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Old Testament Survey

Hebrew Poetry and Wisdom

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. 14For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

With the book of Job we move from the books of history to those which are labeled wisdom and poetry. It should be remembered that all of the books which follow, both the ones of wisdom and poetry, as well as those of the prophets, fit into the historical scheme of the first seventeen books. These books are the books of experience. The authors and characters involved have lived out various events of their lives and have recorded their circumstances and reactions for the benefit of those who follow. These books relate to the spiritual life of the people, to the condition and reactions of their hearts. They deal with people, individuals, rather than with a nation.

Overall, these five books may be viewed as one’s spiritual life in differing events or conditions.

Jesus in the Poetical Books

While we will consider this in more detail, a brief overview of the place of Christ in these five books is in order. This should be viewed against the background of the books of the law and history.

This expectation is expressed in varying forms. Mediation, communion, wisdom, satisfaction, and union with Christ are all present in the various works. In this sense, the aspiration of the poetry books is the same as the rest of Scripture.

Hebrew Poetry

All of these books, including Job, are considered to be primarily Hebrew poetry. Hebrew poetry differs from modern English poetry in that it does not emphasize rhyme and meter. Rather, Jewish poetry uses parallelism, comparisons, and figures of speech for its impact. Lyric poetry was created to by accompanied by music (Psalms). Didactic poetry was designed to teach the principles of life through the use of maxims and comparisons (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes). Finally, dramatic poetry uses dialog to communicate its purposes (Job, Song of Solomon). As a result, the two key elements of Hebrew poetry are parallelism and figures of speech.

The following summary comes from Keathley (p. 41):

The Two Key Elements of Hebrew Poetry

Parallelism. In contrast to English verse which manipulates sound and emphasizes rhyme and meter, Hebrew poetry repeats and rearranges thoughts rather than sounds. Parallelism refers “to the practice of balancing one thought or phrase by a corresponding thought or phrase containing approximately the same number of words, or at least a correspondence in ideas.” 5. There are several types of parallel arrangement of thoughts, with three being basic.

  1. Synonymous--the thought of the first line is basically repeated in different words in the second line (2:4; 3:1; 7:17).
  2. Antithetical--the thought of the first line is emphasized by a contrasting thought in the second line (1:6; 34:10). They are often identified with “but.”
  3. Synthetic--the second line explains or further develops the idea of the first line (1:3; 95:3).
  4. Climactic--The second line repeats with the exception of the last terms (29:1).
  5. Emblematic--One line conveys the main point, the second line illuminates it by an image (42:1; 23:1).

Figures of Speech. Like the Hebrew language itself, Hebrew poetry uses vivid images, similes, metaphors, and other rhetorical devices to communicate thoughts and feelings. Some of these are as follows:

  1. Simile: This is the simplest of all the figures of speech. A simile is a comparison between two things that resemble each other in some way (cf. Ps. 1:3-4; 5:12; 17:8; 131:2).
  2. Metaphor: This is a comparison in which one thing is likened to another without the use of a word of comparison as in “like” or “as.” In Psalm 23:1, David says, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” that is, He is to me like a shepherd is to his sheep (see also 84:11; 91:4).
  3. Implication: This occurs when there is only an implied comparison between two things in which the name of one thing is used in place of the other (cf. Ps. 22:16; Jer. 4:7).
  4. Hyperbole: This is the use of exaggeration or over statement to stress a point (Ps. 6:6; 78:27; 107.26).
  5. Paronomasia: This refers to the use or repetition of words that are similar in sound, but not necessarily in sense or meaning in order to achieve a certain effect. This can only be observed by those who can read the original Hebrew text. Psalm 96:10 reads, “For all the gods (kol-elohay) of the nations are idols (elilim). This latter word means nothings, or things of naught; so that we might render it, “The gods of the nations or imaginations.” 6. (see also Ps. 22:16; Prov. 6:23).

6.Pleonasm: This involves the use of redundancy for the sake of emphasis. This may occur with the use of words or sentences. In Psalm 20:1 we are told, “May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble! May the name of the God of Jacob set you securely on high!” Here “name” appears to be redundant. It means God Himself and has more emphasis than if only the term “God” had been used.

7.Rhetorical question: The use of a question to confirm or deny a fact (Ps. 35:10; 56:8; 106.2).

8.Metonymy: This occurs where one noun is used in place of another because of some relationship or type of resemblance that different objects might bear to one another (Ps. 5:9; 18:2; 57:9; 73:9).

9.Anthropomorphism: The assigning of some part of the human anatomy to God’s Person to convey some aspect of God’s being like the eyes or ears (cf. Ps. 10:11, 14; 11:4; 18:15; 31:2).

10.  Zoomorphism: The assigning of some part of an animal to God’s Person to convey certain truths about God (cf. Ps. 17:8; 91:4).

5. Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, Moody Press, Chicago, 1994, Electronic Edition, 1997, Parsons Technology, Inc. 6. E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1898, Reprinted in 1968, p. 311.




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