The Psalms as poetry
Whenever we read or recite poetry in English, we expect to hear rhyming,
to feel meter, and to encounter regularity in form, in numbers of lines, in length of lines, etc. Even
in free verse or modern poetry, we still expect these features to peep out at us now and then.
Hebrew poetry employs none of these vehicles or forms in any consistent
way. Instead, Hebrew poetic form consists in imitation or parallelism of various kinds, not just in the
words but in the ideas. Often the lines are paired, with the first exposing a subject and the second
paralleling the thought, either by restating it (synonymous parallelism, ex. Ps. 1:1), extending it
(synthetic parallelism, ex. Ps. 1:2), or by contrasting it (antithetical parallelism, ex. Ps. 1:3b-4a).
Sometimes the lines are not paired but occur in sets of three lines. Sometimes, a question and answer
pattern is used. Strong hints of antiphonal presentation are often apparent. The varieties of these modes
What the reader should notice is that the essence of Hebrew poetic
form, the interplay of ideas in imitation and parallelism, is a feature of language that survives
translation (as pointed out in C. S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms, Introduction, p. 5). This fact
is a marvelous example of God’s provision. Thus, God uttered the paradigm of Hebrew poetry, and as a
result, the principal feature of Hebrew poetry, parallelism, is one that we can understand and appreciate
in its artistic content today, thousands of years later, in an immensely remote language, and in a profoundly
There are, of course, some other aspects of Hebrew poetry, e.g.,
alliteration, word plays of various kinds, etc., that are not very translatable. The poetry of the Old
Testament unquestionably suffers many nicks and bruises on its bumpy road from Hebrew to English.
Why is the survival of parallelism in translation important? It signifies
God’s inspiration of the Bible not only in its “message,” in some abstract way, but in its
literary form and presentation. The poetry is part of the message, tied to it more firmly than is typical of
Western language poetry. In its own way, the art helps to convey Who God is and who we are to Him. It sets a
perspective and point of view that we can all partake of, regardless our language and culture. That is the
miracle of it.
Next, The Psalms as literature.
Last updated: 3/6/11
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