This lesson will examine the forms of poetic language used in the Bible and look at specific types of biblical poems.
The Poet’s Palette
“From Homer, who never omits to tells us that the ships were black and the sea salty, or even wet, down to Eliot with his ‘hollow valley’ and ‘multifoliate rose,’ poets are always telling us that grass is green, or thunder loud, or lips red. This is the most remarkable of the powers of poetic language: to convey to us the quality of experiences.” — C. S. Lewis, The Language of Religion
The Language Poets Use
Even if you’ve never written a sonnet or haiku, you use poetry all the time. You speak of the sun rising, of juggling your schedule, of running to the grocery store. Every day, you use poetic idioms, just as poets do.
If everyone uses the same words, what, then, is poetry? It is the specialized use of language to convey figurative, rather than literal, meaning. It is language condensed, heightened, and patterned for aesthetic effect.
Roughly one-third of the Bible is written in poetic form. Here are some of the key ingredients you’ll find in the Bible’s poetry:
The use of words to paint pictures, evoking a concrete sensory experience of people, places, and things: “He makes me lie down in green pastures” (Psalm 23:1).
A comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as” — A is like B: “They are like trees planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3).
A comparison between two things that forgoes “like” or “as” to say that A is B: “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1).
Addressing someone absent as though the person (or people) were present: “Depart from me, all you workers of evil” (Psalm 6:8).
Endowing a non-human subject with human attributes or actions: “Let the hills sing together for joy” (Psalm 98:8).
Conscious exaggeration for emotional effect: “By my God I can leap over a wall” (Psalm 18:29).
Let’s look at a biblical poem to identify the elements of poetic language it uses. Read Psalm 23 on page 820 in The Harper Collins Study Bible. What images does the poet use? How does the central metaphor evoke meaning? Take a few minutes and jot down your thoughts. When you are finished, continue on.
- In Psalm 23, what images does the poet use?
Green pastures, still waters, dark valley, a shepherd’s rod and staff. The images are concrete, specific, drawn from nature and everyday life. Psalm 23 is built around the controlling metaphor of a shepherd herding his sheep to safety.
- How does the central metaphor evoke meaning?
The poet’s strategy is to compare God to a shepherd and his creatures to sheep. The poem recreates a typical day in the life of a shepherd, and it shows him guiding and protecting his flock. Figuratively, God extends this care and protection to people, shepherding us through “the darkest valley,” where we may fall victim to predators just as sheep may fall blindly in a gully.
The effect of the poem is not only to paint a picture of a world of natural beauty that is fraught with hidden perils — darkness and evil — but also to reassure and comfort us with images of stability and sustenance.
When we talk about poetic idiom, we are discussing the content of poetry. The form in which it is presented, however, is just as important as the language that is used.
From Line A to B
How does the second line relate to the first in biblical parallelism? Here are three famous interpretations: “The practice of saying the same thing twice in different words.” (C. S. Lewis); “A, and what’s more, B.” (James Kugel); “How much more so.” (Robert Alter).
Parallelism in Biblical Poetry
We know we are looking at a poem the moment we see it on a page. While prose is written in sentences, poetry is written in lines that do not ordinarily run all the way to the right margin. Often in English verse, poetic lines end in rhyme, reinforcing such features of poetry as artistry (skill in the manipulation of language), recurrence, and tightness of effect. Here is a sample of conventional English verse (from Samuel Coledridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner):
Water, water everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
Although the Bible’s poetry somewhat resembles English poetry, generally biblical poets do not use rhyme or meter as many English poets do. Instead, the poetry of the Bible is written in “thought rhyme” — two or more consecutive lines that express similar thoughts in different ways, though usually in similar grammatical form. We call this construction “parallelism.”
You’ll find two types of parallelism used most frequently in biblical poetry: synonymous and antithetic parallelism.
- Lines A and B say the same thing in similar grammatical form:
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. (Psalm 1:5)
- Lines A and B say the same thing in contrasting ways:
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1:6)
In either form of parallelism, strict word-for-word (or phrase-for-phrase) repetition is a rarity. Usually, the poet leaves an element of asymmetry in the construction.
If you want to review some excellent examples of biblical parallelism, read Psalm 46 (pages 842-843 in The Harper Collins Study Bible) and Psalm 51 (pages 846-847).
Thus far we have looked at the basics of biblical poetry — the language used by poets and the verse form of biblical poetry. Next we will consider the specific kinds of poems you will find in the Bible.
What Is Poetry?
