The Powerful Poetry of the Hebrews

In praise of one of history’s most literary and eternally influential cultures

“Hallelujah” is one of the most remarkable Hebrew words because, regardless of the language in which it is sung, it basically retains its Hebrew form. As a choral conductor, vocal coach and singer who has sung in 10 languages, I can attest to this. How extraordinary that people of various languages, nations and creeds sing this Hebrew word.

“Hallelujah” is used at length throughout the book of Psalms. Its usage through the ages and its invincibility to translation actually embodies the impact of the Hebrew literary culture as a whole.

Hebrew poetry has touched countless cultures throughout the centuries. The billions of adherents to Christianity acknowledge this. The New Testament contains hundreds of quotations, paraphrases and allusions to the Hebrew Bible, and many of these are from the poetic writings. The book of Psalms is the most quoted Hebrew book in the Christian Bible, and the poetic Prophet Isaiah is the most quoted singular personality.

The English-speaking world has also acknowledged the influence of Hebraic poetry. British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said: “Who is the most popular poet in this country? Is he to be found among the Mr. Wordsworths and the Lord Byrons, amid sauntering reveries or monologues of sublime satiety? Shall we seek him among the wits of Queen Anne? Even to the myriad-minded Shakespeare can we award the palm? No; the most popular poet in England is the sweet singer of Israel. Since the days of the heritage, when every man dwelt safely under his vine and under his fig tree, there never was a race who sang so often the odes of David as the people of Great Britain. Vast as the obligations of the whole human family are to the Hebrew race, there is no portion of the modern populations so much indebted to them as the British people.”

Disraeli credited King David as the most influential poet in England, the home of Shakespeare himself.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a biblical poet’s popularity would overshadow Shakespeare; the bard received much inspiration from biblical poetry. Conservative estimates count anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 biblical references in Shakespeare’s plays. His plays contain references to repentance, the sweet heavens, the sly devil, Cain and Abel, the pate of faith, and the help of angels.

In Act iv of Hamlet, the title character asks: “What is a man …?” and refers to a man’s Creator as “He that made us with such large discourse”—an allusion to Psalm 8. In fact, of all the books of the Bible from which Shakespeare draws, the majority of the references come from the book of Psalms.

What makes biblical Hebrew poetry so powerful?

A Poetic Opus

Answering this question requires a literary approach to the Bible rather than a theological or historical approach.

For centuries, scholars have meticulously debated what portions of the Bible are “prose” and which are “poetry.”

To whatever extent Scripture can be argued as prosaic, poetic or actual poetry, experts have estimated—looking at the texts of both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament—that one third is actual poetry. And the vast majority of that is found in the Hebrew Bible.

Our editor in chief, Gerald Flurry, has said the poetry of the Hebrew Bible is “among the most beautiful writing in human history.” He is not alone in his estimation.

In a 1559 treatise, Antonio Sebastiani Minturno wrote how “the Hebrews …, that men the world over might receive the true knowledge of God, framed His praises in verse in so marvelous a system.”

This marvelous system has captivated many.

Though psalms were “a common poetic genre throughout the ancient Near East,” according to Robert Alter, it had a unique function in the Hebrew culture. His book The Art of Biblical Poetry states that Hebrew psalms “often became an instrument for expressing in a collective voice … a distinctive, sometimes radically new, sense of time, space, history, creation and the character of individual destiny.” This is something the Hebrews excelled at.

Virtuosic Voice

Alter says “the ancient Hebrew literary imagination reverts again and again to a bedrock assumption about the efficacy of speech.”

After all, in some cases these biblical authors were attempting to represent a deity’s voice in a linguistic manner, which required the highest literary expressions possible.

Elaine James writes in An Invitation to Biblical Poetry: “Some biblical traditions figure the divine voice as non-linguistic … like thunder—powerful, magnificent, even terrifying in its dimensions. But its linguistic expression, almost without exception, takes the form of poetry.”

In portraying God’s voice this way, Hebrew authors were trying to help the reader experience the divine presence more deeply.

