Elements of Hebrew Poetry
We understand the book of Psalms to be "wisdom literature" and think of the collection as poetry, but have you noticed that no lines rhyme? This is where we get to think Hebrew, and not like a Westerner. The Hebrew language DOES have repetition and alliteration, but if there is rhyme in English, it is accidental--unless you are reading an old English Psalter, where all the psalms were re-written to be sung in rhyme.
The poetic language of Hebrew is loaded with "learning helps" as it is meant for the hearer (remember that most early audiences were illiterate). We will not see this in English, but in Psalm 23, the Hebrew word for "shepherd" and "evil" sound very similar ("ro-e", "ra-a") and to the untrained eye, look nearly identical. The English misses the implication of the poetry, which is this: while the LORD is my shepherd, fear is not.
A word about Old Testament poetry: it is not confined to poetic books. Most prophetic oracles are poetic. Consider Isaiah 5 for a moment. What clue do you see that tells you how to read the text? Better yet, what understanding do you gain if you don't merely read the text, but actually do what the text says? Sure, we don't know the tune, but the tune is not the point.
Now look at Exodus 15. What might you do different next time you read this text?
Hebrew poetry balances thought, not sound. This is called “Parallelism.” When we look at types of parallelism, we will consider the ways thoughts are balanced. The attitude of the Hebrew poets is simply, “why have one line when you can have two?”
1. Complete (or, synonymous) parallelism. This is where the writer is communicating one thought through two lines of text. Here, one line of text is completely balanced by another line. The second line repeats the same thought of the first line, but with different words. For example (I will off-set for emphasis):
19:1 “The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.”
114:2 “Judah became His sanctuary,
Israel His dominion.”
2. Incomplete (or, antithetic) parallelism: same as above, only different because one line is missing. The second line may repeat a contrary thought or even take up a different or opposing issue, theme or point of reference to make a point:
1:5 “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgement,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.”
1:6 “For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the ungodly will perish.”
3. Responsory parallelism shows a response to a statement. The best example here is Psalm 136, where the alternate verses are parallel. Without this parallelism, this might as well be a simple narrative! How much more exciting for a poet to tell his story, and for the listener to respond!
4. Alternate parallelism. This is where the fun really begins! Take a look at Psalm 103:11,12. The lines with reflective thought are labled as "A" and "B." Notice how the concepts begin to weave a pattern:
A For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
B So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.
A As far as the east is from the west,
B So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
See how the "A" lines go together and the "B" lines go together?
5. "Climactic" ("synthetic") or "stair-step parallelism" is where statements are made three or four times, but one line builds on another, based on the content of the line before it. It takes the thought of one line and extends it through the second and third. Look at Psalm 29;1,2, 4,5.
"1Ascribe to the LORD, O sons of the mighty,
Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due to His name;
Worship the LORD in holy array.
3The voice of the LORD is upon the waters;
The God of glory thunders,
The LORD is over many waters.
4The voice of the LORD is powerful,
The voice of the LORD is majestic.
5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
Yes, the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon"
Sure, the psalmist could have said, "Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength, the glory due His name, O sons of the mighty" or "The voice of the Lord is powerfully majestic to break the cedars" but this parallelism is climactic! It builds up!
6. There are other structures in Hebrew poetry, such as the Acrostic, or the Hebrew ABC’s. Psalm 119 is the most well-known, for every eight verses the reader finds a Hebrew letter: aleph, (or "a"), beth (or "b"), gimel (or "g"), etc. What the English reader does NOT see is that each set line in each of set of eight verses begins with the letter of that section; in other words, every line in Psalm 119:1-8 begins with a Hebrew word that starts with the letter "aleph" or "a." Verses 9-16 begin each line with a word that starts with the letter "beth" or "b," and so on.
A text like this would have actually been used to teach the aleph-beth (alphabet). We use "Apple" for "A" and "ball" for "B" while Hebrew children were memorizing Psalm 119 to learn their aleph-bet. Other Psalms that use the Acrostic are Psalm 9-10, 25, and 34. Still more passages of scripture use this devise too, such as Lamentations 3:19 ff. The passage that says, "Great is Thy Faithfulness" is nestled within a passage of "A,B,C's"--so easy a Hebrew child can remember the message!
Remember that I said Psalm 34 is my favorite and here is one reason among many: in the Hebrew every verse begins the next consecutive letter of the aleph-beth, starting at the beginning with "a." Why is this important? Go back to the superscript. When David appeared before Abimelech, it was not so much that he was pretending to be mad or crazy--it was that he was singing an "A,B,C" song of his trust in the LORD! He ran from one enemy into the arms of another--no wonder he sounded crazy--he was praising God for his protection through A,B,C's! Can you see Abimelech on his throne with David running around sounding like he overdosed on Sesame Street? Get that loon out of here! He must have been laughing like Elmo because of his trust in God!
7. Chaistic structures are the last we will cover here, and are a bit tougher. "Chaism" (not "chasm") is named after the Greek letter "X", or "chai." This means there is a crossing of ideas in the text which can be marked with the letter "A", "B", and "C"; for example take a look at Ps. 147:4 (clearer in Hebrew):
A He counts
B the number
C for the stars
C* for all of them
A* He calls out
Do you see it?
- He counts/calls out
- The number/names
- For all of them/the stars
A O Lord, our Lord, How Majestic is Thy name in all the earth (v. 1a)
B above heavens (v. 1b)
C in man (v. 2a)
D over enemies (v. 2b)
E work of fingers (v. 3a)
X man crowned with Glory/majesty (vv. 4-5)
E* work of hands (v. 6a)
D* “all things” (v. 6b)
C* in animals (v. 7)
B* in the sea (v. 8)
A* O Lord, our Lord, How Majestic is Thy name in all the earth (v. 9)
Do you see it?
- O Lord, our Lord, How Majestic is Thy name in all the earth (it begins and ends the same way);
- above the heavens/in the sea
- in man/in animals
- over enemies/"all things;"
- works of hands/fingers'
- man crowned with glory and majesty
What does this say about you?
There are many, many passages of scripture that contain "chaistic structures" and in one case, it may be argued that the entire book of Jude is chaistic:
A (Jude 1-2) Assurance for the Christian
B (Jude 3) The Beliver and the Faith
C (Jude 4) Apostates described
D (Jude 5-8) Apostasy in Old Testament History
E (Jude 9-10) Apostasy in the Supernatural Realm
X (Jude 11) Ancient Trio of Apostates
E* (Jude 12-13) Apostasy in the Natural Realm
D* (Jude 14-16) Apostasy in Old Testament Prophecy
C* (Jude 17-19) Apostasy Described
B* (Jude 20-23) The Beliver and the Faith
A* (Jude 24-25) Assurance for the Christian