The Conventions of Biblical Poetry

A brief introduction to the devices and characteristics of in this biblical genre.

Print this page Print this page

B             The flowers been seen in the land;

C                             The time for pruning/singing has arrived:

B'            For the turtledove's call has been heard in our land,,

A' The figtree has ripened its unripe figs,

   And the vines in berry given off fragrance. (Song of Songs 2:11-13)

In this chiasm, A and A' both indicate season: A the transition from winter to spring, A' summer moving towards grape harvest time. B and B' speak of what has been seen and heard. C conveys the central message.

7. Janus constructions, in which a line understood as parallel to a previous line when read one way, is then revealed to also have a second meaning parallel to a line that follows it. Hebrew lends itself to puns and double meanings; both are common in biblical poems. The three central lines of the last example illustrate a Janus construction. Read as 'the season for pruning has arrived' the middle line corresponds to 'flowers have been seen in the land'. Read as 'the season for singing' it corresponds to 'the turtledove's call has been heard in our land.'

8. Alphabetic acrostics, in which verses or stanzas in the Hebrew text begin with successive letters of the alphabet. (Lamentations 4).

Types of poems and examples

Biblical poems were written for specific purposes and sung on specific occasions. Types (with examples provided) include poems for:

Worship:

  • Hymns praising God. (Psalm 8)

  • Psalms of thanksgiving for deliverance. (Psalms 30,124)

  • Psalms of supplication, voicing complaints and requests. (Psalms 44,64)

Teaching:

  • Proverbs (Ecclesiastes 10:18),

  • Riddles (Proverbs 30:4),

  • Wise advice (Proverbs 4),

  • Narrative poems about traditions (Psalms 78, 132),

  • Narrative poems with a moral (Proverbs 7),

  • Hymns praising wisdom (Job 28),

  • Wisdom on the futility and fragility of human life (Ecclesiastes 1:4-9).

Prophecy:

  • Prophecies of reproof and warning (Isaiah 34),

  • Prophecies of consolation (Isaiah 35).

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Jennifer T. Parkhurst received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently enrolled as a graduate student in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.