Hebrew Poetry

HEBREW POETRY. That the Semites in general were people of some musical ability, and that the Hebrews in particular fostered the cultural pursuits of music and poetry, will be apparent when it is realized that one-third of the Heb. Bible was actually composed in poetic form. The wealth of poetic material that existed in the ancient Near E has been illustrated by archeological discoveries, some of which, such as the Ras Shamra texts, have a direct bearing on the poetical material of the OT. Whereas the more obvious members of this corpus are Psalms, Proverbs, and the Song of Solomon, it also includes Lamentations, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, all of which were cast in poetic form apart from their superscriptions or titles. In addition, about one-half of Jeremiah is poetic in form, and there are also substantial segments of poetry in Job, Isaiah, Hosea, Joel, and Amos. Of all the OT writings, only Leviticus, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, and Malachi do not seem to contain lines of poetry. The three divisions of the Heb. canon contain poetry in progressively increasing amounts.


Early studies in Hebrew poetry.

Of those books that comprised the Writings, or Hagiographa, the third division of the Heb. canon, the Books of Psalms, Proverbs, and Job were regarded by the Jews as being specifically poetical in nature, and were described by a mnemonic title, “The Book of Truth.” Christian scholars also recognized readily the poetic cast of these three compositions, but apart from such notable instances of Heb. poetry as the Song of Moses and the Israelites (Exod 15:1-18), the Song of Moses to Israel (Deut 32:1-43), and the Song of Deborah and Barak (Judg 5:2-31), they tended to assume that the bulk of the OT narratives were uniformly written in prose. This attitude was understandable enough in light of the fundamental differences that exist between what the orientals understood as poetry and what is generally implied in the western world by that term. Occidental poetry has been influenced to a large extent by the structural forms of the classical Gr. and Lat. writers, where the units of speech were structured in terms of carefully accentuated lines in which rhyme was involved. By contrast, the poetry of the orientals and particularly that of the Hebrews, was formulated along different lines in which rhyme as such was unknown, and the structural units consisted of ideas or concepts that were set out according to a balanced arrangement of component clauses. However, the format of the Heb. itself seldom gave any indication of a poetic structure, although some MSS of the MT went so far as to arrange the text of Psalms, Proverbs, and Job in terms of poetic units. MSS discovered at Qumran have indicated that certain of the Psalms and the Song of Moses were copied in something approaching a stichometric format, but this seems to have been the exception rather than the rule in scribal practice. It is possible, of course, to argue from the fact that the Books of Psalms, Proverbs, and Job possessed a more intricate system of punctuation in the Massoretic tradition to the existence of some awareness of poetic form among the Heb. scribes. Nevertheless it is still true that poetic sections in the Torah and the Prophets were apparently not recognized as such by the Massoretes; or if they were, they were ignored. Equally unfortunate is the fact that, despite the wealth of classical Gr. and Lat. tradition in this regard, those who tr. the Heb. into the LXX and Old Lat. VSS were seemingly unaware of the possibility that the material with which they were working might have been cast in poetic form, an attitude that was also reflected in the Aram. and Syr. VSS of the OT books. English translations also followed this general tradition, and even the American Standard Version of 1881 printed only the poetic books in a recognizable stichometric form. The Revised Standard Version of 1952 was the first Eng. tr. to cast all the poetic passages in the OT in a correspondingly distinctive form, which had the result of showing students of the Eng. Bible precisely how much poetry there is in the OT Scriptures. Probably the earliest attempts to distinguish between poetry and prose structures were found in Josephus, who related that Moses had composed a song in hexameter verse in Exodus 15 (Jos. Antiq. II. xvi. 4), and in the same meter in Deuteronomy 32 (Jos. Antiq. IV. viii, 44). Of David he wrote that he composed songs and hymns to God in various meters, “some he made in trimeters and others in pentameters” (Jos. Antiq. VII. xii. 3). Philo agreed with this general opinion, and held that Moses had learned the “lore of meter, rhythm, and harmony” from the Egyptians (Vita Mosis I, 5). The recognition of poetry in portions of the OT other than the Hagiographa was a distinct advance, but unfortunately it was spoiled by the application of classical analogies to poetic forms that were actually different from those of the Aegean writers. Eusebius, Jerome, and Origen were influenced by the remarks of Josephus, though Origen is supposed to have distinguished between Gr. and Heb. methods of writing pentameter and hexameter poetry.

Some medieval commentators such as Ibn Ezra and Kimchi were aware that the thoughts were frequently reproduced in parallel form in Heb. poetry, but in general the phenomenon was either ignored or misinterpreted by Jewish and Christian exegetes. Attempts made to study Heb. poetry dealt with the syllabic forms in terms of Gr. and Lat. structures, an approach that was repudiated as late as 1753 by Bishop Lowth in his Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews. In this work, he stressed the existence of parallelism, holding that Heb. poetry consisted of measured lines and that the vv. contained two or more elements in parallel form. Lowth distinguished between various kinds of parallelism with considerable success, and his recognition of the presence of poetry throughout the Heb. Bible laid the foundation for subsequent studies. His successors in the field began to apply the metric principles of different varieties of Sem. poetry to Heb. verse, but this approach involved syllabics rather than stresses. Some investigators made the accent the basis for determining the nature of poetic sections, and although this gained the approval of Eng.-speaking scholars, it was marred in Europe by an indulgence in textual emendation. The arrangement of Heb. poetry in terms of strophes was pointed out by Köster, who attempted to establish the existence of several different types. Although Briggs collated the findings in relation to the studies in parallelism that had emerged from studies subsequent to those of Lowth, the next real advance came with the work of G. B. Gray in 1915, who resolved all poetic parallelisms into complete and incomplete forms, the latter being amenable to certain variations.


