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Poetry of the Hebrews

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

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Among the books of the Old Testament, says Bishop Lowth, there is such an apparent diversity in style, as sufficiently discovers which of them are to be considered as poetical, and which as prose. While the historical books and legislative writings of Moses are evidently prosaic compositions, the book of Job, the Psalms of David, the Song of Solomon, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, a great part of the prophetical writings, and several passages scattered occasionally through the historical books, carry the most plain and distinguishing marks of poetical writing. There is not the least reason for doubting that originally these were written in verse, or some kind of measured numbers; though, as the ancient pronunciation of the Hebrew language is now lost, we are not able to ascertain the nature of the Hebrew verse, or at most can ascertain it but imperfectly. Let any person read the historical introduction to the book of Job, contained in the first and second chapters, and then go on to Job's speech in the beginning of the third chapter, and he cannot avoid being sensible that he passes all at once from the legion of prose to that of poetry. From the earliest times music and poetry were cultivated among the Hebrews. In the days of the judges mention is made of the schools or colleges of the prophets, where one part of the employment of the persons trained in such schools was to sing the praises of God, accompanied with various instruments. But in the days of King David music and poetry were carried to the greatest height. In 1 Chronicles 25, an account is given of David's institutions relating to the sacred music and poetry, which were certainly more costly, more splendid and magnificent, than ever obtained in the public service of any other nation. See PSALMS .

The general construction of the Hebrew poetry is of a singular nature, and peculiar to itself. It consists in dividing every period into correspondent, for the most part into equal members, which answer to one another both in sense and sound. In the first member of the period a sentiment is expressed; and in the second member the same sentiment is amplified, or is repeated in different terms, or sometimes contrasted with its opposite; but in such a manner, that the same structure, and nearly the same number of words, is preserved. This is the general strain of all the Hebrew poetry. Instances of it occur every where on opening the Old Testament. Thus, in Psalms 96 :—

"Sing unto the Lord a new song. Sing unto the Lord, all the earth.

Sing unto the Lord, and bless his name. Show forth his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the Heathen,

His wonders among all the people.

For the Lord is great, and greatly to be praised.

He is to be feared above all the gods. Honour and majesty are before him; Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary."

It is owing in a great measure to this form of composition, that our version, though in prose, retains so much of a poetical cast: for, the version being strictly word for word after the original, the form and order of the original sentence are preserved; which, by this artificial structure, this regular alternation and correspondence of parts, makes the ear sensible of a departure from the common style and tone of prose. The origin of this form of poetical composition among the Hebrews is clearly to be deduced from the manner in which their sacred hymns were wont to be sung. They were accompanied with music, and they were performed by choirs or bands of singers and musicians, who answered alternately to each other. When, for instance, one band began the hymn thus: "The Lord reigneth, let the earth rejoice;" the chorus, or semi-chorus, took up the corresponding versicle, "Let the multitude of the isles be glad thereof." "Clouds and darkness are round about him," sung the one; the other replied, "Judgment and righteousness are the habitation of his throne." And in this manner their poetry, when set to music, naturally divided itself into a succession of strophes and antistrophes correspondent to each other; whence it is probable the antiphon, or responsory, in the public religious service of so many Christian churches, derived its origin. The twenty-fourth Psalm, in particular, which is thought to have been composed on the great and solemn occasion of the ark of the covenant being brought back to Mount Zion, must have had a noble effect when performed after this manner, as Dr. Lowth has illustrated it. The whole people are supposed to be attending the procession. The Levites and singers, divided into their several courses, and accompanied with all their musical instruments, led the way. After the introduction to the Psalm, in the two first verses, when the procession begins to ascend the sacred mount, the question is put, as by a semi-chorus, "Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord, and who shall stand in his holy place?" The response is made by the full chorus with the greatest dignity: "He that hath clean hands and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul to vanity, nor sworn deceitfully." As the procession approaches to the doors of the tabernacle, the chorus, with all their instruments, join in this exclamation: "Lift up your heads, ye gates, and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in."

