Session 8 | Understanding What Poetry Is

➡ Average Reading Time: 10 minutes Understanding What Poetry Is

Learning Objectives

When you finish this session, you should be able to:
  • Identify the five kinds of scholarship that a complete study of poetry involves
  • Know the four basic types of parallelism
  • Understand the main characteristics of Lyric Poetry
  • Understand the main characteristics of a Lyric Poem
  • Know the classification of Psalms
  • Interpret and apply poetry

Session Preview

In this session, the student will encounter Hebrew poetry. First, we will discuss the five kinds of scholarship that a complete study of poetry involves. Then, we will explain the four forms of parallelism. Next, we will point out the main characteristics of lyric poetry. Then, we will look at the four characteristics of a lyric poem. Next, we will classify the different kinds of psalms. Next, we will identify some help for interpretation and application. Finally, we will overview Psalm 1.

Where We Are Going

Forms of Hebrew Poetry
Main Characteristics of Lyric Poetry
The Lyric Poem
Classification of Psalms
Individual Complaint
Community Complaint
Salvation History
Interactive Ideas
Living Into Poetry
Psalm 1

Reading Assignment



Remember the day in English literature when the teacher started to teach you about poetry. For many, there was an “ug” that slithered through our lips, thinking: oh no, not poetry! Surprise, surprise: a large part of the First Testament is poetry.

First Testament Poetry, a style of ancient writing, which the Hebrews used to express what God was saying, is used throughout the First and Second Testament.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “The Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than the logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.” [ref]C. S. Lewis. Reflections on the Psalms[/ref]

Poetry is the interpretive presentation of a human experience shared in an artistic form. It achieves its end by the use of images, symbols, allusions, metaphors, similes, emotive vocabulary, etc. The writers of Hebrew poetry were imaginative, creative people who regarded the artistry of their writings as important in displaying their love for God.

Nearly one-third of the First Testament was written in intricate, yet powerful Hebrew poetry, the beauty of which is, to us, sometimes lost in the translation. Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, almost all of the book of Job, large sections of the prophetic literature and many passages in the narrative or historical sections — all are carefully-crafted Hebrew poetry.

A complete study of poetry involves five (5) kinds of scholarship.

  • Textual: This area helps one establish a reliable version from original manuscripts to make the original understandable to the reader in his own language. This is already done for the English reader in several versions and commentaries.
  • Source: Here one is trying to determine the origin of the Psalm: who wrote it; when it was written; who were its first hearers; how it came to be where it is today.
  • Biblical Theology: One here investigates the theological content. What does this teach us about God? About humans? About a human’s response to God? About God’s response to humans? About human’s responsibility to his/her fellow human beings?
  • Liturgical History: Was this piece of poetry used in worship? Was it an oracle from God?
  • Literary Criticism: The need to recognize poetry as poetry will often help us keep God from saying something he never intended to say.

Forms of Hebrew Poetry

As poetry, all of the poems in the First Testament make use of a literary device called parallelism, a thought rhyme in which the second line of a section echoes or reiterates the thought of the first line. The two lines, then, become poetic units. There are four basic kinds of parallelism. Understanding them restores to us some of the beauty and power of the original, and usually brings us closer to the writer’s intent. The four types of such parallelism are:

Synonymous Parallelism

In this type of parallelism, the same thought is expressed in successive lines.

The ox knows his master,
the donkey his owner’s manger, (Isaiah 1.3a)

What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8.4)

You can see here that the second line says the same thing as the first line. Only one thought is being conveyed.

Antithetic Parallelism

In this form, the thought in the second line or successive lines is in contrast to the first. This type is used extensively in the Book of Proverbs.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous
but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1.6)

A wise son brings joy to his father,
but a foolish son grief to his mother. (Proverbs 10.1)

Synthetic Parallelism

Often called Formal Parallelism–this type of parallelism has neither repetition in contrast nor in different terms. The second line simply carries the thought of the first line to a conclusion.

