How Biblical Poetry Works

Dear Reader,

I would like to get back to the topic of the Psalms. As you will know if you read here frequently, our church sings the psalms a cappella. We have a book called the psalter that sets them to music. We have a new psalter this year, the first in about 30 years. And it is one of the few things that got us RPs very agitated (as evidenced by the number of letters to our denominational magazine, the RP Witness). It is hard to give up familiar songs and accept new ones. For my own part, I went through the new psalter selection by selection and compared it to the Hebrew text. I wrote about my results here. The upshot is I am not overly pleased with the new psalter. I wish we had higher standards for the enterprise overall.

As I read through the new psalter, I often (but not always) think that the translators don’t have a good feel for the Hebrew poetry itself. So I would like to spend some time talking about biblical poetry. This first post is meant to be an introduction. I hope to talk about specific psalms in future posts.

The organizing principle of biblical Hebrew poetry is not rhyme or rhythm but parallelism. This is very different from English poetry so it is understandable that it may cause some problems in translation. How do we take poetry from one language and translate into another which uses a very different style and techniques? And to top it off we have to make it singable. It is a tough task and I don’t want to diminish the work of those who made our current psalter. But I also think that if you want to understand biblical poetry, you need to understand how it is organized. And that is parallelism.

As  we read through a psalm, we may think it very repetitive. But if our thinking stops there, we may miss a lot of meaning. One problem I have with our psalter (and this applies to the old as well as the new) is that it repeats where the Hebrew does not and does not repeat where the Hebrew does. When we make these kinds of changes, we lose the structure and also the meaning of the original.

It is time, I think, for some examples. I hope in the future to go through the psalms one-by-one and to discuss their structure and meaning, both in their own right and as they are rendered by the psalter. At present, my goal is only to give a taste of how the Hebrew poetry works and how meaning can be found in its structures (and why therefore we should seek to understand and preserve those structures in our renderings).

From the first verses of the first psalm, we find the typical Hebrew parallelism. Psalm 1:1 reads (all translations are my own translations of the Hebrew unless otherwise noted):

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked

and in the way of sinners does not stand

and in the dwelling of scorners does not sit.”

The parallelism here, I hope, is obvious. There are three clauses to this verse. The initial phrase “blessed is the man who” is not repeated but then what follows “does not X in the Y of Z” is paralleled in the latter two parts by similar phrases only with the order reversed (“in the Y of Z does not X”). There is more than mere repetition going on here though. What changes between the versets is significant. Notice that in the first part the man walks. He is moving (or not) along with the wicked. In second he is standing, and in the final third he sits. His interaction with the sinners becomes more and more intimate as the verse progresses. There is an escalation.

How does the psalter render this verse? I think it obscures the parallelism and therefore misses the beauty and some of the meaning of the Hebrew. Psalm 1A (1B is not identical but is similar in its approach to this verse) in the new psalter (the Book of Psalms for Worship) reads:

“That man is blessed who does not walk as wicked men advise, nor stand where sinners meet, nor sit where scorners pose as wise.”

The formula of “does not X in the Y of Z” (or in the second two-thirds “in the Y of Z does not X”) has been lost. The man is not longer the primary actor and the focus is not on his action. Instead the wicked or scorners or sinners are all active. This may be subjective and perhaps others will not see it, but to me the Hebrew puts the focus on the man: will he walk, stand, even sit with the wicked? The Psalter loses this when it turns nouns into verbs. It is not that what the Psalter says is wrong or theologically incorrect. It may well reflect truths stated elsewhere in the Bible. But it does not to me reflect the spirit of this psalm.

Another example may be found in psalm 28:5. My rendering of the Hebrew is:

“For they did not understand (Hebrew: yabinu)

the works of the Lord nor the creation of His hands

He will tear them down and will not rebuild them (Hebrew: yibnem).”

The parallelism here is not as clear-cut as the first example. In Hebrew this can all be said with fewer words so that it is something like:

 Verb

noun-of-noun noun-of-noun

verb verb.

