‘All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ (William Wordsworth, 1801).

The distinction in modern literature between prose and poetry is difficult to apply to the Bible, but there is a tradition that regards certain OT books—the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Lamentations, the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs)—as poetry; and modern translations commonly print them in verse form. But many other examples of poetry are claimed by modern scholarship. Not having the same recognizable characteristics intrinsic to much Western poetry, of metre and rhyme, Hebrew poetry requires other criteria for recognizing it. There is a terseness of style; there is sometimes an ambiguity of meaning when a strictly literal description is replaced by figurative language; and the words used demand a response from the listener. The order of words may be unusual or they may be repeated as a kind of refrain (Isa. 5: 25; 9: 12, 17, 21; 10: 4). There are to be sure some instances of rhyming, by the use of suffixes; Jer. 12: 7 is cited as an example. And the relationship between Hebrew poetry and music indicates that it had a kind of metre which was fluid and flexible, not unlike the free rhythm of Gregorian plainsong of the Latin Church. (Some modern responsorial chants for the psalms developed in France using the rhythm of ordinary speech, stylized to some extent, may convey the flavour of Hebrew recitation.) When Jerome (342–420 CE) was working on his Vulgate, he thought that Hebrew poetry was usually composed in hexameters, like Greek and Latin verses, but modern scholars are inclined to hold that Hebrew poetry had no system of regular metre, as did Greek or Latin poetry; yet the music must have required some conventions of rhythmic stress.

The frequently (and perhaps misleadingly) mentioned use of ‘parallelism’ is a convention about the ordering of words in Hebrew poetry. In some cases there is a second line which extends or echoes the theme of the first (e.g. Ps. 104: 28). In Job 10: 12 two masculine nouns in the first line are paired with two feminine nouns in the second. Elsewhere a second idea is brought in by way of contrast with the first, but not always in strict line‐by‐line parallelism, e.g. in the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5: 4–5; 26–7). It was water that Sisera requested: she gave him milk. She brought him curds on a plate; but in her hands she held a tent‐peg and a mallet; the parallelism and the terseness seem to be there, but they are not clearly marked out. It is present also in the book of Job, though with complex variations (e.g. 28: 12, 20).

Poetry is found in connection with worship in all eras of Israelite history. There are sayings uttered by priests in the Temple, e.g. the threefold blessing of Num. 6: 24–6, and there are hymns sung at Passover, e.g. the celebration of victory over the Egyptians and the rule of God as king in Zion in Exod. 15, which must derive from Temple worship rather than from any historical exodus when Zion (Jerusalem) was unknown. Other fragments of war poems were woven into liturgical forms (e.g. Hab. 3). Funeral dirges and laments have an additional force from the parallelism, as in Jer. 9: 1 and 12: 8, 10; and liturgical poems of thanksgiving, though the rhythm and parallelisms are less clear, have been adapted by editors to fit into pieces of narrative, e.g. Jonah 2: 2–9, where appropriate references to the sea are followed by a promise to make vows in the Temple, so affirming a theological point relevant to the editor's own time. As the God of Jonah could rescue him from the deep, so also he could rescue the people of Nineveh from unbelief into repentance.

There is very little poetry in the NT (though the Prologue of John 1 is similar to the poetic parallelism of passages in the Wisdom literature, e.g. Prov. 8: 22–36 and Wisd. 7: 22–8: 1). But a number of Jesus' aphorisms contain parallelisms, e.g. Matt. 11: 30, Luke 16: 10. In some cases, the second line makes a contrast with the first, as in Matt. 8: 20 (‘Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’). The canticles of the Lucan infancy narratives (the Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc Dimittis) resemble Hebrew poetry. The Greek poet Aratus is quoted by Paul in his speech at Athens (Acts 17: 28) and Menander in 1 Cor. 15: 33, though the latter quotation rather looks as if Paul had not actually read the lost play Thais from which the words are taken; the Cretan poet Epimenides (or, another suggestion, Callimachus' Hymn to Zeus) is quoted by Titus 1: 12.