The fact that this phenomenon is so fundamentally a part of Heb. poetic forms will be sufficient to show the importance that the Semites attached to the balance of thought as distinct from mechanical concepts of meter based on sound or phonic rhythm. Whereas Heb. poetry may, and frequently does, contain a variety of rhetorical devices that aid in the promulgation of the particular aspect of thought, these elements must now be regarded as being consistently subordinated in the minds of the writers to the expression of the thought-forms in terms of literary parallelism. This balancing of thought against thought and word against word was adopted from the literary culture of the ancient Near E, but was developed by the Hebrews with great skill to the point where it surpassed similar attempts in the lit. of pagan nations. As Bishop Lowth recognized, the essential formal characteristic of Heb. poetry is what he described as the parallelismus membrorum, or the counterbalancing in a v. of components of thought that manifested an internal relationship to one another. Lowth distinguished between three kinds of parallelism as follows:


in which the second part of a poetic v. recapitulated the thought of the first part (Isa 1:3).


where the two principal parts of a v. exhibited the idea of contrast (e.g., Prov. 1:29). Sometimes the same concept would be expressed first in a positive form and then in a negative form (Ps 90:6).


in which the sense was developed in a continuous manner to reach its logical conclusion (Ps 1:1, 2).

Later scholars came to realize that the last of these categories was hardly parallelism in the strictest sense. They also employed the term stichos to describe individual lines of poetry, deriving it from the Gr. word στίχος meaning “row” or “line.” Two or three of these lines normally comprise the complete parallel form, which is marked, of course, by a proper degree of grammatical and syntactical unity. If a line is known as a stichos or stich, the half-line could be designated as a hemistich, although the term is occasionally used of the complete line also. The larger unit of two or three lines is described as a distich or a tristich respectively where whole lines are involved, or a stich when the half-line components are regarded as hemistichs. Sometimes the two (or three) components of a Heb. phrase are known as bicola (or tricola), i.e., two (or three) colons, but this terminology can be confused all too readily with the Eng. punctuation mark of that name. The normal Heb. poem thus consists of a series of terms that are grouped in pairs and are marked off from preceding and subsequent terms by means of major pauses, or caesuras. The general arrangement can be illustrated from Psalm 23:4, 5:

Thy rod and thy staff,/ they comfort me.//

Thou preparest a table before me;/

in the presence of my enemies;//

Thou anointest my head with oil,/

my cup overflows.//

In the above quotation, the caesura is represented by a double diagonal line, whereas the single diagonal signifies a minor pause within the pairs, represented in the citation by an antecedent comma. Quite frequently, the verseform of the Eng. VSS follows that of the MT, but this is by no means uniform.

In the light of the foregoing observations it is possible to illustrate the various kinds of parallelism as suggested by Lowth and others. The first variety, synonymous parallelism, reproduces the same thought in successive stichoi, and is the least complex form of parallelism in Heb. poetry. In Psalm 83:14, the first portion of the v. speaks of a fire burning the forest, a theme that is repeated quite simply in the second part in the figure of a flame setting the mountains on fire. One expression thus merely reinforces the thought of the other by the process of repetition in almost identical words and without the addition of any supplementary material. Recognition of this structural form occasionally clarifies obscure passages that could easily be misinterpreted, as with the familiar parallelism of Zechariah 9:9,

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!

Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!

Lo, your king comes to you;

triumphant and victorious is he.

humble and riding on an ass,

on a colt the foal of an ass.

In Matthew 21:5 it was assumed that two animals were involved, the ass and her foal, whereas the other three evangelists rightly discerned the synonymous parallelism involved in the citation, and consequently mentioned just one animal. Although in many synonymous parallelisms, each term in the first stichos is matched by a corresponding term in the second, there are numerous instances where the parallels are not strictly complete, due to variations of vocabulary or rhetorical style.

The second kind of parallelism described by Lowth as antithetic involves the two (or three) portions or members of the v. in some form of contrast. Quite often this is of a rather radical nature, as in Psalm 1:6,

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,

But the way of the wicked will perish.

The Wisdom lit. is particularly rich in such contrasts, since it frequently offered individuals a choice of two quite different courses of action (cf. Prov 10:12),

Hatred stirs up strife,

but love covers all offenses.

As with synonymous parallelism, the antithetic form can be complete or incomplete, and in addition it can express the same concept in alternate positive and negative forms.