The Lord looks down from heaven
upon the sons of men. (Psalm 14.2a)

Climactic Parallelism

In this form, two of the previous forms (Synonymous and Formal) are combined. The second line repeats the first in part, adding to it to bring the thought to a conclusion.

Ascribe to the Lord, O mighty ones,
Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. (Psalm 29.1)

The more clearly we recognize the form and the function of these parallel structures, the more purely we can receive God’s message the way he intended we receive it. Although Hebrew poetry is infinitely more complex than we have indicated here, an understanding of parallelism will cause us to be more attentive to what we are reading and interpreting.

Main Characteristics of Lyric Poetry

There are three main elements that require the attention of the reader of poetry.


One must try to grasp the theme of the writer in order to understand the flow of the poem. In preparing for devotion or teaching, it is often helpful to state in your own words what you think the theme is.


A poem will usually have three parts in its structure.

  • The statement of the theme
  • The development of the writer’s thoughts concerning his theme, sometimes written in emotive language.
  • The resolution of the theme


Figures of speech are plentiful. The reader should be acquainted with as many of them as possible.

Being familiar with these elements will enhance you as the reader in your understanding of the poet’s intended message.

The Lyric Poem

Lyric poems were originally meant to be sung. They expressed the thoughts and feelings of a single speaker. Remember, not all Hebrew poetry is lyric poetry; however, most, if not all, of the Psalms are.

There are four characteristics of a lyric poem:

  1. Musical: These poems were sung or recited orally to the accompaniment of a lyre.
  2. Personal: They were largely spoken/written with the “I” form of the personal pronoun. One might say that the prophets spoke for God to man, while the psalmist spoke from man to God. When the “we” form of the personal pronoun is used, the expression given is that of a shared experience within the community.
  3. Emotional: These pieces of poetry were often identified by their emotional character. The authors would overstate (hyperbole); use emotive words or vivid descriptions in order to evoke a similar feeling in the singer/reader. We can see feelings expressed such as praise, adoration, awe, joy, depression, or sorrow.
  4. Brief: A poem often expressed a single feeling using a controlling metaphor and then developing it. Knowing the theme will help the reader refrain from treating the poem as a series of fragments.

Almost every poem in the Psalms has an overall plot in which good is in conflict with evil. To the writers, there are two kinds of people: good and evil or Godly and ungodly.

The poetic writers use conventional sources for the imagery, which can be seen in their work. They use such things as nature, hunting, war, farming, family life, religious values, such as the Exodus, etc.

The book of Psalms is an anthology of lyric poems. They have:

  • A unity of national authorship, i.e., Jewish
  • A unity of subject matter, i.e., religious experience
  • A unity of theological outlook, i.e., good and evil
  • A unity of purpose, i.e., to give expression to the feelings of religious experience
  • A unity of worldview, i.e., theocentric

Classification of Psalms

Individual Complaint

There are more psalms which fall into this category than any other. There were three types of conditions that often prompted the complaint of the individual to God. A complaint can be defined as an expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction; something that is the cause or subject of pain, etc.

  • An unjust accusation or wrongdoing that was usually given by false witnesses who had conspired with an enemy of the one suffering (3-5; 7, 11, 17, 25-27, 31.1-8, 42-43, 52, 54-57, 59, 64, 70, 94.16-23, 120, 140-143)
  • Repentance for personal sins (51, 130)
  • An illness or incapacity (6, 39, 62, 88) often combines with some kind of an unjust accusation (13, 22, 28, 31.9-24, 35, 38, 41, 69, 71, 86, 102, 109)

Community Complaint

These psalms are complaints from a community perspective. They occur in several different circumstances.

  • Prayers in times of national emergency (12, 44, 58, 60, 74, 79-80, 83, 85, 90, 126)
  • Prayers in times of invasion or defeat (44, 60, 74, 79-80)
  • Oppression by an enemy (58)
  • The danger of attack (88)
  • Plague, drought, famine, or some other natural threat (85, 126)


These psalms are the flip-side of the coin from the complaints. They expressed joy to God because of something he had given them or because an area in their lives had gone well. There are both individual and community psalms.

