Biblical poetry
The ancient Hebrews
Hebrews is an ethnonym used in the Hebrew Bible...

 perceived that there were poetical
Poetry is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning...

 portions in their sacred texts, as shown by their entitling as song
In music, a song is a composition for voice or voices, performed by singing.A song may be accompanied by musical instruments, or it may be unaccompanied, as in the case of a cappella songs...

s or chant
Chant is the rhythmic speaking or singing of words or sounds, often primarily on one or two pitches called reciting tones. Chants may range from a simple melody involving a limited set of notes to highly complex musical structures Chant (from French chanter) is the rhythmic speaking or singing...

s such passages as Exodus 15:1-19 and Numbers
Book of Numbers
The Book of Numbers is the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible, and the fourth of five books of the Jewish Torah/Pentateuch....

 21:17-20; and a song or chant (shir) is, according to the primary meaning of the term, poetry
Poetry is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning...



It is often stated that ancient Hebrew poetry contains almost no rhyme
A rhyme is a repetition of similar sounds in two or more words and is most often used in poetry and songs. The word "rhyme" may also refer to a short poem, such as a rhyming couplet or other brief rhyming poem such as nursery rhymes.-Etymology:...

. This assertion is understandable because the ancient texts preserved in the Hebrew Bible were written over a period of at least a millennium. Over that length of time, the pronunciation of every language changes. Words that were rhyming pairs at the beginning of that period may no longer rhyme at the end of that period. Further, different tribal groups or other groups of Hebrew speakers undoubtedly pronounced words differently in one and the same era. Using English as an example, we would be hard-pressed to find rhyme or even meter in the opening verses of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written in Middle English, if we were to pronounce the words of that poem as we pronounce their direct descendants in Modern English. Even within contemporary English, some speakers rhyme "again" with "rain" while others rhyme "again" with "pen."

The phonological phenomena that obscure the rhymes of Chaucer only 600 years after his death, are also to be found in Biblical Hebrew texts which spanned a millennium.
One fine example of rhyme and meter in ancient Hebrew texts is found in the Book of Proverbs, 6:9, 10. As Hebraist Seth Ben-Mordecai (author, The Exodus Haggadah) points out, these two verses, split into four lines of poetry, demonstrate both internal rhyme (common to Biblical Hebrew texts) and end-of-line rhyme (less common in Hebrew but the norm in English rhyming poetry), as well as noticeable meter. Thus, the last word of the first line ('AD maTAI 'aTZEL tishKAV) rhymes with the last word of the last line (me'AT khibBUQ yaDAYM lishKAV). In the third line, the second and fourth words create an internal rhyme with each other (me'AT sheNOT, me'AT tenuMOT). Finally, the first word of the second line (maTAI taQUM mishshenaTEksgha) is identical to the first word of the first line, linking those two lines even without obvious rhyme. Similar rhyming verses within the Hebrew Bible ought to put to rest the [question].
It is sometimes stated that ancient Hebrew texts demonstrate assonance more often than rhyme. Indeed, assonance is prominent in ancient Hebrew texts - as are other forms of "sound matching." An example of assonance is found in the first song mentioned above (Exodus 15:1-19), where assonance occurs at the ends of the lines, as in "anwehu" and "aromemenhu" (15:2). It is, of course, true that consonance of "hu" (= "him") can occur frequently in the Hebrew
Hebrew language
Hebrew is a Semitic language of the Afroasiatic language family. Culturally, is it considered by Jews and other religious groups as the language of the Jewish people, though other Jewish languages had originated among diaspora Jews, and the Hebrew language is also used by non-Jewish groups, such...

, because the language allows speakers to affix object-case as suffixes to verbs. The relatively greater use of assonance and consonance in Hebrew poetry than rhyme does not disqualify the ancient works from qualifying as poetry: Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

 is very sparing in his use of rhyme. Indeed, as noted, much of what now appears to be assonance or consonance in Hebrew poetry may in fact have been rhyme at earlier stages of the language or among different dialects of the language. What is notable when comparing ancient Hebrew poetry to contemporary English poetry is the playfulness of the authors, and their evident willingness to use multiple sound-matching schemes, rather than limiting themselves to simple rhymes at the end of verses, as in English.

