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Elements of Old Testament Poetry

Old Testament poetry, by its artistic nature, is not easy to define precisely. Indeed, prose and poetry are not totally separate, and in some Old Testament texts it is not clear whether the text is prose or poetry. We agree with Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard’s suggestion that poetry and prose be viewed as opposite ends of a literary continuum. Poetry is characterized by terseness, a high degree of structure, and figurative imagery. The more that a literary work reflects these three elements, the further it moves to the poetry end of the literary spectrum. Let us define these elements that serve as central features of Old Testament poetic texts.

Terseness

This simply means that poetry uses a minimum number of words. The words are chosen carefully for their impact and their power. Narrative texts frequently have long, descriptive sentences, but poetic texts are comprised of short, compact lines of verse with few words. Consider Psalm 25:4:

Show me your ways, Lord,
Teach me your paths.

In the Hebrew text the first line has only three words and the second line has but two. Yet even in the English translation we can catch a feel for the short number of words that are used. Prose texts, by contrast, tend to use many more words. Contrast the poetic terseness of Psalm 25:4 above with the wordiness of a prose text such as Genesis 12:10:

Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe.

Structure

1. Parallelism. One of the most obvious features of Old Testament poetry is that the text is structured around poetic lines of verse rather than around sentences and paragraphs. Punctuation is not nearly as important in poetry as it is in narrative or in New Testament letters. But don’t despair; the line represents more of the thought unit than the sentence does. So train your eye to read line by line rather than sentence by sentence. Furthermore, the lines are usually grouped in units of two or three. That is, two lines of Old Testament poetry are grouped together to express one thought. Most of the verses in Psalms are structured this way. For example, take a look at Psalm 3:1–2:

1Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
2Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.”

This feature is called parallelism, and it is the dominant structural characteristic of Old Testament poetry. Usually one thought will be expressed by two lines of text (although occasionally the poets will use three or even four lines of text to convey one thought). Often the verse notations will follow this pattern, and each verse will consist of two lines of text. Such verse notations help us as we read because we need to interpret the text by reading each parallel construction together. That is, we look for two lines to convey one idea or thought.

The two lines of parallelism usually relate to one another in one of several different ways, explained below. For clarity, in the examples we will designate the first line as A and the second line as B.

a. Synonymous. This involves a close similarity between lines using words with similar meanings. That is, the second line repeats much the same idea as the first line using similar terminology. For example, consider Psalm 2:4:

(A) The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
(B) The Lord scoffs at them.

Note that “the One enthroned in heaven” from line A is paralleled by “the Lord” in line B. Likewise, “laughs” in line A is paralleled by “scoffs” in line B. The two lines are saying the same thing. They should be read as a unit and interpreted as a unit.

Sometimes synonymous parallelism can involve four lines of text. Psalm 19:8 illustrates this feature well:

(A) The precepts of the Lord are right,
(B) giving joy to the heart.
(A’) The commands of the Lord are radiant,
(B’) giving light to the eyes.

In this verse the line “The precepts of the Lord are right” (A) is paralleled, not by the next line (B), but by line (A’), “The commands of the Lord are radiant.” Likewise, line (B), “giving joy to the heart” is paralleled by (B’), “giving light to the eyes.” So the thought expressed in A + B is paralleled synonymously by lines A’ + B’.

b. Developmental. In developmental parallelism the second line develops further the idea of the first. For example:

(A) He will not let your foot slip—
(B) he who watches over you will not slumber. (Ps. 121:3)

Line B can relate to line A in numerous ways to further develop the thought of A. For example, A can make a statement and B give a reason:

(A) Praise be to the Lord,
(B) for he showed me the wonders of his love. (Ps. 31:21)

Or A can ask a question and B provide the answer:

(A) How can a young person stay on the path of purity?
(B) By living according to your word. (Ps. 119:9)

Both of the relationships above can be inverted as well. The reason can come first in line A with the main statement following in B. Likewise, the question is not restricted to line A, but can occur in line B as well.

c. Illustrative. In illustrative parallelism line A conveys the idea and line B illustrates it with an example or a symbol.

(A) Sovereign Lord, my strong deliverer,
(B) you shield my head in the day of battle. (Ps. 140:7)

In line A David calls God a strong deliverer. In line B he illustrates how this is true—God, like a helmet, shields David’s head in battle.

d. Contrastive. This type of parallelism employs the use of contrast, in that line B is contrasted with line A.

