The Conventions of Biblical Poetry

A brief introduction to the devices and characteristics of in this biblical genre.

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Many biblical books are written entirely or mostly in verse, including most of the books of prophecy, Proverbs, Job, The Song of Songs, Psalms, and Lamentations. There are also poems scattered through most other biblical books. In this article, we will examine poetic examples drawn from the books of Psalms, Lamentations, and the Song of Songs, all of which consist entirely of poetry but which differ greatly in style and in tone. (It should be noted that our view, presented at the end, of the Song of Songs as a structured dialogue between a king and a young woman is certainly not the only interpretation available, it is supported by poetic evidence.)

song of songs poetryThe Formal Conventions that Structure Biblical Poetry

All poetry is shaped by conventions that dictate how long its lines should be, and how it should be patterned. The conventions vary across literary traditions. English poetry between the 1500's and 1900 called for lines in one of several kinds of meter, patterned rhymes at the ends of lines, and division into stanzas. 

For example, a Shakespearean sonnet is written in iambic pentameter (de-dah, de-dah, de-dah, de-dah, de-dah), has four stanzas of four lines each, in which the third line rhymes with the first and the fourth with the second, and ends with a rhymed couplet.

In Old English, poetry lines were divided into half lines, and their length based on the number of stresses (two per half-line). Patterning was based, not on rhyme, but alliteration.Two to three stressed words per line began with the same sound. The third stressed element alliterated with at least one of the first two. The fourth did not:

   "Bagels for breakfast, / bread for supper;"

In most biblical poetry, lines consist of two or three versets (sections of a line), most with 2-3 stresses. Patterning is based on meaning, not sound. Versets of a line are usually parallel.

   Her elect were purer than snow,

   Whiter than milk;

   Their limbs were ruddier than coral,

   Their bodies like sapphires. (Lamentations 4:7)

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Jennifer T. Parkhurst received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently enrolled as a graduate student in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.