Unusual forms

The employment of unusual forms of language cannot be considered as a sign of ancient Hebrew poetry. In the sentences of Noah
Noah was, according to the Hebrew Bible, the tenth and last of the antediluvian Patriarchs. The biblical story of Noah is contained in chapters 6–9 of the book of Genesis, where he saves his family and representatives of all animals from the flood by constructing an ark...

 the form "lamo" occurs. But this form, which represents partly "lahem" and partly "lo", has many counterparts in Hebrew grammar, as, for example, "kemo" instead of "ke"; or "emo" = "them"; or "emo" = "their"; or "clemo" = "to them"—forms found in passages for which no claim to poetical expressions is made. Then there are found "ḥayeto" = "beast", "osri" = "tying", and "yeshu'atah" = "salvation"—three forms that probably retain remnants of the old endings of the nominative, genitive, and accusative
Accusative case
The accusative case of a noun is the grammatical case used to mark the direct object of a transitive verb. The same case is used in many languages for the objects of prepositions...

: "u(n)," "i(n)," "a(n)."

Again, in Lamech
Lamech is a character in the genealogies of Adam in the Book of Genesis. He is the sixth generation descendant of Cain ; his father was named Methusael, and he was responsible for the "Song of the Sword." He is also noted as the first polygamist mentioned in the Bible, taking two wives, Ada and...

's words, "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, harken unto my speech", the two words "he'ezin" and "imrah" attract attention, because they occur for the first time in this passage, although there had been an earlier opportunity of using them: in Genesis 3:8 and 3:10, "He'ezin" = "to harken" could have been used just as well as its synonym "shama'" = "to hear".

Furthermore, "imrah" = "speech" might have been used instead of the essentially identical "dabar" in Genesis 9:1 and following, but its earliest use is, as stated above, in Genesis 4:23. In place of "adam" = "man" "enosh" is employed. (compare the Aramaic "enash").

A systematic review
Systematic review
A systematic review is a literature review focused on a research question that tries to identify, appraise, select and synthesize all high quality research evidence relevant to that question. Systematic reviews of high-quality randomized controlled trials are crucial to evidence-based medicine...

 of similar unusual forms of Hebrew grammar and Hebrew words occurring in certain portions of the Old Testament. Such forms have been called "dialectus poetica" since the publication of Robert Lowth
Robert Lowth
Robert Lowth FRS was a Bishop of the Church of England, Oxford Professor of Poetry and the author of one of the most influential textbooks of English grammar.-Life:...

's "Prælectiones de Sacra Poesi Hebræorum" iii. (1753); but this designation is ambiguous and can be accepted only in agreement with the rule a parte potiori fit denominatio for some of these unusual forms and words are found elsewhere than in the "songs" of the Old Testament.

These unusual forms and expressions do not occur in all songs, and there are several Psalms that have none of these peculiarities.


Not even the parallelismus membrorum is an absolutely certain indication of ancient Hebrew poetry. This "parallelism" is a phenomenon noticed in the portions of the Old Testament that are at the same time marked frequently by the so-called dialectus poetica; it consists in a remarkable correspondence in the ideas expressed in two successive verses; for example, the above-cited words of Lamech, "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, harken unto my speech", in which are found "he'ezin" and "imrah," show a remarkable repetition of the same thought.

But this ideal corythmy is not always present in the songs of the Old Testament
Old Testament
The Old Testament, of which Christians hold different views, is a Christian term for the religious writings of ancient Israel held sacred and inspired by Christians which overlaps with the 24-book canon of the Masoretic Text of Judaism...

 or in the Psalter, as the following passages will show:
  • "The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation" (Exodus 15:2).
  • "Saul
    Saul the King
    According to the Bible, Saul was the first king of the united Kingdom of Israel. He was anointed by the prophet Samuel and reigned from Gibeah. He commited suicide to avoid arrest in the battle against the Philistines at Mount Gilboa, during which three of his sons were also killed...

     and Jonathan
    David and Jonathan
    David and Jonathan were heroic figures of the Kingdom of Israel, whose covenant was recorded favourably in the books of Samuel. Jonathan was the son of Saul, king of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, and David was the son of Jesse of Bethlehem and Jonathan's presumed rival for the crown...

