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Poetry Guide: Biblical Poetry

The question whether the literature of the ancient Hebrews includes portions that may be called poetry is answered by the ancient Hebrews themselves. That the ancient Hebrews perceived there were poetical portions in their literature is shown by their entitling songs or chants such passages as Exodus 15:1-19 and Numbers 21:17-20; and a song or chant ("shir") is, according to the primary meaning of the term, poetry.

Characteristics of Ancient Hebrew Poetry


Ancient Hebrew poetry contains no rhyme. Although the first song mentioned above (Exodus 15:1-19) contains assonance at the ends of the lines, as in "anwehu" and "aromemenhu" (15:2), such consonance of "hu" (= "him") can not well be avoided in Hebrew, because many pronouns are affixed to words. This does not disqualify the works from being poetry: Shakespeare is very sparing in his use of rhyme.

There is no poem in the Old Testament with a final rhyme in every line; although Bellermann ("Versuch über die Metrik der Hebräer", 1813, p210) alludes to an exception, meaning probably Psalm 136, the rhyme throughout which poem consists only in the frequent repetition of the word "ḥasdo." H. Grimme has stated in his article "Durchgereimte Gedichte im A. T." (in Bardenhewer's "Biblische Studien", 1901, vi. 1, 2) that such poems are represented by Psalms 45, 54, and Sirach 44:1-14; but he regards the consonance of final consonants as rhyme, as with "oznek" and "abik" (Psalm 45:11), while rhyme proper demands at least the assonance of the preceding vowel.

All of this is not so surprising when considering the fact that rhyme was only popularized by the Arabs at a much later time, the Qur'an being the first large work of literature that unmistakably employed rhyme.

Unusual forms

The employment of unusual forms of language cannot be considered as a sign of ancient Hebrew poetry. In the sentences of Noah (such as Genesis 9:25-27) the form "lamo" occurs. But this form, which represents partly "lahem" and partly "lo", has many counterparts in Hebrew grammar, as, for example, "kemo" instead of "ke" (Exodus 15:5, 15:8); or "emo" = "them" (15:9, 15:15); or "emo" = "their" (Psalm 2:3); or "clemo" = "to them" (2:5)—forms found in passages for which no claim to poetical expressions is made. Then there are found "ḥayeto" = "beast" (Genesis 1:24), "osri" = "tying" (49:11), and "yeshu'atah" = "salvation" (Psalm 3:3)—three forms that probably retain remnants of the old endings of the nominative, genitive, and accusative: "u(n)," "i(n)," "a(n)."

Again, in Lamech's words, "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, harken unto my speech" (Genesis 4:23), the two words "he'ezin" and "imrah" attract attention, because they occur for the first time in this passage, although there had been an earlier opportunity of using them: in Genesis 3:8 and 3:10, "He'ezin" = "to harken" could have been used just as well as its synonym "shama'" = "to hear".

It occurs also in Exodus 15:26; Numbers 23:18 (a sentence of Balaam); Deuteronomy 1:45, 32:1; Judges 5:3; Isaiah 1:2, 1:10, 8:9, 28:23, 32:9, 42:23, 51:4, 44:3; Book of Jeremiah 13:15; Hosea 5:1; Joel 1:2; Nehemiah 9:30 (in a prayer); and in 2 Chronicles 24:19 (probably an imitation of Isaiah 44:3).

Furthermore, "imrah" = "speech" might have been used instead of the essentially identical "dabar" in Genesis 9:1 and following, but its earliest use is, as stated above, in Genesis 4:23. It is found also in Deuteronomy 32:2, 33:9; 2 Samuel 22:31; Isaiah 5:24, 28:23, 39:4, 32:9; Psalm 12:7, etc.; Proverbs 30:5; and Lamentations 2:17. In place of "adam" = "man" (Genesis 1:26 and following) "enosh" is employed in Deuteronomy 32:26; Isaiah 8:1, 13:7, 13:12; 24:6, 33:8; 51:7, 51:12; 56:2; Jeremiah 20:10; Psalm 8:5, 9:20, 10:18, 55:14, 56:2, 66:12, 73:5, 90:3, 103:15, 104:15, 154:3; Job 4:17, 5:17, 7:1, 7:17, 9:2, 10:4; 13:9, 14:19, 15:14, 25:4, 25:6, 28:4, 28:13, 32:8; 33:12, 33:26, 36:25; 2 Chronicles 14:10 (compare the Aramaic "enash" in Daniel 2:10; Ezra 4:11, 6:11).

