A modern-day Israeli who opens the book of Psalms is often surprised that despite being a native Hebrew speaker it is very difficult to understand. The biblical Hebrew language, especially in the poetic texts, can be challenging and different from modern Hebrew, and it can be very discouraging for those trying to read. This is obviously not a difficulty for English speakers because they have a translation that is fairly easy to understand. But whether you are reading the original Hebrew or a translation in your mother tongue, it is important for you to remember that you are reading poetry – and poetry can deliver its message in ways that, if you are unaware, you may well miss. Moreover, since the poetry was written in Hebrew, much of the beauty and power is connected to word plays, repetitions and so on, that may be lost in translation. But don’t despair! Biblical poetry carries riches that once you have tasted of their beauty and power you will only want to discover more and more. With a little understanding of the way that Hebrew poetry functions, and a little work on your part, you can start appreciating the poetry and delve deeper into the ways that it carries meaning – and you will find that the riches you gain are well worth the effort you put in. In this article, we will point out some of the things that are important to notice when you read biblical poetry, in the hope that this will help widen the horizons of your understanding.
It’s important to remember that poetry in the Tanakh (the Old Testament) is not limited to the book of Psalms. There are poems and songs in other biblical books. In the Pentateuch there are several, the Song of Deborah is found in Joshua 5, Hannah’s prayer in 1 Sam. 2:1-10 is a poem, and so on. In addition to this, there are books that are written wholly or partly in a poetic style (many of the prophetic books, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes…). In all of these the poetry holds hidden treasure.
What is Poetry?
Firstly, we need to think about a question that may seem basic but is quite important: what makes a literary text poetic? There are, of course, many opinions amongst literary scholars concerning this, both in connection to poetry in general and to Biblical poetry in particular. It is possible, however, to identify several elements that characterize a poetic text:
Terseness – Poetry is usually pithy and terse, and this is certainly true of Biblical poetry. The message is communicated in a few words, as opposed to narrative. There is, therefore, a large value put on each word, and it is important to understand the part that each word plays in its context. This difference between the way that something is expressed in narrative and in poetry can be illustrated in the way that the story of Sisera is related in narrative and its expression in poetry:
He said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.” So she opened a bottle of milk and gave him a drink; then she covered him. (Judg. 4:19)
“He asked for water and she gave him milk;
In a magnificent bowl she brought him curds.” (Judg. 5:25)
Firstly, it’s important to notice that there are less words in the way that the story is expressed in poetry, and this is even more obvious in Hebrew. In Hebrew the phrases ‘He asked for water’ and ‘she gave him milk’ are only two words each, and there is no ‘and’ between them. Two of the main ways in which this characteristic of terseness functions in Biblical poetry is by means of the literary devices called parallelism and metaphor.
Parallelism – One of the things that you will notice while reading Biblical poetry is the literary device called ‘parallelism’, which is, as the name suggests, a kind of paralleling of two (or more) short sentences or phrases. Parallelism is not limited to poetry in the Bible but its very frequent use is far more characteristic of poetry. The example mentioned previously from Judg. 5:25 is written in Hebrew as ‘parallelism’ – literally: “Water he requested – milk she gave”. We will return to this further on in the article.
Metaphor – Poetry is characterized by figurative language. Metaphor, as described by Israeli literary critic Shimon Sandbank, is “a mutually significant meeting of two different thoughts or concepts, one as the main thought and the other as the secondary thought. Or, in other words, metaphor is the ‘conceptualization’ of one area of thought in terms of an area of thought that is different from it.” We will also return to this later.
Integration and connectivity – Together with terseness, poetry is characterized by the connections between its parts. The different parts, the different literary devices, form an association by means of their juxtaposition and relationship one to another in different ways that demand from us as readers to think about the significance of this association and the message that it conveys.
Individuality – It is very important to recognize the individuality of each poem and each poetic text. This characteristic is conveyed by all the expressions and literary devices made use of in the poem. One of the literary thinkers who wrote about poetry, Michael Riffaterre, called this individuality the “sub-code” of the poem. A kind of special language belonging to and characterizing that poem, which the reader must learn in order that the poem will speak for itself, and in order that the reader does not force on that poem the form or expression of another poem. Appreciation of the poem’s individuality serves to excite the reader and add to both his understanding and his enjoyment, seeing that each poem contains a world of discovery.
So, how should I read Biblical Poetry?
In order to read Biblical poetry in a manner that will let the text express itself in its own way and lead us to its message, it is very important to understand and take note of the characteristics mentioned above. To that end, we look at the individual words, the way they are integrated into their context, and the overall picture that the poem presents.
1. The building blocks – words
A poem is made up of words (of course). At times, the potency of a word is made clear only in the framework of its relationships with the other words that are around it, and sometimes one word can have the power of a key to open a room or even a whole edifice of meaning. The reader of any kind of literature must read the words with an awareness of both their meaning and their contribution to the whole. This is true especially of poetry, one of whose characteristics is the conveying of much meaning in few words. This trait heightens the importance of being sensitive to the meaning of each word and its role in the poem.
The word’s meaning – in itself and in context
A word has a literal meaning that appears in its dictionary definition. In many cases a word has several nuances to its meaning and even several different meanings. It is often the case that in addition to its dictionary definition a word may have an accompanying connotation, and sometimes more than one. These are the associated meanings and connotations that are connected to a word associatively in different environments and cultural settings. It is critical, as a foundation to the understanding of a poem, to check the different meanings of the individual words.
