In the Hebrew Bible, prophecy is closely connected with poetry. Most of the prophets’ words were recited and recorded in the form of poems and songs. This way the “prophet” – or more literally “spokesperson” (נביא navi for a man or נביאה neviah for a woman) – could convey the message of the Eternal One with linguistic beauty and emotional force. Communicating in poetry also made it easier for people to memorize and recall the lines.

The book of Isaiah (ישעיהו Yeshayahu) contains some of the most striking poetic prophecy ever written. Here is one famous passage:

“And one of the seraphim flew down to me,
in his hand a glowing coal in tongs that he had taken from the altar.
And he touched my mouth and said,
‘Look, this has touched your lips,
and your crime is gone, your offense shall be atoned.’
And I heard the voice of the Master saying,
‘Whom shall I send,
and who will go for us?’
And I said, ‘Here I am, send me.’” (Isaiah 6:6-8; trans. Alter)

Poetry cannot be reproduced very well in another language, but it can inspire other poet-prophets. The most famous Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, was one of those who gave voice to his interpretation of this ancient Biblical passage. Here is my own translation of Pushkin’s poem Prorok (“The Prophet”):

“Parched with a spiritual thirst,
I dragged myself across the gloomy desert.
And at the crossroads there appeared to me
a seraph of six wings.
With fingers light as a dream
he touched my pupils.
The prophetic pupils opened wide
like those of a frightened eagless.
He touched my ears,
and filled them with clamor and pealing:
and I heard the shudder of heaven,
and the heavenly flight of angels,
and the underwater course of sea monsters,
and the vegetation of earthly vines.
And he pressed my lips,
and tore out my tongue of sin
and idle talk and deceit.
And with a bloody right hand,
he placed into my frozen lips
the sting of a wise serpent.
And with a sword he cut open my breast,
and extracted the trembling heart,
and pushed a coal, blazing with fire,
into my open breast.
I lay in the desert like a corpse.
And the voice of God called out to me:
‘Arise, prophet; and see, and hearken!
Fulfill My will –
and, traversing sea and land,
burn people’s hearts with the Word.”

To understand the Bible as it was written, we must try to grasp its poetic force. Why was Hebrew prophecy written as poetry? Perhaps there was no other way to express such raw emotion and deep truths.

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24 COMMENTS

    • Great question, Jeffrey. The basic feature of ancient Hebrew poetry is parallelism. Generally speaking, this means that lines of text are written as couplets that are interconnected in particular ways. For example: “Where can I go from Your spirit, / and where from before You flee?” (Psa. 139:7, trans. Alter) Some other important features of this type of ancient poetry include: constant use of alliteration, freer syntax, unusual words and expressions. All these aspects produce a text that sounds “special” compared to ordinary prose. These are some general principles, but variations do exist.

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  1. It’s very interesting and everything seems to be clear. Please if you can pray for my breakthrough and the power of the Holy Spirit (from New Zealand).
    [Partly edited by moderator.]

  2. I am so moved by this poem! It will go on a cork board by my desk to view every day. Thank you for the translation. I feel so inadequate to do what I feel called to do in my golden years–leave a legacy of what I have learned of the beauty, merciful justice, and love of God through a biblically accurate and hopefully entertainingly imaginative series of novels looking at the Joshua years through the time when Othniel becomes the first judge, up close through the eyes of seven minor biblical contemporaries of that period including Othniel and Acsah.

  3. May I post your translation of “Prorok” with all due credit for my readers on my Facebook author page or my (infrequent) email newsletter?

    • Carolyn, thank you for asking! Yes, please feel free to use the translation as long as you include my name and the address of the original webpage. (Please add the note: “Used by permission.”)

    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Name of God or Exploring Jewish Interpretation. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

  4. It is a very clear and wonderful article. But please from which altar did the angel picked the glowing coal?

    • Thank you, Olasehinde! The description in Isaiah 6 is of a vision of God on a throne; the altar seems to be “nearby” (or at least accessible) in this vision.

    • We are glad that you are finding our articles enlightening. You’ve already started your path into Scripture, but there’s so much more that awaits you! Consider enrolling in our immersive online courses: The Name of God or Exploring Jewish Interpretation. We guarantee that they will deepen your understanding of Scripture and enrich your faith experience.

  5. Is there any commentary or discussion on the meaning behind “coal on the lips” at Israel Bible Centre that you’re aware of Dr Yeshaya? I’d love to do more reading on Isaiah!

    And thank you for the brief poetry exposition and Russian translation of that poem 🙂

  6. I enjoy everything you are putting forth, it is very interesting.
    Also love reading the comments.
    You doing a good job educating folk.
    I love the Bible and the Hebrew roots etc..
    God bless you and all those who assist you. ? Shalom

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