This happens in the book of Job when the voice of God addresses all of Job’s poetic complaints. Alter says this concluding speech “soars beyond everything that has preceded it in the book” and “helps us see the panorama of creation, as perhaps we could do only through poetry, with the eyes of God.” This prompts Job to say: “I had heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; But now mine eye seeth Thee” (Job 42:5).

“Referring more specifically to the impact of God’s visionary poem, he announces that he has been vouchsafed the gift of sight,” writes Alter. This way of representing God was valuable to writers whose religion prohibited any visual representations of a deity. So they relied on language—often poetic language.

“There is no attribute, no perfection of God, which did not find its most simple and powerful expression in the psalms and prophets,” wrote Johann Gottfried Herder in The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry.

This is something art in general does: It creates experiences that enhance its subject—whether a painting or musical setting. Poems invite us to “see more, to hear more, to feel more,” as Susan Sontag put it (Against Interpretation).

In so doing, these experiences make the information conveyed much more memorable. In The Art of Memory, Ernest Dimnet suggested the most long-lasting memories are based on “similitudes as striking as possible” and those assigned “exceptional beauty or singular ugliness.” Hebrew poetry excels at this.

Laudable Language

“[T]he ancient Hebrew language is a masterpiece of conciseness and orderly arrangement, corresponding to the impressions of sense,” Herder wrote. The great biblical authors mastered this language to an impressive degree.

Hebrew lends itself to poetry for a number of reasons. One of the more subtle ones is its use of the poetic device known as personification—treating something nonhuman as though it were human. This makes the reader more capable of identifying with abstract concepts, and for Hebrew, “the whole language is formed upon the principle of personification; nouns, verbs and even connecting words are constructed and arranged under its influence,” Herder wrote. “Everything with them has voice, mouth, hand, countenance.”

It is easy to superimpose our own language’s definition of poetry onto another’s. Because the Greek Empire “Hellenized” Judea, for instance, ancient analysts judged biblical poetry based on rules and conventions of Greek poetry’s use of meter and rhyme. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that the method of Hebrew poetry was appreciated for what it was. With the advent of the printing press and Christian interest in understanding the original language of their scriptures, it became apparent that the Hebrews valued parallelism (presenting a thought in a pair of statements) as a sort of meter, and that rhyme was less a priority than assonance (words chosen for their similarity of sound, which is broader than rhyme) and alliteration (words beginning with the same sound).

Notice Psalm 42:2: “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, So panteth my soul after Thee, O God.” The parallelism of this verse also happens to contain both assonance and rhyme:

Ke’ayal ta’arog al-afikei-mayim

ken nafshi ta’arog eleikha Elohim

Additionally, the word translated “panteth” has an onomatopoetic function—i.e. sounding like the dry voice of one who is thirsty, as Edward George King pointed out in Early Religious Poetry of the Hebrews. “We have no word in English for this. But the English reader has a right to know that the poet applies this strong word to the cry of his soul!”

Obviously, some of the beauty of Hebrew poetry gets lost in translation, just as Shakespeare’s power is blunted when he is translated out of English. Meter, wordplay, rhyme, alliteration and assonance get lost.

Something more subtle gets lost in translation too—connotation (simply put, associations between words). Hebrew is particularly built around relationships between words that are largely obscured once any of those words are translated into another language.

“Nothing is more difficult to translate than a Hebrew psalm,” Herder wrote. “In Hebrew, a single word, easily uttered and agreeable in sound, expresses the whole sentiment. In ours 10 are often necessary; and though they express it with more logical distinctness, it is with less ease and eloquence.”

The Anchor Bible’s volume on the Psalms, written by Hebrew poetry expert Mitchell Dahood, calls it “extremely difficult poetry” that is “subtle, full of nuances.” Dahood wrote, “Often its conciseness results in ambiguity, and in some cases the ambiguity seems willed.”

Anyone willing to put forth effort to understand the original Hebrew, however, will discover an array of deeper experiences. This doesn’t mean that studying Hebrew poetry in another language is a futile effort. As is the case with any kind of poetry, there are plenty of literary devices that do translate.

