|Bible Research > Hebrew Text > T. K. Cheyne on Hebrew Poetry|
The following article by T.K. Cheyne is reproduced from “The Queen's Printers Aids to the Student of the Holy Bible,” as reprinted in The Variorum Teacher's Edition of the Holy Bible (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1882), pp. 47-50.
BY THE REV. T. K. CHEYNE, M.A.,
Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and Lecturer on Hebrew and the Old Testament.
It is not less instructive than interesting to regard the Old Testament writings from a literary as well as a religious point of view. The Old Testament is one of the standard literatures of the world; it expresses religious emotion with a greater depth and purity than any other other literature. How are we to account for its distinguishing superiority in this respect?— The ultimate reason is no doubt the will of God, but so far as we can trace the method of the Divine operations, It is not His will to disregard the habits and modes of thought of His human instruments. Each nation has a special function to fulfill in accordance with its gifts and capacities, and the function of the Jews was determined in advance by their language and their social circumstances. The tongue which they spoke is but ill-adapted for historical or argumentative prose, owing to its vagueness in expressing the relations of time and the sequences of reasoning; but it can reproduce with a vividness, which is the despair of translators, the most delicate shades of feeling and emotion. The circumstances of the Jews were equally favorable to a literature of religious sentiment. They were not a nation of philosophers, nor had they a soul-stirring political history to kindle the genius of their narrators. They were a hot-blooded Eastern people, feeling intensely about everything, and wholly absorbed in each passing emotion. Hence we may account for the apparent want of connexion of so many passages in the Psalms and in the Prophecies. The connexion is influenced by the feelings of the writer, and how easily, not to say accidentally, does one emotion give place to another! Again, the Israelites were an agricultural people. Their occupation brought them into constant contact with nature, and we are therefore not surprised find that images from nature contribute largely to their literary material. The Old Testament is well worthy of study from this point of view, as well as others. Of course, being such an emotional people, the Israelites do love nature for its own sake, nor can they even describe a beautiful scene in its totality:— they instinctively limit themselves to that particular feature which in some way illustrates the mood or temper of the moment. In a word, they use nature as a magazine of symbols. The reader should bear this in mind, as he will otherwise be surprised at the confusion of imagery in Hebrew poetry. The rapid transition from one figure to another is not capricious nor accidental, but dictated by an overpowering desire for a more complete rendering of feeling and emotion. See especially 1 Kings xiv.15; Isa. viii.8; xi.10; xxviii.1-6.
Among such a people lyric poetry was sure to flourish; and even when God raised up those revealers of His will and nature— the prophets, it was inevitable that their popular discourses should partake of a lyric character. Every here and there we meet in the prophecies with a verse or two which might well have belonged to a Psalm, and even with connected lyrical passages (see e.g, the magnificent odes in Isa. xiv.4-21; and Hab. iii.). A similar remark applies to the reflective poem on the calamities of the righteous, which bears the name of Job. And even the narrative-writers, when they rise into a higher tone, naturally and without an effort adopt the rhythmical forms of lyric poetry, e.g. Gen. i.27; ix.25-27; xxiv.60; xxvii.27-29, 39, 40. One may fairly say that a rigorous distinction between poetry and prose was unknown to the Israelitish writers, as it still is to nations on a low level of worldly culture.— Such being the conditions under which the Jewish literature arose, we shall not be surprised to find the artistic element somewhat in the background. The Old Testament writings have few of what we are accustomed to call the forms of poetry, — no metre, only a slight tendency to rhyme, and a stronger but unequal tendency to alliteration. This defect is compensated for by rhythm. Hebrew poetry, as we have seen, is the poetry of emotion, and emotion, like the sea, expresses itself, not in the onward rush of a single gigantic breaker, but in the rise and fall of a succession of waves; or, to speak without figure, each verse of a Hebrew lyric consists of a couplet, a double couplet, or a triplet (really a shortened form of the double couplet). For an example (a) of the simplest kind, take this half-verse of the psalm of Hezekiah :—
Mine eyes fail with looking upward:
Here the first line expresses the effort of continual expectation; the second, its failure, and the appeal for help to a higher power. The two lines are parallel, but the parallelism of the thoughts is incomplete.