(A) For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, (B) but the way of the wicked leads to destruction. (Ps. 1:6)

This type of parallelism is common in the book of Proverbs. For example, read Proverbs 10:12:

(A) Hatred stirs up conflict,
(B) but love covers over all wrongs. (Prov. 10:12)

e. Formal. The formal category is simply a “miscellaneous” category to catch the remaining types of parallelism that do not fall into the categories listed above. In this type of parallelism two lines or phrases are joined solely by metric considerations:

(A) I have installed my king
(B) on Zion, my holy hill. (Ps. 2:6)

Thus, we have listed five types of parallelism to watch for in Hebrew poetry: synonymous, developmental, illustrative, contrastive, and formal. But remember that we are dealing with poetry! Poets are not constrained to follow conventional forms or rules. The types of parallelisms that we have presented are representative of the most common types of parallelism, but this discussion is by no means exhaustive. The Hebrew poets are creative, and they use parallelism in lots of complicated ways, many of which are difficult to define precisely.

Unit 15, Question 2: Refer to the following passages of Scripture selected from the Psalms. Identify what type of parallelism the author is using in each (synonymous, developmental, illustrative, contrastive, or formal). The author could employ more than one type; be sure to identify all of them. Secondly, discuss how the parallelism used is effective in communicating its intended message.

  • Psalm 1:1–6
  • Psalm 10
  • Psalm 31:1–5

2. Acrostics. Another fascinating structural feature of Old Testament poetry is the occasional use of acrostics. An acrostic is a poem in which each successive line of poetry starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. If this occurred in English, for example, the first line would start with “a,” the second line with “b,” the third with “c,” and so forth. If you scanned down the margin of the poem, looking at the first letters of each line, you would see the alphabet.

As an example we have created an acrostic in English. Although we have used only the first eight letters of the alphabet instead of all twenty-six, we think you will get the general idea. We know it is corny; forgive us.

Ah, acrostics. What wonderful artistry
Before us lies!
Can you not see the beauty?
Do you not sense the wonder?
Each one of us should marvel
For acrostics are marvelous things
Given to delight us.
How wonderful and delightful they are!

There are numerous acrostics in the poetic sections of the Old Testament. Psalms 25, 34, 111, 112, and 145 are all acrostics. In Psalms 25, 34, and 145 the acrostic is in the first letter of each verse. Thus these psalms each have twenty-two verses, matching the twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. In Psalms 111 and 112, however, the acrostic is in the first letter of each line. Thus they have twenty-two lines of acrostic text, each starting with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet (actually there are twenty-three lines of text, but the opening phrase, “Praise the Lord,” is not part of the acrostic).

There are several other acrostic texts scattered across the Old Testament. In the book of Lamentations, chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4 are acrostic, but not chapter 5. The popular text describing the noble wife, Proverbs 31:10–31, is also an acrostic. Note that the editors of most modern Bibles, such as the NIV, inform us in footnotes when acrostics occur. Look at the footnotes in your Bible for notations regarding the acrostic passages mentioned above.

Perhaps the most interesting acrostic in the Old Testament is Psalm 119. Every first word in each of the first eight verses starts with the beginning letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph. Likewise verses 9 to 16 all start with beth, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This continues eight lines at a time, all the way through Psalm 119 and all the way through the Hebrew alphabet. Again, note that the editors of most Bibles indicate this for you by writing the Hebrew letters prior to each unit. For example, if you look in a NIV Bible at Psalm 119:1, you will see “ℵ Aleph” written above the line. Thus you can actually read the Hebrew alphabet if you scan through Psalm 119 reading these headings.

Figurative Imagery

The major medium through which the Old Testament poets communicate is figurative imagery. They do not write essays; they paint pictures. The colors with which they paint these pictures are figures of speech and wordplays. We are not strangers to this type of language. English is rich in figurative language. We use figures of speech all the time. Consider the following student monologue, poetically proclaimed to a sympathetic friend in a university hallway:

My chemistry professor is an absolute psycho. He just gave us the hardest test in the entire world. He asked the most stupid and ridiculous questions that have ever been written. I studied forever for that test, yet I really bombed on it. I had no idea what he was asking. Nobody knows the answers to some of those questions. He must have dreamed them up. It was absolutely the most ridiculous thing in the world. Everybody in the class bombed on it. Is he from outer space or what? I could strangle him. He expects us to study chemistry twenty-four hours a day. I do have a life, you know. But if I get a D in chemistry my GPA will drop right through the floor. Mom and Dad will be mad as hornets—and all because of a psycho professor.