When a poet uses comparisons like metaphor, simile or symbolism, these can translate. Also able to survive translation are devices like personification, paradox (contradictions used to make the same point), hyperbole (exaggeration for effect), anaphora (starting multiple phrases with the same word or phrase), apostrophe (addressing something that cannot reply), synecdoche (e.g. saying “sword” when the entire army is implied) and merism (stating two opposite extremes to show the totality of something—e.g. from Dan to Beersheba). Hebrew poetry’s “parallelism” usually translates too.

Israel: Literate and Literary

Dahood discussed the “highly sophisticated” nature of the psalms and concluded, “The poets’ consistency of metaphor and subtlety of wordplay bespeak a literary skill surprising in a people recently arrived from the desert and supposedly possessing only a rudimentary culture.” This is because it was certainly not a rudimentary culture.

Israel on the whole was a highly literate people; this is especially true of those in authority. Numbers 5:23 indicates the priests were to write in a scroll, and Deuteronomy 17:18 ordered future kings to pen their own copy of the law. This latter exercise would acquaint monarchs with not only the legal system of their kingdom but also its foundational literary culture.

“Such images and ideas, as even the first chapters of Genesis have preserved to us, are impossible for a savage and uncultivated people,” wrote Herder. “Here all is simple and divine, as if one of the Elohim had Himself instructed the genius of humanity.”

These were writers whose literary accomplishments even extended beyond the Bible. King Solomon, for instance, is said to have composed 3,000 proverbs (1 Kings 5:12). The book of Proverbs is just over 900 verses, and not every verse is an individual proverb, meaning thousands of his proverbs have not survived in print.

We can extrapolate from this that there would have been secular poetry from the ancient Hebrews. Scripture lends support to this as well. The “book of the Wars of the Lord” (Numbers 21:14) and the “book of Jashar” (Joshua 10:13; 2 Samuel 1:18) may indicate less-sacred writings.

The Hebrews heavily valued the written word.

Ancient Hebrew wisdom was concerned with being able to read, understand and even compose great enigmas, dark sayings, riddles and proverbs (Proverbs 1:1-6). The Hebrew word for “proverb” is mashal—sometimes translated as “parable”—meaning a comparison (a definition being reasonably similar to “metaphor”). Skill at making comparisons is one of the bedrock abilities of a poet. A “knack for seeing resemblances” is what Prof. Leland Ryken calls the “qualifying exam” for great poets.

The Hebrew Bible has no shortage of masters in this regard.

Moses: ‘Homer’ of the Hebrews

The biblical record attests to the outstanding linguistic ability of its authors. Moses, whom the Christian Bible says mastered Egyptian wisdom, was “mighty in words” (Acts 7:22). Though he used his apparent stammer to protest his divine commission at the burning bush, he certainly lacked no skill as a writer. Having penned the Pentateuch’s nearly 80,000 words, his impact on religion is still felt today.

Even in a moment of seemingly conventional dialog, when he said, “It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome, but the noise of them that sing do I hear” (Exodus 32:18), this triadic statement flows from his Hebrew lips in an entirely poetic way with wordplay, assonance and rhyme:

ein kol anot g’vurah

ve’ein kol anot khalushah

kol anot anokhi shome’a

In Exodus 15, the Hebrew lyrics of his song at the Red Sea are well suited for large groups of people to sing and include incredible assonance, occasional rhyme, and some alliteration and economy of language. To the latter point, the English phrase in verse 1, “for He is highly exalted” (or “triumphed gloriously” in the King James Version), is merely five Hebrew syllables: ki-ga’oh ga’ah!

Moses is also known for composing two other masterful poems—recorded in Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 90. Imagery and poetic techniques from both find their way into many other writings of the Hebrew Bible.

“To a young man, who would understand the psalms and prophets in their true spirit, I might give it, indeed, as a general rule, superseding all others; ‘Read Moses! read the Mosaic history!’” Herder wrote. “A single word occurring in this poetry often gives occasion for the finest poetical development through entire chapters. What Homer is to the Greeks, that Moses is in his relation to the Hebrews.”

Royal Writers

King David is another obvious literary standout. Through his whole life he valued and excelled at the poetic arts, taking them to stunning new heights.