The third variety identified by Lowth, namely synthetic parallelism, is marked by balanced stichoi in which the thought of the first is developed by the second. Although this is not actually true parallelism, the two stichoi are in fact balanced off and marked by breaks in the continuity of the thought with preceding and subsequent material. Thus the quotation from Psalm 2:3,

“Let us burst their bonds asunder,

and cast their cords from us,”

exhibits a complementary balance of thought that is distinctively different from the remainder of the psalm. Even though there may not be a demonstrable parallelism of thought between the stichoi, the balance of form is seen in the pattern of recurrent major and minor stops in the poetry, and this factor has led certain scholars to describe this kind of parallelism as formal or numerical. Following the time of Lowth, further studies in Heb. poetry described three subsidiary types of parallelism. They cannot be regarded as fundamental patterns, and seem to consist largely of variations or combinations of the three basic forms of parallelism discussed above.

Emblematic parallelism described a situation where one stichos employed a literal or factual statement whereas the other stichos suggested a simile or a metaphor (Ps 42:1),

As a hart longs for flowing streams,

so longs my soul for thee, O God.

Climactic, or stairlike, parallelism is marked by the repetition and development of a concept in successive stichoi, perhaps involving three or more such members. It combines the principles of synonymous and synthetic parallelism to give the impression of extending the thought by recapitulation, where each stichos begins at the same place, but extends somewhat beyond its immediate precursor. Psalm 29:1, 2 gives an excellent example of this particular poetic pattern,

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,

ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;

worship the Lord in holy array.

The final subsidiary form, known as introverted, or chiastic parallelism, involves four stichoi arranged in such a manner that the first corresponds to the fourth and the second to the third in an a:b::b:a pattern. Psalm 30:8-10a illustrates the principle adequately,

(a) To thee, O Lord, I cried; and to the Lord I made supplication.

(b) What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?

(b) Will the dust praise thee? Will it tell of my faithfulness?

(a) Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!

The researches of Gray resulted in the description of two broad classes of parallelism, the first of which was complete, in which every word in one stichos was balanced by an appropriate word in the other stichos, as in Isaiah 1:3,

The ox knows its owner,

and the ass its master’s crib,

But Israel does not know,

my people does not understand,

where two synonymous parallelisms actually combined to form a total antithetic parallelism.

The other type of parallelism was described as incomplete, a designation that itself covered two subsidiary forms. One of these exhibited a pattern in which a part of the second stichos was parallel to the first (Ps 59:16),

But I will sing of thy might;

I will sing aloud of thy steadfast love in the morning.

The other variety comprised a form in which a term was inserted in the second stichos that had no strict counterpart in the first stichos (Ps 75:6),

For not from the east or from the west

and not from the wilderness comes lifting up;

but it is God who executes judgment,

putting down one and lifting up another.

Hebrew poetry frequently supplemented the parallelism between stichoi by means of a corresponding parallelism between distichs, making for what is frequently described by scholars as external parallelism. Thus an external synonymous parallel structure in Isaiah 1:10,

Hear the word of the Lord,

you rulers of Sodom!

Give ear to the teaching of our God,

you people of Gomorrah!

An even more sophisticated parallelism results from an external inversion (Isa 6:10), with reference to certain bodily organs, italicized in the following passage so that the literary pattern can be recognized with ease:

Make the heart of this people fat,

and their ears heavy,

and shut their eyes;

lest they see with their eyes,

and hear with their ears,

and understand with their hearts,

and turn and be healed.

It will be apparent from the foregoing that, in the hands of a competent poet, the possibilities of variation in Heb. parallelism are virtually limitless. The concept of balance inherent in the relationship of the stichoi imposed a necessary degree of control over the composer and prevented diffuseness of style or thought while allowing sufficient freedom for an aesthetically gratifying arrangement of the constitutent members. The particular degree of sophistication that marked the literary form of the finished product would naturally vary with the skill of the individual composer, but even the least proficient of these invariably produced a poem that by its elasticity and fluency outclassed the stereotyped repetitions so typical of ancient Near Eastern poetry in general.


Having emphasized the fundamental importance of parallelism in Heb. poetry, some attention can now be given to the possibility of metrical division. Since there is no tradition of meter in the poetic compositions of the Hebrews, any conclusions that are arrived at will necessarily be by analogy from other Sem. poetry as well as by inference from the kind of balance that the stichoi themselves exhibit. A great deal of caution needs to be exercised in this matter, however, since a mechanical regularity of syllabic or accentual structure does not seem to have been a part of Heb. poetry at any time. A warning must also be given about the use of analogy in relationship to alien poetic meters, particularly those of the classical composers, since the fundamental principle at issue in Heb. poetry is the balance of thought. In this connection, it might be observed that although Josephus applied the concepts of classical European poetry to the writings of an oriental people, he did so to demonstrate to his Gentile readers the fact that Heb. poetry did conform to specific structural patterns. Having said this, it should also be remarked that the analogy between classical hexameters, pentameters, and the rhythms of the Heb. poems should not be pressed too closely. From the evidence afforded by ancient Near Eastern poetic compositions generally, it is apparent that there was a freedom and a fluidity about what is described in Western thought as meter. However, it may well be that at least some of the Psalms were written with something approaching meter in mind, since certain of them were apparently meant to be sung at some stage in their history, no doubt to the accompaniment of musical instruments. Again, it may be that the dominant concern of the composer was for the beat or rhythm of the psalm rather than for the sort of metrical regularity characteristic of Gr. and Lat. poems. Certainly, in a heavily accented language such as Heb., the concept of stress was of great significance.

