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Asbury Bible Commentary – C. Artistic Repertoire of the Hebrew Poets
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C. Artistic Repertoire of the Hebrew Poets

C. Artistic Repertoire of the Hebrew Poets

Beyond the foundational elements of parallelism and rhythm a whole repertoire of artistic and stylistic devices of sound, form, and arrangement lay open to the composers of poems such as the psalms. Some writers used them sparingly, others literally flood their works with them in multiple layers and complex interaction. While they are often important for discerning meaning, they are essentially art, expressions of the beauty of God and his creatures. What follows is a partial list from the writers' portfolio in order to heighten our awareness of this important dimension of God's Word. Some of them are apparent even in translation.

Acrostic. In Hebrew acrostics, succeeding lines (or other units like stanzas) of the poem begin with successive letters in the alphabet, from “A to Z” (aleph to tau), first the aleph line, then the beth line, and so on to the end. Pss 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, and 145 are acrostic poems. Pss 9 and 10 are an acrostic, now divided in the Hebrew text and English translations. The union of Pss 9-10 as a single poem in the LXX and the Vulgate accounts for the majority of the numbering differences in the Psalms between modern versions heavily dependent upon them (the LXX or the Vulgate) and other English versions that follow the Hebrew textual tradition's numbering. The acrostic “centerpiece” of the Psalter is Ps 119. Its twenty-two stanzas of eight lines each march through the alphabet with all eight lines of succeeding stanzas starting with the same, succeeding letter of the alphabet. So impressive is this that some translations, such as the NIV, which do not mark the lines of lesser acrostics, do head this poem's stanzas with the appropriate letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Interpreters must be aware that the thought flow of the acrostic poem often yielded coherence to the demands of the alphabet's sequence and thus beware of forcing an outline where none exists. Other famous biblical acrostic poems include Pr 31:10-31 and Lam 1-4.

Alliteration. Beginning a series of words with the same or similar sound is alliteration. Assonance is the use of a series of words with the same or similar internal sounds (versus the initial sounds). The “r” (resh) line, v. 19, of the acrostic in Ps 34 ombines these three devices (acrostic, alliteration, assonance): rabbôṯ rā'ôṯ ṩaddîq, “A righteous man may have many troubles. . . .”

Chiasm, named from the Greek letter chi (χ), arranges elements in an “x” or inverted pattern: abc//c'b'a'. Chiasm most often appears and is most easily discernible at the clause level in bi- or tricola where grammatical elements are arrayed chiastically, as in Ps 19:1, here divided and rearranged to reflect the Hebrew text.

The heavens—declare—the glory of God;

// and the works of his hands—proclaim—the skies.


// object—verb—subject

But poets also arranged topics of their work chiasticly, structuring an entire poem in such an abc//c'b'a', sometimes perhaps thus calling attention to the items at the center of the pattern.

Inclusio or “envelope.” Here the poet begins and ends the unit (paragraph, division, or entire psalm) with the identical or nearly identical words, such as Ps 8:1, 9. “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” begins and ends the psalm.

Fixed Word-Pairs (A-B Words). Hebrew poets employed numerous word-pairs, placing one in the a colon and the other in the b colon. Not only the vocabulary but also the order of these pairs was usually set, much like the English expressions “law and order” or “ham and eggs,” which rarely appear in the reverse order. Examples of such fixed pairs are: “enemies/foes” (Pss 18:40; 21:8), “one thousand/ten thousand” (Pss 91:7; cf. 144:13), “days/years” (Pss 61:6; 77:5; 78:33).

Numerical Progression. The most commonly used numerical progressions are the patterns x//x + 1 and 1,000//10,000. Thus Ps 62:11:

One thing God has spoken,

two things have I heard:

that you, O God, are strong . . .

and Ps 91:7:

A thousand may fall at your side,

ten thousand at your right hand,

but it will not come near you.

Repetition/refrain. Much like the refrain of a contemporary song, a repetition can mark out main units of the poem. Recall the repetition in Pss 42:5, 11 (MT 42:6, 12); and 43:5:

Why are you downcast, O my soul?

Why so disturbed within me?

Put your hope in God,

for I will yet praise him,

my Savior and my God.

Such an obvious refrain has led some to think these two poems are in reality a unit.

Rhyme. Unlike some forms of English poetry in which rhyme is essential, Hebrew poetry does not demand it. But rhyme is often used, and sometimes in important ways to signal unit boundaries or for emphasis. Ps 23:2 is a lovely example:

bine'oṯ deše' yarbîṩēnî

'al-mê menuḥôṯ yenaḥalēnî

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters.

In addition to these obviously identifiable artistic devices, Hebrew poetry abounds with symbolic and lofty expression that, together with all its other marks, issues in a power and vigor not found in prose. Concepts that could be expressed in perhaps more straightforward fashion in prose take on life and power and grip the heart and imagination in Hebrew poetry in a way not possible in prose. Ps 23 could perhaps be summarized in prose as follows: “Yahweh cares for my basic physical and spiritual needs, leads and is present with me even in threat of death, vindicates my trust in him and promises unending relationship with him as well.” But this would be no match for

The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want.

He makes me down to lie

In pastures green; he leadeth me

The quiet waters by.

James Leith Bain

From the Scottish Psalter, 1650