As a young man, he was known for being “prudent in affairs” (1 Samuel 16:18), which the Hebrew indicates is adeptness with words. It is clear he studied the literary masters that preceded him. Psalm 68 shows the influence of Moses’s writings as well as Deborah’s poem of Judges 5. Psalm 39 is full of language similar to the book of Job (also compare Psalm 62:12 with Job 33:14; 40:5).

By the end of his life, David was awarded the distinction of “sweet singer of Israel,” crediting God’s Spirit as being on his tongue (2 Samuel 23:1-2). The passage continues to record an incredibly vivid poem by King David.

Many of his compositions were created during times of great distress, even when on the run for his life (for more information, read “Psalms of the Fugitive”). Crafting literary art while under such hardship reveals the value poetry had to the great Hebrew king.

The impact of his poetry on the world—from his contemporaries to our day, and from Shakespeare down to the common reader—is impossible to quantify. His biblical poetry is largely recorded in the book of Psalms, and much imagery from those works has found its way into many other languages and religions.

One of his more famous compositions is the dirge on the death of Saul and Jonathan, recorded in 2 Samuel 1. The refrain of that work, “How are the mighty fallen,” has become a well-known expression in the English-speaking world (“How the mighty have fallen”).

David’s son Solomon was also prolific and impactful. His 1,005 songs infer the creation of music and lyrics—a couple of which are preserved in the book of Psalms; another is an epic composition that continues to bedazzle literary scholars: the Song of Songs.

Beyond that, Solomon’s proverbs—not musical compositions in the same sense—are some of the greatest examples of Hebrew poetry. The wisdom contained therein largely transcends translation. And despite the translation issues in some cases, many of them have become very “proverbial” in other languages.

The book of Proverbs stands out for being framed in parental admonition. This is evident from its opening verses, its final chapter (framed as from a mother to a son), and also in the personification of wisdom as a woman in chapter 8. Herder wrote: “The relations of father and child constituted the primitive forms of government among men,” and the Hebrew proverbs are “peculiarly marked by a tone of paternal kindness and unaffected sincerity, of which scarcely any other people can furnish an example ….”

Poetic Prophets

After literary giants like Moses, David and Solomon, the Bible is full of other linguistic geniuses. One of King Hezekiah’s songs is catalogued in Isaiah 38:9-20. Hezekiah was also responsible for adding several of Solomon’s proverbs to the canon (Proverbs 25:1).

But the semantic skill of the First Temple Period rests heavily on the prophets, which the Bible says were generally well skilled in the musical and poetic arts. According to Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, the word for prophesy can mean “to pour forth words abundantly” or even “to sing.” This connection may be particularly true of the women employed in sacred offices: Of the four righteous prophetesses mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, two are noted for their musical abilities.

All these prophets were vividly trying to convey a certain “inevitability” in their message, and poetry is the most obvious packaging for this. Also, some of poetry’s innate ambiguity makes the prophecies open to multiple applications—i.e. the concept of prophetic “duality,” as Isaiah describes dual purposes for his writings (Isaiah 30:8).

Mitchell Dahood related an exchange he had with one of his professors at the University of Chicago who asked him what was the most difficult Semitic language. Dahood answered Arabic, but his professor “found biblical poetry, especially the prophets, the most difficult. The lack of case endings that would serve to show the relationship between words, the compact construct chains that could express innumerable rapports between the construct and the genitive, the poetic vocabulary, and the highly elliptical character imposed by metrical considerations conspired to make biblical poetry the greatest challenge ….”

Hebrew poetry’s emphasis on prophecy is partly what makes it unique among ancient literature. “That this ‘energizing word,’ this outspeaking of God by the mouth of a prophet, gave to the poetry of the Hebrews a peculiar form, is manifest of itself,” Herder wrote. “Oracles of this kind have little or nothing to correspond to them in the poetry of other nations. Here nothing was invented for pastime.”

Ezekiel 33:32 shows that Ezekiel was revered as a talented literary artist, but his contemporaries wouldn’t act on his message. Ezekiel 21:5 shows that they viewed what he wrote as mere “pastime” or entertainment: “Then said I: ‘Ah Lord God! they say of me: Is he not a maker of parables?’”