In 1866, J. Ley suggested that the character of a specific v. could be determined only by reference to the number of accented or stressed syllables that the v. contained. An accentual pattern could be formulated on the assumption that each major word of a stichos or distich should be assigned a numerical unit consisting of one stress. Ley observed that many of the vv. of Heb. poems consisted of a three-stress stichos that was separated from a parallel two-stress stichos by means of a pause, or caesura. He assigned the numerical value of 3:2 to this rhythmic pattern, and regarded it as an elegiac pentameter. Because this form occurred predominantly in Lamentations, it was given the name of qinah or “dirge meter” by Budde. In one sense this designation was rather unfortunate, since subsequent studies showed that, whereas the qinah stresses were associated with emotional outpouring, that emotion was by no means always one of grief, since it occurred in some compositions where the theme was one of praise and gladness (Ps 65). Concerning the unequal stresses, the 3:2 pattern is by far the most widespread in the OT. It is varied by means of 2:2 stresses, and there seem to be occasions when a 2:3 pattern is evident also.

It would appear proper to point out at this juncture that a certain degree of subjectivity attaches to the matter of assigning stresses to particular words in Heb. poetry, and this in itself should induce caution in the application of this particular approach. Part of the problem arises from the fact that the accentual system that was devised by the Massoretes assigned one stress to each word, no matter what its length, apart from words joined together by means of the Heb. hyphen or maqqeph, in which event only the last syllable of the combination was accented. However, it is not known for certain whether or not each word in Heb. poetry actually received one stress. It may well have been that under some circumstances, two or perhaps three separate short words were treated as though they only merited one stress. Furthermore, whereas older scholars generally denied the possibility of a lengthy word receiving more than one stress, it still has to be proven that this was the invariable practice of the Heb. poets. Since there appears to have been an unregulated number of unstressed syllables that were permitted to occur between two stressed syllables, it seems evident that the ancient Hebrews were governed by principles that allowed them much flexibility in the matter of rhythm. The studies that led to the recognition of stress patterns in Heb. poetry were based on the theory that it was permissible to allow one stress, or ictus, to each of the major words in a stichos, distich, or tristich. It seems legitimate to establish this procedure as a general principle on the analogy of other Near Eastern compositions, particularly when the laments of the Hebrews are compared with the penitential psalms of the Babylonians, or when Heb. poetry is compared with its Ugaritic counterparts. Once again, however, these compositions give evidence of the fluid nature of anything approaching a metrical scheme. The poetry of ancient Babylonia is characterized by a 2:2 stress pattern, although some lines contain an extra ictus to make a 3:2 or 2:3 form. Other lines seem to have the kind of stress pattern that can best be scanned as 2:2:2, or occasionally as 2:2:3. On the basis of the normal stresses in ancient Babylonian poetry, the comparative simplicity of form exhibited in Heb. speech would suggest that the primary type of poetic line was of a 2:2 order. Although it is true that this stress arrangement is commonly found in Heb. poems, a 3:2 form occurs even more frequently.

By far the most widely used stress scheme in OT poetry, however, is the 3:3 pattern, which is found in the poetic portions of the Book of Job, Proverbs, in the bulk of the Psalms, and in a great many prophetic oracles. It needs to be observed that however much one particular stress pattern may have been favored by an author, it was never used to the exclusion of others. The poetic lit. from Ras Shamra, written in a dialect closely related to Biblical Heb., frequently employed a 3:3 pattern as a rhythmic basis, but at the same time incorporated a great many variations. These compositions, which came from the Amarna Age and thus anteceded the bulk of Heb. poetry, exhibit a degree of constructional freedom that should warn against expecting to find a recognizable degree of metrical regularity in Heb. poetry. They positively preclude the emendation of the Heb. text to make it conform to some particular metrical scheme, a practice that was popular among Ger. scholars of an earlier generation. In light of the available evidence, it seems clear that Heb. poetry never possessed a mechanical regularity of a syllabic or accentual nature, and that if one is to speak of meter at all, the concept should be entertained only in terms of the rhythmical counterpart of the thought-parallelisms. There is no intrinsic evidence in the OT for meter in Heb. poetry, a fact that was ultimately conceded by the eminent Ger. Hebraist Bernhard Duhm. Instead of employing a term such as meter, it is prob. better to think of rhythmical balance based on elements of thought rather than upon strict syllabic quantities. Obviously, this approach involves considerably more subtlety than the mechanical patterns of Gr. and Lat. poetry, since in Heb. poetic compositions, regularity of stress is of less significance than the regularity of balanced concepts of thought. The situation can be summarized by presenting the three basic forms of Heb. poetry as follows:


the so-called “dirge-meter”; 3:2 or sometimes 2:3, varied by the inclusion of 2:2 stresses.


3:3 or 2:2:2.


4:3 or 2:2:3.

The use of the words hexameter and heptameter in this connection is related primarily to the sum of the stresses, and should not be interpreted in terms of Gr. or Lat. poetic usage.


