The Structure of Biblical Poetry

The Book of Psalms proves to be a treasure trove of Hebrew poetry. Originally, the stylistic consistencies of this art had remained undiscovered. However, on closer examination, contemporary audiences might now appreciate the structure the psalmists devised. Parallelism is a characteristic typical of Hebrew poetry. The writer states an idea, and then reinforces the idea by repetition, variation, or contrast. The major types of parallelism fall into three categories. Synonymous parallelism is when the second line repeats the first in slightly different wording. In the antithetic form, the second lines contrasts – often sharply – with the first. Lastly, synthetic parallelism is when the second line completes the thought started in the first by supplementing it. Parallelism, in many forms, along with other literary conventions, abounds in Hebrew poetry, and formulates the integrity of the prose.

An important key to Hebrew poetry is parallelism. The Hebrew poets set phrases and thematic images in relationship. Thus, the style of poetic parallelism fits the sacred songs of Israel since it invites the reader, or listener, to meditation. Most commonly, Hebrew poetry uses parallelism between consecutive poetic phrases or clauses. Most Psalms are either songs of lament or praise, however, psalm 22 proves to show qualities of both. To understand the richness of the poetry, one must examine the Psalm’s structure. Verse 22:20 has two parallel phrases: (A) Deliver my soul from the sword, (B) my darling from the power of the dog! Here, “darling” in phrase B parallels “soul” in phrase A, just as “the power of the dog” is subsequently paralleled with “the sword.” There is usually some kind of relationship or connection between the two parts of a poetic line. This connection is not always a synonymous relationship, as the above example. Oftentimes phrase B, in its relationship with phrase A, does more than simply restate A – it supports it, expands it, defines it, carries it further, completes it, or even contrasts with it. In addition, the second phrase, B, by being in the final position often has an emphatic character. In a sense, the position of B means “what is more . . .”

Examples of how parallelism manipulates the reader through structure continue through Psalm 22. In verse 2: (A) O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; (B) And in the night season, and am not silent. The relationship between phrases A and B is set up by the sharp contrast between “daytime” and “night season,” but this contrast serves to show how the suffering servant cries out at all times. Phrase A ends with the lament that he is not being “heard,” while phrase B concludes with the complaint that the psalmist finds no “silence” – an image that fits the night motif of phrase B. The lack of sound in A progresses in B to the lack of silence. The juxtaposition of the two suggests that God’s failure to hear, and to answer, brings about the psalmist’s lack of silence and rest.

Parallelism can also frame sections of a Psalm or even the entire Psalm itself. Psalm 22 may be divided into two primary parts, each of which is marked out by a parallelism. The first part of the psalm (vv. 1-21) is the lament, which is framed by key words that are repeated at the beginning and end. At the beginning the psalmist complains to God, “Why art thou so far from helping me?” (Ps. 22:1). The word for “far” is repeated in the imperative of verse 19, “But be not thou far from me, O Lord.” Verse 21 opens with the imperative to save, echoing the opening complaint in verse one that God was far from “helping me.” In verse 2 God has not yet “heard,” and the rest of the lament follows from that fact. This problem is finally resolved in the last verse of the lament when the psalmist states that God has “heard me,” as is clearly seen in (v. 21). The three key words, “far,” “help,” and “hear” create a parallelism between the opening and close of the lament. The assertion that God has “heard me” in verse 21 is the point at which the Psalm hinges, for once the psalmist is sure of God’s answer, he moves from lament to praise.

The second half of the Psalm, the hymn of praise, reveals an ever-expanding audience to praise God. Verse 22 begins with a parallelism: “I will declare of thy name to my brethren/In the midst of the congregation I will praise thee.” The movement from “brethren” to “congregation” is intensification, just as “telling of thy name” is carried forward by the parallel promise to “praise thee.” One thing that characterizes the hymn of praise that runs from verse 22 to the end of the psalm is the ever-expanding audience that is called upon to praise God. Verse 23 addresses those who “fear the Lord,” that is, the sons of Jacob and Israel. Verse 25 speaks of the “great congregation.” Verse 26 is ambiguous in its designations, referring to the “meek” and “those who seek him.” Given the many different names used for Israel in the previous verses – congregation, seed of Jacob, and those who fear him – the afflicted and those who seek Him of verse 26 are most likely from Israel.