In reading Biblical poetry, two factors are highly important in this regard:
- Biblical language
There is no question that learning Biblical Hebrew is invaluable. But, having said that, even if you have not learnt Hebrew, you can make use of a vast array of tools that are available today, starting with the translation of the text to your own language. If you have a computer or mobile phone available to you then there are several good online tools that you can use for free. For starters, you can click on the “Read the Bible” found on the top of the page, that has a Bible study module provided by The Bible Society in Israel. This is one tool out of many that are available online. Whatever tools you are able to use, and even if you are simply reading a translation in your language, having a basic understanding of the way that Biblical poetry works can set you a long way on knowing what to look for and how to be sensitive to the way that the poetic devices can lead you deeper into the meaning of the text.
- Poetic Style
In poetry, the poet uses words in special ways, sometimes in ways that are very unusual, out of the ordinary, or even novel and innovative. Therefore, as readers, we should be ready for surprises. Of course, in many cases it is likely that the basic meaning of the word is relevant. This brings us to the next point.
As already mentioned, it is critical to understand the meaning of each word and to examine it in context in order to grasp its function in the text. We could take the Hebrew word ‘lalekhet’, whose dictionary meaning is ‘to move forward by foot’, or simply ‘to walk, to go’. In different contexts this word can, however, have associated meanings and can function in different ways:
1. I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD.”
Our feet are standing Within your gates, O Jerusalem (Ps. 122:1-2)
Psalm 122 speaks of Jerusalem and her importance related to the house of the LORD within her (take note that the Psalm opens and closes with ‘the house of the LORD’). The first thought in the Psalm concerns the ascent by foot to Jerusalem and an inflection of the word ‘lalekhet’ (‘let us go’) speaks of walking in the normal way in which it is understood.
2. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil,
for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. (Ps. 23:4)
Here David describes a situation he went through which he compares to walking through a fearful valley. In the picture described, the meaning of ‘lalekhet’ is on the one hand the normal meaning of the word, walking through a valley. But since the Psalm is speaking metaphorically of God’s relationship with David as that of a shepherd and his sheep, we understand that the word is figuratively describing David going through a very difficult and painful situation.
3. 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! (Ps. 1:1)
In this case the word ‘walk’ is part of a series of verbs – walk, stand, sit – that in their context figuratively describe different stages of involvement in the ways of the wicked. It refers, therefore, to a certain aspect of behavior and not to physical walking.
4. Turn Your gaze away from me, that I may smile again before I depart and am no more. (Ps. 39:13 – Hebrew v. 14)
The poet prays that the Lord will remove the difficulties that he feels God has brought on him before he ‘departs’ or ‘goes’ (from the word ‘lalekhet’). So here, the word actually means departing into death.
These are a few simple examples of different meanings of the same word according to its function in different contexts.
2. The building process: using words to convey an idea
Sometimes one word can express a complete thought. “No!” and “Yes!” are examples of this. In Hebrew, as opposed to English, a verb can contain the subject in itself – so “I am going” and “I am coming” are in Hebrew complete thoughts expressed in one word. But, in fact, these words also need a context – to whom, and concerning what, is said “No!” or “Yes”? Who is the speaker that says, “I am going” or “I am coming”, and to whom are they speaking? From where, and to where, is he going or coming? Even in these cases it is clear that a word cannot stand by itself in isolation from any context. Usually, a whole thought is conveyed by at least a few words together. Words, therefore, combine with other words in order to express an idea. Words are combined to form clauses and sentences. But there are different ways in which these sentences are formed in accordance with the type of speech or writing in which they are being used. The reader of the book of Psalms, or of poetic texts that are found in the Prophets and in books like Proverbs and Job, will recognize three noticeable ways in which the thoughts are expressed: parallelism, repetition, and metaphor.
Parallelism expresses a thought or a message by means of two or three adjacent semantic units, or ‘versets’, in a poetic line. There are various ways of referring in English to these adjacent units, but here we will adopt the term ‘versets’ (a term used by Benjamin Harshav, Robert Alter, and Benjamin D. Sommer). These versets can be connected semantically, grammatically, or even by similar sounding words.
The older approach to parallelism emphasized the similarity between the adjacent versets and accordingly it defined different types of parallelism. The three types that were first identified (by Robert Lowth in 1753) were termed ‘synonymous’, ‘antithetic’ and ‘synthetic’. They described different ways in which the adjacent versets related to each other. Over time, several more types were added to these. Here we will present some examples to demonstrate these different types:
- Synonymous parallelism
This describes parallelism in which the adjacent versets repeat the content, form, and rhythm, but in different words.
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty expanse. (Ps. 150:1)
Most of Psalm 150 is structured in this way. The question we need to ask is – why did the poet write in this way and what did he want to achieve by this? As we ask ourselves, one thing that stands out is the way in which the repetitions of different words strengthen the call to praise the LORD, making it both urgent and universal. Another result of this structure is making the Psalm easier to sing and remember.
- Antithetic parallelism
In this kind of parallelism, the adjacent versets present opposites. In the book of Proverbs this kind of parallelism is common.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5)
Here the opposites represent different sides of the same idea. This is an example of how expressing an idea by presenting its opposites can both strengthen and widen the message.
