Sometimes we can momentarily forget that the Bible bar Luke’s writings was written by Jewish authors and assume that poetry in the Bible is the same as westernised poetry. This can distort the meaning and cause confusion and misunderstanding. More encouragingly, when we understand the Jewish background, the reading becomes clearer, more enjoyable and has practical application. Furthermore, Biblical poetic literature is not subjective but is written in such a way that actually helps to clarify its meaning. Biblical poetic structure includes contrasts, parallelisms, chiasms and alphabetic acrostics that have the additional benefit of being memorable.
Poetic, Wisdom Literature and Contrasts
Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs are sometimes referred to as poetic or wisdom literature though others limit this to Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Wisdom literature may be written as songs or poetry and can contain contrasts, parallelisms, chiasms and acrostics.
Some have argued that since the book of Job is poetic it is therefore not a literal account, though Ezekiel 14:14 affirms Job alongside Noah and Daniel as actual characters. This has value since when someone who has suffered horribly takes comfort from reading through the book of Job, they can relate to a literal person and their experiences rather than just a theoretical scenario.
The book of Psalms is of course a book of one hundred and fifty songs but these songs contain vital truths, prophecies about Messiah and many other subjects. Songs are more easily memorable and connect our hearts and minds to worship the Lord. They are intensely personal and speak often of the psalmist’s experiences. Reading the inscription prior to reading the psalms provides the context of the situation that the individual encountered.
Proverbs is full of contrasts. Every day we make choices for better or worse and Proverbs provides warnings, advice, counsel and expounds the value of godly wisdom. Though they are collections of Proverbs and wise sayings they are biblically based. Biblical wisdom is not the same as worldly wisdom and biblical justice is not the same as social justice since the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, knowledge and understanding (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10).
Ecclesiastes contrasts things in heaven with things under the sun. In other words it expounds the difference in the thinking between someone with an eternal perspective derived from Scripture and another person with a perspective where the God of the Bible is not considered. Ecclesiastes 3 helps us to understand God’s eternal nature and that He has put eternity into our hearts, that we are all answerable to him and that God will judge the righteous and the wicked.
Alongside Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes and Lamentations, Song of Solomon is contained within the Megilloth or five scrolls.[i] In contrast to unhelpful extremes of ascetic abstinence and lustful perversion, Song of Solomon exemplifies the purity of marital affection and romance.[ii] Often commentators spiritualise the meaning to be between God and Israel or between God and the Congregation. Hence some have stated that Jesus is the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valleys from Song of Songs 2:1. This is clearly not the case and it is actually the Shulamite woman saying that to Solomon! In short, this book poetically affirms the experience of marriage in a biblical context.
Parallelisms and Chiasms
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is a vital prophecy concerning Messiah and interestingly a chiastic and parallel structure is used to help confirm the meaning.
Parallelisms simply state the same truth in two separate ways to affirm the clear meaning. That also helps the student from reading their own meaning into the text. Isaiah 53:5 reads, “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement for our peace was upon Him and by His stripes we are healed.” “Wounded” and “bruised” contain the same idea, just as “transgressions” and “iniquities” are similar to confirm and convey the same truth. “Chastisement for our peace” again is similar compared with “by His stripes we are healed”. Why is that important? Some state that “by His stripes we are healed” means that because Messiah was crucified and rose, we can guarantee physical healing now. When we recognise that this parallels “chastisement for our peace” this is clearly peace with God and is spiritual reconciliation not the guarantee of immediate physical healing.
Chiasms are structured parallelisms that contain a pattern so that the first line is the same, say, as the eighth line, the second parallels the seventh line, the third the sixth and the fourth and fifth themselves are a more recognisable parallel. The beauty and helpfulness of chiastic structure means that when we identify that structure, we can have a great degree of certainty about what is being communicated.
Psalm 119 has the excellencies of Scripture in view and is written in twenty-two groups of eight verses since there are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet and in many Bibles, there is both the corresponding Hebrew character plus a transliteration follows, e.g Aleph, Beth, Gimel… Lamentations follows the same pattern and there are twenty-two verses in chapters 1,2, 4 and 5 but sixty-six verses in the third chapter since the alphabetic acrostic is used three times in that chapter. Why have alphabetic acrostics? Have you ever played the shopping game where you list items running through the alphabet and are amazed how many items you can recall? Alphabetic acrostics enable excellent memorisation for the Hebrew reader and before chapters and verses were used would have made it easier to locate a particular portion of scripture.
We need to understand biblical poetry from a Jewish perspective, not a Greek worldview. Contrasts guide us to please God through faith and make good choices in our life decisions. Parallelisms and chiasms provide clarity by confirming the intended meaning instead of confusing the content with private interpretation. Acrostics help us remember portions of Scripture to the glory of God.
[i] John MacArthur The MacArthur Study Bible p923
[ii] Ibid, p924