For a systematic review of similar unusual forms of Hebrew grammar and Hebrew words occurring in certain portions of the Old Testament see E. König, "Stilistik", etc., p277-283. Such forms have been called "dialectus poetica" since the publication of Robert Lowth's "Prælectiones de Sacra Poesi Hebræorum", iii. (1753); but this designation is ambiguous and can be accepted only in agreement with the rule a parte potiori fit denominatio for some of these unusual forms and words are found elsewhere than in the "songs" of the Old Testament.

These unusual forms and expressions do not occur in all songs, and there are several Psalms that have none of these peculiarities.


Not even the parallelismus membrorum is an absolutely certain indication of ancient Hebrew poetry. This "parallelism" is a phenomenon noticed in the portions of the Old Testament that are at the same time marked frequently by the so-called dialectus poetica; it consists in a remarkable correspondence in the ideas expressed in two successive verses; for example, the above-cited words of Lamech, "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, harken unto my speech" (Genesis 4:23), in which are found "he'ezin" and "imrah," show a remarkable repetition of the same thought.

But this ideal corythmy is not always present in the songs of the Old Testament or in the Psalter, as the following passages will show:

Julius Ley ("Leitfaden der Hebräischen Metrik," 1887, p. 10) says therefore correctly that "the poets did not consider themselves bound by parallelism to such an extent as not to set it aside when the thought required it." This restriction must be made to James Robertson's view ("The Poetry of the Psalms", 1898, p160): "The distinguishing feature of the Hebrew poetry ... is the rhythmical balancing of parts, or parallelism of thought."

Various rhetorical forms are found in the parallelisms of Biblical poetry. These include:

But let judgment run down as waters,
and righteousness as a mighty stream.
A wise son maketh a glad father,
but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother.
The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men,
to see if there were any that did understand and seek God.
Give unto the LORD, O ye mighty,
give unto the LORD glory and strength.
Zion shall be redeemed with judgment,
and her converts with righteousness.
And the destruction of the transgressors and the sinners shall be together,
and they that forsake the LORD shall be consumed.

Quantitative rhythm

The poetry of the ancient Hebrews is not distinguished from the other parts of the Old Testament by rhythm based on quantity, though in view of Greek and Roman poetry it was natural to seek such a rhythm in the songs and Psalms of the Old Testament. William Jones, for example ("Poeseos Asiaticæ Commentarii", chapter 2, London, 1774), attempted to prove that there was a definite sequence of long and short syllables in the ancient Hebrew poems; but he could support this thesis only by changing the punctuation in many ways, and by allowing great license to the Hebrew poets. However, on reading the portions of the Old Testament marked by the so-called dialectus poetica or by parallelism (e.g., Genesis 4:23 and following) no such sequence of long and short syllables can be discovered; and Sievers ("Metrische Untersuchungen," 1901, § 53) says: "Hebrew prosody is not based on quantity as classical prosody is."

Accentual rhythm

Many scholars hold that the Hebrew poet considered only the syllables receiving the main accent, and did not count the intervening ones. Examples contrary to this are not found in passages where forms of the so-called dialectus poetica are used, as Ley holds in his "Grundzüge des Rhythmus, des Vers- und Strophenbaues in der Hebräischen Poesie", p99, p116; and Israel Davidson has proved (in his "Stilistik", p333, for example) that the choice of "lamo" instead of "lahem" favors in only a few passages the opinion that the poet intended to cause an accented syllable to be followed by an unaccented one.

The rhythm of Hebrew poetry may be similar to that of the German "Nibelungenlied" — a view that is strongly supported by the nature of the songs sung today by the populace of modern Palestine. These songs have been described by L. Schneller in his "Kennst Du das Land?" (section "Musik") in the following words: "The rhythms are manifold; there may be eight accents in one line, and three syllables are often inserted between two accents, the symmetry and variation being determined by emotion and sentiment." Also in Palestine, G. Daiman observed: "Lines with two, three, four, and five accented syllables may be distinguished, between which one to three, and even four, unaccented syllables may be inserted, the poet being bound by no definite number in his poem. Occasionally two accented syllables are joined" ("Palästinischer Diwan", 1901, p23).

