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B. Major Characteristics of Hebrew Poetry: Rhythm

B. Major Characteristics of Hebrew Poetry: Rhythm

Hebraists recognize that classical Hebrew poetry probably had some system of meter. What that system was remains hotly contested for lack of clear evidence, with some scholars actually denying that Hebrew poetry contains such a system. Some conclude that line length, perhaps counted in syllables, was the basis of Hebrew “metrics.” Others think Hebrew meter was counted in word or word-group units (“feet”), with some corresponding balance in line length naturally arising as a result. Whether an actual system of accent or stress was involved we do not know.

Our uncertainty in the whole matter means that designations used in the study of Hebrew poetry are primarily descriptive. Customarily, poetic cola are two or three (less than four) word/word-group units in length. One often encounters treatments of the Psalms describing bi- and tricola as (3 + 3), (3 + 2), (3 + 3 + 3), or (2 + 2 + 2). Dividing and rearranging the English words of the NIV to indicate the Hebrew word/word-groups, we would scan parts of Ps 19 as follows:

The law of—the Lord—is perfect, reviving—the soul.(3 + 2)
The ordinances of—the Lord—are sure and righteous—altogether.(3 + 2)
They are more precious—than gold, than pure gold—much;(2 + 2)
they are sweeter—than honey, than honey from—the comb.(2 + 2)
Your servant—is warned—by them; in keeping them—is reward—great.(3 + 3)
(vv. 7, 9-11)

Whether or not such designations correspond to the ancients' understandings of their art, they serve well to indicate the relative length of lines whose balance in length (and with it one might surmise some sort of rhythm) and use of length for artistic and rhetorical purposes can scarcely have been accidental.