Here the semi-chorus plainly breaks in, as with a lower voice, "Who is this King of glory?" And at the moment when the ark is introduced into the tabernacle, the response is made by the burst of the whole chorus: "The Lord, strong and mighty; the Lord, mighty in battle."

The method of composition which has been explained, by correspondent versicles being universally introduced into the hymns or musical poetry of the Jews, easily spread itself through their other poetical writings, which were not designed to be sung in alternate portions, and which, therefore, did not so much require this mode of composition. But the mode became familiar to their ears, and carried with it a certain solemn majesty of style, particularly suited to sacred subjects. Hence, throughout the prophetical writings, we find it prevailing as much as in the Psalms of David. This form of writing is one of the great characteristics of the ancient Hebrew poetry; very different from, and even opposite to, the style of the Greek and Roman poets. Independently of this peculiar mode of construction, the sacred poetry is distinguished by the highest beauties of strong, concise, bold, and figurative expression. Conciseness and strength are two of its most remarkable characters. One might, indeed, imagine that the practice of the Hebrew poets, of always amplifying the same thought, by repetition or contrast, might tend to enfeeble their style. But they conduct themselves so as not to produce this effect. Their sentences are always short. Few superfluous words are used. The same thought is not dwelt upon long. To their conciseness and sobriety of expression their poetry is indebted for much of its sublimity; and all writers who attempt the sublime might profit much by imitating, in this respect, the style of the Old Testament.

No writings whatever abound so much with the most bold and animated figures as the sacred books. In order to do justice to these, it is necessary that we transport ourselves as much as we can into the land of Judea, and place before our eyes that scenery and those objects with which the Hebrew writers were conversant. Natural objects are in some measure common to them with poets of all ages and countries. Light and darkness, trees and flowers, the forest and the cultivated field, suggest to them many beautiful figures. But, in order to relish their figures of this kind, we must take notice that several of them arise from the particular circumstances of the land of Judea. During the summer months little or no rain falls throughout all that region. While the heats continued, the country was intolerably parched; want of water was a great distress; and a plentiful shower falling, or a rivulet breaking forth, altered the whole face of nature, and introduced much higher ideas of refreshment and pleasure than the like causes can suggest to us. Hence, to represent distress, such frequent allusions among them, "to a dry and thirsty land where no water is;" and hence, to describe a change from distress to prosperity, their metaphors are founded on the falling of showers, and the bursting out of springs in the desert. Thus: "The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose. For in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert; and the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land, springs of water; in the habitation of dragons there shall be grass, with rushes and reeds," Isaiah 35:1; Isaiah 35:6-7 . Images of this nature are very familiar to Isaiah, and occur in many parts of his book. Again; as Judea was a hilly country, it was, during the rainy months, exposed to frequent inundations by the rushing of torrents, which came down suddenly from the mountains, and carried every thing before them; and Jordan, their only great river, annually overflowed its banks. Hence the frequent allusions to "the noise, and to the rushings of many waters;" and hence great calamities so often compared to the overflowing torrent, which, in such a country, must have been images particularly striking: "Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy water spouts; all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me," Psalms 42:7 . The two most remarkable mountains of the country were Lebanon and Carmel; the former noted for its height, and the woods of lofty cedars that covered it; the latter, for its beauty and fertility, the richness of its vines and olives. Hence, with the greatest propriety, Lebanon is employed as an image of whatever is great, strong, or magnificent; Carmel, of what is smiling and beautiful. "The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, and the excellency of Carmel," Isaiah 35:2 . Lebanon is often put metaphorically for the whole state or people of Israel, for the temple, for the king of Assyria; Carmel, for the blessings of peace and prosperity. "His countenance is as Lebanon," says Solomon, speaking of the dignity of a man's appearance; but when he describes female beauty, "Thine head is like Mount Carmel,"