Every sentence in the student’s diatribe contains figurative language. Read back through the paragraph and try to identify each figure of speech. Explore the figure and try to determine why it works. Figures of speech can be simple (comparing Mom and Dad to mad hornets), but they can also be quite complex. For example, what does the student mean by the phrase “I do have a life”?

The sympathetic friend listening to this in the hallway probably understands her fellow student clearly and probably never even stopped to consider that multiple figures of speech were being used. The figures used were commonplace figures of speech, and the friend easily interpreted the colorful figures and grasped the intended meaning of the author. The friend realized instantly that little of what her moaning colleague said was to be understood literally.

However, suppose that walking behind these two American students is an international student. He has studied English for numerous years at home, but he is unfamiliar with American figures of speech. He understands all of the words, but he is puzzled about the conversation. As he struggles to interpret the conversation, his mind ponders the following:

What do “bombs” and “hornets” have to do with chemistry tests? And how did the American student drop her GPA “through the floor”? Are the bombs related to the idea of dropping GPAs? Is this angry student really planning to kill the professor? Should I alert the police? And does “psycho” mean “psychopathic”? Is the professor psychopathic? Is he the dangerous type? Is that why the student is concerned about having a life? Oh no! I am signed up to take chemistry under this professor next semester. Is this professor dangerous? Crazy? Will exam questions come from the professor’s dreams? Will he expect me to study twenty-four hours every day? That’s quite impossible. Maybe I should change majors.

Old Testament poetry employs figures of speech as freely as the American student does in the example above. In a book like Psalms, practically every verse contains a figure of speech. As readers, we are like the international student. We come to the conversation from outside the literary world of the immediate audience. If we take the figures of speech literally, we will misunderstand the text as badly as the international student misunderstood the chemistry student. If we want to understand the authors of the Old Testament, it is critical that we recognize figures of speech when they are used and that we interpret them as figures of speech and not as literal realities.

Keep in mind that this does not in any way deny the literal reality behind the figure of speech. In the example above a literal student took a literal chemistry test. In the student’s mind, the test was too hard and the student was upset with the professor. All of this is literally true. Furthermore, the real emotional distress of the student is part of the meaning, and the figures of speech she used reflect this. Reading and interpreting poetry are similar. The authors are conveying real thoughts, events, and emotions to us—that is, literal truth, but they express this truth figuratively. Our job as readers is to grapple with the figures and to strive to grasp the reality and the emotion that the poets are conveying by their figurative language.

Some figures of speech can be subtle and complex. However, most of them can be readily recognized and interpreted. In general, the figures of speech in the Old Testament poetic texts can be placed into two major categories: figures involving analogy and figures involving substitution. A few figures of speech, however, do not really fall into either category and we will discuss them as a separate, miscellaneous category. Finally, we will discuss wordplays, a category that has some similarity to figures of speech, but which is nonetheless distinctive enough to warrant a separate discussion.

1. Figures of speech involving analogy. Many figures of speech involve drawing analogies between two different items. When the student above, for example, said, “Mom and Dad will be mad as hornets,” the student was drawing an analogy between the angry, buzzing attack mode of disturbed hornets and the expected attitude of her parents over her bad grade. However, analogies also fall into several distinct subclassifications. That is, there are numerous ways of making figurative analogies. The Old Testament employs a wide range of these analogies as figures of speech. The most common ones are simile, metaphor, indirect analogy, hyperbole, and personification/anthropomorphism/zoomorphism.

a. Simile. This figure of speech makes a comparison by using the words “like” or “as” to explicitly state that one thing resembles another. The chemistry student’s statement that “Mom and Dad will be mad as hornets” is a simile. This is a common figure of speech, both in English and in Old Testament poetry.

Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout
is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion. (Prov. 11:22, italics added
in all examples)
Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow. (Isa. 1:18)
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God. (Ps. 42:1)

b. Metaphor. Metaphors make the analogy between items by direct statement without the use of like or as.

