How should we read and interpret Hebrew poetry?

 Virtually every book of the OT (Old Testament) contains poetry, often in the context of songs or prophecy.[1] The entire book of Psalms falls into this genre.

Since the OT was written for a predominantly oral culture, poetic elements aided those who heard these texts to remember what had been read or sung to them.[2]

Just as we interpret poetry differently from narrative in our culture, we must be aware when this shift in genre has occurred in the OT and make allowances for that in our exegesis.

Within Hebrew poetry, specific words were often selected not only for their meaning but also for their rhythm (ie. “formless and empty” is tohu wabohu in Gen 1:2).

There are a few common Hebrew poetic literary devices.

Parallelism is a technique in which a second line repeats (Ps 77:1), clarifies (Prov 19:5), intensifies (Isa 40:9), or provides contrast to the first line (Prov 11:20).[3]

Chiasm is an A–B–C–B–A thought structure, where the focus often, but not always, lies upon C (for Gen 15:1–6, this is verses 3–4). Noah’s flood appears in the form of a large chiasm (Gen 6:10–9:19), with the central focus falling upon Gen 8:1.

Merism is a literary device which employs a pair of opposites to denote both of them and everything in between, akin to saying, “from A to Z” (Ps 139:6–12).

Acrostics are poems in which each line begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Ps 34).

Alliteration is repetition of the same sound; for example, Ps 122:6–7 has five instances of “sh” and three words ending with “k.”

English readers can easily miss many of these literary devices.

Hebrew poetry was written mainly for corporate worship and occasionally for private devotion by a specific author in response to life circumstances.[4] Therefore, whenever possible, we should read these great works in their historical contexts to appreciate their fuller meaning.

Psalm 63 likely was written while David was fleeing from King Saul in the Judean wilderness. This piece of information helps us to understand what the author was feeling.

As with Hebrew proverbs, a statement in a poem or song may refer to a promise or observation which is generally true as an axiom but not applicable in every case.[5] Unlike David, I have seen the children of the righteous “begging bread” (Ps 37:25).

An over-riding principle for interpreting sacred poetry is to read the piece in its entirety before attempting to make theological application. Indeed, only by viewing the entire body of psalms can we assess our own lives in relation to the Lord.

For example, where some of these songs affirm the security of the person who walks with God (Ps 1), others emphasize the transitory nature of life (Ps 39).[6] Both are equally true.

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[A related post is Exegesis and Hermeneutics]


[1]William N. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 2nd Ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 273.

[2]Gene M. Schramm, “Languages: Hebrew,” Anchor Bible Dictionary 4:212.

[3] Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 28692.

[4]Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms Vol. 1 (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 23.

[5]John E. Goldingay, Psalms 1–41 (BCOTWP; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 24.

[6] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 2nd Ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 238.