Calvin Theological Journal 9.1 (1974) : 15-30.
Copyright © 1974 by Calvin Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
THE STYLISTICS OF HEBREW POETRY
A (Re)New(ed) Focus of Study
by JOHN H. STEK
THE STUDY of Hebrew (OT) poetry as an art form—its
prosody, rhetoric (including rhetorical conventions), and
architectonic forms—has had a checkered history. No doubt this
has been due, on the one hand, to overriding devotional, homi-
letical, theological and religious (history of religions, compara-
tive religions) interests in this literature; and, on the other
hand, to the fact that professional students of the OT texts,
while receiving (more or less adequate) training in languages,
history, theology, and religion, have not been trained in the
aesthetic aspect of OT literature—or any literature, for that
matter. Even Gunkel's work on the Psalms (Formgeschichte:
investigation into the inter-relationship of content, form and
function), which has had such revolutionary effect on biblical
studies (New Testament as well as Old), failed to spark that
general interest in the aesthetic dimension that it ought to have.
Investigations remained sporadic, the hobby of a few; and areas
of investigation have remained fragmentary. A recent survey of
work done in this area in the modern period ends on the dis-
consolate note: "General agreement on the structure of Hebrew
poetry is little more advanced than it was two or three cen-
This is to be greatly regretted since the OT documents do
not present us with mere words strung together in dull syntac-
tical relationships, but with the greatest literature the ancient
(only Semitic?) world produced. In its sophistication, subtlety,
beauty and power it rivals the best literature of any people at
any time. The Hebrews were not artists with the brush, the
chisel, or the architects' tools, but their masters knew how to
narrate a tale, compose a poem or fashion a proverb. They did
it with an amazing mastery of language—and economy of words
1 Donald Broadribb, "Historical Review of Studies of Hebrew Poetry,"
Abr-Nahraim, 13 (1972-73) 66-87.
16 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
—together with an exquisite union of form and content that
has rarely been matched and perhaps never surpassed. And,
as with all great works of art, the reader or student of this
literature (especially its poetry) who fails to understand its
forms and their function will stumble at the very threshold of
understanding the content—a sad fact to which many a ser-
mon and many a learned commentary and monograph alike
Happily there are now signs of a reawakened interest, at
least in some quarters. During the last twenty-five years a
growing list of studies has appeared in the journals dealing
with various aspects of this many-faceted subject. As evidence
I point to the article of Broadribb referred to in note 1 (above),
to the recent reprint of George Buchanan Gray's The Forms of
Hebrew Poetry, significantly updated by a "Prolegomenon"
from the pen of D. N. Freedman2—a student of Albright who
has long interested himself in these matters—to the appearance
of Nic. H. Ridderbos' Die Psalmen: Stilistische Verfahren and
Aufbau, mit besonderer Berucksichtigung von Ps 1-41,3 and to
the useful bibliographies listed in all three.
Broadribb's lament that these studies remain badly frag-
mented clearly antedates his acquaintance with Ridderbos'
work (which he does not list in his bibliography). This last is
one of the most detailed and exhaustive analyses of stylistic
phenomena in the Psalms ever to be published—including an
introductory classification of the phenomena, followed by an
analysis of the stylistics of each of the first 41 psalms. Dr. Rid-
derbos does not make use of syllable counting in his analysis
of poetic lines, a tool of investigation shown to be of great use-
fulness by a number of scholars
is little else that he has missed. Unhappily his work on the
aesthetics of the psalter has itself about as much aesthetic
quality as a Hebrew grammar—to be studied and consulted,
not to be enjoyed. But more to be regretted is the fact that it
was translated into German before publication, rather than
zur Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche
THE STYLISTICS OF HEBREW POETRY 17
into English, in defiance (?) of the fact that English is rapidly
replacing German as the international language for publication
in biblical scholarship (which, as I have learned since coming
cost of publishing theological works on the continent for the
continental market is becoming astronomical).
