Poetry in Proverbs

The Book of Proverbs is listed among the poetical books of the Old Testament along with Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Like these others books, Proverbs is written in a poetic style. But Hebrew poetry is quite different from English poetry. English poems usually have rhyme and meter, but Hebrew poetry does not. Instead of rhyming successive lines of a poem, Hebrew poetry matches the thought in successive lines. This feature of Hebrew poetry is called parallelism.

The following are three different types of parallelism used in Proverbs:

Synonymous Parallelism

This is a feature where the second line repeats the thought of the first line but in different words. The repetition intensifies the thoughts and feelings being expressed.

A false witness will not go unpunished,

And he who speaks lies will not escape” (Proverbs 19:5).

Antithetic Parallelism

In this feature the second line is the opposite of the first. In the book of Proverbs, this type of construction the most common of the different types.

He who keeps the commandment keeps his soul,

But he who is careless of his ways will die” (Proverbs 19:16).

Synthetic Parallelism

In this poetic style the second line advances the thought of the first. Each line is synonymous but each additional line adds to the thought of the first making it more specific.

The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger,

And his glory is to overlook a transgression” (Proverbs 19:11).

The Proverbs also make use of literary devices such as:

Simile - Comparison using the words like or as:

But the path of the just is like the shining sun,

That shines ever brighter unto the perfect day.

The way of the wicked is like darkness;

They do not know what makes them stumble” (Proverbs 4:18,19).

Metaphor - Comparison made not using like or as:

A wholesome tongue is a tree of life,

But perverseness in it breaks the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4; cf. Prov. 25).

Synecdoche - A part of something stands for the whole:

The eye that mocks his father,

And scorns obedience to his mother,

The ravens of the valley will pick it out,

And the young eagles will eat it” (Proverbs 30:17).

Personification - Inanimate things are given characteristics of living things: The most familiar of these sections is found in chapter eight where wisdom is personified.

Does not wisdom cry out,

          And understanding lift up her voice?

          She takes her stand on the top of the high hill,

          Beside the way, where the paths meet.

          She cries out by the gates, at the entry of the city,

          At the entrance of the doors:

          ‘To you, O men, I call,

          And my voice is to the sons of men’” (Proverbs 8:1-3).

Mathematical Emphasis - Numbers are used for emphasis and as an aid to memorization:

These six things the LORD hates, Yes, seven are an abomination to Him...” (Proverbs 6:16).

These poetic tools are used to describe the point of the holy writers very vividly and with great detail. Since phrases are often used in parallel with other phrases (either to describe the same point, or the opposite point) it can help us to better understand the purpose and meaning of the Psalms. May the Holy Spirit bless your study of these inspired verses of Scripture!

Note: This study was prepared for use at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, Georgia by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew based on the work of other CLC pastors.

If you would like more information about this study,
please contact Pastor Mayhew