Song of Solomon 5:15; Song of Solomon 7:5 . It is farther to be remarked under this head, that, in the images of the awful and terrible kind, with which the sacred poets abound, they plainly draw their descriptions from that violence of the elements, and those great concussions of nature, with which their climate rendered them acquainted. Earthquakes were not unfrequent; and the tempests of hail, thunder, and lightning, in Judea and Arabia, accompanied with whirlwinds and darkness, far exceed any thing of that sort which happens in more temperate regions. Isaiah 24:20 , describes with great majesty, the earth, "reeling to and fro like a drunkard, and removed like a cottage." And those circumstances of terror, with which an appearance of the Almighty is described, in Psalms 18, when his pavilion round about him was darkness: when hail stones and coals of fire were his voice; and when, at his rebuke, the channels of the waters are said to be seen, and the foundations of the hills discovered; though there may be some reference, as Dr. Lowth thinks, to the history of God's descent upon Mount Sinai; yet it seems more probable that the figures were taken directly from those commotions of nature with which the author was acquainted, and which suggested stronger and nobler images than those which now occur to us.

Beside the natural objects of their own country, we find the rites of their religion, and the arts and employments of their common life, frequently employed as grounds of imagery among the Hebrews. Hence flowed, of course, the many allusions to pastoral life, to the "green pastures and the still waters," and to the care and watchfulness of a shepherd over his flock, which carry to this day so much beauty and tenderness in them, in Psalms 23, and in many other passages of the poetical writings of Scripture. Hence all the images founded upon rural employments, upon the wine press, the threshing floor, the stubble and the chaff. To disrelish all such images is the effect of false delicacy. Homer is at least as frequent, and much more minute and particular, in his similes, founded on what we now call low life; but, in his management of them, far inferior to the sacred writers, who generally mix with their comparisons of this kind somewhat of dignity and grandeur to ennoble them. What inexpressible grandeur does the following rural image in Isaiah, for instance, receive from the intervention of the Deity!— "The nations shall rush like the rushings of many waters; but God shall rebuke them, and they shall fly far off; and they shall be chased as the chaff of the mountain before the wind, and like the down of the thistle before the whirlwind." Figurative allusions, too, we frequently find to the rites and ceremonies of their religion, to the legal distinctions of things clean and unclean, to the mode of their temple service, to the dress of their priests, and to the most noted incidents recorded in their sacred history; as, to the destruction of Sodom, the descent of God upon Mount Sinai, and the miraculous passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea. The religion of the Hebrews included the whole of their laws and civil constitution. It was full of splendid external rites, that occupied their senses; it was connected with every part of their national history and establishment; and hence, all ideas founded on religion possessed in this nation a dignity and importance peculiar to themselves, and were uncommonly suited to impress the imagination.

From all this it results that the imagery of the sacred poets is, in a high degree, expressive and natural; it is copied directly from real objects that were before their eyes; it has this advantage, of being more complete within itself, more entirely founded on national ideas and manners, than that of the most of other poets. In reading their works we find ourselves continually in the land of Judea. The palm trees, and the cedars of Lebanon, are ever rising in our view. The face of their territory, the circumstances of their climate, the manners of the people, and the August ceremonies of their religion, constantly pass under different forms before us. The comparisons employed by the sacred poets are generally short, touching on one point only of resemblance, rather than branching out into little episodes. In this respect they have an advantage over the Greek and Roman authors; whose comparisons, by the length to which they are extended, sometimes interrupt the narration too much, and carry too visible marks of study and labour; whereas, in the Hebrew poets, they appear more like the glowings of a lively fancy, just glancing aside to some resembling object, and presently returning to its track. Such is the following fine comparison, introduced to describe the happy influence of good government upon a people, in what are called the last words of David: "He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God; and he shall be as the light of the morning when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth, by clear shining after rain," 2 Samuel 23:3 . This is one of the most regular and formal comparisons in the sacred books.