    , the beloved and the lovely, in life and in death they were not divided".
  • "Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in scarlet, and fine linen".
  • "And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season";
  • "I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustained me. I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about".

Julius Ley says therefore correctly that
"the poets did not consider themselves bound by parallelism to such an extent as not to set it aside when the thought required it."

This restriction must be made to James Robertson's view: "The distinguishing feature of the Hebrew poetry ... is the rhythmical balancing of parts, or parallelism of thought."

Various rhetoric
Rhetoric is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the facility of speakers or writers who attempt to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations. As a subject of formal study and a productive civic practice, rhetoric has played a central role in the Western...

al forms are found in the parallelisms of Biblical poetry. These include:
  • Synonym
    Synonyms are different words with almost identical or similar meanings. Words that are synonyms are said to be synonymous, and the state of being a synonym is called synonymy. The word comes from Ancient Greek syn and onoma . The words car and automobile are synonyms...

    ous parallelism; in this form, the second hemistich (half line of verse) says much the same thing as the first one, with variations. An example is found in Amos
    Book of Amos
    The Book of Amos is a prophetic book of the Hebrew Bible, one of the Twelve Minor Prophets. Amos, an older contemporary of Hosea and Isaiah, was active c. 750 BCE during the reign of Jeroboam II, making the Book of Amos the first biblical prophetic book written. Amos lived in the kingdom of Judah...


But let judgment run down as waters,
and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Another example of synonymous parallelism is found in Isaiah
Book of Isaiah
The Book of Isaiah is the first of the Latter Prophets in the Hebrew Bible, preceding the books of Ezekiel, Jeremiah and the Book of the Twelve...

 2.4 or Micah
Book of Micah
The Book of Micah is one of fifteen prophetic books in the Hebrew bible/Old Testament, and the sixth of the twelve minor prophets. It records the sayings of Mikayahu, meaning "Who is like Yahweh?", an 8th century prophet from the village of Moresheth in Judah...

"They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.

  • Antithesis
    Antithesis is a counter-proposition and denotes a direct contrast to the original proposition...

     is also found; here, the second hemistich directly contradicts or contrasts with the first. From Proverbs
    Book of Proverbs
    The Book of Proverbs , commonly referred to simply as Proverbs, is a book of the Hebrew Bible.The original Hebrew title of the book of Proverbs is "Míshlê Shlomoh" . When translated into Greek and Latin, the title took on different forms. In the Greek Septuagint the title became "paroimai paroimiae"...


A wise son maketh a glad father,
but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother.

  • Formal parallelism occurs where the hemistichs balance, clause for clause, but contain neither synonymy nor direct antithesis. From Psalm 14:2:

The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men,
to see if there were any that did understand and seek God.

  • Climactic
    Climax (figure of speech)
    In rhetoric, a climax is a figure of speech in which words, phrases, or clauses are arranged in order of increasing importance. It is sometimes used with anadiplosis, which uses the repetition of a word or phrase in successive clauses.Examples:*"There are three things that will endure: faith,...

     parallelism occurs where the second hemistich partially balances the first hemistich, but also adds a thought or completes it. From Psalm 29:1:

Give unto the LORD, O ye mighty,
give unto the LORD glory and strength.

  • External parallelism occurs when the syntactic units balance one another across multiple verses. Here, some of the permitted sorts of parallelisms are added not only within a single line of verse, but also between lines. From Isaiah 1:27-28:

Zion shall be redeemed with judgment,
and her converts with righteousness.
And the destruction of the transgressors and the sinners shall be together,
and they that forsake the LORD shall be consumed.

Quantitative Rhythm

The poetry of the ancient Hebrews is not distinguished from the other parts of the Old Testament by rhythm based on quantity, though in view of Greek and Roman poetry it was natural to seek such a rhythm in the songs and Psalms of the Old Testament. William Jones
William Jones (philologist)
Sir William Jones was an English philologist and scholar of ancient India, particularly known for his proposition of the existence of a relationship among Indo-European languages...