Here are some famous definitions:
- “The rhythmic creation of beauty.” (Edgar Allan Poe)
- “The spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility.” (William Wordsworth)
- “Simple, sensuous, and passionate.” (John Milton)
- “Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order.” (Samuel Coleridge)
- “The art that offers depth in a moment.” (Molly Peacock)
- “Memorable speech.” (W.H. Auden)
Psalms, The Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Lamentations . . . The Bible is a veritable anthology of poems. Vast sections of the prophetic or visionary parts of the Bible are written in poetic form, as is the Book of Job, a drama. Still, when we speak of a “poem” in the Bible, we generally mean a lyric poem.
A lyric is a brief poem containing the thoughts or feelings of a speaker, usually intended to be sung aloud. It is condensed, self-contained, and packed with meaning. Most lyrics have a three-part structure:
Lyrics typically have a single theme that unifies the poem. The theme appears throughout the poem in variations. After the introduction, the poet develops the theme using one or more of the following formats:
Restating the theme
Presenting an opposite emotion or phenomenon as counterpoint the theme
- Listing or catalog:
Delineating specific aspects of the theme
Elaborating on the theme using related ideas
Typically, lyric poetry is personal. The poet expresses his or her thoughts and feelings directly, capturing an intense emotional moment or epiphany. As personal, subjective verse, a lyric is not directed to us, the general reader, but to a specific audience — God, the nation, the starry night sky. We are merely eavesdropping on the poet’s moment of thought or feeling.
While most biblical poems are lyrics, the Bible contains a host of other poetic genres. In virtually every instance, these genres are specific types of lyric poems. Perhaps the most famous of these are the Psalms.
Poetic Types in the Bible
Psalm means “song of praises.” The Old Testament Book of Psalms (also known as the Psalter) is a Temple collection, which means that the poems were used in an official capacity at the Temple in Jerusalem. In essence, the psalms contain the whole gamut of religious emotions — from lamentation and grief to joy, love, and awe. In his commentary on the Book of Psalms, John Calvin called the Psalter “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.”
Within the Psalter, these are the main types of lyric:
- Lament psalms (or complaint psalms)
- Praise psalms
- Nature psalms
- Worship psalms (songs of Zion)
A psalm may be either private or communal, and each has its own characteristics. A praise psalm testifies to the worthiness of God, either God’s activity on a given occasion or an attribute or quality that God possesses always. It is written in a three-part format:
- A formal call to praise (which may include a command to praise, the naming of the group to whom the command is uttered, and the naming of the mode of praise, such as voice or lyre)
- The development of praise (a listing of the praiseworthy acts or attributes of God)
- The conclusion of praise (often a brief, final prayer or wish)
Similarly, a psalm of lament has five main parts — an invocation to God, a definition of the crisis (the lament or complaint itself), a petitioning of God to act, a statement of confidence in God, and a vow to praise God.
Outside the Book of Psalms, other poetic genres become more prevalent. The Song of Solomon (also known as the Song of Songs) is an anthology of love lyrics. In the Old Testament book of Proverbs, we find the encomium — a poem in praise of an abstract quality or general character type. The Christ hymn is a lyric form unique to the New Testament.
Here are some examples of each poetic genre we’ve mentioned:
- Lament psalm: Psalm 10 (pages 807-808 in The Harper Collins Study Bible)
- Praise psalm: Psalm 33 (pages 828-829) or Psalm 103 (pages 895-896)
- Worship psalm: Psalm 84 (page 879)
- Nature poem: Psalm 104 (pages 896-897)
- Love poem: Song of Solomon 2:8-17 (pages 1003-1004) or 4:1-8 (page 1005)
- Encomium: Proverbs 31:10-31 (in praise of the virtuous wife; pages 984-985)
- Christ hymn: John 1:1-18 (pages 2013-2014) or Colossians 1:15-20 (pages 2212-2213).
After you’ve completed the assignment for this lesson, take a few minutes to read some or all of these lyrics. Visit the Message Board and share your thoughts and questions about biblical poetry with your classmates.
Thus far, we have taken a broad overview of narrative and poetry in the Bible. With the two largest biblical genres under our belts, we are now ready to narrow our focus to the smaller, but significant, literary genres of proverbs, satire, and epistles.
Assignment: Biblical Poetry
Read Chapter 5 on biblical poetry, pages 87-120, in How to Read the Bible as Literature. Then come to the Message Board to discuss what you’ve read with your fellow students. What is your favorite poetic passage in the Bible, and why?