I was reading the Bible with someone recently, when the reader said: “This looks like poetry.” We happened to be looking at a verse in Lamentations, so I replied, “Yes, Lamentations is a series of five poems that correspond to the five chapters of the book.” I could have said more. The poems are laments over the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The first four poems are acrostic poems. Chapters 1, 2, and 4 has each line begin with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which has twenty-two letters leading to twenty-two lines (or verses). Chapter 3 has each letter of the alphabet three times for a total of 66 lines.
Knowing when you are looking at poetry is helpful. It wasn’t until the publication of the RSV in 1952, that readers were alerted to all the poetry found in the Bible. Previous versions may have printed the psalms in poetic format, but the poetry of the Bible extends beyond the psalms. At least one-third of the Old Testament is in poetry.
Although meter and rhythm are a part of biblical poetry, they are a part that is difficult to reproduce in translation. The main characteristic, however, is parallelism which can be reproduced easily in translation. In 1750 Robert Lowth argued for three basic types of parallelism. The three types are synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic.
Synonymous parallelism means the second line repeats the meaning of the first line often matching it grammatically as well. More recent scholars have tweaked the idea of synonymous parallelism. They suggest that even in the repeating of an idea, there may be clarification of the idea in the second line. Antithetical parallelism means the two lines are saying the opposite, that is, the second line is providing a contrast. Synthetic parallelism occurs when the second line is adding ideas to the first.
Recognizing when you are reading poetry in the Bible is helpful. You will expect more imagery and figurative language in poetry. Knowing something of the structure of Hebrew poetry will also aid your understanding and appreciation of the Bible’s poetry.
When it comes to Bible reading, yes, there’s poetry.