, for example, attempted to prove that there was a definite sequence of long and short syllables in the ancient Hebrew poems; but he could support this thesis only by changing the punctuation in many ways, and by allowing great license to the Hebrew poets. However, on reading the portions of the Old Testament marked by the so-called dialectus poetica or by parallelism (e.g., Genesis 4:23 and following) no such sequence of long and short syllables can be discovered; and Sievers
Sievers is a surname, and may refer to:* Eduard Sievers , German philologist* Eduard Wilhelm Sievers , German Shakespeare scholar* Eric Sievers , American professional football player...

 says: "Hebrew prosody is not based on quantity as classical prosody is."

Accentual rhythm

Many scholars hold that the Hebrew poet considered only the syllables receiving the main accent, and did not count the intervening ones. Examples contrary to this are not found in passages where forms of the so-called dialectus poetica are used, as Ley holds; and Israel Davidson
Israel Davidson
Israel Davidson was an American Jewish writer and publisher and has been recognized as one of the leading American Hebrew writers in his era. His magnum opus was the four volume Otsar ha-shirah veha-piyut = Thesaurus of Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry .Davidson studied in yeshivas in Jonava, Volozhin, and...

 has proved that the choice of "lamo" instead of "lahem" favors in only a few passages the opinion that the poet intended to cause an accented syllable to be followed by an unaccented one.

The rhythm of Hebrew poetry may be similar to that of the German Nibelungenlied
The Nibelungenlied, translated as The Song of the Nibelungs, is an epic poem in Middle High German. The story tells of dragon-slayer Siegfried at the court of the Burgundians, how he was murdered, and of his wife Kriemhild's revenge....

— a view that is strongly supported by the nature of the songs sung by the populace of Palestine
Palestine is a conventional name, among others, used to describe the geographic region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and various adjoining lands....

 in the early 20th century. These songs have been described by L. Schneller in the following words:
"The rhythms are manifold; there may be eight accents in one line, and three syllables are often inserted between two accents, the symmetry and variation being determined by emotion and sentiment."

Also in Palestine, Gustaf Hermann Dalman observed:

n:"Lines with two, three, four, and five accented syllables may be distinguished, between which one to three, and even four, unaccented syllables may be inserted, the poet being bound by no definite number in his poem. Occasionally two accented syllables are joined" ("Palästinischer Diwan", 1901, p23).

Such free rhythms are, in Davidson's opinion, found also in the poetry of the Old Testament. Under the stress of their thoughts and feelings the poets of Israel sought to achieve merely the material, not the formal symmetry of corresponding lines. This may be observed, for example, in the following lines of Psalm 2: "Serve the LORD with fear" ("'Ibdu et-Yhwh be-yir'ah", 2:11), "rejoice with trembling" ("we-gilu bi-re'adah"). This is shown more in detail by König; and Carl Heinrich Cornill has confirmed this view by saying:
"Equal length of the several stichoi was not the basic formal law of Jeremiah's metric construction."

Sievers is inclined to restrict Hebrew rhythm by various rules, as he attacks Karl Budde
Karl Budde
Karl Ferdinand Reinhard Budde was a German theologian, born at Bensberg. He was inspector of the Evangelisches Theologisches Stift at Bonn from 1878 to 1885, professor at Bonn in 1879, at Strassburg in 1889, and in 1900 was made professor of Old Testament exegesis and the Hebrew language at...

's view, that
"a foot which is lacking in one-half of a verse may find a substitute in the more ample thought of this shorter line".

Furthermore, the verse of the Old Testament poetry is naturally iambic or anapestic
An anapaest is a metrical foot used in formal poetry. In classical quantitative meters it consists of two short syllables followed by a long one; in accentual stress meters it consists of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. It may be seen as a reversed dactyl...

, as the words are accented on one of the final syllables.

The Dirges

A special kind of rhythm may be observed in the dirge
A dirge is a somber song expressing mourning or grief, such as would be appropriate for performance at a funeral. A lament. The English word "dirge" is derived from the Latin Dirige, Domine, Deus meus, in conspectu tuo viam meam , the first words of the first antiphon in the Matins of the Office...

s, called by the Hebrews "kinot". A whole book of these elegies is contained in the Hebrew Bible
Hebrew Bible
The Hebrew Bible is a term used by biblical scholars outside of Judaism to refer to the Tanakh , a canonical collection of Jewish texts, and the common textual antecedent of the several canonical editions of the Christian Old Testament...