Compared with verses 22-26, verse 27 radically broadens those addressed from the sons of Jacob and Israel to all nations. Note how the parallelism makes this point emphatic: “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the Lord/And all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.” To “turn to the Lord” refers to repentance, whereas the notion that the nations will come to “worship” the Lord takes this thought a step further. Surprisingly, verse 29 goes beyond even the radical notion of Gentiles worshipping God and speaks of how the dead – “all they that go down to the dust” – shall “bow before” God. But even this is not enough for the psalmist, for he claims that posterity and “people yet unborn” will recount the Lord’s praise (vv. 30-31).

It is striking that the hymn of praise spills out far beyond the sons of Israel to include the entire world, both living and dead. What accounts for this irrational exuberance of the psalmist that his deliverance would bring about universal praise? The radical call for praise is matched in intensity only by the psalmist’s poignant lament. The depth and pathos of the account of his suffering is well known: “I am poured out like water” and “I may tell all my bones/they look and stare upon me” are just two illustrations (vv. 14, 17). Indeed, the psalmist’s sufferings are so overwhelming that his death is assumed: “thou hast brought me into the dust of death” (v. 15). This suffering to the point of death is matched only by the praise found in the second half of the psalm, where even those who “go down to the dust” are to praise the Lord (v. 29). In other words, the lamentation of the first half claims that suffering has reached as far as death, and so the psalmist’s vindication and salvation is nothing less than life from death.

There are other forms of parallelism in Hebrew poetry that assist in its stylistic integrity. “‘Climactic’ parallelism uses the method of synonymy to build up a thought by the repetition of short phrases toward some sort of climax” (Gabel, 37). While it is popularly thought that Biblical poetry does not have many lasting stylistic echoes into contemporary literature, climactic parallelism seems to be the exception. Shakespeare utilized it in many of his plays, for example, Hotspur’s speech in Henry IV Part I 1.3 when he repeats four times, “shall it be?” Additionally, Whitman is notorious for beginning several lines of his prose with the same short phrases. The survival of this convention proves that it is a powerful method of creating a sense of culmination. Psalm 96 is a key example of climactic parallelism in Hebrew poetry. The Psalm has three moments of vivid repetition, these being; “Sing unto the Lord” (vv. 1-3), “Give unto the Lord” (vv. 7-9) and “Let the [heaven rejoice, sea roar, field be joyful]” (vv. 11-13). In this psalm, the stylistic use of repetition proves to build through these three instances from the intangible to the worldly. To speak or “sing” of something is not as real as doing or “giving.” The circle of three is mirrored in itself in the last example when “let theâÂ?¦” moves from the “heavens,” something that is created in the mind or a reference to the untouchable sky, to the “sea” which is closer then the heavens, but still mysterious, finally to the “field” an image that is quite tangible and common to everyday man. In fact, the entire motion of the psalm is toward mankind, who will be “judged” (v. 13), which is the ultimate message of this psalm. God’s mysteries are real, and they are palpable in the world among men to fear.

Both Psalms of Lament and Praise have stylistic and thematic overlaps. In Psalm 22, the writer moves from despair to joy, while in Psalm 96 the narrator moves through motions of praise that end in an apocalyptic type of judgment. Furthermore, in Psalm 22, the narrator moves from tangible imagery to intangible, (people to the dead and unborn), while Psalm 96 traverses in the reverse direction. The cyclical pattern of doom and beginnings are too vivid to be ignored. The Hebrew people were of a unique culture, one that had to recreate itself when faced with conquerors, slavery, and exile. Each time, they retained pieces of their culture and refused to be dominated for long. Through parallelism, the Hebrew poets have displayed their own generations, full of plight and hope; of lament and praise. Their turmoil and joy still circles until this day, forever locked into prose.

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