- Synthetic and climactic parallelism
The two terms “synthetic” and “climactic” have been suggested to describe types of parallelism, in which the two (or more) versets add onto each other in different ways.
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! (Psalm 1:1)
In this example each verset adds to the description of the process by which a man can potentially err from the right path. Each verset builds on the previous one but not with a synonym or antonym.
- Chiastic parallelism
In this kind of parallelism, the order of the parallel words in the versets is inverted. Unfortunately, the normal English translation does not always catch this. We can see an example of this word inversion in Psalm 126:5.
Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. (Psalm 126:5)
In this verse there are two parallel elements between the versets. One belongs to an agricultural process that begins with ‘sowing’ and ends with ‘reaping’. The second describes the emotions (‘in tears’ and ‘with joyful shouting’) of those involved in each part of the agricultural process. Almost all English translations have put the parallel elements in the adjacent versets in the same order – first those who sow and those who reap and second the emotions they feel. In Hebrew, however, the order in the two versets is introverted, and a translation with a more literal word order would look like this:
Those who sow in tears with joyful shouting shall reap.
By this change in order, the descriptions of the workers emotions have been put one next to the other and in this way the contrast between them is highlighted. At the same time, putting ‘those who sow’ at the beginning of the first verset while the statement that they ‘shall reap’ is put at the end of the second verset gives an impression of the length of the process, or at least how long it feels to those involved. It also puts the emphasis on the certainty of the result, that however they have felt, even being ‘in tears’ during the sowing, they shall surely reap.
There are many tools on the internet that can help you find the original order of the words. There are, for instance, interlinear Bibles. A Bible translation that can be useful here is Young’s Literal Translation (of 1862/1898) which, in this particular case, translates in a way that preserves the original word order:
Those sowing in tears, with singing do reap.
- Parallelism with ellipsis
In many cases of parallelism, the second verset excludes an element found in the first in a way that it is ‘understood’ to be present even though it is not written.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with joyful shouting (Psalm 126:2)
The verb “filled” in the first verset does not have a parallel word in the second verset, but it is understood to be applicable in the second verset as well despite its absence.
This phenomenon is called ellipsis and is, in fact, found in many kinds of parallelism.
These are some of the various categories of parallelism that have been identified based on the older approach that pointed to the similarities between the different versets. A newer approach to parallelism emphasizes what is different between the connected versets. James Kugel, for example, proposed that, in general, the second verset, while continuing from the first, expands and adds emphasis (according to the pattern: A, and what is more B). Another scholar, Robert Alter understood the difference as a matter of development, or of focusing, specification, concretization in the second verset of what is said more generally in the first.
Another Biblical scholar, Adele Berlin, rightly said that parallelism does, in fact, reflect both these elements – what is similar or identical between the versets, and what is different. What is important to understand is that there is in fact no clearly defined blueprint for parallelism and it is not possible to categorize all the ‘kinds’ of parallelisms in a mechanical way, because of the great variation in the relationships between the different paralleled versets. We should, therefore, acknowledge both the fluidity and the uniqueness of the way that parallelism works.
It is important, therefore, for the reader to ask several questions when trying to get to the heart of a parallelism:
What is the nature of the connection between the versets in this parallelism? What joins them and what differentiates them? What unites them and what causes tension between them? What is similar between them and what is dissimilar, contrasting, or even opposite?
The nature of the relationship between the parallel versets can take several forms and be on several levels – a semantic relationship (connected to the message and idea), a linguistic or grammatical relationship (and there are those who think that the grammatical relationship is the distinguishing characteristic of parallelism), or a relationship that is connected to similar sounds or rhythms (meter). These levels of relationship can stand alone or be found together.
To illustrate, here are several examples:
Praise God in His sanctuary; Praise Him in His mighty expanse. (Psalm 150:1)
In this example there is a clear and direct relationship in the message of the two versets – a call to praise God in His holy place (“in His sanctuary”; “in His mighty expanse”). But this semantic relationship is also reflected in a complete grammatical relationship between the versets, as becomes clear when we write every element separately:
Praise God in His sanctuary
Praise Him in His mighty expanse
Moreover, in Hebrew, the meter in both versets is also parallel.
In the next example there are several levels of similarity between the versets, but also differences:
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
Enlighten my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death (Psalm 13:4 – Hebrew v. 3)
Here, the verb in both versets is at the beginning and is a request (“Consider”, or “look closely”, in the first verset; “enlighten” in the second). In both cases the request is to the LORD. This similarity creates a positive relationship which connects the two versets at the outset and includes a clear semantic connection – David’s request that the LORD ‘looks closely’ is parallel to the request that He ‘enlightens’ David’s eyes.
But there are also differences between the versets. In the first verset David turns to the LORD directly by name and acknowledges his personal relationship with Him by calling Him “my God”. In comparison, in the second verset he highlights the danger that awaits if the LORD does not come to his aid (“or I will sleep the sleep of death”). Since, therefore, the relationship between the two versets has already been established, this difference only goes to strengthen the power of the whole entreaty. In Hebrew there is also another element, one of similar sounds, that adds to the connection between the versets and highlights the difference. In the first verset the first two words are verbs, “habita, aneni” (“look, answer me”). The second verset also opens with a verb, “ha’ira” (“enlighten”), but then, instead of a second verb, has the expression “einai” (“my eyes”) which sounds similar in Hebrew to the verb “aneni” in the first verset. This creates an additional connection between the first words of the versets by making them sound similar. This similarity at the beginning of the versets highlights the difference in the second half of the versets and makes it more obvious. In this way the message is brought home with even more power – if You do not look and answer, if You do not enlighten my eyes…I will die!