The Lord is my shepherd. (Ps. 23:1)
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling. (Ps. 68:5)
A cheerful heart is good medicine. (Prov. 17:22)

c. Indirect analogy (also known as hypokatastasis). This is a literary device that uses the analogous item without directly stating the comparison. It assumes that the reader can make the comparison without it being explicitly stated. Suppose, for example, that the writers wish to make an analogy between the Lord’s wrath and a storm. A simile would say, “The wrath of the Lord is like a storm.” A metaphor would express the analogy by saying, “The wrath of the Lord is a storm.” Indirect analogy skips the identification of the analogy and states, “The storm of the Lord will burst out in wrath, a driving wind swirling down on the heads of the wicked” (Jer. 30:23). Other examples include:

Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me. (Ps. 22:13)
He drew me out of deep waters. (Ps. 18:16)
His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. (Ps. 91:4)

In each of these examples, note the difference between indirect analogy and similes or metaphors. In Psalm 22:13, for example, the psalmist does not say that his enemies are like lions or even that they are lions. He simply says that lions tearing their prey open their mouths against him. He is drawing the analogy between his enemies and lions by implication. The meaning is much the same as if he had used a metaphor or simile, but the straightforward use of indirect analogy intensifies the image. David skips right to the image that he wants his readers to have in their heads, and he describes that image.

d. Hyperbole. Leland Ryken defines hyperbole as a “conscious exaggeration for the sake of effect.” As an expression of strong feeling, hyperbole intentionally exaggerates: “It advertises its lack of literal truth.” Indeed, as Ryken notes, it makes no pretense at all of being factual. The struggling chemistry student above uses hyperbole throughout her monologue: “He gave us the hardest test in the world. . . . I studied forever. . . . It was the most ridiculous thing in the world. . . . Everybody in the class bombed on it.” None of these statements is literally true, but then the listening friend would not have understood them as true either. To make an emotional point, the chemistry student overstates her case, poetically exaggerating the details. This is allowed in figures of speech. It does not reflect on the honesty of the speaker. When the student says, for example, that she studied forever, the meaning is simply that she studied for a long time and that it seemed like forever.

The poets of the Old Testament likewise employ hyperbole frequently. They consciously exaggerate to express deep emotion. For example, consider the following:

My tears have been my food day and night. (Ps. 42:3)
I beat them [enemies] as fine as windblown dust;
I trampled them like mud in the streets. (Ps. 18:42)
For troubles without number surround me. (Ps. 40:12)

In each of the examples the psalmist consciously overstates or exaggerates his point in order to underscore the deep emotion he feels. To interpret the passage in Psalm 40:12 as meaning that David’s troubles are, in reality, too numerous to count (we can count really high) is to misunderstand David. He is overwhelmed by his trouble, and he wants to stress the magnitude of his trouble. He is not suggesting that his troubles number more than one million or one billion or some other such number.

e. Personification/anthropomorphism/zoomorphism. These three figures of speech are similar in that they attribute to one entity the characteristics of a totally different kind of entity. Personification involves attributing human features or human characteristics to nonhuman entities.

Lift up your heads, you gates. (Ps. 24:7)
Burst into song, you mountains,
you forests and all your trees. (Isa. 44:23)
Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! (Isa. 1:2)
Out in the open wisdom calls aloud,
she raises her voice in the public square. (Prov. 1:20)

Anthropomorphism is the representation of God with human features or human characteristics. God is described as having hands, arms, feet, a nose, breath, a voice, and ears. He walks, sits, hears, looks down, thinks, talks, remembers, gets angry, shouts, lives in a palace, prepares tables, anoints heads, builds houses, and pitches tents. He has a rod, staff, scepter, banner, garment, tent, throne, footstool, vineyard, field, chariot, shield, and sword. He is called a father, husband, king, and shepherd. All these human actions or human features are used figuratively to describe God and his actions. A few examples are listed below:

Your face, Lord, I will seek. (Ps. 27:8)
God looks down from heaven on all mankind. (Ps. 53:2)
The voice of the Lord is powerful. (Ps. 29:4)
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. (Ps. 19:4)

Do all representations of God in human terms involve figures of speech? This is an interpretive issue that takes us into broader areas of theology. What is God really like? Since we are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), how similar are we to God? Clearly, if God is spirit, then the description of God as “looking down” or the mention of his hands would be a figure of speech (anthropomorphism). However, what about God’s anger, love, patience, mercy, hurt, and compassion? These are probably literal realities and not figures of speech. We understand these emotions in human terms because we experience these same emotions, but that does not necessarily qualify them as figures of speech. On the other hand, does God have ears? Probably not. We suspect that all of the physical human references to God are figurative.