To attempt a systematic description of all the aspects of He-
brew poetic stylistics which have come to light would go far
beyond the purpose of this brief article—which is only to
inform the reader of one of the newer areas in O.T studies,
and to stimulate interest in a much-neglected, but fascinating
important field of investigation. It will suffice to illustrate,
somewhat at random, a few of the more interesting phenomena,
some long noted, others but recently recognized.
Anyone who has read in the Hebrew poetry of the OT will
have observed that, although it does not manifest a pattern of
rhyming, the poets of ancient
When Jeremiah (in the name of Yahweh) appealed to his way-
ward brothers Shubu banim shobabim 'erpah meshuboteykem
(Return 0 sons of apostasy, I will heal your apostasies—3:22a),
he was playing (in all seriousness) with sounds precisely as the
Israelites had learned to expect from their poets. And so was
the author of Ps. 22 when he penned the words of vss. 4-5:
"In you (Beka) our fathers trusted; (batehu)
They trusted, (batehu) and you delivered them (√ plt).
To you they cried, and were saved; (√ mlt)
In you (beka) they trusted (batehu), and were not
And when one hears this same poet complain:
Yabesh kaheresh hoki (emended from kohi)
(My mouth has dried up like a potsherd)
he hears the harsh, brittle echoes of sherd fragments rattling and
cracking under dusty feet. Poets and public alike were intensely
sensitive to sound.
Also repetition was for the biblical poets (and the whole lit-
erary tradition in which they stood) a particularly common
device. Sometimes it served passion, as in the Eli, eli (My God,
my God) of Ps. 22:1, the four-fold ‘ad—'anah (How long? of
Ps. 13:lf., or the lament of Isaiah (24:16):
18 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Razi li, razi li, ‘oy li.
Bogedim bagadu, ubeged bogedim bagadu.
(I pine away, I pine away, woe is me!
Treacherous, they deal treacherously; treacherous of the
treacherous, they deal treacherously.)
Sometimes urgency, as in Jud. 5:12:
"Awake, awake, Deborah!
Awake, awake, utter a song!" (Cpr. Is. 51:9; 52:1); or in
"Comfort, comfort my people . . .."
Sometimes emphasis and concentration, as in S of S 1:15:
"Behold, how beautiful you are, my love;
behold, how beautiful . . .."
or in the three-fold 'eyn in I Sam. 2:2:
"There is none holy like Yahweh,
there is none besides you;
there is no rock like our God."
(Cf. also the repetition in Ps. 22:4-5—cited above; and in Is.
24:16—also cited above.)
Related to this last, but serving a larger and more complex
function within the body of a composition, is the extensive use
of key—or motif-words—a device that concentrates attention
on primary themes and weaves the whole into an artistic as well
as thematic unity. A clear and uncomplicated example can be
found in Ps. 11. Within this short composition of 9 poetic lines,
four words sound on the ear again and again: "Yahweh" 5 t.—
vss. 1:42, 5, 7), "'righteous" (3 t.—vss. 3, 5, 7; also "righteous-
ness, vs. 7), "wicked" (3 t.—vss. 2, 5, 6), and "upright" (2 t.—
vss. 2, 7). These very words highlight the central theme of the
Martin Buber has done perhaps more than any other scholar
to focus attention on this important phenomenon in Hebrew
poetry. In an article devoted to Psalms 34 and 145, L. J. Lieb-
reich lifts a significant quotation from one of Buber's English
works (Good and Evil; New York, 1953):
"The recurrence of the key-words is a basic law of com-
position in the Psalms. This law has a poetic significance—
rhythmical correspondence of sound values—as well as a
hermeneutical one: the Psalm provides its own interpre-
THE STYLISTICS OF HEBREW POETRY 19
tation, by repetition of what is essential to its understand-
ing," p. 52.4
Careful attention to the use of words by the Hebrew poets bears
out Buber's contention. It also has critical value, not infrequently
establishing literary unity where scholars for various reasons have
posited disunity. A striking example of this has been offered by
James Ward in his study of Ps. 89.5
A special use of repetition is that which has come to be termed
"inclusion" (or the Latin inclusio), otherwise known as the
"envelope figure."6 By this is meant the repetition at or near
the end of a poetic composition of key words (or phrases, or
clauses, or concepts) employed at the beginning. Liebreich7 ar-
gues that this device is utilized in "half of the Book of Psalms."
