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Reference: Poetry Of The Hebrews


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? Ps 8:4.

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

He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; The Lord shall have them in derision Ps 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, Ge 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. Pr 14:11.

A soft answer turneth away wrath; but frievous words stir up anger. Pr 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. Ps 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. Ps 2:3.

Many there be which say of my soul, there is no help for him in God. Ps 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 Ho 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. Isa 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, Ps 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. Ps 135:16-17.

We may name Ps 2; 15, 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 Ps 107, and in Ps 42-43, 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.

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 Ge 4:23-24; Ex 32:18; Nu 21:14-15,18'>18,27-30; 23:7,18'>18; 24:3,15. In the New Testament, also, many passages occur in which this Begrew style seems to be transferred to the Greek, Mt 8:20; Lu 1:46-47; Ro 11:33-35; Re 18:1-19:3.

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POETRY OF THE HEBREWS. 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 Psalm 96:

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