  • Community (65, 67, 75, 107, 124, 136)
  • Individual (18, 30, 32, 34, 66, 92, 116, 118, 138)


These psalms center on praise to God without reference to defeats or victories (8, 19, 104, 148, 66, 100, 111, 114, 149, 103, 113, 117, 145-147).


These psalms give direction for wise and responsible living (36, 37, 49, 73, 112, 127, 128, 133).

Salvation History

These psalms review the history of the people of God and focus on his saving acts (78, 105, 106, 135, 136).


There are several categories under this heading, and they usually refer to the king of Israel.

  • Covenant (50, 81, 89, 132)
  • Royalty (2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 144)
  • Enthronement (24, 29, 47, 93, 95-99)
  • Songs of Jerusalem (46, 48, 76, 84, 87, 122)


These psalms are centered on the theme that God can be trusted. They expressed trust in God whether things were going well or not (11, 16, 23, 27, 62, 63, 91, 121, 125, 131).

Interpretative Ideas

The following ideas may help you grasp the ideas the authors presented in their poetry.

  • Identify the kind of poem which you are reading.
  • Divide the poem into thought lines.
  • Locate the theme line or thought.
  • Demonstrate how that theme is developed or explained.
  • Poems originated as complete units so they should be interpreted in their entirety rather than as isolated verses.
  • Each psalm serves as its own literary context.
  • The occasion in which Israel used a psalm will constitute its historical context. As an illustration, a liturgy, wedding song, or a dirge must be interpreted as if it were used at a worship, wedding, or funeral service, respectively.
  • The unique features of each literary type determine how we should interpret it. We must interpret corporately any psalm spoken by the community rather than an individual. The meaning would apply to the community. If it is an individual speaking, then the meaning would apply to an individual. The application must conform to the situation of each genre: The corporate texts to the Christian community and individual texts to the individual. The reader should resist the temptation to extract devotional content in violation of the text’s original context.

Living Into Poetry

Contemporary use should coincide with the poem’s original purpose.

  • Wedding songs should be used for weddings. Complaint psalms for times of extreme hardship. Communal psalms should be used in corporate worship.
  • Restate the theme in a way that is culturally relevant.

Psalm 1

The first psalm is an appropriate preface to the Psalter. This psalm puts into focus what is ultimately valuable in life—the need for godliness. It also demonstrates that we have moral choices to make in life between two opposing ways of life.

Psalm 1 is structured as a sequence of alternating positive and negative statements. The poet begins with a description of what the godly person does not do in four lines, which are synonymous parallelism.

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers.

This negative description is balanced by a positive description

but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.

Next is a positive statement balanced by a negative statement. The author uses a simile as he compares a man with a tree. The point seems to be productiveness: a tree that is healthy and grows produces what it is intended to produce. In a land of drought, this choice makes a forceful point. One listening to it might say: Godliness is like a tree down by the river.

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

The next two lines have a negative-positive pattern and are antithetic parallelism.

Not so the wicked!
    They are like chaff
    that the wind blows away.

The next two lines have a negative description and are delivered with a synonymous parallelism form.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

Finally, the last two lines provide alternating statements by describing the positive result of godliness and the negative result of wickedness.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

We might note that the poet progresses through the poem to demonstrate the basic condition of human existence. The first two sets of lines describe two kinds of persons. The next set of lines, through the use of two similes, describes what happens to the two persons. One attains fulfillment. The other does not. The last two sets of lines explain the verdict and end of the two persons.

The verb tense shifts from the present to the future as a future judgment is in mind. The poet had something to say, and he decided to say it in an artistic form.

Rather than from an abstract point of view, the poet expresses this human experience concretely. From a Western point of view, we could state the premises of the poem as follows:

  • Life presents people with a choice between two ways of life: godly and wicked.
  • The choice that a person makes is a significant choice.
  • The ultimately valuable thing in life is godliness.