Not all his examples are convincing, but even so, its occurrence
is frequent. A good example is afforded by Ps. 12 where the
bene 'adam of vs. 1 is repeated at the very end of vs. 8. In Ps.
8 the repetition is more extensive. Here the whole poetic line
with which the psalm begins is repeated to form the conclusion.
Often the poets employed inclusion to wrap an "envelope"
around a subsection within a larger composition, as in Ps. 32:
1-5, where pesha' (rebellious act), hata'ah (sin), and ‘awon
(iniquity), which are used in the first two poetic lines, are re-
peated in vs. 5; or Ps. 18:20-24, where "according to my righ-
teousness, according to the cleanness of my hands" appears as
the central phrase of the beginning and closing lines of a poetic
"paragraph." See also Ps. 30:9-11, which begins and ends with
a two-fold "Yahweh," in the vocative.
Repetition sometimes is but an echo of liturgical usage, as in
Pss. 135, 136, 150, and also in 96:7-8; 118:2-4; 114:12; etc.
But there are times when it is clearly subjected to a numerical
principle that contributes its own significant dimension of mean-
ing. Perhaps this is nowhere clearer than in Ps. 29, which beyond
5 James M. Ward, "The Literary Form and Liturgical Background of
Ps. LXXXIX," Vetus Testamentum XI (1961) 321-339.
6 A name coined by R. G. Moulton in his The Literary Study of the
7 In the article cited in note 4.
20 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
much doubt includes a powerful polemic against the Tyrian Baal.
The whole poem is enclosed in the "envelope figure," with the
name Yahweh repeated precisely four times in both introduction
and conclusion. But even more significantly, within the body of
the psalm "the voice of Yahweh" (allusion to thunder) is
sounded seven times, and "Yahweh" is named ten times. These
numbers are not coincidental. In Ps. 30, a psalm of praise, "Yah-
weh" is named seven times, twice he is called "Yahweh my
God" (vss. 2a, 12b-inclusion), and once "Adonay"--for a total
of ten references. In Ps. 19, a praise offering, "Yahweh" occurs
also precisely seven times. In Ps. 15, a seven-fold lo’ (negative
particle) is employed in description of the one who is acceptable
at Yahweh's sanctuary.8
A still different form of repetition widely employed by the
Hebrew poets is the piling up of synonyms (or near synonyms).
This device has been widely recognized even by those who read
the OT only somewhat superficially, especially in Pss. 1; 19: 7-
9; and 119. Out of the many available, two additional examples
must suffice. Ps. 5 begins with the repetitive cry:
"Give ear to my words . . ;
give heed to my groaning.
Hearken to the sound of my cry . . . ."
The author of Ps. 22 elaborates on the theme of deliverance by
means of no less than four distinct verbal roots: plt, mlt, ntsl,
Since the discovery of a large body of Phoenician docu-
ments,10 comparative study of this treasure of Canaanite (to use
the term loosely) poetry with that of the OT has alerted stu-
8 The most common form of repetition is the triplet, but this appears
often to be controlled by the demands of Hebrew poetic rhythm. It oc-
curs most often in couplet lines in which the repeated element appears
in three of the four hemistichs, but yields to a variation in the fourth
(or one of the four). For examples of this pattern see Ps. 29:1f. (cf.
96:7-9), and Ps. 22:3-5; vs. 24; 5:4f.