During the last cent., much scholarly discussion has centered upon the question of whether it was possible to group the lines of Heb. poetry to form stanzas or strophes. The researches of Köster in 1837 built on the foundation established by Lowth, and laid great emphasis upon the strophic arrangement of Heb. poetry. Successive scholars of the critical school held to the theory that the Psalms in particular had been arranged according to a fairly consistent strophic pattern. In those instances where this did not appear particularly evident in the Psalter, it was maintained that the original pattern had been partially obscured as the result of later liturgical glosses, and therefore needed textual emendation to make the basic form evident.

More recent studies have taken a different course by showing that the grouping of disstichs and tristichs into larger poetic units cannot be demonstrated conclusively in the poetry of the OT. That such an arrangement was possible, however, is clear from the presence of acrostic poems, the most obvious of which is Psalm 119. In this arrangement, which is clearly rather contrived at best, the first word of the initial stanza commenced with the first consonant of the Heb. alphabet, the first word of the second strophe with the second letter, and so on. Precisely where the idea of the acrostic arrangement originated is uncertain, but it had the undoubted value of imposing a degree of control over the vocabulary and the length of the composition, even though the final form was structurally rather artificial in nature. Psalm 119 consists of eightdistich stanzas or strophes, whereas chs. 1, 2, and 4 of Lamentations, which is also written in acrostic form, are composed of twodistich strophes. Chapter 3 of that work varied the pattern somewhat by being made up of three-distich strophes. In ch. 2, the alphabetic order is not followed scrupulously, since the letter pe comes before ’ayin instead of after it in the usual alphabetical manner. Interestingly enough, although ch. 5 contains twenty-two vv., one for each consonant of the Heb. alphabet, there are no indications of an acrostic arrangement. Whatever the reasons for the use of an acrostic in the above compositions, it still remains true that the strophic pattern was never allowed to interfere with the sequence of the thought, a matter that was always of paramount importance. Under these circumstances it would appear that the stanza was never basic to the structure of Heb. poetry in the sense in which it is for most modern poetical compositions.

Perhaps some sort of strophic arrangement may be indicated by the presence of a refrain, or chorus, that appears at a specific point in a psalm. Thus in Psalm 46, vv. 7 and 11 have the following refrain:

The Lord of hosts is with us,

the God of Jacob is our refuge.

A rather more sophisticated example of this literary device can be seen in Psalm 107:1-32, which consists of two parts as follows:

(a) Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.

(b) Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,

for his wonderful works to the sons of men!

Between these two portions of the refrain were inserted descriptions of deliverance from various perils by divine power, but the theme was handled in such a way that the poem contained strophes of quite unequal length. A more balanced arrangement was contained in Psalms 42 and 43, which seems to have formed a single poem and in which there appeared on three occasions (Pss 42:5, 11; 43:5) the refrain:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,

and why are you disquieted within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my help and my God.

As well as being indicated by the presence of a recurring refrain, the end of a stanza or strophe may possibly be marked by the inclusion of the enigmatic expression selāh. The word itself comes from a Heb. root meaning “to cast up,” “to raise,” “to build a road,” and occurs seventy-one times in thirty-nine Psalms as well as in Habakkuk 3:3, 9, 13. In normal circumstances, selāh stands outside the balanced arrangement of the thought-form, which is indicated in most Eng. VSS either by the word being enclosed in brackets or written in italics. However, some scholars have raised doubts that selāh can be considered as a valid indication of strophic arrangement, if only because the meaning of the word is still uncertain. Because it occurs in association with what have been supposed to be musical titles in some of the Psalms, some commentators think that it was a direction to the singers of the particular psalm, calling for a crescendo of voices at that particular juncture. It may be that the trs. of the LXX VS had some sort of liturgical usage in mind when they rendered selāh by diapsalma or “interlude,” since an accompaniment of musical instruments was evidently involved. Thus the term could either indicate the “lifting up” of voices in music or in the recitation of the psalm, or the cessation of the voices and the crescendo of musical instruments. Of these two alternatives the latter seems more acceptable, for selāh occurred generally at the end of some phase of thought in the poetry, where in recitation the voice would normally pause in any event.

It has also been suggested that selāh comprised a direction for the conductor of the Temple musicians and singers to interrupt the flow of the chanting by means of a clash of cymbals or tambourines. Thus the presence of selāh (Ps 9:16) with higgayôn (“to murmur,” “whisper”), would seem to point to the thought of the psalm terminating in a soft whispering of stringed instruments followed at the direction of the conductor by a clash of cymbals to mark the end of the recitation.

By way of concluding the discussion of the possibility of strophic formulation in Heb. poetry, mention ought to be made of a technical device to which scholars have given the name of anacrusis. This normally consists of a single word, such as an interrogative particle or an exclamation, that stands outside the stress-pattern of the v. in which it occurs. For example, the word “wherefore” can be removed from the text without prejudice to the rhythm of the v., which in fact conforms to the 3:3 pattern so commonly found in Heb. poetry (Jer 12:1b, 2). The exclamation “how” (Lam 1:1) can be isolated from the remainder of the v. without disrupting the stresses, which fall into the 3:2; 2:2; 2:2 pattern. The presence of such words tends to affect the whole of the passage that follows them, and not infrequently the poetic material in these sections is of a particularly expressive nature. An earlier generation of scholars was accustomed to resort to textual emendation as a commonplace procedure to restore what was thought to have been the original strophic arrangement of certain Heb. poems in the belief that the structure had been disrupted and obscured by such things as marginal glosses, lacunae, or displacements of the text. Such reconstructions were sometimes made on the basis of readings reflected by the LXX VS, but there were many other instances where they were indulged in simply as the result of subjective speculation.

