It is commonly estimated that poetry comprises one third of the OT. Though it is found in the Pentateuch, Historical Books, and extensively in the Prophets, and therefore is not limited to one portion of the Canon, poetry is especially at home in the Psalms and Wisdom Literature.
In this century, the Psalms have become a focus of intense generic study. Certain groupings of psalms (e.g., Wisdom Psalms, Torah Psalms, Songs of Trust, Royal [Messianic?] Psalms, Festival Psalms, Liturgies) are defined solely by their content, employing no regular structure. But much clearer patterns are discernible with others.Our discussion here follows Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Psalms: Part I, Forms of the Old Testament Literature XIV (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 2-21; Hans-Joachim Draus, Psalms 1-59: A Commentary, trans. Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), 38-43; Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), passim. Laments (e.g., Ps 3, 5, 7, 9-10, 14, 22, 25, 26) typically include: a) an address to God; b) a complaint in which the trouble is identified (whether sin, sickness, or national crisis); c) a confession of trust in God; d) a petition for salvation, often with motives suggested for God's saving action; e) words of assurance that salvation will come; and f) a vow to praise God publicly for salvation.
Thanksgivings (e.g., Ps 34, 92, 116, 118, 138) characteristically embrace a) a statement of intent to praise and thank God; b) a description of an earlier distress; c) a remembrance of the cry for help; d) a recounting of the deliverance; e) a conclusion. Within the conclusion may be found prayers for future help, expressions of faith, blessings, exhortations, and repeated declarations of God's faithfulness.
Hymns of Praise (e.g., Ps 100, 104, 114, 148) may focus upon God's power and grace in creating the world, in calling and redeeming Israel, or in overseeing the course of history. Commonly, these psalms employ a) an invocation, in which various audiences are called to worship God; b) a body, in which various reasons [often introduced by “who” or “for”] for praising God are stated and elaborated upon; and c) a conclusion, which may resume the original exhortation to praise God.
Though particular occasions or general circumstances may be proposed for the origin of these psalms and their genres, it is important to bear in mind that they now stand together as a collection that no doubt served the needs of Israel as a worshiping community of faith. Several levels of reading, then, are possible for most psalms, in addition to an overtly Christian reading evidenced throughout the NT and early Christian interpretation.
In Wisdom literature, especially Proverbs, other distinctive genres can be isolated.Roland E. Murphy, Wisdom Literature: Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Canticles, Ecclesiastes, Esther, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature XIII (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 172-85. The Observational Sayings, usually consisting of one or two lines, describe the way things are in the world and among people. These sayings appear content to record an observation without clearly proposing or implying to the listener a course of action to be taken. “A cheerful look brings joy to the heart, and good news gives health to the bones” (Pr 15:30). On the other hand, Wisdom Sayings strive to press home a lesson or value, and expect to affect the behavior of the hearer accordingly. “The Lord is far from the wicked but he hears the prayer of the righteous” (Pr 15:29). One subcategory of Wisdom Saying is the “Better” Saying, which contrasts two situations, preferring one to the other. “Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil” (Pr 15:16). Both Wisdom and Observational Sayings may be cast as Numerical Sayings, which list items sharing a crucial feature. “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden” (Pr 30:18-19). Instruction for right living may also take the form of direct address. Positive instructions, or Commands, prescribe behaviors to be adopted. “Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well” (Pr 5:15). Negative instructions, or Prohibitions, forbid other behaviors. “Do not eat the food of a stingy man, do not crave his delicacies” (Pr 23:6). Both Commands and Prohibitions are often accompanied by supporting reasons.
Hebrew poetry, especially prevalent in Psalms and Proverbs, consists not of rhymes and precise syllabic counts but of balanced thoughts.Kraus, Psalms, 32-38. In Synonymous Parallelism, two (or three) lines share nearly identical content.
The heavens declare the glory of God [a];
the skies proclaim the work of his hands [a'].
Day after day they pour forth speech [b];
night after night they display knowledge [b'].
There is no speech or language [c]
where their voice is not heard [c'].
Their voice goes out into all the earth [d],
their words to the ends of the world [d'].
In Antithetic Parallelism, two lines set forth a contrast.
A cheerful heart is good medicine,
but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
In Synthetic Parallelism, the second line advances the thought of the first line, often bringing it to completion.
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul.
In Climactic Parallelism, the second line echoes the beginning of the first line, but supplies its own conclusion.
Ascribe to the Lord, O mighty ones,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
But each sort of parallelism, it must be noted, is capable of wide variation. The second line may omit elements clearly implied from the first line, and may compensate for the loss by adding an element that has no parallel in the first line.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love,
and his wonderful deeds for men.
More complex arrangements result when lines already joined together in parallelism are grouped in a larger parallelism with other line clusters.
More ambiguous is the metrical character of Hebrew poetry. Of several competing theories, most convincing is that which analyses poetic lines by the number of stressed syllables, largely disregarding unstressed syllables. Accordingly, the parallelisms described above are frequently cast in a 3 + 3 metrical pattern, though variations abound (e.g., 2 + 2; 4 + 4; 2 + 2 + 2; 4 + 3). One meter, the 3 + 2, has been dubbed the Qinah (“lament”), because of its use in the book of Lamentations and similar materials. The halting shortness of the second line enhances the sense of despair otherwise communicated by the poet.
In the hands of the poet, such matters as parallelism, word play, meter, and the like are hardly a detachable cloak merely enhancing the “basic content” of a passage. They contribute meanings of their own, and permit the poet to speak the language of deep emotion that has gripped so many through the centuries.