Allegory, likewise, is a figure frequently found in them. But the poetical figure which, beyond all others, elevates the style of Scripture, and gives it a peculiar boldness and sublimity, is prosopopoeia, or personification. No personifications employed by any poets are so magnificent and striking as those of the inspired writers. On great occasions they animate every part of nature, especially when any appearance or operation of the Almighty is concerned. "Before him went the pestilence." "The waters saw thee, O

God, and were afraid." "The mountains saw thee, and they trembled." "The overflowing of the water passed by." "The deep uttered his voice, and lifted up his hands on high." When inquiry is made about the place of wisdom, Job introduces the deep, saying, "It is not in me; and the sea saith, It is not in me. Destruction and death say, We have heard the fame thereof with our ears." That noted sublime passage in the book of Isaiah, which describes the fall of the king of Assyria, is full of personified objects; the fir trees and cedars of Lebanon breaking forth into exultation on the fall of the tyrant; hell from beneath stirring up all the dead to meet him at his coming; and the dead kings introduced as speaking and joining in the triumph. In the same strain are those many lively and passionate apostrophes to cities and countries, to persons and things, with which the prophetical writings every where abound. "O thou sword of the Lord, how long will it be ere thou be quiet? Put thyself up into the scabbard, rest, and be still. How can it be quiet," as the reply is instantly made, "seeing the Lord hath given it a charge against Askelon, and the sea shore? there hath he appointed it,"

Jeremiah 47:6 . In general, for it would carry us too far to enlarge upon all the instances, the style of the poetical books of the Old Testament is, beyond the style of all other poetical works, fervid, bold, and animated. It is extremely different from that regular correct expression to which our ears are accustomed in modern poetry. It is the burst of inspiration. The scenes are not coolly described, but represented as passing before our eyes. Every object and every person is addressed and spoken to, as if present.

The transition is often abrupt; the connection often obscure; the persons are often changed; figures crowded, and heaped upon one another. Bold sublimity, not correct elegance, is its character, We see the spirit of the writer raised beyond himself, and labouring to find vent for ideas too mighty for his utterance.

The several kinds of poetical composition which we find in Scripture are chiefly the didactic, elegiac, pastoral, and lyric. Of the didactic species of poetry, the book of Proverbs is the principal instance. The first nine chapters of that book are highly poetical, adorned with many distinguished graces, and figures of expression. The book of Ecclesiastes comes, likewise, under this head; and some of the Psalms, as the hundred and nineteenth in particular. Of elegiac poetry, many very beautiful specimens occur in Scripture; such as the lamentation of David over his friend Jonathan; several passages in the prophetical books; and several of David's Psalms, composed on occasions of distress and mourning. The forty- second Psalm, in particular, is, in the highest degree, tender and plaintive. But the most regular and perfect elegiac composition in the Scripture, perhaps in the whole world, is the Lamentations of Jeremiah. As the prophet mourns, in that book, over the destruction of the temple and the holy city, and the overthrow of the whole state, he assembles all the affecting images which a subject so melancholy could suggest. The Song of Solomon affords us a high exemplification of pastoral poetry. Considered with respect to its spiritual meaning, it is undoubtedly a mystical allegory; in its form it is a dramatic pastoral, or a perpetual dialogue between personages in the character of shepherds; and, suitably to that form, it is full of rural and pastoral images from beginning to end. Of lyric poetry, or that which is intended to be accompanied with music, the Old Testament is full. Beside a great number of hymns and songs, which we find scattered in the historical and prophetical books, such as the song of Moses, the song of Deborah, and many others of like nature, the whole book of Psalms is to be considered as a collection of sacred odes. In these we find the ode exhibited in all the varieties of its form, and supported with the highest spirit of lyric poetry: sometimes sprightly, cheerful, and triumphant; sometimes solemn and magnificent; sometimes tender and soft. From these instances it clearly appears, that there are contained in the Holy Scriptures full exemplifications of several of the chief kinds of poetical writing.

Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Poetry of the Hebrews'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wtd/​p/poetry-of-the-hebrews.html. 1831-2.
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