9 Much of this discussion of repetition has been based on the work of
Ridderbos cited above, and an article by James Muilenburg, "A Study
in Hebrew Rhetoric: Repetition and Style," Vetus Testamentum: Suppl.
I (1953) 97-111.
10 Generally known as the Ras Shamra Tablets; brought to light since
THE STYLISTICS OF HEBREW POETRY 21
dents of the OT to certain other interesting devices widely em-
ployed within this shared poetic tradition. The scope of this
article will permit mention of only three of the most common.
It has long been recognized that Hebrew poetry is far more
elliptical than Hebrew prose, and more elliptical than accept-
able English style will tolerate. It is now known that ellipsis was
employed even more frequently than was supposed, but that
the obscurities this creates are often eased by the associated
device of "double-duty." A few examples will clarify. In Ps. 9:18
the Hebrew seems literally to say:
"For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
and the hope of the lowly shall perish forever."
This involves a manifest contradiction--until it is recognized
that the second hemistich is elliptical, with the negative particle
lo' in the first hemistich doing "double-duty" for both half-lines
(rightly recognized by RSV). Ps. 38 appears to begin:
"0 Yahweh, do not rebuke me in your anger,
but (the conj. is ambiguous) in your wrath chastise me."
But once again the second half-line is elliptical and the negative
particle 'al serves "double-duty" ("and do not chastise me in
your wrath," as RSV has recognized). RSV renders 25:9:
"He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way."
But it is better to recognize with Dahood that the first hemistich
is elliptical and that the personal pronoun of the second hemi-
stich serves "double-duty," and should be understood as quali-
fying bammishpat; thus:
"He leads the humble in his just manner;
and he teaches the humble his way." (Cpr. vs. 5.)
Similarly, RSV's traditional rendering of 17:8:
"Keep me as the apple of the eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings...."
is improved by the recognition in NAB11 that the possessive
pronoun of the second hemistich is to be read with the elliptical
"Keep me as the apple of your eye."
11 The New American Bible: Sponsored by The Bishops' Committee of
the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine;
22 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Examples could be multiplied. In his "The Grammar of the
Psalter" (appendix to the Third Volume of his commentary),12
Dahood lists no fewer than 275 passages in the Psalter alone
where he finds ellipsis and "double-duty." Perhaps upwards of
half of his proposals may be challenged by various scholars, but
most will acknowledge that the recognition of this poetic device
has put the study of ellipsis in Hebrew poetry on a new basis.
A second device newly recognized to be employed by the
poets of the OT is the use of conventional pairs of synonyms
within the framework of poetic "parallelism." That is to say,
certain synonyms had come to be conventionally paired in the
poetic tradition in which the OT poets stood, so that when they
used one of these, convention readily supplied the other for use
in the parallel line or line-segment. For example, if a poet had
occasion to refer to his (blood-) brother(s) in one line, con-
vention supplied him the synonymous expression "son (s) of my
mother" for the parallel component (cf. Ps. 50:20; 69:8; cpr.
S of S 1:6). Similar pairs are "foe"//"the one hating" (Ps.
21:8; 106:10; 18:40; 68:2); "to judge," shpt//"to judge," din
(Ps. 9:8, cpr. 7:8-9; 140:12; 9:5; 76:8-9), "good"//"pleasant"
(Ps. 135:3; 147:1), "days"//"years" (Ps. 61:6; 77:5; 78:33),
"sea"//"stream" (24:2; 66:6; 89:25; cpr. 72:8). Again the ex-
amples could be multiplied. Of special interest is the fact that
many of the same pairs (all of the above) occur in the Ras
Shamra tablets as well as in the OT—demonstrating that the
poets of ancient
tablets antedate the OT document by some centuries) and rather
widely dispersed (Ras Shamra was located near later
poetic tradition. Some scholars place the number of such pairs
in common to both literatures at more than a hundred. Dahood
cites 157 pairs,13 but by no means all of these are convincing.
