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Author: Ron Graham

Old Testament

Translatable Poetry
—In the Old Testament

This study complements our studies of Old Testament poetry collections such as the books of Psalms and Proverbs. A little understanding of how the Hebrew poetry works will help us better appreciate these Bible books.

Bible poetry rarely relies on devices such as rhyme or meter, but often on a device called "parallelism" defined in Chambers’s dictionary as a balanced construction of a verse or sentence, where one part repeats the form or meaning of the other.

You can hear the rhyme and meter in the following lines...

There's no one quite like Jesus.
I could have no better friend.
He's always there to help me,
And he'll be there to the end.

Using parallelism we might write those lines as follows...

Jesus is my very best companion.
The Lord is my unique friend.
He is always at my side to help me.
Until the last day he will give me aid.

Parallelism is a poetic form that translates into other languages strongly, without needing to paraphrase. The following example in English retains its poetic power because translation does not destroy the echo effect.

1 Examples of Paralellism

Psalm 19:1-2
The heavens tell God’s glory,
The firmament shows his handiwork.
Day to day utters speech,
Night to night reveals knowledge.

In that example, the first two lines are pure parallelism, whereas the last two lines modify the repetition with a contrasting pair, in this case day and night.

There are all kinds of variations on this device. In the Shepherd’s Psalm, for instance, we find these three lines...

Psalm 23:1-3
He makes me to lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside the still waters,
He restores my soul.

In that example, the first two lines are figurative forms of what the third line says literally. The same thing is said once in a figure, again in another like figure, and then the third time in literal terms. It is quite beautiful, isn't it?

Psalm 24 and especially verses 7-10 use repetition intensely, as does Psalm 29 about "the voice of the LORD."

Psalm 24:7-10

'Lift up your heads, O gates!
And be lifted up, O ancient doors,
That the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The LORD, strong and mighty,
The LORD, mighty in battle!
Lift up your heads, O gates!
And lift them up, O ancient doors,
So the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The LORD of hosts,
He is the King of glory!

2 Echo and Imagery

In some Psalms there may be no formal parallelism, however you will find lots of echoes. The second book begins with "As a Deer..." (Psalm 42), a most beautiful song with almost no parallelism except the first three lines. Yet various echoes reverberate all through the poem.

Notice, for instance, how questions occur at intervals and how this adds tension to the poem. This psalm also uses powerful imagery, another device in Bible poetry, and another thing that suffers very little loss in translation.

Psalm 42 (first half)

'As the deer pants for streams of water,
So my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
While people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember
As I pour out my soul:
How I used to go to the house of God
Under the security of the Mighty One
With shouts of joy and praise
Among the joyful throng.
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
For I will yet praise him,
My Savior and my God.
My soul is downcast within me;
Therefore I will remember you...'

3 It Is No Accident

I'm sure it is no accident, but rather providential, that Bible poetry loses little in the translation into other languages. With most other kinds of poetry, something is lost in translation. Either the poet’s meaning is partly lost, or the poetry itself.

The psalms are made for singing. Many of the songs we sing in Christian assembly are portions from the psalms. They lend themselves well to a variety of music styles, but especially to simple chants in both old and modern styles. Many of the latest popular songs of praise are simple modern melodic chants, whose words are drawn from the poems and psalms of the Old Testament.

Of course we appreciate the psalms and proverbs not merely for their adaptable poetry, but for the truths that these poems convey so powerfully to us.

Mary’s Psalm

I will conclude this lesson with one of my favourite psalms. This psalm by Mary, the mother of Jesus, is in the New Testament, not the Old. Luke rendered Mary’s psalm in Greek for Theophilus to read, and that in turn is translated into English for us to read. So we have a translation of a translation of Mary’s original words. Even so, the power and beauty of her words shine through and do not seem at all diminished.

Mary’s “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55)

'My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For he has looked on the humble state of his bondmaid.
Behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
For he who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones;
And exalted those of a humble state.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
In remembrance of his mercy,
As he promised our fathers,
Abraham and his offspring forever.'


Webservant Ron Graham

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