Ezekiel tried to convey his messages with powerful comparisons to make it impactful, but the people just saw it as artistic—much like we can dismiss the gravity of a statement by saying its author was being “poetic.” At any rate, it is clear from Ezekiel’s common use of the word mashal, as well as the word kinah (another poetry term implying a lament or dirge), that he was aware his writing had an artistic, poetic style. Even though there is no word in biblical Hebrew for “poetry,” words do exist for these poetic genres, as well as the terms found in headers for the Psalms: michtam, maschil, psalm, song, etc.

Among the prophets, Isaiah stands out as a leading virtuoso of the poetic arts. His work has had a significant impact on other languages. The English language has over 60 common sayings that come from his book alone.

Some dub Isaiah the “Shakespeare of the Bible” and “prince of the prophets.” Biblical parlance and Jewish tradition suggest he actually was royalty—based on the way his pedigree is listed and the way palace officials interacted with him. His discussion of the musical and linguistic arts themselves bespeak a certain sophistication in his education.

Elaine James lauds his “rich lexicon of the natural world” and credits him with “the most diverse vocabulary of plants among the prophets.” He makes tremendous use of metaphors and wordplay. His favorite comparison from the natural world appears to be water, and he commonly employs metaphors related to pottery, as well as aspects of motherhood.

Texts of ‘The Twelve’

Other prophets such as “The Twelve”—sometimes referred to as “minor”—exhibited great poetic skill.

Habakkuk 3 is a displaced psalm, having three features of psalms without being included in the actual collection: It has a compositional header (verse 1), psalm-like musical instructions (verse 19), and three uses of Selah (verses 3, 9, 13), used elsewhere only in the Psalms.

Amos also stands out. “The language is rich and the literary features abundant in the book of Amos,” the Anchor Bible states. “In addition to the literary structures … Amos uses a number of other features to formulate his message. The use of divine appellatives, the alternation between first and third person, and between second and third person with reference to addresses, and the creation of sound patterns all aid in knitting together the larger structure …. Amos is fond of progressive numerical formulas, using them to structure at least three sections of the book ….”

Amos 1:3 provides an example of this: “For thus saith the Lord: For three transgressions of Damascus, yea, for four, I will not reverse it: because they have threshed Gilead with sledges of iron.” This technique—used also in verses 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 6—clearly emphasizes the fourth item in the phrase and represents “the accumulative effect of evil,” as Mr. Flurry wrote in 1991. This is a technique found also in Proverbs; perhaps Amos was influenced by that technique (see Proverbs 30:18-19, 21-22, 29-31; 6:16-19).

Amos also makes fine use of a technique known as chiasm—a mirroring effect in the text that draws attention to the content in a number of ways. An obvious example of this is found in Amos 5:5 (here arranged in a way to make this clear):

But seek not Beth-el,

Nor enter into Gilgal,

And pass not to Beer-sheba;

For Gilgal shall surely go into captivity,

And Beth-el shall come to nought.

Joel, another powerful poet, seems to have been influenced by Amos (compare Joel 3:16 with Amos 1:2). Joel 2 is a masterpiece in terms of line-by-line imagery and overall organization, which conveys the driving forward momentum of a devastating army. “The poet exercises a stark economy in both his figurative language and his choice of vocabulary,” wrote Alter.

Astounding Acrostics

Then there was one of the sons of the high priest Hilkiah—the Prophet Jeremiah, who wrote the largest biblical book in terms of word count. As our editor in chief has written about extensively, Jeremiah also penned some substantial lyrical compositions. These include the book of Lamentations (see 2 Chronicles 35:25) and two psalms that employ similar language and poetic techniques to Lamentations: Psalm 89 and Psalm 119.

Psalm 119 is the epic acrostic poem of the collection. This is a technique that doesn’t translate, since the poem is structured in the order of the Hebrew “alephbet”—each section commencing with a word that starts with the next letter in the sequence.

Jeremiah was clearly influenced by David, who is the only named author to employ the acrostic technique in the Psalms (Psalm 25, 34, 37, 145). The anonymous Psalm 111 and 112 are also acrostic and share remarkable similarities with each other, implying they were to be experienced together. The only other acrostic poem in the Bible is the “valiant woman” poem of Proverbs 31.

