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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Techniques in Bible Poetry

The Bible knows poetry! Regardless of the translation, most newer printings emphasize poetic lines with a typesetting format that clearly shows the poetic intent.

The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, of course, has always had a rhythmic cadence that makes poetry obvious, but its translation into the classical English form of iambic pentameter (aka 5 upbeat feet per line) does not necessarily carry the tune heard by the original biblical poets.

In Hebrew texts, a rhythmic beat usually consists of 3 to 4 beats per line with heightened language found in Wisdom Writings and the books of The Prophets. In addition, some Psalms use poetic forms such as the acrostic where the first letter of each line spells a word down the page or an alphabet poem where the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet begins the next line. For instance, Psalm 119 has an intricate pattern of eight-line stanzas for each of the 22 letters in the Hebraic alphabet, from Aleph to Taw.

Also, in the original languages of Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, poetic passages sometimes included amusing wordplays or puns that unfortunately got lost in translation. So, a better-known feature of Bible poetry translates well as parallelism, which means that one line contrasts, compares, repeats, or completes one or more other lines. The subsequent lines then expand or clarify the meaning of the opening line.

For example, Proverbs 8:1 says:

Does not wisdom call,
does not understanding raise her voice?

In Isaiah 41:10, God speaks poetically through the prophet to say:

Fear not, for I am with you.
Be not dismayed, for I am your God.

Similarly, in Matthew 11:30, Jesus poetically promises:

Come to me, all who labor
and are heavy laden,
and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you,
and learn from me,
for I am gentle and lowly in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.

Each line builds on the one prior in a poetically repetitive way, so it's not surprising that people often refer to Holy Scriptures as “Bible verses,” which obviously suggests poetry! Some readers might be surprised, though, to find that Bible poems are not saccharine nor always upbeat.

In such books as Job, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes, biblical poets wrote in and through their fear, anger, envy, complaint, worry, pride, and other emotions.

For example, Psalm 6:1 says:

O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger!
Chasten me not in your wrath.

And, surely, most Bible readers have felt the chill of Psalm 22 spoken by Christ on the cross:

My God! My God!
Why have you forsaken me?

Some say Jesus knew His followers would know how that Psalm ends – with praise to God – and, therefore, would take courage. Without that outcry though, the beautiful poetry, insights, and faith in the 23rd Psalm might seem less credible in bringing biblical truths and the ongoing assurance of God’s redeeming love.

© 2013, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. For more on writing from a religious perspective, visit the Christian Poets and Writers blog and join the group by that name on Facebook. You might also be interested in prayer-a-phrased poems evoked by Daily Bible Readings in Bible Prayers, Poems, and Promises.



  1. With regard to Christ's quotation of psalm 22, I've heard that as paper, papyrus or parchment were comparatively rare and expensive commodities, very different from our unlimited electronic paper where we can give free reign to any number of words, the first few words of a psalm would be written as a space saving abbreviation to stand for the whole thing. One possibility is therefore that Jesus quoted far more than those few words but the gospel writers only needed the few to get their point across. The other is that the written habit had been incorporated into speech so, much as you suggest, Jesus only needed to say the few words for the whole psalm to come to the mind of listeners. Even now, we often only repeat the first half of a well known saying leaving the reader or listener to complete it for themselves.

  2. Yes, thanks, Rosalie. So the agonizing cry of abandonment we've heard and maybe identified with in the beginning of the Psalm leads us to Jesus' praise and ongoing assurance of God's love at the end.

  3. Love the poetry of the Bible, especially Psalms!

  4. Me too! I turn to the Psalms often for the comfort, beauty, and powerful connection Bible poetry brings. The prophetic poems in Isaiah are favorites for me too.