Since the discovery of the Ras Shamra tablets, it has now become clear that only the most cautious of textual emendations can be countenanced, since the composers of Ugaritic poetry enjoyed a liberty of literary form and a freedom from mechanical meter which positively precludes the kind of rigid patternism foisted upon the Heb. text by 19th-cent. liberal scholars.

Ugarit and Hebrew poetry.

New light has been shed since 1928 on the nature of OT poetry as the result of archeological discoveries at Ras Shamra (Ugarit). At this site, some literary texts originating in the early 14th cent. b.c., which were written in a then unknown language and inscribed in an unfamiliar cuneiform script, were found on being deciphered to have been composed in a Canaanite dialect closely related to Biblical Heb. The tablets included both prose and poetic material, the latter being of great importance for the textual study of the Psalms. Among other things, the Ugaritic poetic compositions exhibited parallelism, as can be seen from the following example:

Lo thine enemies, O Baal,

Lo thine enemies wilt thou smite.

Lo thou wilt vanquish thy foes.

These sentiments are remarkably similar to the thought of Psalm 92:9, and serve to illustrate the close degree of affinity that can often be seen when Ugaritic and Hebrew poetic compositions are compared. There seems to have been a common fund of linguistic expressions and literary idioms from which the two peoples drew. Thus Baal was described as the “Rider of the Clouds” (cf. Pss 68:4; 104:3), who was enthroned in the heavens (cf. Pss 2:4; 103:19) and hurled down lightnings and thunderbolts (cf. Pss 18:13; 77:18; 144:6). Canaanite poetry, as observed above, was based on a 3:3 stress pattern, but admitted of a great many variations. There is nothing that would indicate metrical exactitude in Ugaritic poetry, and in view of this it would hardly seem likely that the Hebrews placed any significant emphasis upon meter as such.

The Ugaritic material, however, has done an enormous amount of good in clarifying supposed textual anomalies in books such as the Heb. Psalter. Alleged corruptions that were frequently emended by earlier scholars have now been seen to constitute genuine Canaanite grammatical and literary forms whose particular significance had been forgotten with the disappearance of Ugaritic culture. This realization has consequently prompted a much more cautious approach to the textual study of the Psalter.

Varieties of Hebrew poetry.

It is very difficult to maintain a formal distinction between the religious and the secular in the poetic compositions of Israel, since each tended to interpenetrate the other. The Hebrews employed their songs as expressions of or accompaniments to social activity in a manner by no means unfamiliar to other societies in a different age. One such poetic fragment is the so-called Song of the Well (Num 21:17, 18):

Spring up, O well!—Sing to it!—

the well which the princes dug,

which the nobles of the people delved,

with the scepter and with their staves.

This utterance celebrated the way in which the well near the town of Beer was opened under the direction of the leaders of Israel, this being made specific by the ASV margin reading, “by order of the lawgiver,” the RSV rendering “with the scepter.” The use of the imperative form at the beginning of the poem would seem to express the concerns of those involved in digging the well that an abundant supply of water should reward their efforts. No doubt the same sentiments continued to be expressed by those who used the water of that same well in subsequent times. On such a basis there can be no thought of magic or incantation rituals associated with the task of excavation, as some have imagined.

The same would hold true for other daily activities where indulgence in song helped to make the time pass more quickly and lighten the burdens of work. Such choruses or songs (Judg 9:27; Isa 16:10) were used where the harvesting of grapes was undertaken (Jer 25:30; 48:33), and where shouts of joy accompanied the trampling of grapes in the winepresses. Quite prob., the rhythmic stresses of the songs employed on such occasions matched the pace of the work being undertaken. However, because of the scanty evidence for “work songs” as such, it is far from easy to identify them as a genuine literary category.

Some poetic fragments appear to have come from taunt or mocking songs which were credited to the activities of the “ballad singers.” One particular poem (Num 21:27-30) heaped scorn on the Moabites and taunted them in connection with the destruction of their principal cities. A fragmentary quotation from the “song of the harlot” (Isa 23:16) was applied prophetically to the city of Tyre:

“Take a harp,

go about the city,

O forgotten harlot!

Make sweet melody,

sing many songs,

that you may be remembered.”

It should be noted that the “song” was not so much an actual poem recited to musical accompaniment by harlots, as in later Rome, but rather a derisive ditty mocking the efforts of an aged prostitute to attract the attention of potential clients.

There are references to drinking songs (Amos 6:4-6; Isa 5:11-13) where the prophets were perhaps thinking of the musical entertainments which formed part of contemporary banquets. It may be that the citation (Isa 22:13),

“Let us eat and drink,

for tomorrow we die.”

expressed the general tenor of the lyrics sung on such occasions. A more optimistic form of the song declares (56:12),

“Come,” they say, “let us get wine,

let us fill ourselves with strong drink;

and tomorrow will be like this day,

great beyond measure.”

