Biblical poetry

The ancient Hebrews identified poetical portions in their sacred texts, as shown by their entitling as "songs" or as "chants" passages such as Exodus 15:1-19 and Numbers 21:17-20; a song or chant is, according to the primary meaning of the term, poetry. The question as to whether the poetical passages of the Old Testament show signs of regular rhythm or meter remains unsolved. Many of the features of Biblical poetry are lost when the poems are translated to English.

Characteristics of Ancient Hebrew poetry

Unusual forms

The employment of unusual forms of language cannot be considered as a sign of ancient Hebrew poetry. In and elsewhere the form lamo occurs. But this form, which represents partly lahem and partly lo, has many counterparts in Hebrew grammar, as, for example, kemo instead of ke-; or -emo = "them"; or -emo = "their"; or clemo = "to them"—forms found in passages for which no claim to poetical expressions is made. Then there are found ḥayeto = "beast", osri = "tying", and yeshu'atah = "salvation"—three forms that probably retain remnants of the old endings of the nominative, genitive, and accusative: u, i, a.
Again, in Lamech's words, "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, harken unto my speech", the two words he'ezin and imrah attract attention, because they occur for the first time in this passage, although there had been an earlier opportunity of using them: in Genesis 3:8 and 3:10, He'ezin = "to harken" could have been used just as well as its synonym shama' = "to hear".
Furthermore, imrah = "speech" might have been used instead of the essentially identical dabar in Genesis 9:1 and following, but its earliest use is, as stated above, in Genesis 4:23. In place of adam = "man" enosh is employed..
A systematic review of similar unusual forms of Hebrew grammar and Hebrew words occurring in certain portions of the Old Testament. Such forms have been called dialectus poetica since the publication of Robert Lowth's Prælectiones de Sacra Poesi Hebræorum iii. ; but this designation is ambiguous and can be accepted only in agreement with the rule a parte potiori fit denominatio for some of these unusual forms and words are found elsewhere than in the "songs" of the Old Testament.
These unusual forms and expressions do not occur in all songs, and there are several Psalms that have none of these peculiarities.


Not even the parallelismus membrorum is an absolutely certain indication of ancient Hebrew poetry. This "parallelism" occurs in the portions of the Hebrew Bible that are at the same time marked frequently by the so-called dialectus poetica; it consists in a remarkable correspondence in the ideas expressed in two successive units ; for example, the above-cited words of Lamech, "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, harken unto my speech", in which are found he'ezin and imrah, show a remarkable repetition of the same thought.
But this ideal corythmy is not always present in the songs of the Old Testament or in the Psalms, as the following passages will show:
Julius Ley says therefore correctly that
Though this restriction must be made to James Robertson's view, it remains the case that: "The distinguishing feature of the Hebrew poetry... is the rhythmical balancing of parts, or parallelism of thought."
Various rhetorical forms appear in the parallelisms of Biblical poetry. These include:
Another example of synonymous parallelism comes in Isaiah or Micah 4:3:
External parallelism can also "accumulate" in a chiastic or "ring" structure that may include many verses. For example, Psalm 1 utilizes synonymous, synthetic, and emblematic parallelism before "turning" antithetically back to emblematic, synthetic, and then synonymous parallels.

Quantitative rhythm

The poetry of the ancient Hebrews is not distinguished from the other parts of the Old Testament by rhythm based on quantity, though in view of Greek and Roman poetry it was natural to seek such a rhythm in the songs and Psalms of the Old Testament. William Jones, for example, attempted to prove that there was a definite sequence of long and short syllables in the ancient Hebrew poems; but he could support this thesis only by changing the punctuation in many ways, and by allowing great license to the Hebrew poets. However, on reading the portions of the Old Testament marked by the so-called dialectus poetica or by parallelism no such sequence of long and short syllables can be discovered; and Sievers says: "Hebrew prosody is not based on quantity as classical prosody is."

