The sort of poetry which doesn’t rhyme.

Hebrew poetry, and how it works for those who insist “If it doesn’t rhyme it’s not poetry!”

When children are taught to read, they’re exposed to poetry. Starting with Dr. Seuss and the children’s-book poets, all the way up to Shakespeare. And what’s the one thing English-speakers are all agreed upon about poetry? I’m not gonna wait for your answer: It rhymes.

Except it doesn’t always. We were introduced to Walt Whitman in high school—to his stuff other than “O Captain! My Captain!”, which does rhyme. And a bunch of us objected—as do high schoolers across America—“This isn’t poetry. It doesn’t rhyme.” ’Cause we knew from Green Eggs and Ham on up: Poetry rhymes.

Well, English-language poetry rhymes. That’s been our literary custom, anyway. Also true for many other cultures. Hebrew poetry also rhymes.

But the Hebrew stuff rhymes in a different way than the English stuff. We rhyme sounds. Done and won, red and head, still and will, butterfly and flutter by. Sometimes you’ll find rhymes in Hebrew writings too; they’ll use them to make puns. But for rhyming, ancient Hebrew rhymes ideas: Same concept, said again in different words.


Psalm 19.2 KWL
The skies are a record of God’s glory.
The space above reports the work of his hands.

Note what lines up with what.

From line 1.From line 2.
Ha-shamáyim“the skies”Ha-raqía/“the space above”
Mesapperím/“are a record”Maggíd/“reports”
Kevód-El/“God’s glory”Maháse yadáw/“work of his hands”

Same ideas. Different sentences. (Or clauses; Hebrew sentences start with ve-/“and,” so it’s possible to treat the whole Old Testament as a giant run-on sentence. But anyway.) This, and passages which practice this very same sort of parallelism, is how we know we’re dealing with poetry.

Which we will find everywhere in the bible. Old Testament and New Testament: It doesn’t matter that the NT was written in Greek, because its writers all knew their Old Testament, and how to write poetry. The psalms are nothing but poetry. The prophets are almost entirely poetry. Even the historical books and Law are full of poetry. Jesus used poetry all the time to make his teachings memorable. Seriously, it’s everywhere.

It’s so common, whenever someone starts repeating ideas we immediately recognize it as “bible language.” (Assuming people are familiar with bible. Not so many of us are, anymore.) People pray in it, teach in it, give speeches in it, write songs in it. It’s everywhere in English-speaking culture, ’cause our literature has been so heavily influenced by the King James Version and other bibles.

Because English poetry is all about rhyme (and rhythm), it’s tricky to translate into other languages. You can’t always keep the poetry in it. But when Hebrew poetry is rendered into English—and every other language—the parallelism is still there. Almost as if God planned it that way, huh?

Why Hebrew poetry matters.

Hebrew poetry helps us interpret the bible. The scriptures’ authors used it to reiterate their points, and hammer ’em home with repetition. (Hey, check that out; I just did a little Hebrew poetry there myself.)

Which is really useful when we’re not sure what the authors meant. If a verse is difficult to interpret—we aren’t sure what the words mean, or we are sure but aren’t sure what the author meant by them—we look at the parallel ideas in the poetry. ’Cause most of the time, the author was writing in poetry.

The context will help us interpret the meaning. In fact a lot of the misinterpretations of the bible floating around are usually the result of someone not bothering to check the context. They don’t realize poetry is going on, and try to interpret the parallel idea as if it’s a different idea.

One famous example:

Genesis 1.26 LXX
And God said, “We’ll make humanity according to our image,
and according to our likeness.” […]

This is really basic parallelism. The author of Genesis used the synonyms chalm/“image” and demút/“like(ness)” to describe how we humans resemble God. Not specific attributes of God, but in general.

But it seems St. Irenaeus of Lyons wasn’t up to speed on his Hebrew poetry. (He knew his Greek poetry; not so much the Hebrew stuff.) He took the two words he saw in his Septuagint as two individual ideas—and stretched those ideas a tad to teach about free will. We have God’s eikóna/“image”—meaning we have free will like God. We have his omoíosin/“likeness”—meaning we have the ability to make right choices. Or had. ’Cause Adam and Eve sinned, so we lost his “likeness,” meaning that ability. But we still have the “image”—the free will, which we now use to choose between which sin’ll float our boat most.

Okay. If I wanted to claim humans are depraved, it’s not hard to do; it says so in the New Testament, and easy to put together a basic theology on it. I don’t have to twist Old Testament passages till they do as I want. But I’m not gonna rant today (well, not much) against pulling bible out of context. Just point out Hebrew poetry helps us interpret it in context: If the author was using poetry, we’re gonna find parallels. We can compare the first line with the second—or contrast it.

Types of parallels.

Synonymous. The most common type of poetry you’ll find in the bible is called synonymous parallelism—where ideas get repeated. Like yea:

Amos 2.14-15 KWL
14 “The fastest: Their refuge is destroyed.
The toughest: Their strength isn’t there.
The mighty: Won’t escape with their lives.
15 The archers: Can’t stand.
The fastest runners: Won’t be rescued.
The horsemen: Won’t escape with their lives.”

Yeah, that army was screwed. Every line just describes more defeat for its soldiers.

Sometimes poets liked to take the clauses in the first line, and reverse ’em in the second line:

Jeremiah 25.34a KWL
Howl, shepherds. Call out.
Roll in the dirt, mighty flocks.

Notice “shepherds” in the first part of line 1, and “mighty flocks” in the last part? Scholars love to get technical, and come up with names for all this behavior; this one’s called a chiasm, ’cause the clauses cross over like an X (which is also the Greek letter chi, hence chi-asm).