Such free rhythms are, in Davidson's opinion, found also in the poetry of the Old Testament. Under the stress of their thoughts and feelings the poets of Israel sought to achieve merely the material, not the formal symmetry of corresponding lines. This may be observed, for example, in the following lines of Psalm 2: "Serve the LORD with fear" ("'Ibdu et-Yhwh be-yir'ah", 2:11), "rejoice with trembling" ("we-gilu bi-re'adah"). This is shown more in detail by König, l.c. p334; and Cornill has confirmed this view ("Die Metrischen Stücke des Buches Jeremia", 1901, p8) by saying: "Equal length of the several stichoi was not the basic formal law of Jeremiah's metric construction." Sievers is inclined to restrict Hebrew rhythm by various rules, as he attacks (l.c. §§ 52, 88) Budde's correct view, that "a foot which is lacking in one-half of a verse may find a substitute in the more ample thought of this shorter line" ("Handkommentar zu Hiob", p47). Furthermore, the verse of the Old Testament poetry is naturally iambic or anapestic, as the words are accented on one of the final syllables.

The Dirges

A special kind of rhythm may be observed in the dirges, called by the Hebrews "kinot". A whole book of these elegies is contained in the Hebrew Bible, the first of them beginning thus: "How does the city sit solitary—that was full of people—how is she become as a widow—she that was great among the nations—and princess among the provinces—how is she become tributary!" (Lamentations 1:1).

The rhythm of such lines lies in the fact that a longer line is always followed by a shorter one. As in the hexameter and pentameter of Latin poetry, this change was intended to symbolize the idea that a strenuous advance in life is followed by fatigue or reaction. This rhythm, which may be designated "elegiac measure," occurs also in Amos 5:2, expressly designated as a ḳinah. The sad import of his prophecies induced Jeremiah also to employ the rhythm of the dirges several times in his utterances (Jeremiah 9:20, 13:18 and following). He refers here expressly to the "meḳonenot" (the mourning women) who in the East still chant the death-song to the trembling tone of the pipe (48:36 and following). "Ḳinot" are found also in Ezekiel 19:1, 26:17, 27:2, 32:2 and following, 32:16, 32:19 and following.

This elegiac measure, being naturally a well-known one, was used also elsewhere, as, for example, in Psalm 19:8-10. The rhythm of the ḳinah has been analyzed especially by Budde (in Stade's "Zeitschrift", 1883, p299). Similar funeral songs of the modern Arabs are quoted by Wetzstein (in "Zeitschrift für Ethnologie", v. 298), as, e.g.: "O, if he only could be ransomed! truly, I would pay the ransom!" (see König, l.c. p315).


A special kind of rhythm was produced by the frequent employment of the so-called anadiplosis, a mode of speech in which the phrase at the end of one sentence is repeated at the beginning of the next, as, for instance, in the passages "they came not to the help of the Lord [i.e., to protect God's people], to the help of the Lord against the mighty" (Judges 5:23; compare "ẓidḳot" [5:11a] and "nilḥamu" [5:19a-20a, b]), and "From whence shall my help come? My help cometh from the Lord" (Psalm 121:1b-2a, R. V.).

Many similar passages occur in fifteen of the Psalms, 120-134, which also contain an unusual number of epanalepses, or catch-words, for which Israel Davidson proposed the name "Leittöne." Thus there is the repetition of "shakan" in Psalm 120:5, 6; of "shalom" in verses 6 and 7 of the same psalm; and the catch-word "yishmor" in Psalm 121:7, 8 (all the cases are enumerated in König, l.c. p. 302).

As the employment of such repetitions is somewhat suggestive of the mounting of stairs, the superscription "shir ha-ma'alot," found at the beginning of these fifteen psalms, may have a double meaning: it may indicate not only the purpose of these songs, to be sung on the pilgrimages to the festivals at Jerusalem, but also the peculiar construction of the songs, by which the reciter is led from one step of the inner life to the next. Such graduated rhythm may be observed elsewhere; for the peasants in modern Syria accompany their national dance by a song the verses of which are connected like the links of a chain, each verse beginning with the final words of the preceding one (Wetzstein, l.c. v. 292).