, the first of them beginning thus: "How does the city sit solitary—that was full of people—how is she become as a widow—she that was great among the nations—and princess among the provinces—how is she become tributary!" (Lamentations 1:1).

The rhythm of such lines lies in the fact that a longer line is always followed by a shorter one. As in the hexameter
Hexameter is a metrical line of verse consisting of six feet. It was the standard epic metre in classical Greek and Latin literature, such as in the Iliad and Aeneid. Its use in other genres of composition include Horace's satires, and Ovid's Metamorphoses. According to Greek mythology, hexameter...

 and pentameter of Greek poetry
Greek literature
Greek literature refers to writings composed in areas of Greek influence, typically though not necessarily in one of the Greek dialects, throughout the whole period in which the Greek-speaking people have existed.-Ancient Greek literature :...

, this change was intended to symbolize the idea that a strenuous advance in life is followed by fatigue or reaction. This rhythm, which may be designated "elegiac measure," occurs also in Amos 5:2, expressly designated as a ḳinah. The sad import of his prophecies induced Jeremiah also to employ the rhythm of the dirges several times in his utterances (Jeremiah 9:20, 13:18 and following). He refers here expressly to the "meḳonenot" (the mourning women) who in the East still chant the death-song to the trembling tone of the pipe (48:36 and following). "Ḳinot" are found also in Ezekiel
Book of Ezekiel
The Book of Ezekiel is the third of the Latter Prophets in the Hebrew Bible, following the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah and preceding the Book of the Twelve....

 19:1, 26:17, 27:2, 32:2 and following, 32:16, 32:19 and following.

This elegiac measure, being naturally a well-known one, was used also elsewhere, as, for example, in Psalm 19:8-10. The rhythm of the ḳinah has been analyzed especially by Budde (in Stade's "Zeitschrift", 1883, p299). Similar funeral songs of the modern Arab
Arab people, also known as Arabs , are a panethnicity primarily living in the Arab world, which is located in Western Asia and North Africa. They are identified as such on one or more of genealogical, linguistic, or cultural grounds, with tribal affiliations, and intra-tribal relationships playing...

s are quoted by Wetzstein (in "Zeitschrift für Ethnologie", v. 298), as, e.g.: "O, if he only could be ransomed! truly, I would pay the ransom!" (see König, l.c. p315).


A special kind of rhythm was produced by the frequent employment of the so-called anadiplosis, a mode of speech in which the phrase at the end of one sentence is repeated at the beginning of the next, as, for instance, in the passages "they came not to the help of the Lord [i.e., to protect God's people], to the help of the Lord against the mighty" (Judges 5:23; compare "ẓidḳot" [5:11a] and "nilḥamu" [5:19a-20a, b]), and "From whence shall my help come? My help cometh from the Lord" (Psalm 121:1b-2a, R. V.).

Many similar passages occur in fifteen of the Psalms, 120-134, which also contain an unusual number of epanalepsis, or catch-words, for which Israel Davidson proposed the name "Leittöne." Thus there is the repetition of "shakan" in Psalm 120:5, 6; of "shalom" in verses 6 and 7 of the same psalm; and the catch-word "yishmor" in Psalm 121:7, 8 (all the cases are enumerated in König, l.c. p. 302).

As the employment of such repetitions is somewhat suggestive of the mounting of stairs, the superscription "shir ha-ma'alot," found at the beginning of these fifteen psalms, may have a double meaning: it may indicate not only the purpose of these songs, to be sung on the pilgrimages to the festivals at Jerusalem, but also the peculiar construction of the songs, by which the reciter is led from one step of the inner life to the next. Such graduated rhythm may be observed elsewhere; for the peasants in modern Syria
Syria , officially the Syrian Arab Republic , is a country in Western Asia, bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, and Israel to the southwest....

 accompany their national dance by a song the verses of which are connected like the links of a chain, each verse beginning with the final words of the preceding one (Wetzstein, l.c. v. 292).


Alphabetical acrostic
An acrostic is a poem or other form of writing in which the first letter, syllable or word of each line, paragraph or other recurring feature in the text spells out a word or a message. As a form of constrained writing, an acrostic can be used as a mnemonic device to aid memory retrieval. A famous...

s are used as an external embellishment of a few poems. The letters of the alphabet, generally in their ordinary sequence, stand at the beginning of smaller or larger sections of Psalms 9-10 (probably), 15, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145; Proverbs 31:10-31; Lamentations 1-4; and also of Sirach 51:13-29, as the newly discovered Hebrew text of this book has shown (see, on Psalms 25 and 34 especially, Hirsch in "Am. Jour. Semit. Lang." 1902, p167-173).

