An Exegetical Insight for Understanding Hebrew Poetry

Often, when exegesis is taught, a key part of the exegetical process is making an outline of the text. There is great merit in this, but what do we do when we face conflicting outlines? Often, especially in prose, only one outline will fit the text; commentaries and much thought help us discern what proposed outline is more accurate. But I want to draw attention to those cases where an author has intentionally employed overlapping structures.

I have only experienced this in poetic texts; in some cases it becomes impossible to choose which structure is more fitting (e.g. Psalm 84; there is the thematic outline and the rhythmic outline marked by Selah), acknowledging that an author is intentionally doing this can give further, important, insight into our interpretation of a text. Habakkuk 2:2-5 is a perfect example of this.


In this much-debated text, Habakkuk uses three overlapping structures to contrast the fate of individual Judahites, contrast the actions of individual Judahites, and compare the fate of the wicked Judean leaders with the Chaldeans coming to judge them. Though impossible, I believe, to render this in one English translation or outline, these coexisting points can be shown individually.

First, we see the contrasted fates (the doom of the one not believing is implied by context):

So that [A] the one who reads it will run-
                  3For the vision… it will not   tarry–
         4Behold, his appetite is bloated; it is not upright within him
[B] But the righteous one will live by his faith

We also see the contrasted actions of the two groups:

So that the one who reads it [A] will run
         [A’] 3For the vision is still for an appointed time…
If it delays, [B] wait for it,
         [B’] for it will surely come; it will not tarry

Lastly, we see a comparison between the wicked Judean leaders and the Chaldeans

[A]4behold, his appetite is bloated, it is not upright within him;…
[B] 5How much more is wine betraying the arrogant man… he opens wide his appetite like Sheol,


The knowledge that this ambiguity can exist is a very helpful tool in exegesis. So, especially when translating/exegeting Hebrew poetry, pay attention for the possibility of overlapping parallels and structures.

The translation and discussion of the structures of Habakkuk in this post are adapted from my upcoming commentary on the book of Habakkuk.


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