Poetry in the Book of Isaiah

And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city.—Isaiah 1:8 New Revised Standard Version

When asked why Hebrew poetry does not rhyme, Ann Madsen explained that it is not words that rhyme like in our English tradition. Instead, the ideas the author is trying to drive home are set to two lines that counter, mirror or repeat each other. These ideas are then laid down alongside one another to reinforce the message the Prophet is trying to convey.

Hebrew Poetry Explained

“Because Isaiah is written in poetry, but Hebrew poetry is not like our rhyming kind of poetry that has rhyme at the end.

“We have the Psalms that are printed like poetry, so you look at them, and you can look at how a line and an idea in the first line matches the next line or has that contrast to it or has a relationship, and that’s what Hebrew poetry is like.

“Prophecy in the Old Testament is all in poetry. And it begins in parallelism. This is the method used to produce poetry in Hebrew; all Hebrew poetry and all prophetic poetry.

“One of the ways that you’ll understand reading Isaiah is when you understand it’s written in poetry. Most of it, except four chapters in the middle of Isaiah, (36 through 39) which are in prose. All the rest of it is poetry.

“This allows the Prophet to say one thing after another thing, after another thing. Each time a little different, with nuance in meaning.

An Example of Hebrew Poetry

She explained, “the ancient Israelites would build a hut in a field when they were harvesting (see image above). It would be a temporary hut in that field. But they would build a watchtower in their vineyards. A field and a vineyard can be compared to each other.

“One is a little different, as it might have cucumbers in it, and the other one would have grapes, that doesn’t matter. Isaiah is still making this metaphor for you to consider.

“Then he gives you a third idea, when he finally says, “like a city under siege.” Anybody in his day would have known the city under siege was surrounded and that they couldn’t get out.”

She concluded, “so, the metaphor has all these different nuances of meaning. It makes it beautiful when you start understanding that it’s just poetically lovely with no rhymes, just idea rhymes.”

This selection is from an interview between Ann Madsen and Darryl Alder

“Poetic parallelism may be defined as two short, balanced lines (phrases or sentences), with line one featuring words that are paralleled by the words of line two. Line two is a repetition, echo, or symmetrical counterpart of line one. Parallelisms rarely feature rhymes of assonance or consonance; rather, they present a harmonious construction of two expressions. Other parallel words may be synonymous or antithetical, or they may correspond in a number of other ways…”

Nephi’s Keys to Understanding Isaiah(2 Nephi 25:1-8) by Donald W. Parry

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Ann N. Madsen, an Isaiah scholar and poet, teaches ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. She received her MA degree from BYU in ancient studies with a minor in Hebrew. At present, she serves on the Sunday School general board of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She and her husband, Truman, have three children and a Navajo foster son, sixteen grandchildren and, at the moment, twenty-five great-grandchildren.


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