Zoomorphism. Other, nonhuman images for God are also used. When animal imagery is used, the figure is called zoomorphism. However, inanimate objects are also used as figures of speech to describe God. Consider the following poetic texts:

He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge. (Ps. 91:4)
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.
my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Ps. 18:2)

Certainly the passage from Psalm 91:4 does not imply that God is a bird or that he resembles a bird in any physical aspect. But there is a definite analogy being suggested by the text between God and birds—the image of a mother hen (or other bird) surrounding her chicks with her wings to protect and comfort them. God comforts and protects his people in the same fashion.

Keep in mind that an anthropomorphism or a zoomorphism can also be a simile, metaphor, or indirect analogy (hypokatastasis). For example, in Psalm 23:1, David states, “The Lord is my shepherd.” This is both a metaphor (direct comparison using is) and an anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics to God). Likewise, the verse mentioned above from Isaiah 44:23, “Burst into song, you mountains,” is both personification and hyperbole.

2. Figures of speech involving substitution.

a. Effects and causes (also known as metonymy). Imagine that you are at Turner Field in Atlanta, sitting in the fourth row behind the hometown dugout, watching the Atlanta Braves play the Los Angeles Dodgers. Atlanta is down by three runs in the bottom of the ninth. With two outs and the bases loaded, the Braves send their best home-run hitter to the plate. The count runs full, and as the pitcher winds up to throw the final pitch, the rabid Brave fan in front of you jumps to his feet and pleads at the top of his lungs with the hitter, “Please make me happy! Make me happy! Make me happy!”

Perhaps this fan is unconscious of it, but he is employing a figure of speech (substitution) involving cause and effect. What he wants is for the batter to hit a home run, but what he says is “Make me happy!” If the batter hits a home run, the fan will be happy because his team will have won. He could simply say, “Hit a home run!” However, in an attempt to express himself colorfully, he substitutes the effect (his happiness) for the cause (hitting a home run).

The poets of the Old Testament are certainly as colorful and emotional as the Braves fan, and they will often employ the same literary device. For example, in Psalm 51:8 David states, “Let me hear joy and gladness.” This is the effect. The cause, the action that David really is asking for, is forgiveness for his sin with Bathsheba. Yet what he states is the result of that forgiveness”joy and gladness. So David has used a figure of speech, substituting the effect for the cause.

Likewise, Proverbs 19:13 reads, “A foolish child is his father’s ruin.” The phrase “his father’s ruin” is an effect, substituted for the intended cause (the things that the foolish child does that lead to the ruin). Jeremiah 14:17 follows the same pattern. “Let my eyes overflow with tears.” The prophet’s tears are the effect. What he is really talking about is the coming Babylonian invasion (the cause). Rather than say, “The Babylonians are coming and it will be awful,” Jeremiah states the emotional effect the invasion will have on him: “Let my eyes overflow with tears.”

This figure can be used in reverse as well—the cause can be stated when the effect is intended—but this usage is not common.

b. Representation (also known as synecdoche). Often the poets will substitute a representative part of an entity instead of the entity itself. We do this in English if we use the city of Washington, DC, to represent the entire United States. For example, a newscaster could say, “If Washington and Tokyo cannot work out these trade differences, then there may be difficult times ahead.” Both Washington and Tokyo are used figuratively to represent their respective nations. In similar fashion the Old Testament poets will use cities and/or individual tribes to represent entire nations figuratively. Thus “Ephraim” (the largest northern tribe) and “Samaria” (the capital city) are used to refer to the northern kingdom Israel while “Judah” (the main southern tribe) and “Jerusalem” (the capital city) can refer to the southern kingdom of Judah.

Numerous other representative figures of speech occur. Psalm 44:6 uses the words “bow” and “sword” to represent weapons of war in general: “I put no trust in my bow, my sword does not bring me victory.” Psalm 20:7 uses “chariots” and “horses” to represent military power: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” Bows, swords, chariots, and horses belong to a larger group of military weapons. Citing only one or two of them as figures brings into mind the entire category of weapons or military power.

“Feet” can be used to represent the entire person (Pss. 40:2; 44:18; 122:2), especially in contexts of moving or standing firm. “Bones” also represent the entire person, usually in contexts of suffering or pain (Pss. 6:2; 31:10; 32:3; 42:10). Likewise, the poets use “lips” as a frequent figurative substitute for one’s speech (Pss. 12:2; 17:1; 31:18; 63:3).