Repetitions – in many shapes and forms
Another characteristic of Hebrew poetry is repetition. This comes in many shapes and forms – sounds, words, ideas, grammatical structures, and even whole sentences. Parallelism can, in fact, be seen as expressing a form of repetition. Repetitions not only beautify and adorn the poem but often contribute significantly to the communication of its message. It is, therefore, critical to be sensitive to these repetitions and ask ourselves what role they play and how each repetition contributes to the poem and its message.
- Repetition of identical or similar sounds (alliteration)
In Hebrew poetry the repetition of identical or similar sounds can be significant. This is, of course, generally not noticed in translation but it is well worth mentioning. If you want to check a poem in the Bible for its sounds, you can look at a transliteration (such as – http://www.qbible.com/hebrew-old-testament/ or https://biblehub.com/interlinear/ ) or even learn the Hebrew alef-bet. The important question here is: is there a relationship between the repetition of a particular sound and the idea that is being communicated?
To illustrate let’s take an example from Isaiah 24 (verses 9-10):
9 They do not drink wine with song; Strong drink is bitter to those who drink it.
10 The city of chaos is broken down; Every house is shut up so that none may enter.
The transliteration (source: http://www.qbible.com/hebrew-old-testament/) of these verses reads:
9 BaSHiyr lo yish’Tû-yäyin yëmar shëkhär l’shotäyw
10 nish’B’räh qir’yat-Tohû šuGar Käl-Bayit miBô
In verse 10 there is a clear overlap between a repeated sound and the idea it portrays: after the destruction of the city of chaos in the first verset of verse 10, the second verset speaks of the shutting up of every house. The repetition of the hard sounding ‘B’ creates an effect of things being broken and smashed and doors being slammed shut with a bang. There are other hard sounds in this verse (10) that add to this effect (Q, T, G, K).
In the light of this, it’s interesting to ask if there is also a relationship between the sound ‘sh’ in verse 9 and the message of the verse. In that verse there is a repetition of the sound ‘sh’ – in each of the two versets in verse 9 this sound is repeated twice. If this was written in our day, we could say that the writer wanted to emphasis the ‘sh’ sound in order to remind us of someone saying ‘shhh! to request quiet (reinforcing the idea in the verse to quieten the sound of partying and wild songs that accompany drinking). We cannot know if this was the reason Isaiah repeated the ‘sh’ sound because we don’t know if ‘shhh’ was used in the same way then. But the point is, that it is worth asking here, and in other places, if there is a connection between the repetition of sounds and the message being portrayed.
- Repetition of a word
It’s common in Biblical poetry that a word is repeated, possibly in different forms, within the poem. As likely as not the repetition turns the reader’s attention to something important. The repetition can produce different effects such as emphasis, comparison, presentation of opposites, of differences or of conflict, continuity, etc.
A good example of the repetition of a word, or words, in a way that produces emphasis is found in the opening of Psalm 13.
How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long shall I take counsel in my soul, Having sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long will my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1-2 – Hebrew vv. 2-3)
The question “How long?” is repeated four times and in this way, it is clearly emphasized that the psalmist feels that what he is going through seems endless.
In Psalm 1, the Hebrew word “derekh” (“way, path”) appears at the beginning and at the end of the Psalm. Since translators have a number of words at their disposal to translate the same word in Hebrew, they often choose different translations, which leads to the repetition becoming lost. As mentioned earlier, it’s worth consulting a literal translation like Young’s Literal Translation (1862/1898). Young’s Translation has the following:
Opening (Psalm 1:1):
O the happiness of that one, who hath not walked in the counsel of the wicked. And in the way of sinners hath not stood, and in the seat of scorners hath not sat;
Closing (Psalm 1:6):
For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous:
but the way of the ungodly shall perish.
In the last verset – “but the way of the ungodly shall perish” – the word “derekh” repeats the meaning it has in the first verse in describing the behavior of the wicked (who also are mentioned in the first verse). But the word is also repeated in relation to the behavior of the righteous – “For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous” – and in this case the repetition produces a stark contrast between the behavior of the righteous and the wicked.
At times the word that is repeated is found some distance from its first occurrence but is, none the less, very clearly connected in the way that it develops an idea. This can be seen, for example, in Psalm 73. This Psalm presents the problem and struggle of the believer who sees around him the success of the wicked and the tension that this creates with God’s righteousness. In the end he finds the solution in the presence of God, where he understands anew the end of the wicked and the unsurpassed value of his personal relationship with God. In this Psalm the verb translated ‘to place, set, array’ or ‘to appoint’ (“shȃthath”) appears three times:
Verse 9 They have set their mouth against the heavens,
And their tongue parades through the earth
Here the word ‘set’ describes the way in which the wicked speak with pride against God – they “set” their mouth against the heavens.
Verse 18 Surely You set them in slippery places;
You cast them down to destruction.
In this verse the poet understands anew the end of the wicked. God “puts” them in places where they will slip and fall.
Verse 28 But as for me, the nearness of God is my good;
I have made [set] the Lord GOD my refuge, That I may tell of all Your works.