For specimens of complete parallelism take the following:—
"When Israel went out of Egypt,
Judah became his sanctuary,
The sea saw, and fled:
The mountains skipped like rams,
What ailed thee, O sea, that thou fleddest?
Ye mountains, that ye skipped like rams?
Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the LORD,
Who turned the hard rock into a standing water.
Here we have what is called synonymous parallelism (b), that is, the two lines express exactly the same idea. (This is the most common type of parallelism. See also Ps. vi. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7. 9, 10; viii.3-8; Prov. iii.1, 8-25; Isa. liii.1-5; lx.1-3.)
"The bows of the mighty men are broken.
The full have have hired themselves out for bread.
So that the barren hath borne seven.
[1 Sam. ii. 4, 5]
"Faithful are the wounds of a friend,
The full soul loatheth an honeycomb,
[Prov. xxvii. 6, 7]
Here we have what is called antithetic parallelism (c), that is, the two lines correspond by an antithesis or opposition of sentiments. (This type of parallelism abounds in the Book of Proverbs, especially in chaps. x.-xv. In the Psalms it is much less common; see however Ps. xxxiv. 11; xxxvii. 9, 17, 21, 22. Isa. i. 3; liv. 7, 8, are also fine examples.)
Sometimes, however (d), there is a bifurcation of a verse, without either complete or incomplete parallelism; for instance,
"God looked down from heaven upon the children of men,
To see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God" [Ps. xiv. 2.]
"Moreover by them is thy servant warned;
In keeping of them there is great reward." [Ps. xix. 12.]
"The LORD at thy right hand
Shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath." [Ps. cx. 5.]
"Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold
Wondrous things out of thy law." [Ps. cxix. 18.]
"Let the wicked fall into their own nets,
Whilst that I withal escape." [Ps. cxii. 10.]
"And the shameful thing hath devoured the gains of our fathers
Their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters." [Jer. iii. 24.]
This merely rhythmic structure of the verse is frequently found in the prophecies, particularly in the Books of Hosea and Jeremiah. Hosea is too much absorbed by passionate feeling, Jeremiah too much depressed by melancholy, to give full play to aesthetic sensibility. A careful attention to these four types of verse will unveil an unsuspected beauty in Hebrew poetry. If the reader will only refer to some edition of the Bible in which the parallel lines are printed separately, he will soon see how much the Authorised Version gains thereby in distinctness. He must not, as has been already remarked, confine his search for parallelism to those which are commonly called the poetical books, nor even (it may now be added) to the Old Testament. Sporadic instances of this form of elevated rhetoric occur in the New Testament, especially in the Sermon on the Mount and the Book of the Revelation, such as the following:—
Ask, and it shall be given unto you;
Seek, and ye shall find;
Knock, and it shall be opened unto you.
For every one who asketh, receiveth;
And he who seeketh findeth;
And to him who knocketh. it shall be opened.
For what man is there among you, who, if his son
Or, if he ask a fish, will give him a serpent?
If ye then, being evil, know how to
How much more will your Father in heaven
[Matt. vii. 7-11.]
"And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great
Thus with violence shall be thrown down Babylon
And the voice of harpers, and musicians, and flute-players,
And any craftsman of any craft shall be found in thee no more;
And the sound of a mill-stone shall be heard in thee no more:
And the light of a lamp shall be seen in thee no more;
And the voice of bridegroom and bride shall be heard in thee no more;
For thy merchants were great ones of the earth;
For by thy sorceries were all the nations deceived;
And in her hath been found the blood of prophets and saints,
And of all those who have been slain upon the earth."
[Rev. xviii. 21-24.]
