has been well defined as "the measured language of emotion." Hebrew poetry deals almost exclusively with the great question of man's relation to God. "Guilt, condemnation, punishment, pardon, redemption, repentance are the awful themes of this heaven-born poetry."
In the Hebrew scriptures there are found three distinct kinds of poetry, (1) that of the Book of Job and the Song of Solomon, which is dramatic; (2) that of the Book of Psalms, which is lyrical; and (3) that of the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is didactic and sententious.
Hebrew poetry has nothing akin to that of Western nations. It has neither metre nor rhyme. Its great peculiarity consists in the mutual correspondence of sentences or clauses, called parallelism, or "thought-rhyme." Various kinds of this parallelism have been pointed out:
(1.) Synonymous or cognate parallelism, where the same idea is repeated in the same words (Ps 93:3; 94:1; Pr 6:2), or in different words (PS 22, 23, 28, 114, etc.); or where it is expressed in a positive form in the one clause and in a negative in the other (Ps 40:12; Pr 6:26); or where the same idea is expressed in three successive clauses (Ps 40:15-16); or in a double parallelism, the first and second clauses corresponding to the third and fourth (Isa 9:1; 61:10-11).
(2.) Antithetic parallelism, where the idea of the second clause is the converse of that of the first (Ps 20:8; 27:6-7; 34:11; 37:9,17,21-22). This is the common form of gnomic or proverbial poetry. (See PR 10-15.)
(4.) Introverted parallelism, in which of four clauses the first answers to the fourth and the second to the third (Ps 135:15-18; Pr 23:15-16), or where the second line reverses the order of words in the first (Ps 86:2).
Hebrew poetry sometimes assumes other forms than these. (1.) An alphabetical arrangement is sometimes adopted for the purpose of connecting clauses or sentences. Thus in the following the initial words of the respective verses begin with the letters of the alphabet in regular succession: Pr 31:10-31; LA 1, 2, 3, 4; PS 25, 34, 37, 145. PS 119 has a letter of the alphabet in regular order beginning every eighth verse.
(2.) The repetition of the same verse or of some emphatic expression at intervals (PS 42, 107, where the refrain is in verses, 8, 15, 21, 31). (Comp. also Isa 9:8-10:4; Am 1:3,6'>6,9,11,13; 2:1,4,6'>6.)
(3.) Gradation, in which the thought of one verse is resumed in another (Ps 121).
Several odes of great poetical beauty are found in the historical books of the Old Testament, such as the song of Moses (Ex 15), the song of Deborah (Jg 5), of Hannah (1Sa 2), of Hezekiah (Isa 38:9-20), of Habakkuk (Hab 3), and David's "song of the bow" (2Sa 1:19-27).
The peculiarity of the Hebrew poetical age is that it was always historical and true, never mythical, as the early age of national lays in all other nations, as Hindostan, Greece, and Rome. The oldest portions of Old Testament history, namely, the Pentateuch, have the least of the poetical and imaginative element. Elijah, the father of the prophets, was no poet; nor were the prophets poets strictly, except insofar as in their teachings they were lifted up to the poetic modes of thought and expression. The schools of the prophets diffused a religious spirit, lyric instruments were used to accompany their prophesyings; but David it was (Am 6:5) who molded lyric effusions of devotion into a permanent and more perfect style.
Poetry in other countries was the earliest form of composition, being most easily retained in the memory; and compositions in the early ages were diffused more by oral recitation than by reading, books being scarce and in many places unknown. But the earliest Hebrew Scriptures (the Pentateuch) have less of the poetic element than the later; so entirely has the divine Author guarded against the mythical admixture which is found in early heathen lays.
HEBREW VERSIFICATION. Oriental poetry embalmed its sentiments in terse, proverbial sentences, called mashal.
I. Acrosticism or alphabetical arrangement was adopted in combining sentiments, the mutual connection of which was loose (Lamentations 1). No traces of it exist before David, who doubtless originated it (Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 145). In later alphabetical psalms there is more regularity than in David's, and less simplicity; as Psalm 111; 112, have every half verse marked by a letter, and Psalm 119 has a letter appropriated to every eight verses.