A third device of the Hebrew poets discovered first in the
Ras Shamra tablets is the breakup of stereotype phrases and the
distribution of their components between two parallel lines or
12 Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms (The Anchor Bible), Garden City,
N.Y., Doubleday & Company, Inc., Vol. I, 1966; Vol, II:, 1968; Vol.
13 Psalms III, pp. 445-456.
THE STYLISTICS OF HEBREW POETRY 23
line segments. A few illustrations will make the matter clear.
There can be little doubt that "friendship and faithfulness"
(hsd w'mt) is a very common stereotyped phrase in the OT
(cf. Ps. 25:10; 40:11; 61:7; 85:10; 86:15; 89:14), yet in a
number of places the phrase is divided and its components dis-
tributed between two parallel hemistichs or lines, as in Ps. 36:5:
"Your friendship, 0 Yahweh, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds."
(cf. also Ps. 26:3; 57:10; 40:10; 108:5; 117.2.) "Day and
night," in the sense of “continuously,” is another common
phrase (Ps. 1:2; 32:4; 42:3; 55:10). It too appears frequently
in distribution, as in Ps. 22:2:
"0 my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but get no relief."
This is the poet's way of saying: Day and night I cry to you to
no avail. (cf. 42:8; 91:5f.; 121:6.) So when the author of Ps.
11 writes: Yhwh beheykal qsodsho/Yhwh bashshamayim kise'o
(vs. Aab), parallelism strongly suggests that godsho (his holy) is
to be understood as modifying kise'o (his throne), rather than
heykal (temple--so Dahood, contra modern English versions.
(Cpr. Ps. 47:8.) Interpreters of Hebrew poetry must now keep a
keen eye for similar instances.
A special application of this device is the breakup and dis-
tribution of the components of compound divine names. The
compound name 'el ‘elyon is attested in Gen. 14:18-20 and Ps.
78:35, but in Ps. 73:11; 77:9-10; 78:17-18; 107:11 the two
components are distributed. Yhwh `elyon occurs in Ps 7:17b
and 47:2, but its components are distributed in Ps. 18:13
21:7; 91:9; 92:1. "Yahweh my (our) God" was a common way
of referring to the deity in ancient
18:28; 30:2, 12; etc.), and this phrase too is frequently dis-
tributed, as in 18:6:
"In my distress I called upon Yahweh
to my God I cried for help."
(cf. also vss. 21, 31; Ps. 25:lf.; 38:21; 48:8; etc.) It is gen-
erally recognized that Dahood has pushed the possibilities of this
device much too far in his search for new compound names for
God in the Psalms, but the phenomenon is there and must be
reckoned with in the study of all OT poetry.
24 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Chiasmus as a rhetorical device has long been recognized as a
particular favorite of Hebrew poets. This involves a reversal of
the order of components in parallel literary units. The most com-
mon is that found within a single poetic line:
"The heavens tell the glory of God;
and proclaims his handiwork, the firmament" (Ps. 19:1);
or in a couplet:
"Indeed, you are the one who drew me from the belly;
you made me secure on my mother's breasts.
I was cast on you from the womb;
from the belly of my mother you have been my God."
Notice how lines A and D both contain emphatic "you" re-
ferring to Yahweh, and the expression "from the belly," while
lines B and C are built around the "on" phrases. Such construc-
tions are frequent within couplets (the above example repre-
sents two lines of Hebrew poetry).