Alphabetical and other acrostics occur frequently in Neo-Hebraic poetry. The existence of acrostics in Babylonian literature has been definitely proved; and alphabetical poems are found also among the Samaritans, Syrians, and Arabs. Cicero says ("De Divinatione," II.54) that the verse of the sibyl was in acrostics; and the so-called Oracula Sibyllina contain an acrostic.

A secondary phenomenon, which distinguishes a part of the poems of the Old Testament from the other parts, is the so-called "accentuatio poetica"; it has been much slighted (Sievers, l.c. § 248, p. 375). Although not all the poetical portions of the Old Testament are marked by a special accentuation, the Book of Job in 3:3-42:6 and the books of Psalms and Proverbs throughout have received unusual accents. This point will be further discussed later on.

Poems that deal with events

First may be mentioned poems that deal principally with events, being epic-lyric in character: the triumphal song of Israel delivered from Egypt, or the song of the sea
Song of the sea
The Song of the Sea is a poem that appears in the Book of Exodus of the Hebrew Bible, at . It is followed in verses 20 and 21 by a much shorter song sung by Miriam and the other women...

; the mocking song on the burning of Heshbon
Heshbon was an ancient town located east of the Jordan River in the modern Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and historically within the territories of Ammon and Ancient Israel....

; the so-called song of Moses
Song of Moses
The Song of Moses in this article relates to the name sometimes given to the poem that appears in Deuteronomy of the Hebrew Bible written/orated just prior to Moses' death atop Mount Nebo....

; the song of Deborah; the derisive song of victory of the Israelite women; Hannah
Hannah (Bible)
Hannah is the wife of Elkanah mentioned in the Books of Samuel. According to the Hebrew Bible she was the mother of Samuel...

's song of praise; David
David was the second king of the united Kingdom of Israel according to the Hebrew Bible and, according to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, an ancestor of Jesus Christ through both Saint Joseph and Mary...

's song of praise on being saved from his enemies; Hezekiah
Hezekiah was the son of Ahaz and the 14th king of Judah. Edwin Thiele has concluded that his reign was between c. 715 and 686 BC. He is also one of the most prominent kings of Judah mentioned in the Hebrew Bible....

's song of praise on his recovery; Jonah
Jonah is the name given in the Hebrew Bible to a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel in about the 8th century BC, the eponymous central character in the Book of Jonah, famous for being swallowed by a fish or a whale, depending on translation...

's song of praise; and many of the Psalms, e.g., those on the creation of the world, and on the election of Israel. A subdivision is formed by poems that deal more with description and praise: the so-called Well song; the song of praise on the uniqueness of the God of Israel; and those on His eternity; His omnipresence and omniscience; and His omnipotence.

Didactic poems

Poems appealing more to reason, being essentially didactic in character. These include fable
A fable is a succinct fictional story, in prose or verse, that features animals, mythical creatures, plants, inanimate objects or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized , and that illustrates a moral lesson , which may at the end be expressed explicitly in a pithy maxim.A fable differs from...

s, like that of Jotham
Jotham was the youngest of Gideon's seventy sons. He escaped when the rest were put to death by the order of Abimelech . When "the citizens of Shechem and the whole house of Millo" were gathered together "by the plain of the pillar" "that was in Shechem, to make Abimelech king," from one of the...

 (Judges 9:7-15, although in prose); parable
A parable is a succinct story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more instructive principles, or lessons, or a normative principle. It differs from a fable in that fables use animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as characters, while parables generally feature human...

s, like those of Nathan
Nathan (Prophet)
Nathan the Prophet was a court prophet who lived in the time of King David and Queen Bathsheba. He came to David to reprimand him over his committing adultery with Bathsheba while she was the wife of Uriah the Hittite whose death the King had also arranged to hide his previous transgression.His...

 and others (2 Samuel 12:1-4, 14:4-9; 1 Kings
Books of Kings
The Book of Kings presents a narrative history of ancient Israel and Judah from the death of David to the release of his successor Jehoiachin from imprisonment in Babylon, a period of some 400 years...

