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(Part 5)


Poetical Books of the Old Testament

Characteristics of Hebrew Poetry

The origin of some leading peculiarities of Hebrew poetry has been recently referred by Assyriologists to Accadian models; but however this may be, the key to the whole development of the poetical literature of Israel is found in the same psychological characteristics of the race which are impressed on the vocabulary and grammatical structure of the language. The Hebrew tongue is sensuous, mobile, passionate, almost incapable of expressing an abstract idea, or depicting a complex whole with repose and symmetry of parts, but fit to set forth with great subtilty individual phases of nature or feeling. It is the speech of a nation whose naturally quick perceptions minister to an emotional temperament and an imperious will, which subordinates knowledge to action and desire, and habitually contemplates the universe through the medium of personal feeling or practical purpose. To speak with the philosophers, the Hebrew character is one of predominant subjectivity, eager to reduce everything to a personal standard, swift to seize on all that touches the feelings or bears directly on practical wants, capable of intense effort and stubborn persistence where the motive to action is personal affection or desire. But indisposed to theoretical views, unfit for contemplation of things as they are in themselves apart from relation to the thinker. In the poetry of such a nation the leading current must necessarily be lyrical, for the lyric is the natural vehicle of intense and immediate personal feeling. The earliest Hebrew poems are brief, pregnant expressions of a single idea, full of the fire of passion, full, too, of keen insight into nature, in her power to awake or sustain human emotion; but recording this insight not with the pictorial fullness of western art, but in swift, half-formed outlines, in metaphor piled on metaphor, without regard to any other principle of proportion or verisimilitude than the emotional harmony of each broken figure with the dominant feeling. Such a poetry could not find its highest scope in the service of spiritual religion.

Landmarks in the History of Hebrew Lyric: The Psalms

The songs in Exod. xv. and Judg. v. prove the early origin of a theocratic poetry; but the proper period of Hebrew psalmody begins with David, and its history is practically the history of the Psalter. Here, as in the case of the historical books, we have to begin by questioning the tradition contained in the titles, which ascribe seventy-three Psalms to David, and besides him names as author Asaph, the sons of Korah, Solomon, Moses, Heman, Ethan. Again the tendency is to refer as much as possible to familiar names. There is no reason to believe that any title is as old as the Psalm to which it is prefixed, and some titles are certainly wrong; for example, the author of the elegy on Saul and Jonathan could not possible have written Ps. lxxxvi., which is a mere cento of reminiscences from other poems. On the other hand the titles are not purely arbitrary. They seem to supply useful hints as to the earlier collections from which our present Psalter was made up. The Korahite and Asaphite Psalms may probably have been derived from collections in the hands of these families of singers; and the so-called "Psalms of David" were very likely from collections which really contained poems by David and other early singers.


The assertion that no Psalm is certainly David’s is hyper-sceptical, and few remains of ancient literature have an authorship so well attested as the 18th or even the 7th Psalm. These, along with the indubitable Davidic poems in the book of Samuel, give a sufficiently clear image of a very unique genius, and make the ascription of several others poems to David extremely probable. So, too, a very strong argument claims Psalms ii. For Solomon, and in later times we have sure landmarks in the psalms of Habakkuk (Hab. iii.) and Hezekiah (Isa. xxxviii.) But the greater part of the lyrics of the Old Testament remain anonymous, and we can only group the Psalms in broad masses, distinguished by diversity of historical situation and by varying degrees of freshness and personality. As a rule the older Psalms are the most personal, and are not written for the congregation, but flow from a present necessity of individual (though not individualistic) spiritual life. This current of productive psalmody runs apparently from David down to the Exile, losing in the course of centuries something of its original freshness and fire, but gaining a more chastened pathos and a wider range of spiritual sympathy. Psalms li., obviously composed during the desolation of the temple, marks, perhaps, the last phase of this development. The epoch of the return was still not without poetic freshness, as some of the so-called Songs of Degrees (Pilgrims-songs?) prove. But on the whole the Psalms of the second temple are only reflections of old ideas, cast mainly in directly liturgical form, or at least embodying the experience of the nation rather than of the individual. The date of the latest Psalms is much disputed. Most lines of evidence suggest that the collection was complete before the latest books of the canon were written, but many expositors find in individual Psalms (44, 74, 79, 83, &c.) clear traces of the Maccabee age.