III. Parallelism is the characteristic form of Hebrew poetry. Its peculiar excellence is that, whereas poetry of other nations suffers much by translation, (for the versification depends on the recurrence of certain sounds at regular intervals), Hebrew poetry suffers but little, for its principle is the parallel correspondence of thoughts, not sounds, thought/rhythm Ewald designates it; a remarkable proof that from the first the Spirit designed Holy Scripture for nations of every tongue. Rabbi Azariah anticipated Bishop Lowth in the theory of parallelism. Parallelism affords a clue to the meaning of many passages, the sense of a word being explained by the corresponding word in the parallel clause. The Masoretic punctuation marks the metrical arrangement by distinctive accents; the thought in the inspired volume is more prominent than the form. The earliest instance of parallelism is in Enoch's prophecy (Jg 1:14) and Lamech's parody of it (Ge 4:23-24). (See LAMECH.) The kinds distinguished are:
(2) the antithetic, in which the idea of the second clause is the converse of that in the first (Pr 10:1);
(3) the synthetic or competing, where there is a correspondence between different sentences, noun answering to noun, verb to verb, member to member, the sentiment in each being enforced by accessory ideas (Isa 55:6-7). Also alternate (Isa 51:19), "desolation and destruction, and the famine and the sword," desolation by famine and destruction by the sword, introverted, where the fourth answers to the first and the third to the second (Mt 7:6). Epic poetry, as having its proper sphere in a mythical, heroic age, is not found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Nor is the drama; though dramatic elements occur in Job, the Song of Solomon, and some psalms, as Psalm 32, where occur transitions, without introduction, from speaking of God to speaking to God; Ps 132:8-10,14, where the psalmist's prayer and God's answer beautifully correspond. The whole period before David furnished no psalm to the psalter, except Psalm 90, by Moses, and possibly Psalm 91. The book of the wars of the Lord (Nu 21:14,17,27) and the book of Jasher (the upright) or the worthies of Israel (Jeshurun: De 32:15, compare 2Sa 1:18; 1Sa 18:7) were secular.
David's spiritual songs gained such a hold of the nation that worldly songs thenceforth held a low place (Isa 5:12; Am 6:5). Israel's song at the Red Sea (Exodus 15), the priests' benediction (Nu 5:22-26), Moses' chant at the moving and resting of the ark Nu 9:23), Deborah's song (Judges 5), and Hannah's song (1 Samuel 2) laid the foundation for the full outburst of psalmody in David's days; and are in part appropriated in some of the psalms. The national religious awakening under Samuel, with which are connected the schools of the prophets (1Sa 10:5-11; 19:19-24) having a lyrical character, immediately prepared the way. David, combining creative poetical genius with a special gift of the Spirit, produced the psalms which form the chief part of the psalter, and on which the subsequent writers of psalms mainly lean. Persecution in part fitted him for his work; as was well said, "where would have been David's psalms if he had not been persecuted?"
SACRED SINGERS. When David became king be gave psalmody a leading place in the public liturgy. A sacred choir was formed, himself at its head; then followed the three chief musicians, Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun; then Asaph's four sons, Jeduthun's six, and Heman's 14. Each of these sons had 12 singers under him, 288 in all. Besides, there were 4,000 Levite singers (1 Chronicles 25); Asaph with his company was with the ark on Zion; Heman and Jeduthun with the tabernacle at Gibeon (1Ch 16:37-42).
MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS. Stringed instruments predominated in the sacred music, psalteries and harps; cymbals were only for occasions of special joy (Ps 150:5). Trumpets with loud hoarse note accompanied the bringing in of the ark (1Ch 15:24); also at the temple's consecration (2Ch 5:12); also at the restoration of temple worship under Hezekiah (2Ch 29:26-27); also at the founding of the second temple (Ezr 3:10). David invented, or improved, some of the instruments (1Ch 23:5; 2Ch 7:6; Ne 12:36). The poetical books are Job, Psalms. Proverbs, and the Song of Solomon. Simplicity and freshness are combined with sublimity. "The Spirit of the Lord spoke by" the Hebrew poet, "and His word was upon his tongue" (2Sa 23:2). Even the music was put in charge of spiritually gifted men, and Heman was "the king's seer in the words of God" (1Ch 25:1,5). The sacred poet represents the personal experiences of the children of God and of the whole church.
Scripture poetry supplies a want not provided for by the law, inspired and sanctioned devotional forms to express in public worship and in private the feelings of pious Israelites. The Psalms draw forth front beneath the legal types their hidden essence and spirit, adapting them to the various spiritual exigencies of individual and congregational life. Nature's testimony to the unseen, God's glory and goodness, is also embodied in the inspired poetry of the Psalms. The psalter is the Israelite's book of devotion. enabling him to enter into the spirit of the services of the sanctuary, and so to feel his need of Messiah, whose coming the Psalms announce. Christ in His inner life as the Godman, and in His past, present, and future relations to the church and the world, is the ultimate theme throughout. It furnishes to us also divinely sanctioned language to express prayer and thanksgiving to God and communion with our fellow saints. Besides parallelism, poetic expressions distinguish Hebrew poetry from prose.