Alphabetical acrostics are used as an external embellishment of a few poems. The letters of the alphabet, generally in their ordinary sequence, stand at the beginning of smaller or larger sections of Psalms 9-10 (probably), 15, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145; Proverbs 31:10-31; Lamentations 1-4; and also of Sirach 51:13-29, as the newly discovered Hebrew text of this book has shown (see, on Psalms 25 and 34 especially, Hirsch in "Am. Jour. Semit. Lang." 1902, p167-173).

Alphabetical and other acrostics occur frequently in Neo-Hebraic poetry (Winter and Wünsche, "Die Jüdische Literatur seit Abschluss des Kanons," 1894-1896, iii. 10). The existence of acrostics in Babylonian literature has been definitely proved (H. Zimmern, in "Zeitschrift für Keilschriftforschung," 1895, p. 15); and alphabetical poems are found also among the Samaritans, Syrians, and Arabs. Cicero says ("De Divinatione," II.54) that the verse of the sibyl was in acrostics; and the so-called "Oracula Sibyllina" contain an acrostic in book 8, lines 217-250.

A merely secondary phenomenon, which distinguishes a part of the poems of the Old Testament from the other parts, is the so-called "accentuatio poetica"; yet it calls for some mention, because it has been much slighted recently (Sievers, l.c. § 248, p. 375). Although not all the poetical portions of the Old Testament are marked by a special accentuation, it is noteworthy that the Book of Job in 3:3-42:6 and the books of Psalms and Proverbs throughout have received unusual accents. This point will be further discussed later on.

Division of the poetical portions of the Hebrew Bible

Poems that deal with events

First may be mentioned poems that deal principally with events, being epic-lyric in character: the triumphal song of Israel delivered from Egypt, or the song of the sea (Exodus 15:1-18); the mocking song on the burning of Heshbon (Numbers 21:27-30); the so-called song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:1-43); the song of Deborah (Judges 5); the derisive song of victory of the Israelitish women ("Saul hath slain," etc.; 1 Samuel 18:7); Hannah's song of praise (2:1-10); David's song of praise on being saved from his enemies (2 Samuel 22); Hezekiah's song of praise on his recovery (Isaiah 38:9-20); Jonah's song of praise (Jonah 2:3-10); and many of the Psalms, e.g., those on the creation of the world (8, 104), and on the election of Israel (99, 100, 105). A subdivision is formed by poems that deal more with description and praise: the so-called Well song (Numbers 21:17 and following); the song of praise on the uniqueness of the God of Israel (Psalms 95, 97); and those on His eternity (90); His omnipresence and omniscience (139); and His omnipotence (115).

Didactic poems

Poems appealing more to reason, being essentially didactic in character. These include: fables, like that of Jotham (Judges 9:7-15, although in prose); parables, like those of Nathan and others (2 Samuel 12:1-4, 14:4-9; 1 Kings 20:39 and following, all three in prose), or in the form of a song (Isaiah 5:1-6); riddles (Judges 14:14 and following; Proverbs 30:11 and following); maxims, as, for instance, in 1 Samuel 15:22, 24:14, and the greater part of Proverbs; the monologues and dialogues in Job 3:3 and following; compare also the reflections in monologue in Ecclesiastes. A number of the Psalms also are didactic in character. A series of them impresses the fact that God's law teaches one to abhor sin (Psalms 5, 58), and inculcates a true love for the Temple and the feasts of Yahweh (Psalms 15, 81, 92). Another series of Psalms shows that God is just, although it may at times seem different to a short-sighted observer of the world and of history ("theodicies": Psalms 49, 73; compare Psalms 16, 56, 60).