The latter passage is taken from a chapter which strikingly reminds us of Ezekiel; it is rhythmical, but not strictly parallelistic: the former is an independent reproduction of the manner of the best proverbial poetry, and is a good specimen of parallelism. With the latter we may compare the Song of Mary (Luke i. 46-55), the Song of Zacharias (Luke i. 67-79), and the Song of Symeon (Luke ii. 28-32). These are all directly based on Old Testament models. It is much more difficult to produce connected passages exemplifying genuine parallelism in an unartificial manner. Bishop Jebb has indeed attempted it, but the result has been universally rejected by Biblical scholars. The fact is that after the return from Babylon the older literary forms were only kept up by the zeal of enthusiastic students of the earlier scriptures, and their disappearance was only a question of time. Ecclesiasticus and the so-called Psalms of Solomon, both written originally in Hebrew, the one about 180 B.C., the other after the murder of Pompeius, 48 B.C., are the last specimens of genuine parallelism. In the Apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon it only occurs in a feeble, sporadic way. And if we turn to the Jewish liturgical literature of the period between Ezra and the Christian era, we obtain the same result, as the reader may easily see from Ecclus. l. 22-24, which is, in fact, a liturgical formula of very early date:—
"Now therefore bless ye the God of all,
Which exalteth our days from the womb,
He grants us joyfulness of heart,
That he would confirm his mercy with us,
It is true the verses in this fragment fall into couplets and quatrains, but parallelism, as described above, in its complete form, does not exist. We should not therefore expect to find it in the New Testament, and where it does exist, it is by accident. The New Testament is in the main didactic and historical, and not artistic, prose and not poetry.
But the study of parallelism appeals to other interests than the aesthetic. It will often enable us to estimate the probability of competing interpretations of difficult passages. If, for instance, we find that either synonymous or antithetic parallelism prevails in any particular chapter or paragraph, there is a presumption against any interpretation which tends to destroy its uniformity. In Gen. iv. 23, for example, the later Jews built a romantic story on the mention of a "young man" or "child" as well as a "man" as having been murdered by Lamech. But by the law of synonymous parallelism, only one person and one murder can be intended. This remark is fruitful of application to the prophetic writings. It may be added as a fresh proof of the adaptation of the Bible to its world-wide functions, that this peculiar poetical or rather rhetorical form of parallelism exists in various degrees in the Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Chinese, and other literatures. The deficiency of the Bible in aesthetic respects is more than counterbalanced by its engaging naturalness. Had it been greater as a work of art, it could never have become the religious book of such widely different nations.
Rhythm and parallelism, however, are not the only characteristics of Hebrew poetry. There are evidences enough that lyric poems are often arranged with a view to the symmetry of their parts. See, for instance, Psa. xlii. 5, 11; xliii. 5; xlvi. 7, 11; lvi. 4,10, 11; lvii. 5, 11; lix. 6, 10, 14, 17; lxii. 1, 2, 5, 6; lxvii. 3, 5; lxxx. 3, 7, 19; xcix. 5, 9; cvii. 6, 13, 19, 28 = 8, 15, 21, 31; cxliv. 7 (latter part), 8, 11. These passages present clear indications of refrains, and consequently of something approaching to a strophic division, like that of the Greek choruses. It is not, indeed, equally clear that the strophes or stanzas indicated by these refrains are always of equal length (though they are very nearly equal in Psalms xlii. and xliii. — originally one Psalm; lxvii., xcix.). Sometimes indeed the want of symmetry can be accounted for by the character of the poem. Thus in the lamentation over Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. i. 19-27) which falls into five stanzas or strophes (viz. I., vs. 19, 20; II., 21, 22; III., 23, 24; IV., 25, 26; V., 27), the first three consist of six lines each, the fourth of only five, the fifth of two. This gradual diminution is evdently designed, and contributes to the effect of the poem. It is as if the voice of the speaker became fainter and fainter as his emotion increased, till it died away in a sigh. The same phenomenon will be observed in other similar passages, e.g., in the elegy on Israel's princes in Ezek. xix. (stanza I. = vs. 2-9, stanza II. = vs. 10-14), and in that on Egypt in Ezek. xxxii. (stanza I. = vs. 1-10, stanza II. = vs. 11-16), and in the lamentation which forms the first speech of Job (ch. iii., stanza I. = vs, 2-10, stanza II. = vs. 11-19, stanza III. = vs. 20-26). Joyous songs, on the other hand, are sometimes marked by gradual prolongation of the stanzas. The poet begins calmly, but by degrees the stream of song widens. Thus in the marriage Psalm (xlv.), the first stanza is very short (vs. 1, 2), the second is already a little longer (vs. 3-7), the third very long (vs. 8-17). The correctness of the division is shown by the choruses , which begin in each case with the word ' therefore.' One point more claims to be noticed before we leave this part of our subject. The fact that the existence of strophes can often be proved, and is sometimes reasonably surmised even where not proved, suggests a further possibility, viz. that the Psalms were sung antiphonally (somewhat as our own chants are divided between the two halves of the choir), the one strophe being uttered in answer to another strophe. The refrain was doubtless sung by the whole congregation; compare 2 Chron. vii. 3, "all the children of Israel . . . praised the LORD, saying, For he is good, for his mercy endureth forever"— the latter words being the refrain of Ps. cxxxvi. Compare also Ps. lxviii. 26. It need hardly be added that the singing was accompanied with music (compare Ps. xxxiii. 2; lxviii. 25; cxxxvii. 2; cl. 3-5); but the subject of Hebrew music demands separate consideration.