3. Miscellaneous figures of speech. Since figures of speech are artistic and fluid, it is difficult to categorize them into nice, neat packages. Although most figures fall into the broad categories of analogy or substitution, a few fall outside of those categories. Two of these miscellaneous figures of speech that are fairly common are apostrophe and irony.

a. Apostrophe. Writers use apostrophe when they address as if present a person or entity not actually present. They do this to express strong feeling or to stress a particular point. Apostrophes appear without warning, as if the writer suddenly visualizes the absent addressee and immediately speaks to him. Apostrophe is also often combined with personification, for the poets frequently address inanimate objects (heavens, earth, gates). Note the following examples of apostrophe. Who is addressed in each example?

Therefore, you kings, be wise;
Be warned, you rulers of the earth. (Ps. 2:10)
Away from me, all you who do evil. (Ps. 6:8)
Lift up your heads, you gates;
be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in. (Ps. 24:7)
Why was it, sea, that you fled?
Why, Jordan, did you turn back? (Ps. 114:5)

Occasionally, one of the poets will address himself (or his soul) as if he is also present as a separate entity. This is also a type of apostrophe. Consider the following:

Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name. (Ps. 103:1)
Why, my soul, are you downcast? (Ps. 42:5)

b. Irony. When using irony, the writer says the exact opposite of what he really means. For example, suppose that a student stops her friend Fred in the hall to tell him that a garbage truck just backed into Fred’s new candy-apple-colored Corvette. In despair Fred replies, “Oh, that’s just great!” Obviously the situation is not great, but quite the contrary. Fred states the opposite of the real situation to underscore how bad the news really is. Sometimes irony is also used in sarcasm, as when Fred tells the driver of the truck, “Mister, backing into my car was really smart! You are a great driver if ever I saw one.” Old Testament poetry likewise often combines irony with sarcasm. Note God’s use of sarcastic irony as he chides Job for challenging his divine wisdom:

18Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
Tell me, if you know all this.
19What is the way to the abode of light?
And where does darkness reside?
20Can you take them to their places?
Do you know the paths to their dwellings?
21Surely you know, for you were already born!
You have lived so many years! (Job 38:18–21, italics added)

Note too the sarcasm in the irony of Amos 4:4, where God in essence tells Israel to “go to Bethel and sin.” Likewise, catch the sarcasm in Isaiah 41:2–23, as God speaks with irony of the idols that Israel worships:

22Tell us, you idols,
what is going to happen.
Tell us what the former things were,
so that we may consider them
and know the final outcome.
Or declare to us the things to come,
23tell us what the future holds,
so we may know that you are gods.
Do something, whether good or bad,
so that we may be dismayed and filled with fear. (Isa. 41:22–23)

4. Wordplays. Wordplays are fairly common in English, and many of them are quite clever. For example, as he signed the Declaration of Independence, Ben Franklin is credited with quipping, “Let us all hang together or else we may all hang separately.” Franklin was making a play of two very different meanings of the word “hang.” Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard cite another clever English wordplay that they encountered. A preacher was contrasting the views on self-esteem of the apostle Paul and Norman Vincent Peale (a well-known proponent of positive thinking). The preacher argued in favor of Paul’s view and, in conclusion, stated, “That’s what makes Paul so appealing and Peale so appalling.”[1]

Many Hebrew wordplays in Old Testament poetry follow the patterns of these two examples. They either play off variant possible meanings of a word, or else they play off sound similarities. Unfortunately, the wordplays rarely translate into English. We want to present a few of these wordplays to enable you to appreciate the rich, literary artistry of Old Testament poetry.

The prophet Jeremiah employs an extended wordplay throughout his book with his usage of the Hebrew word shub. (This is word 8740 in your NIV concordance. Don’t forget “Word Studies” and how to use your concordance!) This word basically means “to turn.” It can mean “to turn to something” or “to turn away from something.” Thus, it can be used of turning to God (repentance) or of turning away from God (backsliding), meanings that are opposite. Jeremiah could not resist using it in both senses. He outdoes Ben Franklin’s use of “hang” by using shub eleven times from Jeremiah 3:1 to 4:1 alone. He uses the word three times in a single verse (Jer. 3:22)! In English this verse reads:

Return, faithless people;
I will cure you of backsliding. (italics added)

A quick look in our concordance shows that “return,” “faithless,” and “backsliding” are all English renderings of the Hebrew word shub. A literal translation would read:

Turn, you sons of turning
I will cure your turning.

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