Biblical style in poetry

Biblical Poetry

The Bible itself contains a large proportion of poetry. The Psalms, the longest book in the Bible, are poems meant to be sung; many of the prophetic books of the Old Testament are written as poetry; and there are fragments of older hymns and songs scattered about the Bible elsewhere. The book of Job, seeking to know answers for suffering, and the Song of Songs, a great love poem, are both in verse form. A good modern translation of the Bible will set all this out clearly as poetry, and so just flicking through the Bible quickly will reveal just how much poetry it contains.
Most of this poetry was originally written in Hebrew. Hebrew poetry works in much the same way as any other poetry: the use of  figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, personification; the use of poetic diction; the compactness of utterance; the use of shorter or longer lines, and so on.
But there are some devices that are used much more centrally than in the poetry we are used to. One of these is parallelism. This is used instead of rhyme to be the main structuring device.
As British poets have absorbed the rhythms, images and devices of the Bible, and specifically Hebrew poetry, this has influenced a number of them, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes consciously. Shakespeare is constantly making use of biblical figures in his highly metaphorical style- even a simple biblical phrase ‘measure for measure’ becomes both a title and a central theme. Elizabethan, Metaphysical and Romantic poets all use imagery and devices which are biblical in origin. And [3T.S.Eliot3]’s allusive language often picks up a biblical style (as does The Rock, for instance) especially the device of parallelism.


The term parallelism was first used of poetry in the mid-eighteenth century by a former Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Bishop Lowth, who was famous for his work on the poetry of the Old Testament.

Lowth was a noted Hebrew scholar, and showed how the Hebrew poetry of the Old Testament of the Bible could not be measured like English poetry, that is, by metre. Instead, it was structured by a series of ‘parallel' or similarly expressed phrases, usually in pairs. A simple example would be:

O Come, let us sing unto the Lord:
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation (Psalms 95:1 KJV)

where the second line echoes the sense and the structure of the first, though also filling it out.

A slightly more complex example would be:

Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands (1 Samuel 18:7 )

where each line has a similar structure and meaning, but the implication is that although both men are heroes, David's heroism is a little greater than Saul's.

It doesn't mean literally that David has killed ten times more people than Saul. In fact, David appears only to have killed one person, but as that person was the enemy leader, his death was particularly significant and gave rise to the ultimate victory.

Instead of the AB/A1B1 pattern, there could be a reversal, where the items of the first line are reversed in the second.

Thus: 'Then nations shall be blessed by him,
And by him they shall boast’ (Jeremiah 4:1,2).

The technical name for this is chiasmus. Chiasmus also refers to the reversal of adjectives and nouns, as in John Milton’s line:

'Of wedded Maid and Virgin Mother born’ (On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity),

where we feel the adjectives belong to the wrong noun. Milton is creating a paradox, of course.

Such patterns are similar to antithesis, a commonly used device in English poetry and prose. The David/Saul comparison quoted above is antithetical, and shows clearly the structure of parallelism is a 'structure of thought’.

Parallel structures, according to Lowth, could become more and more complex.  Parallelism that exists at the level of the line includes alliterative patterns, assonance patterns (repeating vowel sounds) and rhyme patterns. But stanza (verse) patterns are repeating parallel structures, too.


It is not just in figures of speech that biblical poetry has influenced English poetry; it is also in its sub-genres. In biblical poetry a number of sub-genres exist: the lament and the consolation, hymns, blessings. Prophetic utterances are often called [3oracle3s, and can often come in the form of woes and denunciations, but sometimes in elevated passages of promises.

One such literary device modelled on biblical style is 'the complaint' where believers complain to God.  One example is that of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, Jeremiah 12:1, in the AV reads:

‘Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I plead with thee: yet let me talk with thee of thy judgments: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper….?'

Whilst the NIV has it as:

‘You are always righteous, O Lord,/ when I bring a case before you./ Yet I would speak with you about your justice:/ Why does the way of the wicked prosper?'

So unlike Jeremiah, who is apparently concerned in a general way with the age-old problem of why evil people seem to get on in life, while the good, decent hard-working don't.  However, Jeremiah 11:19 indicates that Jeremiah is also personally involved: his own fellow townspeople had been plotting to kill him, and he complains: ‘Because the Lord revealed their plot to me, I knew it….I had been like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.' (Jeremiah 11:19).

There are many other complaints in the Bible.  Psalm 22 is one of the most famous, briefly quoted by Jesus on the cross when he cried out:

‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?' (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34;Psalms 22:1 KJV)

The Christian poet, John Milton, who had just gone blind, also asks God in his famous sonnet On His Blindness, ‘How can I serve you when I am blind?' However, the Psalms also suggest it is futile to worry about the wicked. In Psalms 37:2, the Psalmist can say

‘for like the grass they will soon wither;/ like green plants they will soon die away' (NIV)


When the Old Testament prophet, Job, questioned God about his sufferings, God answers by re-affirming his power in a series of rhetorical questions:

‘Who shut up the sea behind doors ... when I fixed limits for it … when I said ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where the proud waves halt'?' (Job 38:8-11)

The Bible seems to say that humans cannot know all the answers; there is a hiddenness about God.  However that does not need to stop people trusting that he knows what he is doing.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.