How are we to view Hebrew Poetry in the Bible? (Part 1)


The Old Testament of the Bible contains Hebrew Poetry, but it is not to be compared with the kind of today’s poetry which rhymes at the end of each verse. Rather, Hebrew Poetry is designed to express more clearly and by emphasis certain aspects of the truth. It is important to realize when and how Hebrew Poetry is used, so that we do not misunderstand the intended meaning of a particular passage.

In this series, we will discuss in depth the beauty and wisdom of inspired Hebrew poetry. It can be generally described as PARALLELISM. In Hebrew, the rhyme is the repetition of thoughts or the extension of similar thoughts.

In this Q&A, we will show biblical examples of the concept of Synonymous Parallelism. In subsequent Q&A’s, we will discuss additional concepts within Hebrew Poetry.

“Synonym” describes the idea that one word has the same meaning as another word. Synonymous Parallelism means, that the second line repeats the idea expressed in the first line. In this Q&A, we refer to such occurrence as being “equal” or “identical” thoughts.

We need to further distinguish between Identical Synonymous Parallelism and Similar Synonymous Parallelism. Identical Synonymous Parallelism repeats in the second line identical thoughts which were expressed in the first line. In Similar Synonymous Parallelism, one thought in the first line is repeated in the second line, while something else is added.

Let us begin with reviewing several examples of Hebrew Poetry, which contain IDENTICAL SYNONYMOUS PARALLELISM—the repetition of identical thoughts:

Psalm 50:20:

“You sit and speak against your brother;
“You slander your own mother’s son.”

Two identical thoughts are expressed, but different words are used. “Sit and speak” in the first line is identical with “slander” in the second line; likewise, “your brother” is identical with “your own mother’s son.” The devastating and cowardly concept of “slander” is emphasized here—one just sits there and speaks evil, and that against his own brother, the son of his own mother.

Psalm 24:1-3:

“The earth is the LORD’s, and all its fullness,
“The world and those who dwell therein.
“For He has founded it upon the seas,
“And established it upon the waters.
“Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD,
“Or who may stand in His holy place?”

These verses  contain several examples of identical synonymous parallelism or the expression of identical thoughts. In verse 1, the “earth” is equated with the “world,” and “its fullness” with “those who dwell therein.” In verse 2, we read that God “founded” the world “upon the seas”; that is, He “established” it “upon the waters.” In verse 3, the “hill of the LORD” is equated with “His Holy Place,” and “ascending” is identical with “being able to stand.” When one ascends to the holy hill of God (Jerusalem, see Isaiah 2:2-3), then he will stand there.

Psalm 15:1:

“LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle?
“Who may dwell in Your holy hill?”

Here, “abiding” equals “dwelling,” and God’s “tabernacle” describes “His holy hill.” Ultimately, God the Father will even dwell with us on the new earth, and His tabernacle will be with immortal men (Revelation 21:1-3).

Psalm 2:4:

“He who sits in the heavens shall laugh;
“The LORD shall hold them in derision (NIV: “scoffs at them”; Tanakh: “mocks at them”).”

The LORD is the one who sits in the heavens, and He laughs or scoffs or mocks at His enemies, knowing that their fight and rebellion against Him are futile and vain.

Job 3:20:

“Why is light given to him who is in misery,
“And life to the bitter of soul?”

Light and life are described as equal, and misery and bitterness of soul are identical as well.

Proverbs 27:2:

“Let another man praise you, and not your own mouth;
“A stranger, and not your own lips.”

The identical parallelism might be clear in this example, but we need to carefully see the beautiful nuances here. “Another man” is equated with a “stranger,” so that the praise will be genuine and flattery will be excluded. “Your own mouth” is of course identical with “your own lips.”

Genesis 4:23:

“Adah and Zilla, 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.”

Here we find another example of identical synonymous parallelism. “Adah and Zilla” are identified as the wives of Lamech (apparently, polygamy started with Lamech, and it is associated here with murder), and he states that he killed a man (who is then identified as a young man) for wounding or hurting him.

Zechariah 9:9:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
“Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem.
“… Lowly and riding on a donkey,
“A colt, the foal of a donkey.”

This passage, prophesying events to take place in the life of Jesus, equates “rejoicing greatly” with “shouting,” and “Zion” with “Jerusalem.” Also, the “donkey” is identified with a “colt, the foal of a donkey” (compare John 12:14-15).

Numbers 23:7:

“… Come, curse Jacob for me,
And come, denounce Israel!”

“Cursing” equals “denouncing,” and Jacob is equated with Israel.

Numbers 23:21:

“He has not observed iniquity in Jacob,
“Nor has He seen wickedness in Israel!”

Again, Jacob is identified with Israel, and iniquity is the same as wickedness.

Numbers 23:23:

“For there is no sorcery against Jacob,
“Nor any divination against Israel.”

The same identification of Jacob and Israel is used, but another interesting aspect is emphasized: “Sorcery” is the same as “divination.”

Numbers 24:5:

“How lovely are your tents, O Jacob!
“Your dwellings, O Israel!”

Jacob and Israel are equal, and so are “tents” and “dwellings,” reminding us that our abode in this life, even though we should enjoy it, is only temporary.

Numbers 24:17:

“I see Him, but not now;
“I behold Him, but not near;
“A Star shall come out of Jacob;
“A Scepter shall rise out of Israel,
“And batter the brow of Moab,
“And destroy all the sons of tumult.”

This statement is filled with identical synonymous parallelism. “Seeing” equals “beholding”; “not now” is the same as “not near.” The “Star” is the same as the “Scepter” (describing Jesus Christ, the Morning Star, who will have power and rule over the nations, and it possibly also refers to the star of Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s First Coming); “come out” is the same as “rise”; and “Jacob” is again identified as “Israel” (Jesus Christ was a Jew, descending from Israel through the virgin Mary, a descendant of King David). “Battering” equals “destroying,” and the “brow of Moab” identifies them as “all the sons of tumult.” Jesus Christ will return and make an end to all rebellion against God. When Moses received this prophecy, Christ’s First and Second Comings were not near then, but by now, His First Coming occurred about 2,000 years ago, and His Second coming is now very near.

Let us now look at two examples of “SIMILAR SYNONYMOUS PARALLELISM” —  which does not describe totally identical thoughts, but expresses one thought in the first line, which is repeated in the second line, while another thought is being added in the second line.

Psalm 36:5:

“Your mercy, O LORD, is in the heavens;
“Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.”

Both God’s mercy and faithfulness reach the clouds and the heavens; however, mercy and faithfulness are not necessarily identical, but they are related.

Psalm 19:1:

“The heavens declare the glory of God;
“And the firmament [expanse of heaven] shows His handiwork.”

The heavens and the firmament declare God’s glory and His handiwork, but God’s glory and His handiwork are not identical. However, they are related, as one can see God’s glory IN His handiwork.

When reviewing the different devices in Hebrew Poetry, we need to understand that they were never used just for the fun of it—Hebrew Poetry in the Bible, although clearly an art form, was never used for art’s sake. Rather, as commentators have pointed out, it was used for teaching, prophesying or worship. The style of Hebrew Poetry was ideally suited for such tasks, since important ideas were repeated in different ways—and in such variety that it was art in the truest sense of the word. The poetry of the Old Testament was never tiresome, but a delight to read and recite, and even in translation, it can give us keys for the understanding of a particular statement, when properly analyzed and perceived.

(To Be Continued)

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

©2024 Church of the Eternal God