The Nature of Hebrew Poetry -- By: Merrill F. Unger

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 108:431 (Jul 1951)
Article: The Nature of Hebrew Poetry
Author: Merrill F. Unger


The Nature of Hebrew Poetry

Merrill F. Unger

Although the Massoretes in editing our present Hebrew Bible recognized only three poetical books—Psalms, Proverbs and Job, the study of Hebrew versification in the past 200 years has not only recovered poetic principles which have been lost for centuries, but also has demonstrated that large sections outside these books—particularly in the prophetical writings—share in the form of poetry. In addition the extensive archeological findings of the past century in Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Canaanite (i.e., Ugaritic) literature have placed Hebrew poetry in the illuminating background of general Oriental prosody, and demonstrated that it shares many of the same forms and features of its neighbors. Although much is still far from clear, the general characteristics and forms of Hebrew poetry are gradually becoming better understood.

(1) Hebrew poetry employs parallelism. This basic relationship in Hebrew verse was first clearly defined by Robert Lowth in 1753,1 although vaguely recognized earlier by Ibn Ezra (of the twelth century) and Kimchi (of the thirteenth). It consists of a balance of distribution of thought sometimes called “sense rhythm,” constituting thought-arrangement rather than word-arrangement as the basis of Hebrew versification. Lowth distinguished the three principal types of parallelism as synonymous, antithetic and synthetic.

Synonymous parallelism is the repetition of the same thought with equivalent expressions, the first line (or, stich) reinforcing the second and giving a distich (or, couplet). For example,

“He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh,
The Lord will have them in derision” (Ps 2:4).

Antithetic parallelism is the repetition of a contrasting thought in the second line to emphasize or confirm the thought of the first. For example,

“The young lions do lack and suffer hunger;
But they that seek Jehovah shall not want in any good thing” (Ps 34:10).

Synthetic parallelism is the progressive flow of thought in which the second (or following) lines add something to the first, or explain it. For example,

“And he shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water,
That bringeth forth fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not whither;
And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (Ps 1:3).

Parallelisms may consist of couplets or distichs (

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