Monday, August 27, 2018

Reading the Bible: Prose and Poetry

By Pastor Joseph Abrahamson

In this article we are going to look at how to discern the differences between two main styles of writing: Prose and Poetry.

So what is Prose?
   Prose can be described as typical or un-ornamented use of a language.

What is Poetry?
   Poetry can be described as playing with or ornamenting a language in ways that deliberately differ from the typical ways people normally use their language.

The distinction between prose and poetry is not always clearcut.

In poetry phrases and sentences are often much more compact; though the same account may be told in a much longer narrative than in prose. For example, compare the death of Sisera in the prose of Judges 4:16-23 with the poetry of Deborah’s song where she sings of the same events in Judges 5:19-31.

The previous example also shows that poetry may also be more picturesque in description than in prose. Another example of this is found in the description of the death of the Egyptians in the Sea. The narrative is at Exodus 14:19-30. Compare this with the Song of Moses Exodus 15:1-18.

Each language or language group will have different ways to make distinctions between prose and poetry. Some of these ways of marking poetry might be shared by a number of languages, but we will generalize to say that poetry is intentionally different from the normal formal way people structure their words in their language. These methods of making poetry different from prose are called poetic techniques or poetic devices.

These poetic devices can make use of:
  • The semantics or meanings of words. Psalm 1:1 is an example of the play of meaning moving from “walk” to “stand” to “sit.”
  • The sounds and rhythm of the words. Ecclesiastes 7:1 has such a play on sound and arrangement. The Hebrew sounds like “Tov Shem Mi-Shemen Tov.” Say that out loud to get the rhythm and sound of it. English can not capture this structure well. It translates as “A good name is better than good oil.” The oil may be a reference either to perfume or to anointing to high position. While English cannot capture the poetic device of the Hebrew, translators will often arrange the text to look like poetry in English in order to help the reader read this line as a line of poetry.
  • The syntax or grammar. For example Isaiah 45:9 places the main verb of the question at the beginning of two questions. But the verb is not repeated for the second question. Visual layout in English translation helps to ensure the reader rightly understands.
    Shall it say,
         the clay to its shaper, ‘What are you making?’
         Or the thing you made, ‘He has no hands’?
         Often English translations will simply repeat the verb to keep the meaning clear.
    Shall the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
    Or shall your handiwork say, ‘He has no hands’? (NKJV)
  • Or the graphical representation of the language. Visual and graphic layout of the text is another device that could be used to mark poetry as distinct from prose. Unfortunately we lack early manuscript evidence of the use of such layout. What evidence we do have suggests that the inspired authors of the Scripture wrote without using this kind of device in the times of Moses, David, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Visual layout is such a strong feature of how poetry is marked in English, that in modern English Bible translations the poetry of the Hebrew Bible is almost always marked by means of visual layout.
Poetry is also often deliberately structured in ways which set it apart from the normal formal way prose is structured. Structuring could be visual, as mentioned above. But it could also be made through:
  • Rhythmic cadence or meter. In Hebrew the verses of the book of Lamentations often follow a 3:2 rhythm.


    This rhythm is called Qinah (‘Lamentation’). This kind of metrical or rhythmic device cannot really be transferred into English. Sometimes a translator can find a way. But very often it is not possible to do so without somehow changing the meaning of the original Hebrew text.
  • Syllable counts. Isaiah 28:10 and 13 give us an example of reversing syllable counts. The count is 
1:2, 1:2;
1:2, 1:2;
2:1, 2:1.
Tzav latzav, Tzav latzav.
Qav laqav, Qav laqav.
Ze`ir sham, Ze`ir sham.
Law by law, Law by law.
Line by line, Line by line.
A bit here, A bit there.
  • Line counts or lists; Proverbs 30 contains a handful of counting poems. For example here is the one from verses 15b to 16:
There are three things that are never satisfied,
Four never say, “Enough!”:
   The grave,
   The barren womb,
   The earth that is not satisfied with water—
   And the fire never says, “Enough!”
  • The position of semantic, grammatical, auditory or other features. There are, for instance, several alphabetical poems in the Hebrew Old Testament. These alphabetical poems are called acrostics. The first four chapters of Lamentations are alphabetic poems, chapter 5 has 22 lines. This is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, but it is not alphabetical. The poem for the Noble Wife in Proverbs 31:10-31 and Several Psalms are alphabetical poems: 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119 and 145. Psalms 9 and 10 together form an almost alphabetical poem.
Poetic devices that depend on playing with the features of the original languages can be difficult or sometimes impossible to represent in English. Alphabetical poems are a good example of this. Modern English translations often indicate the alphabetical nature of the poems in some way. But there are other poetic devices that simply cannot come into English translation.


The Hebrew poetry of the Old Testament has been the object of a great deal of study. One of the main features discussed is called parallelism. Parallelism is a term covering a number of techniques using types of repetition. Parallelism is also used in Hebrew prose. In fact every language uses forms of repetition that could be called parallelism in both poetic and prose forms. So it is not necessarily the principle identifying characteristic of Hebrew poetry. But we should note that Hebrew poetry does make extensive and creative use of the various types of repetition grouped together under the term parallelism.

We hope to discuss some poetic devices like parallelism in future articles.

An important note:

It should be clear that a particular use of the term poetry by those who disbelieve the Bible is not part of what we are discussing in this article. Often one hears or reads someone say ”It's poetical!” The term is used to imply that what is written is not literally true. Those who use the term that way about the Biblical text are playing the hypocrite, they do not really believe that Biblical prose is true simply because it is prose and not poetry. This kind of attack on the Bible is a false appeal to authority— an appeal to erudition. But it is the same old lie: ”Did God really say....” (Gn 3)