Such instances are rather obvious to even the casual reader
of the Hebrew text. But scholars are becoming increasingly con-
vinced that chiasmus was also employed in the composition of
larger units. It seems clear enough (and has often been noted)
that the hostile figures in the prayer of Ps. 22:20f. (sword, dog,
lion, wild oxen) are a precise repetition in chiastic order of those
mentioned in the lament of vss. 12-18. But often overlooked is
the chiasmus in Ps. 18:33-36 (which details the theme of vs. 32),
where the motif development follows the order: feet/hands/
hands/feet. Similarly in vss. 20-24 there is to be observed an a-
b-c-b-a ordering in the theme development. See also Ps. 9:11-14
where the pattern is: praise—motive/motive—praise. Sometimes
whole compositions have been constructed on the chiasmus pat-
tern. Ps. 1, for example, progresses thematically (by verses) in
the order of a-b-c-c'-a'-b'. Ps. 2, which is obviously composed
of four "paragraphs," reflects the pattern: a-b-b'-a'. The inter-
preter of Hebrew poetry clearly must be alert to similar patterns
14 Ridderbos discusses a number of other instances in the first book
of the Psalter, op cit., pp. 61-62.
THE STYLISTICS OF HEBREW POETRY 25
An unusual application of chiasmus was discovered by Albert
Condamin already early in this century. It involves the chiastic
ordering of key-words in a long lament poem (Lam. 1) :
rbt in vss. 1 and 22
'yn mnhm in vss. 2 and 21
tsr in vss. 3 and 20
khn in vss. 4 and 19
hlk shby in vss. 5 and 18
tsywn in vss. 6 and 17
prsh in vss. 10 and 13
r'h nbt in vss. 11 and 1215
It is to be observed that this last example bespeaks also a
highly developed sense of symmetry. Symmetry is further evi-
denced by the number and rich variety of examples that have
come to light. Although Hebrew poetry was not controlled by a
rigid metrical construction of lines—all attempts to scan Hebrew
poetry on this principle have failed—Hebrew poets would some-
times fashion a couplet in which each of the four hemistichs
was composed of precisely the same number of syllables, as in
Ps. 22:4f. (9 + 9/9 + 9), or even a "paragraph" of three lines
in which each line has precisely 17 syllables (Ps. 22:6-8).
In a series of articles, Hans-Kosmala16 has called attention to
yet another kind of symmetry evident in Hebrew poetry.17
Analyzing poetic lines by counting the number of significant
sense units within each line, he discovered certain interesting
symmetrical series. He found in Is. 5:1f., for example, the pat-
tern: 5 | 6 | 4 | 6 | 5; in 7:7-9 the pattern: 4 | 7 | 7 | 7 | 4; and in
30:29-31 the pattern: 6 | 4 | 5 | 7 | 5 | 4 | 6. Although he was
sometimes compelled to resort to emendations (not in the ex-
amples given here) in order to "discover" his patterns, he might
in one instance have extended his pattern, if he had not done so.
15 Journal of Theological Studies 7 (1906) 137-140. Cited by both
Muilenburg and Broadribb, see notes 8 and 1 respectively. For a some-
what similar pattern in Ps. 139 see Jan Holman, "The Structure of
Psalm CXXXIX, Vetus Testamentum XXI (1971) 298-310.
16 "Form and Structure in Ancient Hebrew Poetry (A New Ap-
proach)," Vetus Testamentum XIV (1964) 432-445; XVI (1966) 152-
17 His examples are all taken from Isaiah.
26 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Accepting the Masoretic text as it has been preserved for us in
the tradition, and scanning the poetic lines
mala's principles, the pattern for the whole "vineyard song" in Is.
5:1-7 proves to be: 5 | 6 | 4 | 6 | 5—5 | 4 | 7—6 | 7 | 8 | 7 | 6—
5 | 4 | 7.
Symmetry is to be observed also in the structural pattern (ar-
chitectonic form) of many Hebrew poems. Ps. 110 is made up of
two precisely balanced divisions: Each contains exactly 74 syl-
lables (or 73, depending on the analysis of certain words).18
Although there is general agreement that Hebrew poetry does
not commonly employ a strict strophic (stanza) structure after
the manner of classical poetry in our western tradition, some
poems in the OT do reflect a symmetrical "strophic" structure.
