Introduction to Biblical Poetry
It is generally accepted that the Bible has done more to shape characters, literature, history and culture than any book ever written. The holy book is one unified story containing prophecies, hymns, prayers, erotica, letters and more; however, in this article, we will take a closer look at its poetic qualities, which account for 30% of the anthology’s composition.
The majority of God’s speech in the Bible comes forth as poetry. It is also prevalent in biblical narrative for the story to pause while a character breaks into poetic song, like the Exodus; There is an anecdote about Moses leading the Israelites through the waters of the sea, followed by a beautiful poem about the victory.
“and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.”– (Exodus 14:22)
The victory poem:
“By the blast of your nostrils
the waters piled up.
The surging waters stood up like a wall;
the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea.”- (Exodus 15:8)
The poem ignites your imagination through the experience of verbal art. Biblical poetry does not follow the conventional rules like meter, cadence and rhyme. Instead, ancient Hebrew prophets used a specific set of tools. They relied heavily on free verse.
Biblical poems are mostly couplets; these are two successive lines of verse forming a unit, usually marked by rhythmic correspondence. These ancient poets also used repetition on a larger scale. You can often find a critical line repeated multiple times, also called a “refrain”, or they will open and close a poem with a similar couplet- or an “inclusio”.
We can generally break down the biblical books of poetry into two schools: History books and prophecy books.
History books relay the narratives about Israel’s nation’s history and the Israelites relationship with God, whereas prophecy books are named after the protagonists that brought Israel messages on God’s behalf.
If you are familiar with the bible, you will be aware that it has two sections: the New Testament and The Old Testament. The Old Testament deals with God and his relationship with the nation of Israel. The New Testament follows the life and teachings of Jesus and his followers that came after him.
The books of poetry fall in the middle of the Old Testament. These books highlight Israel’s history and their journey from Egypt to the land that God promised their ancestors. How Israel eventually lost that land to the Babylonian Emprire, how they found their way back and the difficult decision they had to face about whether to remain loyal to God or do things their way.
There are six books of poetry. These books explore the God of Israel and the world in which we reside. They are further broken down into two tracks: ‘Wisdom literature’ and ‘songs.’
These books focus on understanding how the world (should) work and bringing order from chaos. The greatest act of wisdom is the act of creation, right at the beginning of the Bible.
“And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.”– (Genesis 1:3-5)
Notice how darkness and light symbolise good and evil? The writer is quick to use literary devices such as metaphors and symbolism because they also shape our imaginations and govern our thinking. These poetic devices are a staple in Biblical poetry and are found throughout the holy scriptures, particularly the six books in this study.
The book of Job
In the book of Job, a good man experiences tragic misfortune. He loses his family, his wealth and eventually his health. The big takeaway in this book is that God operates at a scale we cannot see. Here’s an example of the masterful poetic dialogues found within the text:
“At least there is hope for a tree:
If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
and its new shoots will not fail.
Its roots may grow old in the ground
and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water, it will bud
and put forth shoots like a plant.
But a man dies and is laid low;
he breathes his last and is no more.
As the water of a lake dries up
or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,
so he lies down and does not rise;
till the heavens are no more, people will not awake
or be roused from their sleep.” – (Job 14:7–12)
The book of Proverbs
The book of Proverbs is an anthology of wise sayings. Its theme centres around God’s wisdom and how it is available to all who seek it. Instead of rhyming the successive lines of a poem, Biblical poetry matches the thought in consecutive lines. This feature of Hebrew poetry is called parallelism. The following are three different types of parallelism used in Proverbs:
It occurs when the second line repeats the first line’s thought but in different words. The repetition intensifies the thoughts and feelings on display.
“A false witness will not go unpunished,
And he who speaks lies will not escape”- (Proverbs 19:5).
In this poetic style, the second line advances the thought of the first. Each bar is synonymous, but each additional line adds to the idea of the first, making it more specific.
“The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger,
And his glory is to overlook a transgression”- (Proverbs 19:11).
In this feature, the second line is the opposite of the first; this type of construction is the most common of the different types.
“He who keeps the commandment keeps his soul,
But he who is careless of his ways will die”- (Proverbs 19:16).
The Book Of Ecclesiastes
The book of Ecclesiastes highlights the emptiness of trying to be happy apart from God. It maintains that life is unpredictable, so follow God and enjoy what you can. The most famous verse in the book reads as follows:
“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.”- Ecclesiastes 3:1-10
These books are a different set of literature from the wisdom books, the most famous being the book of psalms, a long anthology of over one hundred and fifty articles written for temple worship and displaced Israelites.
The book of Psalms
The book of Psalms is more than one book; it comprises five volumes brought together by one theme; Praise God, trust and hope in his justice, mercy and love.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.”- Psalms 23:1-4
Song of Songs
There is no plot and no mention of God in this book; it is a collection of erotic poetry. The book is a lengthy dialogue between a young woman and her lover. The theme: Love is a satisfying and powerful taste of paradise. It contains a plethora of “garden imagery” reminiscent of the creation story- that initial paradise in which the Jews believed God created for humans.
“While the king was at his table,
my perfume spread its fragrance.
My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh
resting between my breasts.
My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms
from the vineyards of En Gedi.”- Song of Songs 1:12-14
The book of Lamentations
To Lament is to recognise pain and injustice and make a case to God. This book is a set of five dirges for the fall of Jerusalem. It explores how Israel disobeyed God and the consequences that followed. It is a concise book of five beautifully arranged songs that call out to God in repentance. The overwhelming theme in this book is that; God is faithful, even when his people are not.
“How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave.”- Lamentations 1
Poetry Isn’t something that you master and then move on. Biblical poems are a bottomless well, overflowing with a surplus of meaning for all those willing to slow down and ponder on them.