There are a variety of ways to worship and praise Jesus and our heavenly parents. A common one is through music, song, and poetry, which we use through the songs and hymns of Zion. These were not uncommon in previous dispensations as well. We encounter poetry in a variety of places in the Old Testament, where it is often embedded into the larger narrative. For example, readers of the Old Testament encounter poetry in Exodus 15 (Moses’s Song of the Sea), Judges 5 (Deborah’s Song), and 2 Samuel 22 (which parallels Psalm 18). Many books of the Bible are primarily composed of poetry, such as the book of Job and the Psalms. In fact, the prophets, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah prophesied in poetic forms, meaning that learning to read ancient poetry will make us better able to read prophetic texts. To help us be better readers of the biblical text, it can be useful to learn a little bit about how ancient Hebrew poetry was structured.
Acrostic and Metaphor
Like all languages, Hebrew poetry draws on a wide variety of forms and structures, although these are not always the same as in English. Whereas English poetry is often characterized by distinctive rhyming or metrical patterns, poetry in the Hebrew Bible has no discernible rhyme or meter. Hebrew does use techniques such as acrostic and metaphor. For example, in Psalm 29 the appearance of Jehovah is described in terms of a thunderstorm, where the “glory of God thundereth” (Psalm 29:3). This thunder breaks tree branches (29:5), brings lightning (29:7), and causes the early birth of animals (29:9). Hebrew also uses acrostic structures, where a psalm or poem will all begin with a specific letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Probably the most famous example of this is Psalm 119, which is actually 21 separate psalms, each one an acrostic where every verse begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (These are the letters at the beginning of each part of Psalm 119 in the King James Version).
Although Hebrew poetry had a variety of poetic tools at its disposal, the primary marker of poetic material in the Hebrew Bible (especially in English translations) is the use of parallel structures, in which one poetic statement is intensified by the following statement. The use of these structures is called “parallelism.” As noted, Hebrew poetic structures appear in every book in the Old Testament, but are especially common in Job, in Psalms, and in the Prophetic Books. The best way to explore and understand parallelism is by looking at specific examples from the scriptures to illustrate how this poetry works. In what follows, we will look at examples of parallelism from the scriptures.
Probably the most common form of poetic parallelism is “synonymous parallelism,” where the intensifying statement is a restatement of the first statement. There are numerous examples of this in the book of Psalms. For example, Psalm 8:4 famously asked, “What is man that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man that thou visitest him?” The poetic parallelism is easier to see if the verse is set into parallelistic stanzas, like so:
“What is man that thou art mindful of him?
The son of man that thou visitest him?”
These two questions show synonymous elements repeated as part of the intensifying process. Man (Hebrew enosh, meaning “human being”) is parallel to son of man (Hebrew ben adam, also meaning “human being”). “Mindful of him” is likewise parallel to “visitest him.” Instead of being two separate or opposite statements, the Psalmist here is poetically saying the same thing twice.
Often, the parallel restatement can help to clarify how the ancient author understood parallel concepts. For example, Psalm 19:7–9 is a list comprising the various blessings that come from keeping Jehovah’s commandments. The first parallels in the list include various statements about the commandments: “The law of the Lord is perfect,” “the testimony of the Lord is sure,” “the statutes of the Lord are right,” “the commandment of the Lord is pure,” “the fear of the Lord is clean,” and “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” Note how the Psalmist poetically compares law, testimony, statutes, commandment, fear, and judgments. These are connected to perfect, sure, right, pure, clean, true, and righteous. Poetic parallelism shows how all of these concepts interrelate and help form the Psalmist’s understanding of God’s laws and commandments.
Emotions and Hard Questions
These intensifying parallels can be quite beautiful, and really serve as a reminder of what the Lord told Emma Smith that “the song of the righteous is a prayer unto [him]” (Doctrine and Covenants 25:12). One of the beautiful things about the poetry in the scriptures is how it shows how the ancient Israelites felt about and worshiped Jehovah. The Psalmist in Psalm 51 expresses his deep sorrow and contrition:
“Wash me throughly from mine iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my transgressions:
And my sin is ever before me (Psalm 51:2–3).”
I love the beauty of the Psalmists confession here. He knows that he has sinned, and there is only one place where he can turn for help.
There is beauty in the willingness of the Psalms to express its feelings and to look for hard questions. The various authors of the Psalms convey the full range of human emotions, from the sorrow of sin to joy to fear to despair. Although Jesus himself famously quoted it, Psalm 22:1 expresses the despair that many of us have felt: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The Psalmist goes on to ask in a parallelistic construction:
“O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not
And in the night season, and am not silent (Psalm 22:2).”
Because the Psalms are poetry and are individual expressions of personal feeling, they are great for reading when we feel all alone. There are times in our lives when God feels distant from us. The poetry of the Bible, including and especially the Psalms, reminds that we are not alone in feeling this way.
Parallelism finds it way into many other parts of our scripture. 2 Nephi 4:17–35 is often called Nephi’s Psalm because Nephi uses poetry and poetic structures to express his sorrow over his father’s death and his own struggles. Note the parallelism in passages such as:
“Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin
Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul (2 Nephi 4:28).”
Similarly in the New Testament we find examples such as in Mary’s song of praise (historically called the Magnificat), that she begins:
“My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior (Luke 1:46–47).”
Recognizing the role that poetic parallelism plays in the scriptures, not just in poetic books like Job or the Psalms, deepens our understanding of how the ancient scriptural authors communicated their thoughts about their interactions with a loving God. As with modern Latter-day Saints and the hymns of Zion, some things are easier said through song and poetry. As we read the scriptures and see how many ancients expressed their love and quest for God, it can help us in our own godly walk.