It’s not exactly earth shattering to note that Hebrew poetry does not look like English poetry. It doesn’t rhyme nor does it have any kind of meter to it like you might recall learning about when you studied Shakespeare. This makes it a bit harder to understand what you are reading when you read Hebrew poetry.
There is Hebrew poetry that pops up all through the Old Testament – parts of the creation story are actually poetry for instance – however, much of the poetry of the Bible is put together all in one place. The five books of Hebrew poetry are also known as the books of wisdom in the Old Testament. They are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon.
Identifying Hebrew poetry
Usually the translators of the Bible have already done the work for you when it comes to identifying that a passage is poetry. Poetry is tabbed with an indentation and doesn’t extend across the full page or column the way that normal writing (prose) does.
Likewise, with Hebrew poetry you’ll find that each verse is routinely two lines. A sentence or idea may extend for several verses but each verse will still only be two lines.
While most of the poetry books are obviously poetry, not every chapter and verse in the books is poetry. For instance, Job 1-2 are written in prose while the form switches to poetry in Job 3. You note a visual difference as you read through in your Bible.
Aside from in the books of poetry, a couple other notable instances of Hebrew poetry are the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5.
Three types of Hebrew poetry
As noted above, Hebrew poetry usually consists of two lines. While English poetry usually rhymes, Hebrew poetry sets up some kind of contrast. This is particularly evident in Proverbs but it also appears elsewhere. The three contrasts displayed in Hebrew poetry are:
- Line two is equal to line one. Essentially both lines say the same thing but the idea is repeated for a matter of emphasis.
- Line two expands on line one. The second line builds upon or adds to the first line. There are several passages that say something like “six things the Lord hates, seven things are detestable to Him.” This is an example of this type of poetry.
- Line two is contrary to line one. The easiest way to identify this type is the word “but.” The same lesson is given but with a different wording. We would convey the same idea by saying “A righteous man is wise but a wicked man is foolish.”
If you are interested, each type of poetry does have an official name. The first type is known as synonymous. The second is synthetic. And the third is antithetic.
While Hebrew poetry seems repetitive to our modern ears because it states the same idea twice, it was quite common to teach this way in Old Testament times and even today among the Hebrew speaking world. Because of repeating, Hebrew poetry is sometimes known as wisdom in stereo.