Good examples are the alphabetic acrostics, especially those that
are regularly built up of two-line (Ps. 10-11; 37), three-line
(Lam. 3), or eight-line (Ps. 119) units. Although not acrostics,
Lam. 1 and 2 are each constructed of 22 (the number of letters
of the alphabet) three-line units, and ch. 4 of 22 two-line units.19
All of these, however (together with those cited in note 18),
appear to be controlled by an extraneous pattern (the number
of letters in the alphabet). There are those not so controlled and
yet they manifest a symmetrical structure. Ps. 114 is constructed
of four couplets; Ps. 57 has two subdivisions of 7 lines, each fol-
lowed by a recurring refrain (vss. 5 and 11).
Of even greater interest is the pattern of such a poem as Ps.
48. When properly scanned (RSV has badly jumbled the lines
at both beginning and end), the thematic development is seen
to be built on the symmetrical line pattern: 2 | 3 | 4 | 3 | 4 | 3 | 2.
Ps. 82 has an equally interesting architectonic structure. With
one introductory and one concluding line, the remaining seven
lines divide into two subdivisions of three lines each, with a
central compact line in which the kernel of the indictment
against the gods is set forth with great concentration:
"Not do they know,
and not do they understand!"
18 Noted first by D. N. Freedman, cited by Dahood: Psalms III, p.
19 Lam. 5 (not acrostic) is similarly patterned, with precisely 22 lines,
as is also Ps. 33 (not acrostic).
THE STYLISTICS OF HEBREW POETRY 27
But even further: Each of the three-line units has an intro-
ductory line (vs. 2ab; 5cd), followed by a two-line elaboration
(vss. 3f. and 6f., resp.). To cite but one more example, Ps. 137,
an emotional recollection of the Babylonian captivity, manifests
a symmetry unexpected in a prayer-song of such passion. Count-
ing line segments (instead of full lines) the theme pattern is
5 | 4 | 8 | 4 | 5 — the first line of both introduction and conclu-
sion is a tristich.20
The abrupt and surprising reference to
in the fourth division is more understandable in view of the
deliberate structure of the psalm as a whole.
Psalm 44 also has a marked (and remarkable) pattern to its
structure. Composed of 28 poetic lines, it develops its theme in
a steady progression of a decreasing number of lines as it ad-
vances toward its climax—an urgent prayer for deliverance. At-
tention to content discloses the pattern: 10 | 8 | 6 | 4. Ridderbos
has likened it to a Mesopotamian ziggurat (step-pyramid with
sanctuary on the summit). He observes that the poet seems to
be mounting up to God on praise (vss. 1-8), lament (vss. 9-16),
and confession of worthiness (vss. 17-22), before urging his pe-
tition in the presence of God.21
The symmetry is carried even further, however, since each
"step" in the "ziggurat" configuration is constructed of two
equal layers (5 + 5 / 4 + 4 / 3 + 3), while the prayer itself
manifests a chiastic pattern: prayer -- lament — lament —
Overlooked in the various studies on Hebrew poetic forms is
the fact that a similar pyramidal structure is to be found in the
second half of Ps. 19. Scanning vss. 7-12 according to the sys-
tem of Kosmala (referred to above) , and observing the limits of
the sense units, the pattern emerges: 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 5 | 4 | 4 | 3
3 | 2 | 2. What is equally striking for this psalm, the unity of
which has so often been impugned, is that this "pyramid" is
built up of precisely the same number 1:48) of "building stones"
as the first half of the psalm. Moreover, the first half has its own
20 Notice the triple "if"-clause in the center section—concentration
and emphasis by reiteration.
21 Nic. H. Ridderbos, De Psalmen (Korte Verklaring), Kampen, J. H.
Kok, Deel I: Pss. 1-41, 1962, p. 42.
28 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
peculiar "hourglass" form. By lines it counts 8 | 8 | 6 | 6 | 4 | 8 | 8.
(Perhaps the 6 |6 lines should be counted as 7 | 7?)