Aside from these two possible instances, however, no other portions of actual drinking songs have been preserved in the OT.

If it is legitimate to regard the lyrics of Canticles as a collection of Israelite lovepoetry (see nodetitle), then this genre would constitute yet another attestable class of Heb. verse. From the account of the wedding of Samson (Judg 14:10-18), it would appear that such festivities were animated affairs at that time, at which singing and dancing were very much in evidence. The poems contained in Canticles include some that described the physical beauties of the betrothed male and female, and it may be that these were recited or chanted during the wedding festivities somewhat in the manner of the more modern Arabic wasfs. Perhaps the author refers to the spectacular wedding procession of King Solomon, though other sections of the book need only be regarded as celebrating the depth and beauty of true human love in the absence of a specific wedding situation (Song of Solomon 3:6-11). If it is granted, as by some scholars, that Canticles as a whole has only a rather coincidental connection with marriage celebrations, it is difficult to isolate any other wedding poetry as such from the OT narratives.

The concept of the funeral dirge was used with great effect by the preexilic prophets to convey the seriousness of the national situation to an indifferent and unheeding Israel. Perhaps the most notable literary accomplishment along these general lines is to be found in the Book of Lamentations, where in chs. 1, 2 and 4 this style was used in allegorical fashion of Jerusalem. Chapter 5 comprised a psalm of lamentation for the whole nation, whereas ch. 3 contained mixed elements of lamentation.

Not unnaturally, a great deal of the ancient lyric poetry found in the OT had to do with wars and victory in battle. One form of commemoration of the mighty act of divine salvation at the time of the Exodus was the Song of Miriam (Exod 15:20, 21), which was chanted to the accompaniment of tambourines and dancers:

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed


the horse and his rider he has thrown into

the sea.

In so far as this theme was echoed by the people, it comprised the genuine response in thanksgiving of those who had participated in a miracle and had witnessed the destruction of their enemies. A genuine psalm of victory is seen in the Song of Deborah (Judg 5:2-31), which constitutes the poetic parallel of the prose version of victory contained in the preceding ch. Whereas it is a psalm of thanksgiving for victory, it also contains such diverse elements as confession, praise, taunting, curses, and thanksgiving.

What has been described by some scholars as the Song of the Ark (Num 10:35, 36) appears to have consisted of two shouts or rallying cries with which the Ark of the Covenant was greeted by Moses on its departure and return from battle:

Arise, O Lord, and let thy enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee.

Return, O Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.

These pronouncements were doubtless intended to strengthen the morale of the Israelite warriors and the nation as a whole by assuring them that the power of God was accompanying them and acting through them to secure victory over their enemies. When military success had been achieved, it was the common practice for the victors to boast of their valor, as in the ancient fragment known as the Song of Lamech (Gen 4:23, 24):

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;

you wives of Lamech, hearken to what I say.

I have slain a man for wounding me,

a young man for striking me.

If Cain is avenged sevenfold,

truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

The social conditions portrayed in this fragment are long antecedent to the Mosaic age, since they reflect the personal vendettas of the nomad to whom the humanitarian prescriptions of the Mosaic law were entirely unknown. In the Heroic Age the victor in battle was frequently greeted on his return with songs and dances, as was Jephthah (Judg 11:34) and David (1 Sam 18:6). In the case of the latter the narrative has preserved the chorus of the victory chant:

Saul has slain his thousands,

And David his ten thousands,

a tribute which did not exactly strike an endearing chord in the mind of King Saul.

Forming a poetic category of their own are the benedictions pronounced by the patriarchs, and their counterpart in the “last words of David” (2 Sam 23:1-7). As is now well known from archeological discoveries at Mari and Nuzu, a benediction of this kind constituted in effect a last will and testament whose stipulations and dispositions were binding upon all those concerned. Prominent in the patriarchal benedictions was a prophetic element that was frequently coupled with a penetrating character analysis of the recipients of blessing to indicate to them what prosperity or adversity they could expect in the coming days. By contrast, the “last words of David” comprise nothing more than a short personal testimony to the power of God in his life and the essential transience of those who are motivated by lesser forces.

Into yet another category came the utterances of Balaam, the talented Mesopotamian seer whom Balak of Moab had hired to curse his enemies, the Israelites. Magical texts recovered from Mari and elsewhere indicate that Balaam came within the professional classification of a master-diviner, and as such could command a high fee for his services. His pronouncements fell into a regular poetic form, one of which (Num 24:3-9) was described by the prophetic term “oracle.” Because of the character of his encounter with God, the utterances of Balaam were in the nature of benedictions, and as such have a great deal in common with the patriarchal blessings. Whereas the psalter may properly be regarded as an anthology of Heb. poetry, there are other lesser collections of lyrics in the OT. Lamentations and Canticles comprise complete books of poems of specific kinds, but there are still smaller poetic collections that are important, having been associated with particular historic occasions. One of these anthologies has survived in fragmentary form in early OT lit. under the designation of The Book of the Wars of the Lord (Num 21:14). The surviving portion comprises a geographical note which may have referred to battles in Trans-Jordan:

Waheb in Suphah,

and the valleys of the Arnon, and the slope of the valleys that extends to the seat of Ar, and leans to the border of Moab.