Furthermore, the first and last verbs in the verse sound very similar. Consonants matter more than vowels in Hebrew and the first and last words of this verse both have the consonants ybn. When one hears the second in Hebrew, one hearkens back to the first. This lends emphasis to these two verbs. The meaning of the verse as I read it in Hebrew is summed up by these two words: “If they do not understand, God will not build them.” Now admittedly, all of this is much harder to render into English. But I also think we can do better than we have done. If we first take the time to understand the Hebrew, we can base our word choices on it and try to convey some of the sound and meaning of the Hebrew. How about this:

 “Because they did not understand

the works of the Lord nor the creation of His hands

He will tear them down and will not let them stand.” 

[There is a verse very similar to this. Maybe in Isaiah? It is beautiful in Hebrew. It reads essentially, “If you do not stand (meaning with or for God), you will not stand (i.e. endure)”. But in Hebrew that is all said in a few words. Does anyone know where that is?]

Another aspect of the comparison and contrast between these verbs is that in the first case humans are the subject and in the second God. God’s action (in not letting them stand) is a consequence of, indeed a fitting reaction to, the action of the people in not understanding. This is missed by the psalter which reads for Psalm 28A:

“They the Lord’s works disregarded! He destroys them; they’ll not stand.”

We can see here that one whole phrase ” the creation of His hands” is omitted. The auditory similarity between the verbs has been lost by the use of “disregarded” instead of “understand.” And finally, the people have again become the subject of the final verb “stand.” But to me the whole point of this verse is that God will act and not allow to stand those who don’t understand. The focus at the end should not be again on the people’s action but on God’s.

There are many, many more examples and I hope in coming weeks to go through a number of them. Honestly, I am not a musician (not at all; ask my husband). I don’t know to what degree we can render the structure and meaning of the Hebrew in English and still have singable psalms. I do think we can do better than we have done. And I do think we need to begin by understanding the psalms, their structure, their beauty, and their meaning. I hope I have begun to show that the structure and word choice of the Hebrew is not insignificant and that it carries meaning with it. Even if we cannot capture all of this in singable English, I hope we can at least begin to appreciate it and thereby to better understand God’s word to us.

Nebby

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11 responses to this post.

  1. […] I would like to begin my series on the psalms at the beginning–psalm 1. I have already discussed the first verse of this psalm in my introductory post here.  […]

    Reply

  2. […] poetry, on the other hand, uses parallelism and structure as its main devices. It does not use rhyme and does not seem to use rhythm (there are many books on Hebrew […]

    Reply

  3. […] is all together. Hebrew poetry is based primarily on parallelism, not on rhyme or rhythm (see here and here). So I instruct the children to look for things that are repeated or go together in some […]

    Reply

  4. […] to unintelligible English). I like to lay out the lines in such a way as to try and capture the parallelism of the original Hebrew. Sometimes this means maintaining the Hebrew word order as well though it […]

    Reply

  5. […] is perhaps the first thing we learn as children studying English poetry. What it uses instead is parallelism. We sometimes get this in English but it is not nearly so pervasive as in Hebrew poetry where it […]

    Reply

  6. […] understand this verse as legitimizing dividing up these three functions misunderstands how Hebrew parallelism works. The whole point of this verse is that the Lord is all three; there is no division of power. […]

    Reply

  7. […] get ABB’A’. This is a structure I am familiar with from poetry and I am well aware of the structures used in Hebrew poetry. But I hadn’t thought much about such things in the context of prose, at least not in a […]

    Reply

  8. […] Six and seven are being used in parallel as synonyms, just as hate and abominate are synonyms (see this post on parallelism if you want more info on how Hebrew poetry works). And if two different numbers like 6 and 7 can be […]

    Reply

  9. […] first point is just about how Hebrew poetry works. I have said this before (see this post), but it bears repeating. Biblical poetry is not based on rhyme (there is some debate about to what […]

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  10. […] was the first thing that popped into my head. Hebrew poetry works differently than English poetry. It uses parallelism and not rhyme and really doesn’t use rhythm either, at least not in any coherent, widely […]

    Reply

  11. […] device which we often, mistakenly, take as mere repetition of ideas (see this post or this one). This is not what I think we have in this verse, however. It is not the more poetic account in […]

    Reply

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