In the translations you will, unfortunately, miss the repetition here. At the end of the Psalm the poet declares what is really good as far as he is concerned. He says that he has “set” (“made”) his refuge in the Lord GOD (or, more literally, he has “set” the Lord GOD as his refuge).
The repetitions here are loaded with meaning in that they compare between the activities or attitudes of each of the characters in the poem: the wicked, who speaks in pride against the LORD; God Himself, who humbles the wicked in the end; the Psalmist, who decides again to trust in God and that God’s presence is his only true desire.
- Words from the same semantic field
The use of words from the same semantic field can enable the poet to communicate his message or to strengthen it. A semantic field is a sphere of meaning that different words can be connected to. For instance, the words “eat”, “drink”, “chew”, and “swallow” all belong to the same semantic field.
There are many ways in which words from the same semantic field can contribute to the message. Identifying the connection between the words is just the beginning for us as readers. Once the connection has been identified it is important to clarify how it contributes: Does it repeat and strengthen the same idea? Does it add to the idea and develop it? Does it set up a contrast?
A good example of the use of words from the same semantic field that are used to develop an idea is found in the first verse of Psalm 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!
The use of a series of words which describe bodily postures communicates a very strong message – being open to the advice of the wicked (“who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked”) can be the beginning of a process, the end of which is to be comfortable enough with them to sit together as one of them (“nor sit in the seat of scoffers”). All of this is presented in the negative in order to describe a process, all stages of which the blessed man will avoid.
- Word plays
Sometimes similar words can be used that have the effect of a ‘play on words’. This can also happen when a particular word is repeated more than once but each time with a different meaning or nuance. Hebrew wordplay has been described as “an ambiguous interplay between both the sound and the meaning of words”. This is another literary device that is hard to pick up on in translation. A good example is Psalm 74:19. In the NASB (1995) this verse is translated:
Do not deliver the soul of Your turtledove to the wild beast;
Do not forget the life of Your afflicted forever.
This translation does not reflect the fact that the words translated “to the wild beast” in the first verset is actually the same word in Hebrew as that translated “the life” in the second. Young’s Literal Translation, on the other hand, translates thus:
Give not up to a company, The soul of Thy turtle-dove,
The company of Thy poor ones forget not for ever.
If we compare these translations, we see an interesting situation. The literal translation reveals to us the repetition of the word while the NASB rightly translates the two occurrences of the word in a way that reflects the respective and different meanings of each occurrence!
This example shows how working with a literal translation can help you discover certain connections. It’s worth also looking at the transliteration in order to make sure that it is the same word in Hebrew. In this case the transliteration that you can find on the qbible site is:
al-TiTën l’chaYat nefesh Tôrekhä
chaYat ániYeykhä al-Tish’Kach länetzach
Here you can see the repetition of the word “chaYat” in the first and second versets. So, this is a case in which the same word is repeated but with different meanings. The result is a stark contrast and comparison between the two, the “wild beast” who would like to devour the psalmist, and his “life” which he is praying that the LORD preserves from the beast.
Maybe this example will also encourage you to take the step of learning the Hebrew alef-bet!
The clear repetition of certain elements at the beginning and ending of a poem (song, psalm), or a part of it, is called an “inclusio”. An inclusio usually involves some kind of linguistic repetition but also has an aspect that relates to the meaning. The inclusio contributes to the message, adding emphasis, contrast and comparison, expansion, development, or completion. Of course, though this device is by no means limited to Biblical poetry, it is one of its common features. It is important, therefore, to be aware of this device, and to ask ourselves when coming across it: what does this repetition express in this particular context?
- Inclusio within the poem
In Psalm 126 there are some interesting and important repetitions. One of these is the repetition of the declaration in verse 5 and at the end of verse 6 that there will be rejoicing:
Verse 5: Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting.
Verse 6: He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
These two verses actually repeat the same idea, of the hardships that those who faithfully sow the seed go through, and the promise of harvest with great joy. Though the repetition of the joy expressed is clear in the translation, in the Hebrew text the repetition is even clearer. This can be seen in the original text or a transliteration, in which you will see in verse 5 B’riNäh and in verse 6 v’riNäh. In both cases the word for “joyful shouting” is the same (riNäh). In addition, the preposition is also the same, though in the first case it is expressed as a hard ‘B’ and in the second as a soft ‘v’. The repetition of this phrase expressing joy effectively marks the last section of the poem.
If you read a literal translation, like Young’s Literal Translation, you may notice that there is also a repetition at the opening and ending in the first section of the Psalm:
Verse 1: In Jehovah’s turning back to the captivity of Zion, We have been as dreamers.
Verse 3: Jehovah did great things with us, We have been joyful.Again, in many translations the repetition is lost since it is connected with the verb which can be understood as referring to different times, even when the same form of the verb appears. The NASB has:
Verse 1: When the LORD brought back the captive ones of Zion, We were like those who dream.
Verse 3: The LORD has done great things for us; We are glad.But if you look at a transliteration you will see that in both cases the verb is the same (häyiynû) and what comes after it has the same ending (-iym), therefore there is also a repetition of sounds. This repetition forms an inclusio around the first section of the Psalm, thereby linking the declaration of being glad at the end of the section (verse 3) to the statement in verse 1 of being like those who dream. By doing this, what could have been ambivalent in the idea of dreaming is clarified as being something positive and expressing great gladness.
