The Bible is a collection of 66 individual books containing history, drama, romance, adventure, and poetry. The Bible is much more than great literature, but it is great literature both in content and form. When you study the content of a book you study the message of the book. You learn the spiritual truths it reveals.
When you study the form of a book you examine the way a book is organized to present the content. Most of the Bible is in narrative form which presents God’s truths in stories which are easy to understand. But five books of the Bible–Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon–are organized in poetic form. There are additional sections of poetry in other parts of the Bible even though the books are not part of the poetry division. For example, poetry is found in some of the books of law and prophecy. The poetic form of presenting God’s truths is quite different from the narrative (story) form used in most of the Bible. Biblical poetry is also different from most forms of poetry with which you may be acquainted. For these reasons, special guidelines are necessary to help you study these books. This article explains the form and types of Bible poetry. This knowledge will help you understand and apply the great spiritual truths found in the poetic Books of the Bible.
The poetry of the Bible probably will not be like any poetry with which you are familiar. The poetry of the Bible is written in the form of Hebrew poetry since most of the Old Testament was written in this language. The basic principle of Bible poetry is that it contains “parallelism” in thought. The word “parallelism” is from the word “parallel” which means “beside one another or like each other.” For example, these two lines are parallel:
When things are parallel to each other, just like these two lines, they are alike. Hebrew poetry is parallel in thought just as these two lines are parallel in appearance. Each line of the poem agrees with other lines of the poem.
There are four common parallel forms used in Hebrew poetry:
1. SYNONYMOUS PARALLELISM:
The word “synonymous” means the same. In synonymous parallel poems the second line of the poem repeats the thought of the first line. For example:
Lord, how are they increased that trouble me!
Many are they that rise up against me. (Psalm 3:1)
He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh:
The Lord will have them in derision. (Psalm 2:4)
In both of these examples the second line rewords the same thought as the first line. The thought expressed in the second line is synonymous (exactly like) that expressed in the first line.
2. ANTITHETIC PARALLELISM:
“Antithetic” means opposite. In antithetic parallel poems the second line is an opposite thought to the first line. But it is still parallel or like the first line because it is stating a similar truth. It uses an opposite to state a similar truth. This is why it is called antithetic.
For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous:
But the way of the ungodly shall perish. (Psalm 1:6)
In this example the second line is antithetic (opposite) of the first line. The first line speaks of the way of the righteous. The second tells of the way of the unrighteous. But the second line is still parallel to the first line because it agrees with what is said in the first line by presenting an opposite truth.
3. SYNTHETIC PARALLELISM:
This type of parallelism is like building with blocks. The second line of the poem and all following lines add to or develop the thought of the first line. Study the example below.
The second and following lines build on or add to the first line of the poem:
Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor standeth in the way of sinners,
Nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful;
But his delight is in the law of the Lord;
And in His law doth he meditate day and night. (Psalm 1:1-2)
In verse 1, the first line states that a man is blessed if he does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly. The following lines build on this truth by stating that he also should not stand or sit in their way. In verse two the first line tells us this man delights in the law of the Lord. The second line adds to this thought that he meditates in God’s law constantly.
4. EMBLEMATIC PARALLELISM:
An “emblem” is something which stands for or illustrates something else. For example, the stars in the flag of the United States of America are emblems of (stand for) the 50 states which are members of the Union. In emblematic parallelism the second and following lines of a poem are an emblem or illustration of the first line. For example:
As the hart panteth after the water brooks,
So panteth my soul after thee, O God. (Psalm 42:1)
The second line of this verse illustrates the first. David pictures his soul desiring God just like a hart (an animal similar to a deer) pants for water when it is thirsty. The illustration of a thirsty deer is an emblem expressing David’s spiritual thirst. Although there are several other types of parallel form in Hebrew poetry they are not very common in the Bible so it is not necessary to include them in our study.
USING FORM TO UNDERSTAND CONTENT
Recognizing these basic poetic forms will help you when you study Bible poetry. You will be able to understand the content as it is expressed in:
1. Identical restatements of truth (synonymous parallelism):
This will help you understand the same truth expressed in similar ways. Such repetition will fix the truth expressed firmly in your mind and heart. It is an important way of meditating on the Word of God. If for some reason you do not understand a certain truth in the way it is presented in the first line of a poem, the following lines which present the same truth will help you understand.
2. Opposite statements of the same truth (antithetic parallelism):
You will learn not only great truths, but the opposite parallels of these truths. In the example of Psalms 1:6 you not only learned something about the way of the righteous but you also learned an opposite truth about the way of the ungodly. As you learn to recognize the antithetic parallel form you will be able not only to apply positive truths in your life but you also will be warned of dangers of the opposite. In the example we used you learned that God knows your way if you are righteous which is a positive truth. You also learned that if you are unrighteous you will perish. This opposite thought provides an important warning.
3. Building blocks of truth (synthetic parallelism):
As each line of a poem builds or adds to what is presented in the first line, that truth will be fully developed in your mind.
4. Emblems which illustrate God’s truth (emblematic parallelism):
Such illustrations create a visual picture of God’s truths in your mind.
TYPES OF POETRY
There are three basic types of Hebrew poetry. The division of poetry into types is made on the basis of the content and manner of presentation of the poem. If you learn to recognize the different types of Bible poetry it will help you understand what you are reading. The three main types of Bible poetry include:
1. EPIC POETRY:
This is a narrative poetry. It tells the story of a heroic action. There is quite a bit of narrative poetry scattered throughout the books of history. Read Numbers 22 through 24 which tells the story of Balaam. It contains examples of epic poetry.
2. DRAMATIC POETRY:
Dramatic poetry is acted poetry. The book of Job is the best example of acted poetry. In the opening we are allowed to see behind the scenes and discover the cause of Job’s problems is Satanic. Next we find messengers informing Job of the disaster of the loss of his children and possessions. Then Job is sitting by a lonely ash heap. In following scenes his friends offer a variety of suggestions as to the reason why he is suffering. There is a great climax as Job hears from God and in the end is restored with earthly blessings. The book of Job is a drama presented in poetic form.
3. LYRIC POETRY:
Lyric poetry is sung poetry. Two excellent examples are found in Deborah’s song of Judges 5 and Miriam’s song in Exodus 15. There are also sections of lyric poetry which were used for mourning or expressing sorrow. Examples of these are found in Psalms 137, 74, 80, and II Samuel 1:19-27. The book of Lamentations is also an example of this type of lyric poetry or mournful singing. This book is written in poetic form but it is classified with the historic books because the poetry relates to a tragic event in the history of God’s people.
THE BOOKS OF POETRY: A PROGRESSION
The five books of poetry show a progression of spiritual life. The book of Job describes the death to the old life of self. Psalms shows the new life in God, expressing itself in praise, prayer, adoration, supplication, confession, and intercession. In Proverbs we are in God’s school learning heavenly yet practical wisdom for life on earth. Ecclesiastes speaks of the vanity of pursuing life “under the sun” apart from God. The Song of Solomon speaks of the pursuit of life with meaning through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.