4 & 5 are very helpful in seeing how poetry expresses history.  Judges 4 is prose and Judges 5 is poetry of the same event (also compare Exodus 14 & 15).

E. Attempt to identify the type of parallelism involved, whether synonymous, antithetical, or synthetic. This is very important.


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