- Inclusio that encompasses and delineates the poem as a whole
We have already seen the repetition of the word ‘way’ in Psalm 1. That repetition belongs, in fact, to a wider sequence of repetitions which connect the end of the Psalm to its opening, both literally and conceptually, in a way which generates closure.Opening: 1 How blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path [way] of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
Closing: 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand [arise] in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
6 For the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.At the end of the Psalm several words that appear in its opening are repeated: ‘way’ (‘derekh’ – translated in the NASB in verse 1 as ‘path’ and in verse 6 as ‘way’), ‘wicked’, and ‘sinners’. But in addition, there are other kinds of repetition that connect the end of the Psalm to its opening: grammatical structures, sounds (in Hebrew), ideas, and imagery. The grammatical structure of negating a physical movement or posture (“does not walk”, “nor stand”, “nor sit”) is repeated at the end of the Psalm in the declaration “will not arise/stand”. This corresponds to the process described in verse 1 that ends with “does not sit” because from the sitting position the man “arises”.Of course, there is a negative relationship between the two in the idea being portrayed. In the opening the one who “does not sit” is blessed since he refuses to go the way of the wicked, whilst in the end of the Psalm it is the wicked themselves who “will not arise”. There is also congruence between the words “in the assembly of the righteous” at the end of the Psalm and the words “in the counsel of the wicked” in the opening verse. The words “righteous” – “wicked” are taken from the same semantic field of morality. In the Tanakh (O.T.) these words describe those who do, or do not, walk in the way of the LORD. In addition, the phrase “in the counsel” is grammatically similar to the phrase “in the assembly” and in Hebrew there is an overlap of three letters in these words (in transliteration: “in the counsel” = “Baátzat” and “in the assembly” = “Baádat”) which produces a repetition of sounds. This correspondence between “in the assembly of the righteous” and “in the counsel of the wicked” generates both connection and negation.
The upshot of all these repetitions between the end of the Psalm and its opening is the establishment of a clear relationship in which the way and the end of the righteous is directly compared with those of the wicked. Thus, the message of the Psalm is strengthened by the inclusio.
- The position of the repetition
It’s important to take note of the position of the repetition since it can be important. Is the repetition between elements at the beginning of their respective sentences? Or at the end of a sentence? Is the order symmetrically opposite (the first time the repeated element appears is at the beginning of a sentence and the second time at the end)? There are technical terms for all of these options, but what is really important for us as readers is not the technical term but rather to identify the repetition and to ask: does the position of this repetition add something or express something?
Let’s look at some examples:
4 The LORD is in His holy temple; the LORD‘S throne is in heaven;
His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men.
5 The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked, And the one who loves violence His soul hates.
In this case the name of the LORD appears at the outset of two versets in verse 4 and of the first verset of verse 5. The result is that a strong emphasis is placed on His person and on His position as sovereign over all, who watches the sons of men and discerns the righteous and the wicked.
10 They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover, by them Your servant is warned; In keeping them there is great reward.
The correspondence between “much fine gold” and the “great reward” is seen even more clearly in the Hebrew text, where in both cases the same word appears (räv) and in both cases the word is at the end of its respective verset. However, in verse 10 it appears at the end of the first versets whereas in verse 11 it is at the close of the second verset. These respective positions of the word draw more attention since they are at the opening and closing of two verses (10-11 – in Hebrew 11-12) emphasizing the desirability of God’s law, words, and commands (mentioned in verses 7-9 – in Hebrew 8-10), and the value of keeping them.
In the continuation of the Psalm we come across the word räv again, in the same position at the end of verse 13:
Also keep back Thy servant from presumptuous sins; Let them not rule over me; Then I shall be blameless, And I shall be acquitted of great transgression.
This time the word appears in a prayer that the Lord will keep His servant from sin. Its position again at the end of the verse sets up a comparison between the “great sin” that he is asking to avoid and the “great” worth of the law of the Lord and of walking in it.
- Inclusio within the poem
Metaphor and imagery
Another characteristic of poetry is the preference for metaphor and imagery. These literary devices appear in narrative, but their high frequency distinguishes poetry. The classic understanding, that originated with Aristotle, saw metaphor as transferring a term from one thing to another, exchanging a word with a clearly defined literal meaning for one that is metaphorical. Thus, “the LORD my strength” would be “the LORD my rock” with the word “rock” replacing the word “strength”. Today, metaphor is seen differently as a device which produces meaning or a new perspective on a particular subject and by so doing contributes to the message. This new perspective is engendered by a thought or concept from one domain, or semantic field, being represented by a thought or concept from a different and separate domain or semantic field. Not everyone agrees that there is a meaningful difference between simile and metaphor, but in general the simile is distinguished from metaphor by the presence of a word describing a comparison (as, like, etc.). We will give a few examples to illustrate both metaphor and simile.
A single word is often used as a metaphor, as in the case of: “The LORD is my light”, Ps. 27:1. Everyone understands and knows what “light” is. Therefore, to describe the LORD as “my light” illustrates certain things about what the LORD means to me. There are multiple implications from saying that He is my light – He enables me to live, to walk without stumbling, to understand where I am, and the list goes on.