Accentual rhythm

Many scholars hold that the Hebrew poet considered only the syllables receiving the main accent, and did not count the intervening ones. Examples contrary to this are not found in passages where forms of the so-called dialectus poetica are used, as Ley holds; and Israel Davidson has proved that the choice of lamo instead of lahem favors in only a few passages the opinion that the poet intended to cause an accented syllable to be followed by an unaccented one.
The rhythm of Hebrew poetry may be similar to that of the German Nibelungenlied — a view that is strongly supported by the nature of the songs sung by the populace of Palestine in the early 20th century. These songs have been described by L. Schneller in the following words:
Also in Palestine, Gustaf Hermann Dalman observed:
Such free rhythms are, in Davidson's opinion, found also in the poetry of the Old Testament. Under the stress of their thoughts and feelings the poets of Israel sought to achieve merely the material, not the formal symmetry of corresponding lines. This may be observed, for example, in the following lines of Psalm 2: "Serve the with fear", "rejoice with trembling". This is shown more in detail by König; and Carl Heinrich Cornill has confirmed this view by saying:
Sievers is inclined to restrict Hebrew rhythm by various rules, as he attacks Karl Budde's view, that
Furthermore, the verse of the Old Testament poetry is naturally iambic or anapestic, as the words are accented on one of the final syllables.

The Dirges

A special kind of rhythm may be observed in the dirges, called kinnot in Hebrew. A whole book of these elegies is contained in the Hebrew Bible, the first of them beginning thus: "How does the city sit solitary—that was full of people—how is she become as a widow—she that was great among the nations—and princess among the provinces—how is she become tributary!".
The rhythm of such lines lies in the fact that a longer line is always followed by a shorter one. As in the elegiac couplet of Greco-Roman poetry, this change was intended to symbolize the idea that a strenuous advance in life is followed by fatigue or reaction. This rhythm, which may be designated "elegiac measure," occurs also in Amos 5:2, expressly designated as a ḳinah. The sad import of his prophecies induced Jeremiah also to employ the rhythm of the dirges several times in his utterances. He refers here expressly to the meḳonenot who in the East still chant the death-song to the trembling tone of the pipe. Ḳinot are found also in Ezekiel 19:1, 26:17, 27:2, 32:2 and following, 32:16, 32:19 and following.
This elegiac measure, being naturally a well-known one, was used also elsewhere, as, for example, in. The rhythm of the ḳinah has been analyzed especially by Budde. Similar funeral songs of the modern Arabs are quoted by Wetzstein, as, e.g.: "O, if he only could be ransomed! truly, I would pay the ransom!"


A special kind of rhythm was produced by the frequent use of anadiplosis, in which the phrase at the end of one sentence is repeated at the beginning of the next. Examples include the passages "they came not to the help of the Lord , to the help of the Lord against the mighty" and "From whence shall my help come? My help cometh from the Lord".
Many similar passages occur in Psalms 120-134, which also contain an unusual number of epanalepsis, or catch-words, for which Israel Davidson proposed the name Leittöne. Thus there is the repetition of shakan in ; of shalom in ; and the catch-word yishmor in. As the employment of such repetitions is somewhat suggestive of the mounting of stairs, the superscription shir ha-ma'alot, found at the beginning of these fifteen psalms, may have a double meaning: it may indicate not only the purpose of these songs, to be sung on the pilgrimages to the festivals at Jerusalem, but also the peculiar construction of the songs, by which the reciter is led from one step of the inner life to the next. Such graduated rhythm may be observed elsewhere; for the peasants in modern Syria accompany their national dance by a song the verses of which are connected like the links of a chain, each verse beginning with the final words of the preceding one.