On the single remaining style of Hebrew poetry not much has to be said. A certain number of the Old Testament poems have the peculiarity of being "acrostic" or ''alphabetic," that is, they are arranged alphabetically by the initial Hebrew letters of the verses. These are Psalms xxv., xxxiv., xxxvii, cxi., cxii., cxix., cxlv.; Prov. xxxi. 10-31; Lam. i., ii., iii., iv. Psalms ix. and x. are also very imperfect specimens of this style. In Psalm cxix. the Bible version makes the arrangement intelligible to every one by placing tbe initial Hebrew letter of each group of verses at the beginning of the group. It is probable that this kind of composition became more popular in the Babylonian and Persian periods of Jewish history. There is no reason why these like the other Psalms should not have been sung in divine service.
The earliest Hebrew songs which we possess appear to have been called forth by passing events. A dark deed of revenge is commemorated in the song ascribed to Lamech (Gen. iv. 23, 24); the prowess of the confederate tribes in an ironical fragment (Num. xxi. 27-30), and, above all, in the song of Deborah (Judg. v.). The 'song of the water-drawers' (Num. xxi. 17, 18) preserves a tradition of the mutual trust between rulers and people which prevailed in the prehistoric age of Israel. It is not improbably a song which the Hebrew women sang in the intervals of drawing water, as if to 'coax' the well to 'spring up,' i.e., to yield water from its depths. The triumphal ode ascribed to Moees (Ex. xv. 1-18) is, as we should expect, more elaborate than the more popular songs. It consists of a prelude (v. 1) and four stanzas, of which the first two and the fourth consist of twelve lines each, the second of only six. The student will find it a useful exercise to verify this statement for himself by writing out the several stanzas in parallel lines. The whole concludes with the chorus, "The LORD shall reign for ever and ever" (v. 18). "The Song of Deborah is a glorious witness to the martial spirit of the Hebrews. But it allows us to see also how easily the aspirations of the nation might have turned altogether to the glory of conquest and empire, and how much some gentler influence was needed to counteract the wild spirit of revenge." Such an influence was doubtless exerted by the schools of the prophets, in which sacred minstrelsy appear to have been cultivated (1 Sam. x. 5), and afterwards by the psalmists. Great doubt, however, exists as to the precise date of the religious lyrics or Psalms. In the headings they are mostly ascribed to David, but these, which are the only authority for so ascribing them, did not arise till during or after the Captivity. They must consequently be tested in each case by their agreement with the contents of the Psalms, and with the information as to the state of religion in David's time given elsewhere in the sacred writings. Happily the beautiful lamentation over Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. i. 19-27) has never had its Davidic origin questioned. But for artistic skill and variety of contrast nothing in the Old Testament equals the song (or perhaps the songs) of the poetess Deborah, with a new translation of which we may fitly conclude this note. It will be at once seen that the song was intended to be sung partly by Deborah and Barak, partly by a chorus; also that here and there occurs a peculiarly striking rhythm (sometimes combined with parallelism) which may be called the progressive, a phrase in one line being repeated in the next with some addition, so as to form a kind of climax or progression if not in the ideas at any rate in the language; see especially vs. 3, 4, 19, 20, 27, 30. For other examples of the same rhythm see Ps. xxix., cxxi., cxxiv.