But metaphors are often accompanied by an additional metaphor, and with an expansion which identifies a certain characteristic of the word or idea used, to make the metaphor especially relevant to what the poet wants to communicate. For example, in Ps. 27:1:
The LORD is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the defense of my life; Whom shall I dread?
The addition of “and my salvation” emphasizes the way that the coming of light can rescue us from the night and its perils. The question “Whom shall I fear?” also focuses our thoughts on a certain aspect of light – that it drives out the fear which accompanies darkness. An additional metaphor, “the LORD is the defense of my life”, strengthens this direction and is again accompanied by the same question in different words “Whom shall I dread?”. This is a beautiful example of the combination of parallelism and metaphor adding power to the message.
A metaphor can also involve much more than a single word and include multiple related elements of a more complex metaphor. A good example of this is Psalm 23, which opens with the metaphor “The LORD is my shepherd” and goes on to develop what this idea means to David in diverse ways that are connected to a shepherd and his flock:
1 A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.
3 He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
The different elements of the metaphor include the activity of the shepherd as he pastures his flock in the desert areas of the land of Israel – he brings the flock to a wadi where there is water and vegetation (verse 2), he guides the sheep (verse 3) and he protects them (verse 4). But there are also additional statements to the development of the metaphor which direct our thoughts in the way that the Psalmist wants us to understand the metaphor – “I shall not want” in verse 1 implies that as my shepherd He supplies all my needs; “He restores my soul” in verse 3 speaks of spiritual restoration; the paths on which He leads me are not tracks in the desert but are “paths of righteousness” and He leads me on them not because of me and for my glory, but because of Him and for His praise, as is made clear by the addition of “for His name’s sake”; “I will fear no evil” in verse 4 reveals to us David’s internal attitude as a result of his relationship with the LORD that is being described metaphorically.
Similes can also be formed by a single word, by several words, or by a wider description.
The similes in Psalm 126 potently elucidate the message of the poet.
When the LORD brought back the captive ones of Zion,
We were like those who dream. (Ps. 126:1)
Here the simile “like those who dream” describes the internal feelings of those who the LORD brings back from captivity to Zion. In Hebrew this simile involves only one word and could be translated “like dreamers”, however there is much depth and power contained in the many associations connected with dreaming and dreamers. Potentially, these could be both positive and negative. But the next line of the Psalm directs our thoughts in a clear direction:
Then our mouth was filled with laughter
And our tongue with joyful shouting
This line makes clear to us that we should think about the positive associations connected with the simile of dreamers.
Another simile in verse 4 involves several words:
Restore our captivity, O LORD,
As the streams in the South.
In this prayer, which reflects and engages the declaration in verse 1, the Psalmist appeals to the LORD, that He will restore the people “like streams in the South [Negev]”. Again, in a few words there is great power. The word here for “South” is “Negev” which is the southern desert in Israel. Whoever has visited that area will know that for most of the year the stream beds are as dry as a bone. But these streams have extensive drainage basins, so that when it rains upstream it is enough to cause a sudden and unexpected result. The dry stream beds are suddenly filled with a roaring torrent of water, the result of which causes the plants to blossom and seeds that have lain dormant to sprout. So, the picture of “streams in the South / Negev” speaks powerfully of both a sudden event and an event which turns the desert into a garden. By using this simile the Psalmist is requesting both from the LORD in a way that is effective and dramatic – a sudden change and the transformation of the desolation into a watered Eden.
In Psalm 1, the Psalmist describes the one who delights in and meditates on the law [Torah = teaching, instruction] of the LORD as an expansive and fruitful tree. The wicked, on the other hand, are described in a simile that is also from the world of vegetation, as chaff driven away by the wind:
3 He [the man who delights in and meditates on the law of the LORD] will be like a tree [firmly] planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; And in whatever he does, he prospers.
4 The wicked are not so, but they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
The choice to describe two kinds of people by means of similes taken from the same semantic field generates a situation in which each one is described very clearly in his own right while, at the same time, there is a clear comparison made between them (a great tree on the one hand, chaff blown by the wind on the other).
3. The completed building: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts
A building is made of many up of many bricks and has many pieces to it. But when we look at a beautiful building, we see the building as a whole – we see it as a building (not a collection of windows, or doors, or walls). Similarly, it is of utmost importance when reading poetry to remember that, though every word has its own meaning, place, and contribution, and every parallelism or metaphor has its own value and role, the meaning of the poem, song, or Psalm is tied up with the message that all of its parts express together. There are, therefore, two main questions that we should ask as readers:
- Is there a central idea in the poem?
- What is the structure of the poem and how do the various parts contribute to the message?
In order to find the central idea of the poem and its message, we need to read it as one undivided unit of meaning, a single piece of literature. Practically, this means that we need to read the poem as a whole multiple times. Every time we read it the connection between the poem’s parts and their contribution to the whole will become clearer. So, our reading strategy should take us from the micro to the macro, from the detail to the general – and back. In other words, we need to check the meaning of each word, sentence, and element in its own context and then ask ourselves concerning each element: what is its place in the whole poem and in what ways does it contribute to the overall message? In this way we can start to see the different motifs that run through the poem and are expressed in their different ways, the connections between the elements and different parts of the poem, and the message which is communicated by the sum of these elements and parts.
There are various ways in which we can identify the structure of the poem. Here are several:
- A change in the flow
Different signs can indicate a change in the flow. To name a few: a change in the identity of the speaker, a change in the subject or focus, a change in the kind of speech (for example, a transition from a description of a personal situation to a request in prayer).
