“Your Word Is Truth”
TO ARRIVE at the truth regarding any part of God’s Word, it is very helpful to appreciate each inspired penman’s style of writing. This is certainly true of the Bible’s Hebrew poetry.
It is fitting that parts of the Bible should be written in poetic style. Why? Poetry not only appeals to the intellect but stirs the emotions. It is also set down with a certain symmetry of form that makes it easier to grasp and memorize. Poetry appeals to both eye and ear. But there are often problems in appreciating its meaning.
Some expressions in the Bible are obviously to be taken, not literally, but as figures of speech. It is evident that the earth does not rest on literal “socket pedestals” nor do its rivers actually “clap their hands.” (Job 38:4-6; Ps. 98:8) Nevertheless, very clear truths are being stated when such expressions are used: the earth is immovably set by changeless laws, and rivers do produce handlike waves that noisily slap at their banks. While this variation in style from ordinary prose is usually obvious and therefore understood, other points about Hebrew poetry may not be.
For instance, how are Lamech’s poetic words at Genesis 4:23 to be interpreted?
“A man I have killed for wounding me,
Yes, a young man for giving me a blow.”
Did Lamech kill two persons, a ‘man’ and a ‘young man’? Up until about two centuries ago, commentators said so. However, since then a more accurate understanding of Hebrew poetry has been revived.
It is different from certain classical and modern poetry in which rhyme is often an important element. Rather, Hebrew poetry is distinguished by what is called parallelism. What this means can best be understood by examples.
Parallelism’s most common form is called synonymous parallelism in which the second line repeats the thought in a portion of the first line, but in different words. Psalm 24:1 is an example:
“To Jehovah belong the earth and that which fills it,
The productive land and those dwelling in it.”
The phrase “To Jehovah belong” is essential to both lines. However, the terms “the earth” and “the productive land” are poetic synonyms, as are “that which fills it” and “those dwelling in it.”
This same poetic form is used in the verse quoting Lamech. He apparently killed only one person; the second line of his poetic statement echoes the first, repeating and somewhat expanding it, yes, enlarging a single idea by using different words.
The Bible also has antithetic parallelism, that is, where each line expresses an opposite thought. Psalm 37:9 illustrates this:
“For evildoers themselves will be cut off,
But those hoping in Jehovah are the ones that will possess the earth.”
Then there is synthetic parallelism. In this the second portion neither echoes the same thought as the first nor gives a contrast. Rather, it adds a new thought. Psalm 19:7 is an example:
“The law of Jehovah is perfect,
bringing back the soul.
The reminder of Jehovah is trustworthy,
making the inexperienced one wise.”
Notice that the second part of each sentence completes the thought; the whole verse, therefore, is a synthesis, that is, the result of bringing elements together. Only with the second half-lines, such as “bringing back the soul” and “making the inexperienced one wise,” does the reader learn how the ‘law is perfect’ and how the “reminder of Jehovah is trustworthy.” In such a series of synthetic parallels, this division between the first and second part serves as a rhythmic break. There is thus, along with the progression of thought, the preservation of a certain verse structure, a parallel of form. It is for this reason sometimes called formal or constructive parallelism.
Of course, this is not to say that Hebrew poetry is by any means now perfectly understood. It is not. Various attempts, for instance, have been made to discover its exact meter, the laws regulating the number of stanzas in a verse and syllables in each line. Some have gone so far as to alter the Hebrew text to try to make it fit their own preconceived notions of Hebrew poetic style. But all such efforts at trying to find a system of meter have been largely unsuccessful. Why?
Perhaps because there may be no system of meter to discover. While the above-discussed parallel poetic structure allows for great freeness of thought and wide expression, such cannot be said for meter, which tends to be restrictive. As a former professor of Hebrew at the University of Glasgow observed: “It is not fitting that divinely inspired thoughts should be too closely fettered by human art. They must be free; or at least the form in which they are presented must be such as not to press in upon and mar their divine proportions.”
Additionally, there are those areas in the Hebrew Bible where the difference between prose and poetry is not clearly evident. Some sections may contain prose that is almost poetical in wording. While the penman may not have purposely cast his material as poetry—as in the Psalms—he may have, nevertheless, freely used figures of speech or wordplay and even parallelism to drive home his point. In such cases, whether these verses are printed in modern translations as poetry or not may somewhat depend on the translators’ own definition of poetry.
Since knowledge of Hebrew poetry is imperfect, a word of caution when reading seemingly poetic parallelisms is in order. We need not arbitrarily think that because two lines seem to be a parallelism they are always that and no more. The context or another part of the Bible may explain the terms differently. Thus a prophecy concerning Messiah (who proved to be Jesus) at Zechariah 9:9 (New English Bible) says:
“Rejoice, rejoice, daughter of Zion,
shout aloud, daughter of Jerusalem;
for see, your king is coming to you,
his cause won, his victory gained,
humble and mounted on an ass,
on a foal, the young of a she-ass.”
On superficial reading, the words “an ass” and “a foal, the young of a she-ass,” may appear to be no more than parallel expressions referring, really, to only one animal. True, the “ass” and the “foal, the young,” are one animal. However, in the fulfillment, according to Matthew’s account (Mt 21:1-5), Jesus dispatched disciples to “find an ass tied, and a colt with her.” “Untie them and bring them to me,” he said. The Bible thus interprets Zechariah’s prophecy to mean two animals, namely, both the “ass” or “foal, the young,” and its mother, the “she-ass.” Jesus did not ride the “she-ass.”
With a better understanding of the basic poetic style of God’s Word of truth we are led to appreciate its literary beauty. More importantly, we are aided to find its real meaning.2