Each one of David’s acrostic psalms is extraordinarily impressive in its organization—especially Psalm 37, which is able to employ an astonishingly chiastic structure in addition to the acrostic.

Regarding Psalm 119, Charles Spurgeon, in The Treasury of David, wrote that “those who have studied this divine hymn and carefully noted each line of it are amazed at the variety and profundity of the thought. Using only a few words, the writer has produced permutations and combinations of meaning which display his holy familiarity with his subject and the sanctified ingenuity of his mind. He never repeats himself; for if the same sentiment recurs it is placed in a fresh connection, and so exhibits another interesting shade of meaning.”

Though epic in length, it is unlike the “epic” poems from a similar time period, which are more narrative and historical in content and easy to hold in the mind because of their singular plot. It is even unique among Hebrew poems, which tend to be shorter and more easily retained. “It is a kind of technical flexing,” Elaine James writes, “as the exhibition of formal mastery becomes the central energy of the poem.” She says this allows it to stay closely focused on “the celebration of torah.”

The book of Lamentations has the same organization. This highly organized composition creates irony by describing chaos in such an orderly way, and it portrays ugliness in the framework of verbal beauty. The organizational tactic is a particularly intriguing artistic decision. The content might demand the “lament” form found in many of the psalms, but instead we get this systematic acrostic approach. And one acrostic is not even enough to contain the calamity.

Four of the five chapters are written acrostically. Chapters 1, 2 and 4 contain one verse per Hebrew letter, while chapter 3 contains three verses per letter.

A slight variation in letter order occurs in chapters 2, 3, 4—creating a subtle upset to its own predictability (see our article “Does the Book of Lamentations Contain ‘Forgetful Errors’?”). And chapter 5—though containing the same number of verses as Hebrew letters—abandons the acrostic entirely but employs frequent alliteration and even rhyme.

The number of verses in each chapter draw our attention to certain numerical observations—particularly as related to the number 7. Four chapters of 22 verses each, plus a chapter of 66 verses, makes for a 154-verse work—which is 77 plus 77, or 22 multiplied by 7. Chapter 2 uses the word “Zion” seven times; the entire book uses “Jerusalem” seven times. The names of God are used 49 times, or seven sevens. Adonai is used 14 times; yhwh, 32 times; Elyon, two times; El, one time). It is clear that this book was incredibly organized.

Reading the Future

So much of biblical Hebrew poetry puts our attention on the future and considers its own longevity within its stanzas.

King David wrote: “One generation shall laud Thy works to another, And shall declare Thy mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4). The word for “declare,” nagad, has the connotation of making something conspicuous. Other psalms make similar pledges to preserve praise in writing for future generations (Psalm 71:17-18; 78:1-6; 79:13).

Psalm 78:6 specifically reads: “That the generation to come might know them, even the children that should be born; Who should arise and tell them to their children.” The Hebrew for “tell” is safar, which as a noun means “scribe” and is related to the word book. Hebrew poetry is acknowledging its need to be written, published and preserved.

Psalm 22:31-32 read: “A seed shall serve him; It shall be told [safar] of the Lord unto the next generation. They shall come and shall declare [nagad] His righteousness Unto a people that shall be born, that He hath done it.”

One of the most inspiring psalms in this regard is Psalm 102, which is classified as a “prayer.” First note how verse 18 contains a bit of a self-aware moment—believing God Himself to be reading this poet’s composition: “When He hath regarded [to look at] the prayer of the destitute, And hath not despised their prayer.”

This forward-looking psalm also mentions God’s remembrance enduring to all generations (verse 13). Later comes this electrifying statement: “This shall be written for the generation to come; And a people which shall be created shall praise the Lord” (verse 19).

As Elaine James writes, this verse contains an “impulse toward the future, including the general openness … that signals awareness of the possibility of its own reappropriation.” Here the psalmist is looking forward to the “appropriation” of this psalm to a “generation to come.”

Even beyond this one verse and this one psalm, the nature of Hebrew poetry has been incredibly impactful through the ages. There seems to be no end to studying its depth, and we certainly can exclaim the sentiment contained in the word Hallelujah that neither will its influence cease any time soon.