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Bible Dictionaries
Poetry of the Hebrews

American Tract Society Bible Dictionary

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Of all the fine arts, poetry alone was cultivated among the Hebrews; and under the inspiration of the Almighty was carried to the highest degree of perfection. The poetry of this people was almost wholly lyric; whether didactic, elegiac, pastoral, or prophetic, it was still LYRIC. The essence of lyric poetry is the vivid expression of internal emotions. It is therefore subjective; in opposition to epic poetry, which treats of external objects, and is therefore objective.

The chief subject of Hebrew poetry was religion, and then patriotism; which, under the theocracy, was very nearly allied to religion. The most obvious and striking characteristic of the poetry of the Hebrews is sublimity. Religious poetry to the Jews; the little that is found among other ancient nations is unworthy of comparison with it; as also is the Koran, which is an attempted imitation of the poetical parts of the Old Testament. The present prevailing views of the nature of Hebrew poetry were first developed by Bishop Lowth in his Lectures on the Poetry of the Hebrews.

Hebrew poetry differs from Hebrew prose in three respects:

1. In the peculiar poetical nature of the contents; of which the characteristics are sublimity, boldness, abruptness, lofty metaphors, personifications, etc.

2. In the peculiarities of the poetic dialect or diction, which, however, are not so striking as among the Greeks and Romans 3 . In rhythm, which differs from meter; the latter, importing a measure of syllables or feet, the former a harmonious arrangement of words and members. It is the opinion of those best acquainted with the subject, that the Hebrews had no prosody, that is, no measure of syllables into poetic feet, as dactyles, trochees, and spondees. It is believed that the signed to be sung or chanted, was characterized by a certain melodious flow and cadence which is now irrecoverably lost, together with the true pronunciation of the language.

But aside from this, the rhythm of Hebrew poetry consists in what is called it PARALLELISM, of which the fundamental principle is, that every verse must consist of at least two corresponding parts or members.

The parallelism of Hebrew poetry occurs either in the thought, or solely in the form. Of the former there are three kinds: namely,

1. Synonymous; where the two members express the same idea in different, but closely and often literally, corresponding words: as for example,

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou dost visit him? Psalm 8:4 .

Why do the heathen rage? And the people imagine a vain thing? Psalm 2:1 .

He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; The Lord shall have them in derision Psalm 2:4 .

Doth the wild ass bray when he hath grass? Or loweth the ox over his fodder? Job 6:5 .

So also the song of Lamehc, Genesis 4:23 Job 7:1 , etc.

2. Antithetical; where an antithesis of thought is expressed by corresponding members; as for example,

The house of the wicked shall be overthrown; but the tabernacle of the upright shall flourish. Proverbs 14:11 .

A soft answer turneth away wrath; but frievous words stir up anger. Proverbs 15:1 3 . Synthetic; which is a mere juxtaposition; or rather, the thought is carried forward in the second member with some addition; the correspondence of words and construction being as before: as for example,

The law of the lord is perfect, converting the soul:

The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.

The statues of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart:

The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.

The fear of the lord is clean, enduring forever.

The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. Psalm 19:7-9 .

Mere rhythmical parallelism is that in which no similarity or correspondence of thought exists; but the verse is divided by the caesura, as it were, into corresponding numbers. This is the most imperfect species of parallelism, and may be compared with the hexameter, divided by the caesura, as for example,

Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. Psalm 2:3 .

Many there be which say of my soul, there is no help for him in God. Psalm 3:2 .

This is most common in the book of Lamentations, where there is hardly any other species of parallelism.

Thus far we have had regard to the simplest and most perfect parallelisms of two members, such as are more usually found in the Psalms, Job, etc. But in the prophets and a few of the psalms, we find a less regular, and sometimes compound parallelism. Thus the parallelism is irregular when one member is shorter than the other; as Hosea 4:17 :

Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone.

Of compound parallelisms there are various kinds; as when the verse has three members either parallel with each other, a sin Job 3:4 , or two of them standing opposed to the third: as for example,

The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib; but Israel do the not know, my people doth not consider. Isaiah 1:3 .

As the heaven is high above the earth, So great is his mercy towards them that fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us, Psalm 103:11-12 .

They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not; they have ears, but they hear not; neither is there nay breath in their mouths. Psalm 135:16-17 .

We may name Psalm 2:1-12 15:1-5 , as affording examples of most of the species of poetic parallelism.

In the common manuscripts and editions of the Hebrew Bible, the members of the parallelisms in the poetical arts are not written or printed separately; but the accents serve to divide them. In other editions, however, the members are printed separately. It is matter of regret that this mode was not adopted in our English version; since in many cases the common reader has now no means of distinguishing whether what he reads is poetry or prose in Hebrew.

The preceding principles refer solely to the rhythm of Hebrew poetry. Besides this, there are other peculiarities; as for example, the strophe, as in Psalm 107:1-43 , and in Psalm 42:1-43:5 , where verses 5,11, and 5, are burdens or refrain, repeated at the end of each strophe. So also the alphabetic psalms and poems, (see LETTERS;) and the psalms of degrees, in which the chief words of each verse are taken up and repeated at the beginning of the next verse. See DEGREES, PSALMS OF.

More than a third of the Old Testament is poetry in Hebrew, including most of Job, the Psalms, Solomon's books, and the greater part of the prophets; technically, however, in the usage of the Jews, the three poetic books of the Old Testament are Job, Psalms, and Proverbs, which have a system of accentuation peculiar to themselves. Poetic fragments are also found here and there in the historical books, as in Genesis 4:23-24 Exodus 32:18 Numbers 21:14-15,18,27-30 23:7,18 24:3,15 . In the New Testament, also, many passages occur in which this Begrew style seems to be transferred to the Greek, Matthew 8:20 Luke 1:46-47 Romans 11:33-35 Revelation 18:1-19:3 .

Bibliography Information
Rand, W. W. Entry for 'Poetry of the Hebrews'. American Tract Society Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​ats/​p/poetry-of-the-hebrews.html. 1859.
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