David's lament over Jonathan is a beautiful specimen of another feature of Hebrew poetry, the strophe; three strophes being marked by the thrice recurrence of the dirge, sung by the chorus; the first dirge sung by the whole body of singers representing Israel; the second by a chorus of damsels; the third by a chorus of youths (2Sa 1:17,27). The predominant style of lyrical poetry is apparently derived front an earlier terse and sententious kind, resembling that of Proverbs. The Eastern mind embodies thought in pith
1. The presence of poetry in the Bible is natural and fitting. As it is the form of composition which is easiest to memorize, whether in the earlier stages of a literature, or later in the expression of common religious experience, it is natural that poetry should be preserved, and should be the preserver of Hebrew thought. As the form of literature which is concrete in its pictures, it is to be expected that the Hebrew people, to whom abstract thought and terminology are almost unknown, would employ it very freely. As the literature of emotion and imagination, it is naturally used to express religious emotion and religious ideals. It does not suffice, however, to state the fitness of poetry to satisfy in a measure the purposes for which the Bible was written. Does it actually contain poetry? The answer is to be found only by examination of its contents, and only an affirmative answer is possible. Though the Psalms have not been written in poetical form for two thousand years, yet their poetry cannot be obscured. Scholars may differ as to the forms and laws of Hebrew poetry, yet they do not venture to say that none is to be found in the Bible.
The presence of poetry must he recognized if one would gain any adequate knowledge of the Scriptures. Otherwise correct interpretation is impossible. From failure in this respect in the past, our theology has suffered, the warfare between the Bible and science has been intensified if not caused, and Christians have lost immeasurably the comfort and spiritual help available from this kind of literature. Poetry must be interpreted as poetry. To apply to it the same principles of exegesis as are applied to prose is highly absurd; for in attempting to mark the differences between prose and poetry we must go below the form of language, and note that there is a distinctly poetic mode of thought and range of ideas. The facts of experience are so grouped and wrought upon by the imagination as to become a new creation. The singer is not bound to time or place; he speaks in figure without knowing that it is a figure; he speaks in hyperbole because he does not have the sense of proportion. The poetry of the thought affects also the vocahulary of the singer; it modifies his word meanings, and affects his grammar. It alters his literary style, and there arises a distinct study, that of literature as poetry
The Books of Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and various parts of the Prophets are poetical. It is not easy to define Hebrew poetry. It appears clear that the lines did not end with corresponding sounds, and it cannot be discovered in what the rhythm consists, the ancient pronunciation of the language being lost. Ewald concluded that in the Hebrew poetry there was a thought rhythm, and not one of sound.
One of their most marked styles is an alphabetical poem. These consist of twenty-two lines or stanzas, or systems of lines, and the lines or stanzas begin with letters which follow in alphabetical order: the first A, the second B, and so on. There is doubtless a spiritual significance in these arrangements: such as intense human exercises, emotions, etc., under the working of the Spirit. And they may have assisted the memory, at least in the Psalms when they were sung. Such may be found in Ps. 25; Ps. 34; Ps. 37; Ps. 111; Ps. 112; Ps. 119; Ps. 145; Pr 31:10-31; Lam. 1; Lam. 2; Lam. 3; Lam. 4.
In some stanzas, called 'synthetical,' one half corresponds to the other, either in expressing the same sentiment or explaining it: thus -
But ye said, No; for we will flee upon horses;
Therefore shall ye flee:
And, We will ride upon the swift;
Therefore shall they that pursue you be swift." Isa 30:16,
Other stanzas are called 'antithetical,' in which the second half is the reverse of the first: as
The memory of the just is blessed:
But the name of the wicked shall rot." Pr 10:7
From these simple examples the form of the stanzas varies in many ways. The first example we meet with is what Lamech said to his wives. It will be seen that it is in parallelism, or correspondence.
Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
Ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech:
For I have slain a man to my wounding,
And a young man to my hurt.
If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold,
Truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold." Ge 4:23-24.
Towards the end of the O.T., Habakkuk (Hab 3:18-19), when all earthly blessings were failing, sang
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.
The Lord God is my strength,
And he will make my feet like hinds' feet,
And he will make me to walk upon mine high places."