Approximately half of the Hebrew Scriptures are written in poetic form and poetry is the main vehicle for all prophecy.
The key to understanding Hebrew poetry and Wisdom Literature is knowing that the “rhyme” of ideas is more important than the sounds. This “rhyming” of ideas is called parallelism. But the second statement in the parallel is are not mere repetition of the first statement, but usually heightens it.
In parallelism two related lines are juxtaposed to suggest one unified statement. The kinds of relationships between the parallel elements are potentially as many as the ways any two things can be related. Some examples:
Types of Parallelism
|Synonymous||The second line repeats the idea of the first line, sometimes by negating its opposite.||Psalm 7:17|
|Antithetic||The two lines contrast each other||Psalm 1:6|
|Emblematic||One line serves as an “emblem” (a visual representation) of the other, (i.e. a simile, a metaphor or a specific example.)||Psalm 42:1|
|Climactic||The progressive building of ideas through several verses, reaching a climax. (e.g. each line may have the same words except for the last term. The second line completes the thought of the first line.)||Psalm 29:1-2|
|The second line further develops the idea of the first line. The two lines can work together to explain a broader image or work together for the same image.||Psalm 95:3|
|Two parts joined together into a whole. (In a sense this is a catch-all category for all the verses that don’t fit the above descriptions.)||Psalm 2:6|
|Intensification||Verbs, nouns and numbers intensify. For example, “flow” to “gushed”; “darkness” to “gloom”; “a thousand” to “10 thousand”||Isaiah 48:21 (verb)
Isaiah 59:9 (noun)
Deuteronomy 32:30 (numbers)
|Focusing||The second line narrows the meaning of the first line (e.g. “cities of Judea” to “streets of Jerusalem”) or dynamically heightens it.||Jeremiah 7:34 (geography & voice)
Proverbs 16:5 (detests – punishes)
|Specification||The second line gives a more concrete instance of the first lines.||Lamentations 1:2|
|Dramatization||The second line repeats the first with metaphors to dramatize the meaning.||Isaiah 59:9
|The second line follows from the first or is a consequence of the first.||Proverbs 16:3|
Elements within parallelism
1) A “merism” is when two extremes represent the whole. Each might be an element in the parallelism.
In the morning he devours the prey
And at evening he divides the spoil (Gen. 49:27)
(from morning to evening, i.e. all day)
2) Each element can represent a more general category. For example, the arrow and the sword can represent weapons of war or war in general.
3) Hebrew has an idiom with numbers: x, x+1. The final item of the sequence is often the point of the proverb. Increasing numbers can also convey the sense of “how much more so”.
There are three things that will not be satisfied,
Four that will not say, “Enough” ( Prov. 30:18)
4) Repetition is often used for making connections between sections and verses or for emphasizing an idea. Types of repetition: synonyms, catchwords, inclusions (starting & ending with the same thing).
5) Rhetorical questions can be used to clinch an argument by forcing the reader to come up with the right answer.
Can a man take fire in his bosom,
And his clothes not be burned? (Prov. 6:27)
6) Watch for patterns in the whole. Often the verses are arranged in sequence. For example verses 1-4 might follow the pattern ABCD, and verses 5-8 repeat the ABCD. Or you might see ABCD DCBA, AABBCCDD, etc. There are potentially as many patterns as the poets’ imaginations.
- Poetry attempts to convey as much as possible in a few words, making poetry compact and dense. Often direct object markers and the definite article are omitted. Verbs are often implied but not repeated in each line (this is called “gapping”).
- Poetry tends to be filled with figures of speech.
- An understanding of the passage which takes parallelism into account is better than one that doesn’t.
- Different words do not necessarily imply different things. They may be a “rhyming of ideas” with a single meaning.
- Parallelism does not override other concerns such as grammar, syntax, context, word meaning. All these items must work together.
- To interpret, ask what is the relationship between the two lines? What do they imply?
- As a “genre”, parallelism is not as restrictive as a sonnet. However, the genre does demand that the main point is in a couplet. Each stanza furthers a specific point and moves in the same direction. Don’t expect tangents.
- The author has some freedom within the patterns. If his audience is aware of the pattern, the author can do something unexpected to create an effect. When the author breaks a the pattern, figure out why.
For further study: How to Read the Psalms, by Tremper Longman III.