A good example of these kinds of changes that mark a division and structure is found in Psalm 13. The Psalm opens with a series of questions that the Psalmist directs to the LORD – “How long?” – which express his extreme difficulty:
1 How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?
2 How long shall I take counsel in my soul, Having sorrow in my heart all the day? How long will my enemy be exalted over me?
The request “look”, or in some translations (such as the NASB) “consider”, marks a new division in which the Psalmist appeals to God for help in his extremity:
3 Consider [Look] [and] answer me, O LORD my God; Enlighten my eyes, or I will sleep the [sleep] of death,
4 And my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” [And] my adversaries will rejoice when I am shaken.
The statement at the beginning of verse 5 “but I have trusted in Your lovingkindness” is not part of the appeal and therefore marks a third division in which the Psalmist moves from a request to an expression of faith in the LORD:
5 But I have trusted in Your lovingkindness; My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.
6 I will sing to the LORD, Because He has dealt bountifully with me.
Identifying these changes, and as a result identifying the divisions of the poem and its structure, are important for the understanding of the message of the Psalm as a whole: in an unbearable situation (part 1, verse 1-2 (Hebrew v. 2-3)) turning to God with an honest appeal for help (part 2, verses 3-4 (Heb. v. 4-5)) can bring us to a place of peace and security in Him (part 3, verses 5-6 (Heb. v. 6)).
Another example is Psalm 19. In this Psalm a change of subject and a change of orientation mark divisions in which there is both continuity between the sections as well as development of thought that reveals the central message. The Psalm opens with a description of the way in which creation tells of the glory of God without words:
1 The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. 2 Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge. 3 There is no speech, nor are there words; Their voice is not heard.
This continues, moving on to describe the sun in particular. Then, in verse 7 (Hebrew v. 8), there is a change in subject from the creation to the law (Torah) of the LORD:
The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul…
This change in subject marks a division. But there is also continuity between the sections. The word “perfect” describes the law of the LORD but also makes a comparison with what was described earlier. The heaven and earth do tell of the LORD and His glory but without clear verbal communication. In comparison, the LORD’s law is perfect as it both communicates directly from the LORD as well as working within the heart of man to change him (“restoring the soul”). This division expresses the idea that a testimony to the existence and glory of God is clear in creation but limited. His full and clear revelation is found in His Word, which even has the power to change us.
However, another change awaits us. In verse 12 (Hebrew v. 13) there is a transition from the description of the value of the law and its power to change a man’s heart, to a request and prayer that God will work to protect the Psalmist from behavior and thoughts that are in opposition to His character, and to enable him to use his words in ways that will please the LORD. At the end of the Psalm, therefore, there is a clear application of what has been said already about the law of the LORD working in the heart of man in the case of the Psalmist himself – the Torah has kindled in him the desire to walk in the way of the LORD.
We have already talked about inclusio, but it is important in this context to remember that inclusio (the repetition of a certain element at the beginning and end of a unit, whether that unit is a sentence, a verse or section, or the whole poem) can mark an internal division in a Psalm.
When an inclusio marks the opening and closing of the Psalm as a whole, it can point to the central message, as we saw with Psalm 1.
- Repetition as a sign of segmentation
Sometimes, as we have explained earlier, a repetition can mark a division.
At times there can be a clear repetition of a certain element or unit. In Psalm 46, for instance, a whole sentence is repeated:
The LORD of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our stronghold. Selah.
This sentence appears in verse 7 (Hebrew v. 8) and also in verse 11 (Hebrew v. 12). Each time the sentence is repeated, it indicates the end of a section of the Psalm.
However repetition does not have to be exact in order to indicate structural division. There is an example of this in Psalm 126. In verse 1, we read:
When the LORD brought back [restores] the captive ones of Zion, We were like those who dream.
Then in verse 4, the first words are repeated as a request:
Restore [bring back] our captivity, O LORD, As the streams in the South.
The repetition, together with the transition from a description to a prayer, indicate a structural division. The subject in both cases is the restoration of Zion, but the first section (verses 1-3) describes the hoped-for restoration, while in the second section (verse 4) the Psalmist prays for that restoration.
What you have read in this article is only a taste of the surprises and discoveries that await you the moment that you dive into the deep waters of Biblical poetry. Our aim, as we said at the outset, is to help equip you with some basic tools and a sensitivity to the ways of this poetry so that it can lead you in its beautiful paths to the important and powerful messages that it contains.
 Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from the Bible are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB).
 Shimon Sandbank, How a Poem Works: A Guide to poetry, Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 2002, pp. 41-42. My translation.
 Robert Lowth, De sacra poesi Hebraeorum [Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews], 1753; Isaiah: A New Translation with a Preliminary Dissertation and Notes Critical, Philological and Explanatory, 1778.
 James Kugel, The Ideal of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and its History, New Haven/London, Yale University Press, 1981.
 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, New York: Basic Books, 1985
 Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 1985
 V. Kaberg and H. Ausloos, ‘Paronomasia or Wordplay A Babel-Like Confusion Towards A Definition of Hebrew Wordplay’, Biblica 93(1), 2012, pp. 1-20.
 Of course, there are situations in which the words are homophones (sound identical) but are not cognate (that is, from the same etymological source).