Poems that portray feelings based on individual experience. Many of these lyrics express joy, as, e.g., Lamech's so-called Song of the sword (beginning at Genesis 4:23); David's "last words" (2 Samuel 23:1-7); the words of praise of liberated Israel (Isaiah 12:1-6); songs of praise like Psalms 18, 24, 126, etc. Other lyrics express mourning. First among these are the dirges proper for the dead, as the ḳinah on the death of Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:19-27); that on Abner's death (3:33 and following); and all psalms of mourning, as, e.g., the expressions of sorrow of sufferers (Psalms 16, 22, 27, 39), and the expressions of penitence of sinners (6, 32, 38, 51, 106, 130, 143).

Poems that urge action

Finally, a large group of poems of the Old Testament that urge action and are exhortatory. These may be divided into two sections:

  1. The poet wishes something for himself, as in the so-called "signal words" (Numbers 10:35 and following, "Arise, LORD" etc.); at the beginning of the Well song (21:17 and following, "ali be'er"); in the daring request, "Sun, stand thou still" (Joshua 10:12); in Habakkuk's prayer ("tefillah"; Habakkuk 3:1-19); or in psalms of request for help in time of war (44, 60, etc.) or for liberation from prison (122, 137, etc.).
  1. The poet pronounces blessings upon others, endeavoring to move God to grant these wishes. To this group belong the blessing of Noah (Genesis 9:25-27), of Isaac (29:28 and following), and of Jacob (49:3-27); Jethro's congratulation of Israel (Exodus 18:10); the blessing of Aaron (Numbers 6:24-26) and of Balaam (23:7-10, 18-24, 24:5-9, 24:17-24); Moses' farewell (Deuteronomy 33:1 and following); the psalms that begin with "Ashre" = "Blessed is," etc., or contain this phrase, as Psalms 1, 41, 84:5 and following, 84:13, 112, 119, 128.

It was natural that in the drama, which is intended to portray a whole series of external and internal events, several of the foregoing kinds of poems should be combined. This combination occurs in Canticles, which, in Davidson's opinion, is most correctly characterized as a kind of drama.

The peculiar sublimity of the poems of the Old Testament is due partly to the high development of monotheism which finds expression therein and partly to the beauty of the moral ideals which they exalt. This subject has been discussed in a masterly way by J. D. Michaelis in the preface to his Arabic grammar, second edition, p29, and by Kautzsch in "Die Poesie und die Poetischen Bücher des A. T." (1902).

Extent of Poetry in the Old Testament

How much of the Hebrew Bible is to be considered poetry?

Can the prophetic books be considered as poetry? Setting aside the many modern exegetes of the Old Testament who have gone so far as to discuss the meters and verse of the several prophets, it may be noted here merely that Sievers says (l.c. p. 374) that the prophecies, aside from a few exceptions to be mentioned, are eo ipso poetic, i.e., in verse. But the fact must be noted, which no one has so far brought forward, namely, that every single utterance of Balaam is called a sentence ("mashal"; Numbers 23:7, 23:18, 24:3, 24:15, 24:20, 24:23), while in the prophetic books this term is not applied to the prophecies. There "mashal" is used only in the Book of Ezekiel, and in an entirely different sense, namely, that of figurative speech or allegory (Ezekiel 17:2, 21:5, 24:3). This fact seems to show that in earlier times prophecies were uttered more often in shorter sentences, while subsequently, in keeping with the development of Hebrew literature, they were uttered more in detail, and the sentence was naturally amplified into the discourse. This view is supported by Isaiah 1, the first prophecy being as follows: "Banim giddalti we-romamti," etc. There is here certainly such a symmetry in the single sentences that the rhythm which has been designated above as the poetic rhythm must be ascribed to them. But in the same chapter there occur also sentences like the following: "Arẓekém shemamáh 'arekém serufot-ésh; admatekém le-negdekém zarím okelím otáh" (verse 7), or this, "When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?" (verse 12). In the last pair of lines even the translation sufficiently shows that each line does not contain three stresses merely, as does each line of the words of God (verses 2b, 3a, b).

Although the prophets of Israel inserted poems in their prophecies, or adopted occasionally the rhythm of the dirge, which was well known to their readers, their utterances, aside from the exceptions to be noted, were in the freer rhythm of prose. This view is confirmed by a sentence of Jerome that deserves attention. He says in his preface to his translation of Isaiah: "Let no one think that the prophets among the Hebrews were bound by meter similar to that of the Psalms."

See also: Poetry