The Poetry of the Psalms
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 the Psalms:
• 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. cf. Ps. 2:1-5; 4:2-5; 10:3-9; 19:1; 24:1, etc.
“Why do the nations rage,
And the people plot a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together...
‘Let us break Their bonds in pieces
And cast away Their cords from us.’”
• Antithetic Parallelism - In this feature the second line is the opposite of the first. This type of construction the least common of the different types. cf. 1:6; 32:10; 34:10, etc.
“For the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the ungodly shall perish.”
(Notice in this verse that the thoughts from the first line are reversed in the second line. This is called chiasm.)
• 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.
Blessed is the man Who
walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful;
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He shall be like a tree Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper.” Psalm 1:1-3
There is another poetic style that is used in the Psalms where each line is begun with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This style, called acrostic, is used in several psalms in different ways. The most detailed of these is Psalm 119 where every stanza (one for each letter in the Hebrew alphabet) has eight lines each which begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Occasionally Psalms omit or re-arrange letters of the alphabet, but when this happens there are stylistic reasons for this (Note: This style does not come out in our English translations.) Other acrostic Psalms are 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, and 145.
Like many of our hymns, Hebrew poetry often uses old fashioned words and unusual expressions. The Psalms also make use of literary devices such as:
• Simile - Comparison using the words like or as:
“He shall be like a tree Planted by the rivers of water...”
“The ungodly are not so, But are like the chaff which the wind drives away.”
• Metaphor - Comparison made not using like or as:
“Many bulls have surrounded Me; Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled Me.”
“For dogs have surrounded Me; The congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me.”
• Synecdoche - A part of something stands for the whole:
“Make me hear joy and gladness, That the bones You have broken may rejoice.”
• Personification - Inanimate things are given characteristics of living things:
“Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed.”
Note: This study was prepared for the Bible Class at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, GA by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew .
If you would like more information about this study,
please contact Pastor Mayhew