V. 2. For the leaders' leading in Israel,
For the self-offering of the people,
Bless ye the LORD!
Retrospect of the Exodus.
3. Hear, O ye kings! Give ear, O ye princes!
I, even I, will sing unto the LORD;
I will sing praises to the LORD, the God of Israel.
4. LORD! When you wentest out of Seir,
When thou marchedst out of the country of Edom,
The earth trembled and the heavens dropped,
The clouds also dropped water;
5. Mountains melted before the LORD,
Yonder Sinai, before the LORD, the God of Israel.
6. In the days of Shamgar, the son of Anath,
In the days of Jael the highways kept holiday,
And the travellers walked on crooked paths;
7. The rulers kept holiday in Israel, kept holiday,
Until that I, Deborah, arose,
That I arose a mother in Israel.
8. * * * * *
Then was war at the gates (of the enemy);
Was there a shield or spear seen among forty thousand
Let Israel give thanks!
9. My heart (saith) to the governors of Israel,
(To) those who offered themselves among the people:
Bless ye the LORD!
10. Ye that ride on the white she-asses,
Ye that sit on coverings,
And ye that walk by the way, Sing!
11. From the voice of archers between the places of drawing
There let men rehearse the righteous acts of the LORD,
The righteous acts of his rule in Israel!
Then did the people of the LORD go down against the gates.
12. Awake, Awake, Deborah,
Awake, awake, utter the song!
Arise, Barak, lead forth thy captives, O son of Abinoam!
The gathering of the patriotic Israelites.
13. Then there went down a remnant of the nobles (and) of
The LORD went down to my help among the heroes.
14. From Ephraim (did they go), they whose root is in Amalek,
Behind thee, O Benjamin, with thy tribesmen,
From Machir went down governors,
And from Zebulun they that hold the staff of the enroller.
15. And the princes in Issachar were like Deborah,
And Issacar even as Barak;
He was driven into the valley by his feet.
The indifference of the rest.
At the streams of Reuben there are great resolves!
16. Why abodest thou between the sheepfolds — to hear the
By the streams of Reuben there are great deliberations!
17. Gilead abides beyond Jordan,
And Dan — why is he a stranger on shipboard?
Asher sits by the seashore,
And abides by his creeks.
18. Zebulun is a people that jeopards his life unto death.
And Naphtali (that dwells) on the heights.
19. The kings came, they fought,
Then fought the kings of Canaan,
At Taanach by the waters of Megiddo;
They took not a piece of silver:
20. They fought from heaven,
The stars from their courses
Fought against Sisera;
21. The torrent of Kishon swept them away,
The onward-rushing torrent, the torrent of Kishon
Step on, my soul, with strength.
After the conflict.
22. Then stamped the hooves of the horses
With the galloping, the galloping of their mighty ones.
23. "Curse ye Meroz," said the angel of the LORD,
"Curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof;
Because they came not to the help of the LORD,
To the help of the LORD among the heroes!"
24. Blessed above women be Jael,
The wife of Heber the Kenite;
Blessed above women in the tent!
The murder of Sisera.
25. He asked water, she gave him milk,
She offered curdled milk in a lordly dish;
26. She put her hand to the tent-peg,
And her right hand to the workmen's hammer,
And with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote in pieces
She wounded and pierced through his temples.
27. At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down,
At her feet he bowed, he fell;
Where he bowed, there he fell down dead.
The anxiety of the family of Sisera.
28. Through the window she looked out and cried —
The mother of Sisera through the lattice;
"Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why tarry the wheels of his chariots?"
29. The wise ones of her ladies answer her,
(But she keeps repeating her words to herself,)
30. "Surely they are winning, they are dividing prey — to every
A prey of coloured stuffs, of embroidery, for Sisera,
A coloured stuff, two pieces of embroidery, for my neck has
31. So shall all thine enemies perish, O LORD!
But they that love him are as the sun when he goeth forth
|Bible Research > Hebrew Text > T. K. Cheyne on Hebrew Poetry|