Poetic Types in the Bible

When we speak of the poetry of the Bible, we think most naturally of the book of Psalms, so this unit will focus on this book of the Old Testament, though not to the exclusion of other parts.  The Hebrew word psalm means “song of praises.”  The Old Testament Book of Psalms (also known as the Psalter) is a temple collection, which means that the poems were used in an official capacity at the temple in Jerusalem.  The psalms contain the whole gamut of religious emotions — from lamentation and grief to joy, love, and awe.  In his commentary on the Book of Psalms, John Calvin famously called the Psalter “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.”  Within the Psalter, these are the main types of lyric:

  • Lament psalms (or complaint psalms)
  • Praise psalms
  • Nature psalms
  • Worship psalms (songs of Zion)

Poems falling within these subtypes may be either private or communal.

Each of the types of psalms has its own characteristics.  A praise psalm testifies to the worthiness of God, either God’s activity on a given occasion or an attribute or quality that God possesses always.  It is written in a three-part format:

  1. A formal call to praise (which may include a command to praise, the naming of the group to whom the command is uttered, and the naming of the mode of praise, such as voice or lyre)
  2. The development of praise (a listing of the praiseworthy acts or attributes of God)
  3. The conclusion of praise (often a brief, final prayer or wish)

Similarly, a psalm of lament has five main parts — an invocation to God, a definition of the crisis (the lament or complaint itself), a petitioning of God to act, a statement of confidence in God, and a vow to praise God.

Outside the Book of Psalms, other poetic genres become more prevalent.  The Song of Solomon (also known as the Song of Songs) is an anthology of love lyrics. In the Old Testament book of Proverbs, we find the encomium — a poem in praise of an abstract quality or general character type.  The Christ hymn is a lyric form unique to the New Testament.  Here are some examples of each poetic genre that has been mentioned:

  • Lament psalm: Psalm 10
  • Praise psalm: Psalm 33
  • Worship psalm: Psalm 84
  • Nature poem: Psalm 104
  • Love poem: Song of Solomon 2:8-17 and 4:1-8
  • Encomium: Proverbs 31:10-31 (in praise of the virtuous wife)
  • Christ hymn: John 1:1-18 and Colossians 1:15-20