We should note that the Hebrew poet did not use propositional statements to discuss godliness. He does not give a theological definition of godliness. He does not describe godliness as a concept. He does describe how a godly person acts. It is interesting to note that the psalmist nowhere states abstractly, life presents us with a choice. Instead, he contrasts the two ways of life and indirectly conveys the idea that this is an option open to everyone, while indirectly asserting that the godly life is in conflict with the wicked life. The author does not tell us which choice to make. He only presents us with a choice.

We should note that these poems make use of a different system of presentation. Learning the forms and thinking while reading will produce a great bounty of biblical instruction for our lives.

Community Discussion Questions

➡ |CDQ Info|

  • How does your artistry in life display your love for God?
  • How will knowing these four kinds of parallelism keep you from reading poetry and make it say something the author did not intend to say?
  • How will calling attention to the pronoun in a poem allow you to apply the passage?
  • How can you add this kind of psalm to your own personal devotion?
  • Can you learn to trust God by using these psalms in your personal devotion?
  • How does God provide for you? List them.
  • How has God provided rest and refreshment for you? List them.
  • How many ways has God restored you? List them.


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Read Me First


Throughout these sessions, I have used the word ecclesia (singular) for the usual word church and ecclesiae (plural) to indicate a church in a particular geographic place, i.e., the ecclesiae at Corinth, meaning the whole of the many smaller ecclesia that met in homes in Corinth. This is to distinguish between the Institutional Church model (IC) and ecclesia that meet in cities and towns around the world. The ecclesiae written about by the authors of the Second Testament were not the same as what the “church” has become over the years of its existence. Usually, but not always, folks think of a church as a place where they go to a building and set in rows of pews and listen to music and sometimes sing and listen to sermons by a pastor or senior pastor. The ecclesiae of the Second Testament time did not invoke this model.


I have discovered over the years that if you want to try and change minds about something special, you have to venture out and reword it in order to grasp a foothold for a new refreshed understanding of the idea presented by the word. Such is the case between "church" and "ecclesia."


Happy Reading!

Read Me Second


Referenced verses in the text of this study are not used to prove some point of view. They are merely markers where the subject matter is referenced by other books and authors. To gain a larger view of each quote, a serious student of the Holy Writ would take the time to view the reference and see what the background is. The background provides tracks on which the meaning of a text rides. So knowing the context of a referenced passage would help the reader to gain a more thorough understanding of an author than just the words quoted and marked by a verse number that was not a part of the original author's text, which as you might remember was performed on the text in a random fashion many years later.


Happy Reading!

Read Me Third


The verses that are referenced in these sessions are not meant to prove a point. They are simply pointers to where the idea being written about may have a correlation. In order to see if they accomplish the thesis presented by the original author, a student should read, at a minimum, the chapter in which the verse is found as well as trying to ascertain what the original author may have meant to say to the original audience.


Of course, this is a lot of work but it is beneficial work. If one does not understand what the author meant when it was written and the audience could not have understood by what was written, then the words on the page can mean anything that a present reader may assign as a meaning, thus distorting what God was inspiring for the original writer to write to the original audience to hear.

A great and recent book by N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird entitled The New Testament in Its World would be a wonderful addition to your reading helps.


Happy Reading!

Jesus Followers


There are many synonyms to use for the word believer, which is the most common word for a person who has "converted" to follow Jesus. I have chosen "Jesus follower(s) or follower(s) of Jesus instead of the word believer in these presentations to allow the reader an opportunity to move away from the idea of believer which conjures up the possible thought of "ascent" to a set of doctrines that have been assembled by different groups over the centuries and show up in this day and age as a set of statements posted on web sites and other written material. These sets of beliefs are suggested by many as the ones that one should ascent to so that upon death the one who assents can go to heaven, i.e., just believe and you are good to go. Jesus followers/followers of Jesus suggest an action that one should take. Remember, Jesus told his disciples to follow him. Yes, belief is important, but one must move beyond belief to action.


(See "Discipleship" Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 182-188.)