 20:39 and following, all three in prose), or in the form of a song (Isaiah 5:1-6); riddle
A riddle is a statement or question or phrase having a double or veiled meaning, put forth as a puzzle to be solved. Riddles are of two types: enigmas, which are problems generally expressed in metaphorical or allegorical language that require ingenuity and careful thinking for their solution, and...

s (Judges 14:14 and following; Proverbs 30:11 and following); maxims, as, for instance, in 1 Samuel 15:22, 24:14, and the greater part of Proverbs; the monologues and dialogues in Job 3:3 and following; compare also the reflections in monologue in Ecclesiastes
The Book of Ecclesiastes, called , is a book of the Hebrew Bible. The English name derives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew title.The main speaker in the book, identified by the name or title Qoheleth , introduces himself as "son of David, king in Jerusalem." The work consists of personal...

. A number of the Psalms also are didactic in character. A series of them impresses the fact that God's law teaches one to abhor sin (Psalms 5, 58), and inculcates a true love for the Temple and the feasts of Yahweh (Psalms 15, 81, 92). Another series of Psalms shows that God is just, although it may at times seem different to a short-sighted observer of the world and of history ("theodicies": Psalms 49, 73; compare Psalms 16, 56, 60).


Poems that portray feelings based on individual experience. Many of these lyrics express joy, as, e.g., Lamech's so-called Song of the sword; David's "last words"; the words of praise of liberated Israel; songs of praise like Psalms 18, 24, 126, etc. Other lyrics express mourning. First among these are the dirges proper for the dead, as the ḳinah
Kinah or qinah is Hebrew for dirge or lamentation. Its general meaning is a dirge or lament, especially as sung by Jewish professional mourning women. Specifically, it refers to a Hebrew elegy chanted traditionally on the Ninth of Ab.Kinah was also a city in the extreme south of Judah...

 on the death of Saul and Jonathan; that on Abner
In the Book of Samuel, Abner , is first cousin to Saul and commander-in-chief of his army...

's death; and all psalms of mourning, as, e.g., the expressions of sorrow of sufferers, and the expressions of penitence of sinners.

Poems that urge action

Finally, a large group of poems of the Old Testament that urge action and are exhortatory. These may be divided into two sections:
  1. The poet wishes something for himself, as in the so-called "signal words" (Numbers 10:35 and following, "Arise, LORD" etc.); at the beginning of the Well song (21:17 and following, "ali be'er"); in the daring request, "Sun, stand thou still" (Joshua
    Book of Joshua
    The Book of Joshua is the sixth book in the Hebrew Bible and of the Old Testament. Its 24 chapters tell of the entry of the Israelites into Canaan, their conquest and division of the land under the leadership of Joshua, and of serving God in the land....

     10:12); in Habakkuk
    Habakkuk , also spelled Habacuc, was a prophet in the Hebrew Bible. The etymology of the name of Habakkuk is not clear. The name is possibly related to the Akkadian khabbaququ, the name of a fragrant plant, or the Hebrew root חבק, meaning "embrace"...

    's prayer ("tefillah"; Habakkuk
    Book of Habakkuk
    The Book of Habakkuk is the eighth book of the 12 minor prophets of the Hebrew Bible. It is attributed to the prophet Habakkuk, and was probably composed in the late 7th century BC. A copy of chapters 1 and 2 is included in the Habakkuk Commentary, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.Chapters 1-2...

     3:1-19); or in psalms of request for help in time of war (44, 60, etc.) or for liberation from prison (122, 137, etc.).
  2. The poet pronounces blessings upon others, endeavoring to move God to grant these wishes. To this group belong the blessing of Noah (Genesis 9:25-27), of Isaac
    Isaac as described in the Hebrew Bible, was the only son Abraham had with his wife Sarah, and was the father of Jacob and Esau. Isaac was one of the three patriarchs of the Israelites...

     (27:28-29 and 39-40), and of Jacob
    Jacob "heel" or "leg-puller"), also later known as Israel , as described in the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, the New Testament and the Qur'an was the third patriarch of the Hebrew people with whom God made a covenant, and ancestor of the tribes of Israel, which were named after his descendants.In the...