Alphabetical acrostics are used as an external embellishment of a few poems. The letters of the alphabet, generally in their ordinary sequence, stand at the beginning of smaller or larger sections of Psalms 9-10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145; Proverbs 31:10-31; Lamentations 1-4; and also of Sirach 51:13-29, as the newly discovered Hebrew text of this book has shown.
Alphabetical and other acrostics occur frequently in Neo-Hebraic poetry. The existence of acrostics in Babylonian literature has been definitely proved; and alphabetical poems are found also among the Samaritans, Syrians, and Arabs. Cicero says that the verse of the sibyl was in acrostics; and the so-called Oracula Sibyllina contain an acrostic.
A secondary phenomenon, which distinguishes a part of the poems of the Old Testament from the other parts, is the so-called accentuatio poetica; it has been much slighted. Although not all the poetical portions of the Old Testament are marked by a special accentuation, the Book of Job in 3:3-42:6 and the books of Psalms and Proverbs throughout have received unusual accents. This point will be further discussed later on.

Division of the poetical portions of the Hebrew Bible

Poems that deal with events

First may be mentioned poems that deal principally with events, being epic-lyric in character: the triumphal song of Israel delivered from Egypt, or the song of the sea; the mocking song on the burning of Heshbon; the so-called song of Moses; the song of Deborah; the derisive song of victory of the Israelite women; Hannah's song of praise; David's song of praise on being saved from his enemies; Hezekiah's song of praise on his recovery; Jonah's song of praise; and many of the Psalms, e.g., those on the creation of the world, and on the election of Israel. A subdivision is formed by poems that deal more with description and praise: the so-called Well song; the song of praise on the uniqueness of the god of Israel; and those on his eternity; his omnipresence and omniscience; and his omnipotence.

Didactic poems

Poems appealing more to reason, being essentially didactic in character. These include fables, like that of Jotham; parables, like those of Nathan and others, or in the form of a song; riddles, maxims, the monologues and dialogues in Job 3:3 and following; compare also the reflections in monologue in Ecclesiastes. A number of the Psalms also are didactic in character. A series of them impresses the fact that God's law teaches one to abhor sin, and inculcates a true love for the Temple and the feasts of Yahweh. Another set of Psalms shows that God is just, although it may at times not seem this way to a short-sighted observer of the world and of history.


Poems that portray feelings based on individual experience. Many of these lyrics express joy, as, e.g., Lamech's so-called Song of the sword; David's "last words"; the words of praise of liberated Israel; songs of praise like Psalms 18, 24, 126, etc. Other lyrics express mourning. First among these are the dirges proper for the dead, as the ḳinah on the death of Saul and Jonathan; that on Abner's death; and all psalms of mourning, as, e.g., the expressions of sorrow of sufferers, and the expressions of penitence of sinners.

Poems that urge action

Finally, a large group of poems of the Old Testament that urge action and are exhortatory. These may be divided into two sections:
  1. The poet wishes something for himself, as in the so-called "signal words" ; at the beginning of the Well song ; in the daring request, "Sun, stand thou still" ; in Habakkuk's prayer ; or in psalms of request for help in time of war or for liberation from prison.
  2. The poet pronounces blessings upon others, endeavoring to move God to grant these wishes. To this group belong the blessing of Noah, of Isaac, and of Jacob ; Jethro's congratulation of Israel ; the blessing of Aaron and of Balaam ; Moses' farewell ; the psalms that begin with Ashre = "Blessed is," etc., or contain this phrase, as Psalms 1, 41, 84:5 and following, 84:13, 112, 119, 128.
It was natural that in the drama, which is intended to portray a whole series of external and internal events, several of the foregoing kinds of poems should be combined. This combination occurs in Canticles, which, in Davidson's opinion, is most correctly characterized as a kind of drama.


The peculiar sublimity of Biblical poems is due partly to the high development of monotheism which they express, and partly to the beauty of the moral ideals which they exalt. This subject has been discussed by J. D. Michaelis in the preface to his Arabic grammar, second edition, p29, and by Emil Kautzsch in Die Poesie und die Poetischen Bücher des A. T..