Much of the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, is written in poetic form. It is important to understand some characteristics of poetry in general, and specifically about Hebrew poetry in order to understand these passages properly. In many cases, the poetic passages will also fall under one of the other categories of literature in the Bible, such as prayers, hymns or prophetic oracles. In these cases, you will find that understanding the poetic form will supplement other methods of study.
Basics of Interpreting Poetry
There are some characteristics of poetry which apply to all types. These include:
- In interpreting poetry you may find examples in which the poetry reflects accurately what was said, but is not intended as truth in terms of its content. As an example, think of the speeches of Job’s friends. They are accurate, we would assume, but are they true? God says they are not (38:1-2). One should be very careful in applying this principle; it would be easy to say, “That passage doesn’t apply to me, it’s just there illustrating someone’s view.” But it does apply in some cases. I would suggest Psalm 137 as an example, particularly verses 8 & 9, which could easily be a statement of how the Israelites felt, and thus recorded for us, but not a statement of how a Christian should feel.
- Again, in poetry, an expression can be abbreviated, and thus less clear than we would expect a prose statement to be. In this case, you’re already applying the right principle, which is to find what God says elsewhere more clearly, and shape your understanding of the poetic passage to that. Broadly I state this principle as trying to “hang your interpretation on the two commandments.” Jesus says that all the law and the prophets hang on these two, so if you can’t hang them there, you may be off track. (Note that sometimes it’s a misunderstanding of what love is, not a misunderstanding of some particular passage that is the problem.)
- Poetry frequently uses more metaphorical or symbolic language than other forms of literature.
- Poetry frequently uses more obscure words in order to fill the forms. You need to be cautious about understanding the word precisely as it is used in its context. In the case of Biblical poetry, you will find more differences between translations of poetry because some of the vocabulary is obscure. Hebrew poetry uses many synonyms (see the discussion of parallelism below) and this often results in use of less common vocabulary. In many cases, poetry uses words that occur only once in the Bible or even in all Hebrew literature that we have available. This can result in disagreements. Checking multiple translations becomes more important in this case (see Reading Precisely).
While it seems likely that Hebrew poetry did use certain types of meter, there is so much controversy about precisely how this works that it remains a subject for the experts to argue about, and not a practical tool for the Bible student. Fortunately, the main characteristic of Hebrew poetry is thought parallelism, in which the relationships of the meaning of elements of the lines of poetry carry a substantial part of the meaning of the whole poem.
There are three types of parallelism that are most common, and also of most practical use to the Bible student:
Elements of the poetic lines are either synonymous or have overlapping semantic ranges in which the second line completes the meaning of the first.
Elements of the poetic lines are opposite to one another.
Elements of the poetic line build on one another, but are not related as synonymous or antithetical, for example, the first line states an event, and the second states a conclusion. Since these groups of poetic lines can be interpreted much like prose, I will concentrate here on the first two.
Elements may be dropped from any line of poetry, and carried over from a previous line. I gave an example of this under the section on interpreting prophecy, so I’m skipping that example here.
|From||your rebuke||they fled;|
|From voice||your thunderous||they rushed away.|
Psalm 104:7 (rearranged slightly to show the elements)
In interpreting synonymous parallelism, try thinking of the meaning of the verse as a single statment. Don’t try to make a new thought out of the second (or third) line of poetry. This is especially important in Proverbs, where there can be a temptation to make theology out of half a Proverb, and then build a new thought out of the second half. The two or three lines of synonymous parallelism act together to express a single thought more completely.
|The legacy||of the righteous||is blessing;|
|But the name
|of the wicked||will rot.|
Here the thought of the first line is expanded by expressing its opposite in the next line. In interpreting the passage, again remember that we are not looking at two different thoughts. The single thought is the difference between the legacy (or remembrance) of a righteous person and a wicked person. The antithetical parallelism helps create a contrast between the results of the life of each one.
Note:An interesting exercise in interpreting poetry, and more broadly in understanding Biblical inspiration, is to compare the thought of this short proverb, and the book of Ecclesiates. What is the point of each? How are they expressed? Compare and contrast them. Look back to the principles expressed at the beginning of this essay for some suggestions on finding the truth in these circumstances.
|He established||the earth||on its foundations|
|It shall not be moved||forever||and ever.|
See my paper on Psalm 104 for the differences in this text and more standard translations.
I am skipping climactic parallelism, in which the second and/or third lines produce a climax, often being parallel in one element, but adding more in building to a climax. It is identical to synthetic parallelism in terms of interpretation, except that you may find a closer relationship between the meaning of the lines of poetry.
One more characteristic of Hebrew poetry that should be mentioned, though it won’t impact interpretation very much, is the acrostic. Psalm 119 is an excellent example, in with 176 verses are divided into 22 sections of 8 verses each, and in each section every verse begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The sections are sequential, so that one completes the Hebrew alphabet with all verses in the last section starting with the last letter (tau). When interpreting Psalm 119, you should remember that this form has much more to do with the arrangement of the verses than does the topic. To read Psalm 119 topically, you need to read scattered verses that use the same key words wherever they occur in the psalm.
You can find much more information on the various types of Hebrew poetry, and some discussion of meter in a good Bible dictionary or Old Testament introduction. There is an excellent article in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (ISBN: 0-19-528356-2), titled Characteristics of Hebrew Poetry and starting on page 392.
Types of Psalms and other Poetry
The major types are:
Example: Psalm 104. See my paper on this psalm at Psalm 104: God, Creator and Sustainer. Sometimes Psalm 104 is also considered wisdom literature due to references to wisdom and creation and parallels to Proverbs 8 and 9.
Psalm 22 (often petitions can also be classified as laments
Extensively throughout the book of Lamentations, Psalm 22.
- Wisdom and/or Teaching
- Song of Celebration
- Prophetic Oracle
- Proverb or Common Saying
Proverbs 10:7 and many more in the same book