Poetry 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:
- Lyrical—that of the Book of Psalms
Didactic and Sententious—that of the Book of Ecclesiastes
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:
Synonymous or cognate parallelism, where the same idea is repeated in the same words (Psalm 93:3; 94:1; Prov. 6:2), or in different words (Psalm 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 (Psalm 40:12; Prov. 6:26); or where the same idea is expressed in three successive clauses (Psalm 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).
Antithetic parallelism, where the idea of the second clause is the converse of that of the first (Psalm 20:8; 27:6-7; 34:11; 37:9, 17, 21-22). This is the common form of gnomic or proverbial poetry. (See Prov. 10-15.)
Introverted parallelism, in which of four clauses the first answers to the fourth and the second to the third (Psalm 135:15-18; Prov. 23:15-16), or where the second line reverses the order of words in the first (Psalm 86:2).
Hebrew poetry sometimes assumes other forms than these.
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: Prov. 31:10-31; Lam. 1, 2, 3, 4; Psalm 25, 34, 37, 145. Psalm 119 has a letter of the alphabet in regular order beginning every eighth verse.
The repetition of the same verse or of some emphatic expression at intervals (Psalm 42, 107, where the refrain is in verses, 8, 15, 21, 31). (Compare also Isa. 9:8; 10:4; Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6.)
Gradation, in which the thought of one verse is resumed in another (Psalm 121).
Several odes of great poetical beauty are found in the historical books of the Old Testament, such as the song of Moses (Exodus 15), the song of Deborah (Judg. 5), of Hannah (1 Sam. 2), of Hezekiah (Isa. 38:9-20), of Habakkuk (Hab. 3), and David's “song of the bow” (2 Sam. 1:19-27).