As a final example of poetic devices employed by the OT
poets I call attention to a recent suggestion proposed by D. N.
Noting the fact that, when speaking of
impending exile, Hosea often links
constructions (cf. 7:11; 9:3; 11:5, 11; 12:2), he observes that
the line segment in 8:9 which speaks of
a line segment that speaks of
it also lacks a parallel. His bold suggestion is that we have here
a "form of inclusion (or envelope construction) " in which
parallel segments have been deliberately separated by interven-
ing elaborating material.
This is a surprising phenomenon, if its presence can be dem-
onstrated. But I am convinced that Freedman's suggestion must
be taken seriously. I had independently (and somewhat hesi-
tantly) come to the same conclusion in regard to the difficulties
encountered by interpreters in Amos 5:10-13. These difficulties
evaporate if it be recognized that vs. 13 constitutes the sense
continuation of vs. 10, with vss. 11f. intervening as elaborating
Recognition of this phenomenon may also provide the solution
to the problems created by the unbalanced line segments in Ps.
29:3b, 7ab and 9c.23 It is even possible that Ps. 19:5c and 7c
constitute an "envelope" around the elaborating material in vss.
6-7ab." If so, the sense of this recovered "line" would be:
22 In his "Prolegomenon" to the reprint of Gray's The Forms of He-
brew Poetry, pp. XXXVI - XXXVII; see note 2, above.
23 Freedman has promised an article on Ps. 29 in the light of his
suggestion, but to my knowledge it has not yet appeared. For an attrac-
tive alternative suggestion for the troublesome lines in Ps. 29 see already
Kemper Fullerton„ "The Strophe in Hebrew Poetry and Psalm 29,"
Journal of Biblical Literature, 48 (1929) 274-290. Ernst Vogt's attempt
to solve the problem of these unbalanced line segments is much too- radi-
cal to be convincing. Among other emendations he transposes 3b and
to a position between 9b and c.
position: 3b to follow immediately after 4b. The Jerusalem Bible trans-
poses 3b to a position between 9b and c.
29 THE STYLISTICS OF HEBREW POETRY
"In them he has set a tent for the sun,
. . . .
. . . .
and nothing is hid from its heat."
Kissane has suggested that Ps. 50:21c has possibly become
misplaced from an original position immediately following vs.
16a.24 It would be better to account for 16a25 and 21c as yet
another example of Freedman's suggested inclusion construction.
The "line" then reads:
"But to the wicked God says,
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
‘I will reprove you and lay the charge before you.’"
The intervening lines then detail the elements of Yahweh's
In my judgment Freedman's suggestion holds promise for un-
raveling difficulties in other passages as well.
A new day appears to be dawning for what Muilenburg has
somewhere called "rhetorical criticism" (perhaps better named
more broadly "stylistics criticism"). If so, it must be welcomed.
they were more) employed more than mere words linked in
grammatical relationships in order to speak the word of Yahweh
literary and rhetorical conventions lay ready to hand in their
literary workshops, and their own considerable powers of literary
creativity were put under tribute in the composition of their
inspired writings. Adequate and responsible interpretation of
those writings demands full appreciation for and understanding
of their literary quality. Biblical scholarship may no longer
24 Edward J. Kissane, The Book of Psalms,
Ltd.; vol I, (Ps. 1-72) 1953, p. 223.
25 Often questioned as a possible gloss.
30 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
neglect this task. And ministers who are largely dependent on
commentaries for exegetical assistance may expect and must de-
mand that the newer commentaries they use do full justice to
After the type had already been set for this article, the study of Ps. 29
referred to in note 23, above, came into my hand: D.N. Freedman and
C.F. Hyland, "Psalm 29: A Structural Analysis," Harvard Theological
Review, 66 (1973), 237-256. For a good example of the kinds of inves-
tigation into Hebrew poetic stylistics currently being pursued by Ameri-
can scholars, this article should now be consulted.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Calvin Theological Seminary
report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: