Hebrew poetry is unique in its kind; in essence, the most sublime; in form, marked by a simplicity and ease which flow from its sublimity. |The Spirit of the Lord spake by me [the Hebrew poet], and his word was in my tongue| (2Sa 23:2). Even the music was put under the charge of spiritually gifted men; and one of the chief musicians, Heman, is called |the king's seer in the words of God| (1Ch 25:1, 5). King David is stated to have invented instruments of music (Am 6:5). There is not in Hebrew poetry the artistic rhythm of form which appears in the classical poetry of Greece and Rome, but it amply makes up for this by its fresh and graceful naturalness.
Early specimens of Hebrew poetry occur; for example, Lamech's skeptical parody of Enoch's prophecy, or, as others think, lamentation for a homicide committed in those lawless times in self-defense (Ge 4:23; compare Jude 14; Ex 32:18; Nu 21:14, 15, 17, 18, 27 Nu 23:7, 8, 18; 24:3, 15). The poetical element appears much more in the Old than in the New Testament. The poetical books are exclusively those of the Old Testament; and in the Old Testament itself, the portions that are the most fundamental (for example, the Pentateuch of Moses, the lawgiver, in its main body), are those which have in them least of the poetical element in form. Elijah, the father of the prophets, is quite free of poetical art. The succeeding prophets were not strictly poets, except in so far as the ecstatic state in inspiration lifted them to poetic modes of thought and expression. The prophet was more of an inspired teacher than a poet. It is when the sacred writer acts as the representative of the personal experiences of the children of God and of the Church, that poetry finds its proper sphere.
The use of poetry in Scripture was particularly to supply the want not provided for by the law, namely, of devotional forms to express in private, and in public joint worship, the feelings of pious Israelites. The schools of the prophets fostered and diffused a religious spirit among the people; and we find them using lyric instruments to accompany their prophesyings (1Sa 10:5). However, it was David, who specially matured the lyric effusions of devotion into a perfection which they had not before attained.
Another purpose which Psalmody, through David's inspired productions, served, was to draw forth from under the typical forms of legal services their hidden essence and spirit, adapting them to the various spiritual exigencies of individual and congregational life. Nature, too, is in them shown to speak the glory and goodness of the invisible, yet ever present God. A handbook of devotion was furnished to the Israelite whereby he could enter into the true spirit of the services of the sanctuary, and so feel the need of that coming Messiah, of whom especially the Book of Psalms testifies throughout. We also, in our Christian dispensation, need its help in our devotions. Obliged as we are, notwithstanding our higher privileges in most respects, to walk by faith rather than by sight in a greater degree than they, we find the Psalms, with their realizing expression of the felt nearness of God, the best repertory whence to draw divinely sanctioned language, wherewith to express our prayers and thanksgivings to God, and our breathings after holy communion with our fellow saints.
As to the objection raised against the spirit of revenge which breathes in some psalms, the answer is: a wide distinction is to be drawn between personal vindictiveness and the desire for God's honor being vindicated. Personal revenge, not only in the other parts of Scripture, but also in the Psalms, in theory and in practice, is alike reprobated (Ex 23:4, 5; Le 19:18; Job 31:29, 30; Ps 7:4, 5, 8, 11, 12; Pr 25:21, 22), which corresponds to David's practice in the case of his unrelenting enemy (1Sa 24:5-6; 26:8-10). On the other hand, the people of God have always desired that whatever mars the cause of God, as for instance the prosperity of the enemies of God and His Church, should be brought to an end (Ps 10:12; 35:27; 40:16; 79:6, 10). It is well for us, too, in our dispensation of love, to be reminded by these psalms of the danger of lax views as to God's hatred of sin; and of the need there is that we should altogether enter into the mind of God on such points at the same time that we seek to convert all men to God (compare 1Sa 16:1; Ps 139:21; Isa 66:24; Re 14:10).
Some psalms are composed of twenty-two parallel sentences or strophes of verses, beginning with words of which the initial letters correspond with the Hebrew letters (twenty-two) in their order (compare Ps 37:1-40 and Ps 119:1-176). So also Lamentations. This arrangement was designed as a help to the memory and is found only in such compositions as do not handle a distinct and progressive subject, but a series of pious reflections, in the case of which the precise order was of less moment. The Psalmist in adopting it does not slavishly follow it; but, as in Psalm 25, he deviates from it, so as to make the form, when needful, bend to the sense. Of these poems there are twelve in all in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 25:1-22; 34:1-22; 37:1-40; 111:1-10; 112:1-10; 119:1-176; 145:1-21 Pr 31:10-31; La 1:1-4:22).
The great excellence of the Hebrew principle of versification, namely, parallelism, or |thought rhythm| [Ewald], is that, while the poetry of every other language, whose versification depends on the regular recurrences of certain sounds, suffers considerably by translation, Hebrew poetry, whose rhythm depends on the parallel correspondence of similar thoughts, loses almost nothing in being translated -- the Holy Spirit having thus presciently provided for its ultimate translation into every language, without loss to the sense. Thus in our English Version, Job and Psalms, though but translations, are eminently poetical. On parallelism, see my Introduction to Job. Thus also a clue is given to the meaning in many passages, the sense of the word in one clause being more fully set forth by the corresponding word in the succeeding parallel clause. In the Masoretic punctuation of the Hebrew, the metrical arrangement is marked by the distinctive accents. It accords with the divine inspiration of Scripture poetry, that the thought is more prominent than the form, the kernel than the shell. The Hebrew poetic rhythm resembled our blank verse, without, however, metrical feet. There is a verbal rhythm above that of prose; but as the true Hebrew pronunciation is lost, the rhythm is but imperfectly recognized.
The peculiarity of the Hebrew poetical age is that it was always historic and true, not mythical, as the early poetical ages of all other nations. Again, its poetry is distinguished from prose by the use of terms decidedly poetic. David's lament over Jonathan furnishes a beautiful specimen of another feature found in Hebrew poetry, the strophe: three strophes being marked by the recurrence three times of the dirge sung by the chorus; the first dirge sung by the whole body of singers, representing Israel; the second, by a chorus of damsels; the third, by a chorus of youths (2Sa 1:17-27).
The lyrical poetry, which is the predominant style in the Bible and is especially terse and sententious, seems to have come from an earlier kind resembling the more modern Book of Proverbs (compare Ge 4:23, 24). The Oriental mind tends to embody thought in pithy gnomes, maxims, and proverbs. |The poetry of the Easterns is a string of pearls. Every word has life. Every proposition is condensed wisdom. Every thought is striking and epigrammatical| (Kitto, Biblical Cyclopædia). We are led to the same inference from the term Maschal, a |proverb| or |similitude,| being used to designate poetry in general. |Hebrew poetry, in its origin, was a painting to the eye, a parable or teaching by likenesses discovered by the popular mind, expressed by the popular tongue, and adopted and polished by the national poet.| Solomon, under inspiration, may have embodied in his Proverbs such of the pre-existing popular wise sayings as were sanctioned by the Spirit of God.
The Hebrew title for the Psalms, Tehilim, means |hymns,| that is, joyous praises (sometimes accompanied with dancing, Ex 15:1-20; Jud 5:1-31), not exactly answering to the Septuagint title, Psalms, that is, |lyrical odes,| or songs accompanied by an instrument. The title, Tehilim, |hymns,| was probably adopted on account of the use made of the Psalms in divine service, though only a part can be strictly called songs of praise, others being dirges, and very many prayers (whence in Ps 72:20, David styles all his previous compositions, the prayers of David). Sixty-five bear the title, |lyrical odes| (Mizmorim), while only one is styled Tehilah or |Hymn.| From the title being Psalms in the Septuagint and New Testament, and also in the Peshito, it is probable that Psalms (Mizmorim) or |lyrical odes,| was the old title before Tehilim.
Epic poetry, as having its proper sphere in a mythical heroic age, has no place among the Hebrews of the Old Testament Scripture age. For in their earliest ages, namely, the patriarchal, not fable as in Greece, Rome, Egypt, and all heathen nations, but truth and historic reality reigned; so much so, that the poetic element, which is the offspring of the imagination, is found less in those earlier, than in the later, ages. The Pentateuch is almost throughout historic prose. In the subsequent uninspired age, in Tobit we have some approach to the Epos.
Drama, also, in the full modern sense, is not found in Hebrew literature. This was due, not to any want of intellectual culture, as is fully shown by the high excellence of their lyric and didactic poetry, but to their earnest character, and to the solemnity of the subjects of their literature. The dramatic element appears in Job, more than in any other book in the Bible; there are the dramatis personæ, a plot, and the |denouement| prepared for by Elihu, the fourth friend's speech, and brought about by the interposition of Jehovah Himself. Still it is not a strict drama, but rather an inspired debate on a difficult problem of the divine government exemplified in Job's case, with historic narrative, prologue, and epilogue. The Song of Solomon, too, has much of the dramatic cast. See my Introductions to Job and Song of Solomon. The style of many psalms is very dramatic, transitions often occurring from one to another person, without introduction, and especially from speaking indirectly of God to addresses to God; thus in Ps 32:1, 2, David makes a general introduction, |Blessed is the man whose iniquity is forgiven,| &c.; then in Ps 32:3-7, he passes to addressing God directly; then in Ps 32:8, without preface God is introduced, directly speaking, in answer to the previous prayer; then in Ps 32:10, 11, again he resumes indirect speaking of God, and addresses himself in conclusion to the righteous. These quick changes of person do not startle us, but give us a stronger sense of his habitual converse with God than any assertions could do. Compare also in Ps 132:8-10, the prayer, |Arise, O Lord, into thy rest; thou, and the ark of thy strength. Let thy priests be clothed with righteousness; and let thy saints shout for joy. For thy servant David's sake turn not away the face of thine anointed,| with God's direct answer, which follows in almost the words of the prayer, |The Lord hath sworn unto David,| &c. [Ps 132:11-18]. |This is my rest for ever [Ps 132:14]. I will clothe her priests with salvation: and her saints shall shout aloud for joy.| Thus also in the second Psalm, various personages are introduced, dramatically acting and speaking -- the confederate nations [Ps 2:1-3], Jehovah [Ps 2:4-6], the Messiah [Ps 2:7-9], and the Psalmist [Ps 2:10-12].
A frequent feature is the alternate succession of parts, adapting the several psalms to alternate recitation by two semi-choruses in the temple-worship, followed by a full chorus between the parts or at the end. (So Ps 107:15, 21, 31). De Burgh, in his valuable commentary on the Psalms, remarks, |Our cathedral service exemplifies the form of chanting the Psalms, except that the semi-chorus is alternately a whole verse, instead of alternating, as of old, the half verse; while the full chorus is the 'gloria' at the end of each Psalm.|
In conclusion, besides its unique point of excellence, its divine inspiration, Hebrew poetry is characterized as being essentially national, yet eminently catholic, speaking to the heart and spiritual sensibilities of universal humanity. Simple and unconstrained, it is distinguished by a natural freshness which is the result of its genuine truthfulness. The Hebrew poet sought not self or his own fame, as did heathen poets, but he was inspired by the Spirit of God to meet a pressing want which his own and his nation's spiritual aspirations after God made to be at once a necessity and a delight. Compare 2Sa 23:1, 2, |The sweet Psalmist of Israel said, The Spirit of the Lord spake by me,| &c.
Ewald rightly remarks that several odes of the highest poetic excellence are not included (for example, the songs of Moses, Ex 15:1-19 and De 32:1-43; of Deborah, Jud 5:1-31; of Hannah, 1Sa 2:1-10; of Hezekiah, Isa 38:9-20; of Habakkuk, Hab 3:1-19; and even David's dirge over Saul and Jonathan, 2Sa 1:17-18). The selection of the Psalms collected in one book was made not so much with reference to the beauty of the pieces, as to their adaptation for public worship. Still one overruling Spirit ordered the selection and arrangement of the contents of the book, as one pervading tone and subject appear throughout, Christ in His own inner life as the God-man, and in His past, present, and future relations to the Church and the world. Isaac Taylor well calls the Psalms, |The Liturgy of the spiritual life|; and Luther, |A Bible in miniature.|
The principle of the order in which the Psalms are given to us, though not always discoverable, is in some cases clear, and shows the arrangement to be unmistakably the work of the Spirit, not merely that of the collector. Thus Psalm 22 plainly portrays the dying agonies of Messiah; Psalm 23, His peaceful rest in Paradise after His death on the cross; and Psalm 24, His glorious ascension into heaven.