     (49:3-27); Jethro
    In the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible, Jethro |Shu-ayb]]) is Moses' father-in-law, a Kenite shepherd and priest of Midian. He is also revered as a prophet in his own right in the Druze religion, and considered an ancestor of the Druze.-In Exodus:...

    's congratulation of Israel (Exodus 18:10); the blessing of Aaron
    In the Hebrew Bible and the Qur'an, Aaron : Ααρών ), who is often called "'Aaron the Priest"' and once Aaron the Levite , was the older brother of Moses, and a prophet of God. He represented the priestly functions of his tribe, becoming the first High Priest of the Israelites...

     (Numbers 6:24-26) and of Balaam
    Balaam is a diviner in the Torah, his story occurring towards the end of the Book of Numbers. The etymology of his name is uncertain, and discussed below. Every ancient reference to Balaam considers him a non-Israelite, a prophet, and the son of Beor, though Beor is not so clearly identified...

     (23:7-10, 18-24, 24:5-9, 24:17-24); Moses' farewell (Deuteronomy 33:1 and following); the psalms that begin with "Ashre" = "Blessed is," etc., or contain this phrase, as Psalms 1, 41, 84:5 and following, 84:13, 112, 119, 128.

It was natural that in the drama, which is intended to portray a whole series of external and internal events, several of the foregoing kinds of poems should be combined. This combination occurs in Canticles
Song of songs
Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, is a book of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. It may also refer to:In music:* Song of songs , the debut album by David and the Giants* A generic term for medleysPlays...

, which, in Davidson's opinion, is most correctly characterized as a kind of drama.

The peculiar sublimity of the poems of the Old Testament is due partly to the high development of monotheism which finds expression therein and partly to the beauty of the moral ideals which they exalt. This subject has been discussed by J. D. Michaelis in the preface to his Arabic grammar, second edition, p29, and by Emil Kautzsch in "Die Poesie und die Poetischen Bücher des A. T." (1902).

Extent of Poetry in the Old Testament

How much of the Hebrew Bible is to be considered poetry?

Can the prophetic books be considered as poetry? Setting aside the many modern exegetes of the Old Testament who have gone so far as to discuss the meters and verse of the several prophets, it may be noted here merely that Sievers says (l.c. p. 374) that the prophecies, aside from a few exceptions to be mentioned, are eo ipso poetic, i.e., in verse. But the fact must be noted, which no one has so far brought forward, namely, that every single utterance of Balaam is called a sentence ("mashal"; Numbers 23:7, 23:18, 24:3, 24:15, 24:20, 24:23), while in the prophetic books this term is not applied to the prophecies. There "mashal" is used only in the Book of Ezekiel, and in an entirely different sense, namely, that of figurative speech or allegory (Ezekiel 17:2, 21:5, 24:3). This fact seems to show that in earlier times prophecies were uttered more often in shorter sentences, while subsequently, in keeping with the development of Hebrew literature, they were uttered more in detail, and the sentence was naturally amplified into the discourse. This view is supported by Isaiah 1, the first prophecy being as follows: "Banim giddalti we-romamti," etc. There is here certainly such a symmetry in the single sentences that the rhythm which has been designated above as the poetic rhythm must be ascribed to them. But in the same chapter there occur also sentences like the following: "Arẓekém shemamáh 'arekém serufot-ésh; admatekém le-negdekém zarím okelím otáh" (verse 7), or this, "When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?" (verse 12). In the last pair of lines even the translation sufficiently shows that each line does not contain three stresses merely, as does each line of the words of God (verses 2b, 3a, b).

Although the prophets of Israel inserted poems in their prophecies, or adopted occasionally the rhythm of the dirge, which was well known to their readers, their utterances, aside from the exceptions to be noted, were in the freer rhythm of prose. This view is confirmed by a sentence of Jerome
Saint Jerome was a Roman Christian priest, confessor, theologian and historian, and who became a Doctor of the Church. He was the son of Eusebius, of the city of Stridon, which was on the border of Dalmatia and Pannonia...

that deserves attention. He says in his preface to his translation of Isaiah: "Let no one think that the prophets among the Hebrews were bound by meter similar to that of the Psalms."

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