But you might notice fewer chiasms in more recent translations of the bible, ’cause in order to make the parallels more obvious, the translators un-reverse the clauses like so:

Jeremiah 25.34a NLT
Weep and moan, you evil shepherds!
Roll in the dust, you leaders of the flock!

Another term scholars like to fling around is emblematic parallelism, by which they just mean the poet was using similes and metaphors. As poets do.

Hosea 4.16 KWL
“Israel’s like a stubborn cow.
Now, should I the LORD pastor her like a lamb in a valley?”

Antithetical. When we’re comparing opposites, contrasting ideas, or using antonyms, we’ve got antithetical parallelism. The kind of poetry proverb-writers love. That’s why Proverbs is loaded with this type of poetry.

Proverbs 1.7 KWL
Revering the LORD is how we begin to know wisdom.
Discipline? The stupid have no respect for it.
Proverbs 10.1 KWL
Wise child, rejoicing father. Stupid child, grieving mother.

The godly experience this; the wicked experience that. God gives this bunch good, that bunch evil. Wise does one thing, foolish does the reverse. Truth produces blessing, lies produce evil. And so forth.

Synthetic. One of the meanings of synthesize is “to build.” So in synthetic parallelism, the poet started an idea in line 1, and builds ideas onto it with the subsequent lines.

Psalm 147.7-11 KWL
7 Sing in thanksgiving to the LORD.
Compose to God on the guitar.
8 He covers the skies with clouds.
He prepares rain for the earth; grass to grow on the hills.
9 He gives animals their food,
to the ravens’ children, which call him.
10 He doesn’t delight in horses’ strength.
He doesn’t take pleasure in men’s legs.
11 The LORD does take pleasure in those who respect him,
in those who patiently wait for his love.

There’s a whole logical chain to this psalm, which we see when we analyze the poetry:

  1. (a) Sing to God. (b) And make music.
  2. (a) God sends clouds. (b) And rain and grass.
  3. (a) God feeds animals. (b) Specifically ravens.
  4. (a) God doesn’t care about horsepower. (b) Nor human power.
  5. (a) God is pleased with respect. (b) And our patience.

The most common kind of synthetic parallelism is where line 1 starts an idea, and line 2 finishes it. We also see this all over Proverbs—either with comparisons, or explanations.

Proverbs 26.1 KWL
Snow in summer, rain during harvest:
Honor on fools isn’t right either.
Proverbs 19.20 KWL
Listen to advice. Accept correction.
Because you’ll be wise ever after.

Climactic. A climax is the end of something. In climactic parallelism, you simply have loads of repetition—but all the endings are different.

Psalm 29.1-2 KWL
1 Come to the LORD, children of God.
Come to the LORD, who’s glorious and mighty.
2 Come to the LORD, whose name is glorious.
Bow to the LORD in honor of his holiness.
Matthew 5.3-9 KWL
3 “Spiritual beggars are awesome; they make up heaven’s kingdom.
4 The grieving are awesome; they’ll be summoned by God.
5 The nice are awesome; they’ll become heirs of the land.
6 Those who hunger and thirst for justice are awesome; they’ll be filled.
7 The compassionate are awesome; they’ll be shown compassion.
8 The clean-hearted are awesome; they’ll see God.
9 The peacemakers are awesome; they’ll be called God’s children.”

Notice Jesus’s poetry in Matthew 5: He has all the repetition of climactic poetry. And for those people who consider the stuff after “they’ll” to be separate lines, he’s using synthetic poetry—explaining why they’re awesome. (Kingdom is theirs, inheriting the land, getting filled and satisfied, etc.) Yeah, you can mix up all sorts of parallelism.

Bonus: Metrical psalms!

Because some English-speakers simply have to have all their poetry rhyme, various Christians have created metrical psalms—translations of Psalms which gave ’em English-style rhymes and rhythm. The Scottish Psalter is one example. I’ve dabbled in it myself.

Psalm 8 KWL
Arranged for lyre. A David psalm.
1 Our master LORD: What noble name!
You have, in all the earth, great fame
which sets your splendor in the skies.
2 And in the kids’ and infants’ cries
you build your strength against your foes,
the vengeful; stop all who oppose.
3 I see the skies—your fingers’ act:
The moon, fixed stars—and I react:
4 So what are humans, to your mind?—
You care for Adam’s sons so kind.
5 A little less than gods, we’re made
with glory, honor, crowns you’ve laid.
6 The things your hands made, you ordain
beneath our feet; you have us reign.
7 All sheep and cows at our command,
rule over animals on land,
8 birds of the air, fish of the sea,
whatever swims there: All we see.
9 Our master LORD: What noble name!
You have, in all the earth, great fame.

If you notice the gray text, you’ll notice I had to pad the translation a bit so it’d rhyme. That’s the catch with metrical translations: The more you try to make it fit English poetry, the less exact a translation it is. You can do it, but you sacrifice accuracy for esthetics. And if you’re not careful, all the original poetry—all the Hebrew parallelism placed there by David and the other authors—fades away. It’s why metrical psalms are great for memorization, but not so great for bible study.

The Puritans made ’em metrical because in a lot of their churches, you weren’t allowed to sing anything which didn’t come from the bible. So once the psalms were thus adjusted, and you could find some music to match, you could sing all 150 of ’em.

When I taught English, I had my students take a stab at adapting the psalms into poetry. One boy objected to “tampering with scripture,” but I pointed out this was an adaptation; nobody was gonna consider his work scripture. Still, you might try your hand at it yourself. I find it to be a fun devotional practice.