Skip to main content
Banner Image

Hebrew Poetry in the Bible-OLD: Overview

This short guide will help students understand the basic structures of Hebrew poetry, which is often necessary when writing an exegesis paper on a poetical passage of Scripture.

IS IT POETRY?

Poetry is difficult to define. Sometimes poetry can seem a lot like prose, and prose can seem a lot like poetry. In fact, there are times when Bible translations will disagree about whether a passage should be considered poetry, which is usually presented in verse form. Unless you have a fairly high ability to translate Hebrew, it's best to follow the general concensus among translators.

Not all scholars use the same terminology to refer to the structure of poetry. The boxes to the right provide definitions for the some of the terms.

DID YOU KNOW?

 Robert Lowth (1710-1787)

Both a Bishop in the Church of England and a professor of poetry at Oxford, Robert Lowth was the first to draw attention to parallel structures in the Hebrew poetry of the Bible.  In 1753, he published De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum ("On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews"), which has since influenced virtually all future scholarship in the poetry of the Bible. His three main types of parallelism will form the basis for this guide on Hebrew poetry.

PARALLELISM

The most striking characteristic of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. This occurs when two or more lines of poetry are set in balance to each other. There are many different opinions of how to define the different types of parallelism within Hebrew poetry, and the discussions can become quite complex without knowledge of Hebrew. For the sake of simplicity, we will follow the three types of parallelism suggested by Robert Lowth (see left):

1) Synonymous

2) Antithetical

3) Synthetic

COLA

This guide will use the following terminology to refer to the structures of Hebrew poetry:

Colon: a single line of poetry

Cola: the plural of colon

Bicolon: two lines of poetry set in parallelism to each other, referred to as a single unit (pl: bicola)

Tricolon: three lines of poetry set in parallelism to each other, referred to as a single unit (pl: tricola)


Psalm 1:1

   How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,

      Nor stand in the path of sinners,

      Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!

These three lines together form a single tricolon. Each separate line of the tricolon is a colon. These three cola form a tricolon.


Psalm 1:2

   But his delight is in the law of the LORD,

      And in His law he meditates day and night.

These two cola form a single bicolon. Each separate line is a colon.

STICHOI

Some of the literature (generally older) about Hebrew poetry will use the following terminology:

Stich: a single line of poetry

Stichoi: the plural of stich

Hemistich: some refer only to a set of lines as a stich, in which case each individual line is called a hemistich

Distich: two lines of poetry set in parallelism to each other, referred to as a single unit (pl: distichoi)

Tristich: three lines of poetry set in parallelism to each other, referred to as a single unit (pl: tristichoi)


Psalm 1:1

   How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,

      Nor stand in the path of sinners,

      Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!

These three lines together form a single tristich. Each separate line of the tricolon is a stich. These three stichoi form a tristich.


Psalm 1:2

   But his delight is in the law of the LORD,

      And in His law he meditates day and night.

These two stichoi form a single distich. Each separate line is a stich.

Subject Guide

Justin J. Evans
Contact:
612-343-4156
Website / Blog Page