An Introduction to Hebrew Poetry

Scholars estimate that between one-third and one-half of the Bible is written in poetry; yet very few Christians seem to give much consideration to this style.


Recognizing Poetry

Poetic passages are often recognized by scholars because of two main components:

·        Figurative language – Poetic passages use more figures of speech, similes, and metaphors than do prose passages.  While prose passages will use figures of speech, the complexity and frequency of figures of speech are greater in poetry.

·        Parallelism – Poetic passages are often written with short lines that play off of each other.  These can occur in groups of 2, 3, or even 4 lines of poetic text.  The point is that elements of one or more lines are balanced, repeated, or expanded in the following lines.


Types of Parallelism

In the 19th century, Robert Lowth listed three categories of Hebrew parallelism which have been used to help people think through Hebrew poetry.  Though Lowth’s categories have been modified and at times rejected by scholars as far too simplistic (rightfully so), they offer a helpful starting point for modern Bible readers.  Lowth’s categories include:

·        Synonymous parallelism – The parallel lines say essentially the same thing with different words.  Be careful not to assume that the second line is an exact restatement.  Often the second line will help to clarify the reader’s understanding of the first.

Example: Proverbs 9:7 (ESV)

Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury.

·        Antithetical parallelism – The second line of the pair teaches us with opposites from the first line.  This is not to say that the first line is being contradicted, but that another angle of the truth is being examined.  For example, if the first line of a parallel offers a blessing for right actions, the second line might offer a curse for evil actions.

Example:  Proverbs 9:8 (ESV)

Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.

·        Synthetic (or formal) parallelism – The second line does not repeat the first, but expands

on the thought of the first.  This might include a line that completes the thought of another.  It might repeat part of the first line while expanding with thoughts not in the first line.  This category is a sort-of catch-all category in which lines are obviously intended to go together in a poetic way which are neither synonymous nor antithetical.

Example:  Psalm 46:1 (ESV)

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.


Features of Poetry

Hebrew poetry can have a great variety of features that distinguish it.  Only 1 follows:

·        Chiasm – Not a type of parallelism but more a technique, a chiasm parallels a previous line in a reverse (a, b, c, c, b, a) order.  The name derives from the Greek letter chi, which looks like our letter X.  Chiasms can occur with the points of two lines or the balancing of opposite lines in a larger section of Scripture. 

Example:  Isaiah 11:13b (ESV)

Ephraim shall not be jealous of Judah, and Judah shall not harass Ephraim.


Why Notice Poetry?

·        Strong emotion – Writing in poetry indicates a level of emotion from the author that may not be present in prose.  We should recognize this in order to take the passage of Scripture with the emotion intended by its author.


·        Figurative language – Because poetry often uses figurative language, we should be sure to recognize poetry in order to better interpret the meaning of the text.


·        Memorization – It is likely that texts were written in poetic couplet in order to aid in their being committed to memory.


·        Prevalence – Scholars estimate that between ½ and 1/3 of Scripture is written in poetry.  Since so much of God’s word is in this style, we must take it seriously.


·        Beauty – Poetry enhances the beauty and emotional connection of the text.


See George L. Klein, “Poetry” in Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996).;