Parallelism or Sense of Rhythm

Through the whole period of Hebrew lyric, represented not only by the Psalter, but by the Lamentations, traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah, and by various scattered pieces in Prophets (e.g., Isa. xii.) and in historical books (e.g., Num. xxi. 17; 1 Sam. ii.), there is little change in form and poetic structure. From first to last the rhythm consists not in a rise and fall of accent or quantity of syllables, but in a pulsation of sense, rising and falling through the parallel, antithetic, or otherwise balanced members of each verse. (So-called Hebrew Parallelism; better, Sense-rhythm.) beyond this one law of rhythm, which is itself less an artificial rule than a natural expression of the principle, that all poetic utterance must proceed in harmonious undulation, and not in the spasm of unmodulated passion, the Hebrew poet was subject to no code of art, though strophical arrangements, sometimes marked by a refrain, are not uncommon; while poems of acrostic structure (alphabetic Psalms) are found not exclusively in the most recent literature (Ps. ix., x. form a single undoubtedly old acrostic). The later is due not to increased constructive power, but to a diffuser style, a less vigorous unity of feeling and thought, and a tendency to ring many variations on one key.

Lyrical Drama

A wider range of artistic power appears in the Song of Solomon, a lyrical drama, in which, according to most critics, the pure love of the Shulamite for her betrothed is exhibited as victorious over the seductions of Solomon and his harem. As the motive of the piece is political as well as ethical, it is most naturally assigned to the early period of the northern kingdom.

Poetical Wisdom: The Mashal

The remaining poetical books of the Old Testament belong to a different category. Unfit for abstract speculation, valuing no wisdom that is not practical, and treasuring up such wisdom in sententious rhythmical form,—enforced by symbol and metaphor, and warm with the breath of human interest,—the Hebrew is a poet even in his philosophy. Side by side with the ode the earliest Hebrew literature shows us the Mashal, or similitude, sometimes in the form of biting epigram (Num. xxi. 27, ff.) or sarcastic parable (Judg. ix. 8, 2 Kings xiv. 8), sometimes as the natural vehicle of general moral teaching. The greatest name in the early proverbial wisdom of Israel is that of Solomon (1 Kings iv. 32), and beyond doubt many of his aphorisms are to be found in the book of Proverbs.


Yet this book is not all Salomonic. The last two chapters are ascribed to other names, and part of the collection was not put in shape till the time of Hezekiah (xxv. 1). Who can have had no infallible criterion of authorship by Solomon, and must not be credited with the critical intentions. In truth, the several sections of the book are varied enough in colour to make it plain that we have before us the essence of the wisdom of centuries, while the introductory address in chapters i.—ix. Shows how a later age learned to develop the gnomic style, so as to fit it for longer compositions.


The fundamental type of Hebrew philosophy remains, however, unchanged, even in book of Ecclesiastes, which bears every mark of a very late date, long after the Exile.


On the other hand, a fresh and creative development, alike in point of form and of thought, is found in the book of Job, which, in grandly dramatic construction, and with wonderful discrimination of character in the several speakers, sums up the whole range of Hebrew speculation on the burning question of Old Testament religion, the relation of affliction to the justice and goodness of God and to the personal merit and demerit of the sufferer. Like the other noblest parts of the Old Testament, the book of Job has a comparatively early date. It was known to Jeremiah, and may be plausibly referred to the 7th century B.C.

In the book of Job we find poetical invention of incidents, attached for didactic purposes to a name apparently derived from old tradition. There is no valid a priori reason for denying that the Old Testament may contain other examples of the same art.

Jonah. Esther.

The book of Jonah is generally viewed as a case in point. Esther, too, has been viewed as a fiction by many who are not over skeptical critics; but on this view a book which finds no recognition in the New Testament, and whose canonicity was long suspected by the Christian as well as by the Jewish Church, must sink to the rank of an apocryphal production.

Freedom Taken by Copyists

In the poetical as in the historical books anonymous writing is the rule; and along with this we observe great freedom on the part of readers and copyists, who not only made verbal changes (cf. Ps. xiv. With Ps. liii.), but composed new poems out of fragments of others (Ps. cviii. with lvii. and lx.) In a large part of the Psalter a later hand has systematically substituted Elohim for Jehovah, and an imperfect acrostic, like Ps. ix., x., cannot have proceeded in its present form from the first author. Still more remarkable is the case of the book of Job, in which the speeches of Elihu quite break the connection, and are almost universally assigned to a later hand.

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