This fragment gives no firm indication concerning the nature or content of the book, but from the title it may be assumed that it dealt in poetic form with the battles of the early conquest period before the main invasion of Canaan. Another collection was referred to in Joshua 10:13 and 2 Samuel 1:18 as The Book of Jashar, or perhaps better, The Book of the Upright One. This work seems to have been a later counterpart of the Book of the Wars of the Lord, since it included the training poem for bowmanship originally composed by David as a lament for the death of Saul and Jonathan. However, it is unwise to speculate about the relative dates of the two anthologies, since neither collection of poems is now extant. The Book of Jashar included the celebrated charge of Joshua to the sun and moon:

Sun, stand thou still at Gibeon,

and thou Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.

And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.—(RSV) No doubt there were a number of collections of poetic material of various kinds that have not survived the centuries. A record of one such collection was preserved by the Chronicler (2 Chron 35:25), who spoke of an anthology of Laments that was supposed to have contained the dirge composed by Jeremiah at the time when King Josiah died. This collection has also vanished without trace. Scholars have pointed out that in general the poetry of the OT emerges either from continuous communal functions or from situations in which the material was formulated for some special historical purpose. To the former group belong most of the Psalms, particularly where the individual composition was of a devotional nature and had no particular historical associations. The latter category can be illustrated by reference to a composition, e.g., Lamentations, which was written as a tragic commemoration of the destruction of the theocracy.

Some of the different kinds of secular Heb. poetry have already been discussed, including harvest songs, taunts, funeral laments, victory odes, and love lyrics. The more specifically sacred poetry, which was generally restricted to use in divine worship, fell into certain readily recognizable classes. These include prayers, songs of praise, special petitions for deliverance from sickness or enemies or both, confessions of faith in God as a contrast to the prevailing trends of polytheism, confessions of sin, imprecatory psalms that called down divine punishment on the heathen, intercession for the nation and its rulers, instructional or homiletical psalms, meditations, and psalms in praise of the Torah.

Figures of rhetoric.

Part of the subtlety and attraction of Heb. poetry consists of the way ordinary words are treated to heighten their general effect. To this end, several technical literary devices were employed by the ancient poets, one of the most obvious being paronomasia, or play on words. This is the basis of the pun, long favored among oriental peoples as a refined form of humor (see Humor), but in the hands of such writers as the prophets the form took on a moral or an eschatological connotation. The justice (mispāṭ) for which the Lord looked (Isa 5:7) had been replaced by bloodshed (mispāḥ), and the righteousness (sedāqāh) by a cry (secāqāh), whereas the basket of summer fruit (qayiş) that the prophet saw in a vision reminded him that the end (qēş) of the nation was at hand (Amos 8:20). Clearly this is a very powerful rhetorical device for proclaiming fundamental theological issues in memorable terms. Another effective marshaling of words was seen in the use of alliteration, which grouped related sounds occurring at the beginning of words or phrases. The exhortation to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Ps 122:6) was given emphasis by the consonance of syllables in the Heb., sa’alu selôm yerûsālāim yislāyû. A related rhetorical form favored by the prophets was that of assonance, which placed emphasis upon the correspondence of sound in the accented vowels, particularly where pronominal and verbal suffixes were involved. Thus in Isaiah 53:4-7, the permanently long vowel û occurred no fewer than fifteen times, strengthening by its very sound the general impression of grief and woe contained in the verses. Hebrew writers generally made use of another device, known as onomatopoeia, in which the sense of a word was suggested by its sound. The gutturals and labials (42:14) convey the sense of a woman groaning and catching her breath during the pangs of childbirth. These literary and rhetorical techniques went far toward replacing rhyme, which does not occur in Heb. poetry except where the same pronominal or verbal suffix is repeated at the end of two consecutive lines. This phenomenon is rare, and in each instance it must be considered strictly accidental in nature.

Poetry in the Prophets.

Observed in retrospect, the fact that their predictions of doom were fulfilled with such finality gives added stature to the majestic poetic utterances that were declaimed so vigorously by these ancient servants of God. By contrast, the gentle, optimistic visions that saw blessing in the future for a penitent and obedient Israel carry more than a hint of sadness in their lyricism in the light of the fate which ultimately befell the Jews.


E. Sievers, Metrische Studien, I-III (1901-1907); G. A. Smith, The Early Poetry of Israel (1910); G. B. Gray, The Forms of Hebrew Poetry (1915); S. Mowinckel, Psalmenstudien I-IV (1921-1924); A Condamin, Poèmes de la Bible avec une introduction sur la strophe hébraïque (1933); H. Gunkel and J. Begrich, Einleitung in die Psalmen (1933); C. Kraft, The Strophic Structure of Hebrew Poetry (1938); T. H. Robinson, The Poetry of the Old Testament (1947); C. H. Gordon, Ugaritic Manual (1955); N. K. Gottwald, IDB, III, 829-838; R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (1969).