How are we to view Hebrew Poetry in the Bible? (Part 2)


In the last Q&A, we discussed one aspect of Hebrew Poetry in the inspired pages of the Old Testament—that of Identical and Similar Synonymous Parallelism.


In INTROVERTED PARALLELISM (a/k/a chiasmus), the order of the thoughts is reversed. In the first line, thought 1 is followed by thought 2. In the second line, thought 2 is followed by thought 1.

Let us look at a few examples:

Psalm 51:1:

“Have mercy upon Me, O God, According to Your lovingkindness;
“According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgression.”

We see in this statement, that to “have mercy” (thought 1 in line 1)  is identified with blotting out transgression (thought 2 in line 2), and lovingkindness (thought 2 in line 1) is equated with “the multitude of Your tender mercies” (thought 1 in line 2). When we have mercy, we overlook and are willing to forgive and forget transgression, and God’s lovingkindness can be seen in the multitude of His tender (not brutal or cruel) mercies.

Psalm 51:3:

“For I acknowledge my transgressions,
“And my sin is always before me.”

Here, “I acknowledge” (thought 1 in line 1) is identical with “always before me” (thought 2 in line 2), and “my transgressions” (thought 2 in line 1)  is equated with “my sin” (thought 1 in line 2). This example shows us that the acknowledgement of transgressions is not just a temporary fleeting emotional sentiment, but it is strong and lasting, recognizing that all of them constitute sin, leading to genuine repentance of what we have done and what we are. 

Psalm 30:8:

“I cried out to You, O LORD;
“And to the LORD I made supplication.”

“I cried out” (thought 1 in line 1) is identical with “I made supplication” (thought 2 in line 2), while “O LORD” (thought 2 in line 1) is repeated in the next line, “to the LORD” (thought 1 in line 2). Crying out and making supplication to God is equated, showing the genuineness and urgency of the prayer.

Proverbs 23:15-16:

“My son, if your heart is wise, My heart will rejoice—indeed, I myself;
“Yes, my inmost being (kidneys) will rejoice When your lips speak right things.”

This is a remarkable example of introverted parallelism. The first thought in line 1 (“your heart is wise”) is identified in the second thought in line 2 (“your lips speak right things”), and “my heart will rejoice” (second thought in line 1) is equated with “my inmost being will rejoice” or, literally, “my kidneys will rejoice.” This statement shows us that wisdom of the heart manifests itself in speaking right things, and that the heart (or the kidneys) may stand for the emotions of the person and the entire being (“indeed, I myself,” as it says at the end of line 1).

Another devise of Hebrew Poetry is Antithetic Parallelism.

ANTITHETIC PARALLELISM is the direct opposite to synonymous parallelism. Actually, antithesis means, the direct opposite.

In this device of Hebrew Poetry, the second line contrasts the first line. The second line expresses the opposite to the first line, while the order of the thoughts is maintained. Even in the English language, we may “rhyme” through opposites: “Give me liberty, or give me death.”

Let us review a few pertinent and telling examples of antithetic parallelism:

Proverbs 10:1:

“A wise son makes a glad father,
“But a foolish son is the grief of his mother.”

The second line expresses the opposite to the first line, while maintaining the order of the thoughts.  “A wise son” (first thought in line 1) is contrasted with “a foolish son” (first thought in  line 2), while “a glad father” (second thought in line 1) is contrasted with “grief of his mother” (second thought in line 2). This means, then, that a wise son makes his parents glad, while a foolish son grieves his parents. Father and mother need to be understood here as describing both parents.

Proverbs 10:5:

“He who gathers in summer is a wise son;
“He who sleeps in harvest is a son who causes shame.”

In this example, the wise son who gathers in summer (line 1)  is contrasted with a foolish son (a son who sleeps in harvest—line 2). And while the foolish son is described as one who causes shame (line 2), the opposite thought is not expressed for the wise son in the first line, but needs to be understood—the wise son does not cause shame, but praise and glory. But another opposite is discussed here: The wise son is one who gathers “in summer,” while the foolish son is one who sleeps in harvest. The idea is expressed, that the wise son is continuously working and busy and productive, while the foolish one is continuously sleeping and unproductive.

Proverbs 10:4:

“He who has a slack hand becomes poor,
“But the hand of the diligent makes rich.”

The poor and the rich are contrasted here, and it is expressed that slackness leads to poverty, while diligence leads to riches. This can also be applied to our spiritual lives. When we become slack or lukewarm spiritually, we will become poor, while diligence and zeal lead to eternal life and the true riches in the Kingdom of God.

Proverbs 10:12:

“Hatred stirs up strife,
“But love covers all sins.”

This is another beautiful example of antithetic parallelism: Hatred is the opposite to love, and while hatred causes and leads to strife, love avoids strife, by covering all sins. What is also expressed here is the thought that hatred may be the result of sinful conduct of another person towards us, and to avoid that hatred takes hold of us, leading to strife, we are to overlook or cover the sins of others, but ultimately, we can only do this with and through love—the love of God which was poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

Proverbs 11:3:

“The integrity of the upright will guide them,
“But the perversity of the unfaithful will destroy them.”

Integrity is opposed to perversity; the upright is contrasted with the unfaithful; and “guide” is the opposite to “destroy.” When we are sincere and upright, we will be guided and led in the right way, but if we become perverse and unfaithful, we will be destroyed. Again, this passage needs to be applied in both spiritual and physical ways.

Proverbs 16:9:

“A man’s heart plans his way,
“But the LORD directs his steps.”

This example of antithetic parallelism (also indicated by the word “but” in the second line) shows us that man might devise plans which are of no value, but it is God who must direct man and lead his steps to reach success. It is not in man’s heart to direct his steps in the right way. Rather, it requires God’s intervention and guidance, and so, we must acknowledge God in all our ways and submit to His lead and His Will.

Proverbs 29:27:

“An unjust man is an abomination to the righteous,
“And he who is upright in the way is an abomination to the wicked.”

As the righteous will not justify the conduct of an unjust person—it (the conduct, not the person) is an abomination to the just—so the wicked will not accept the conduct of a righteous person. A wicked person rejects the way of God and he will persecute those who walk in it, while the righteous person will not be swayed by the wicked to follow his steps.

Psalm 37:9:

“For evildoers shall be cut off [destroyed],
“But those who wait on the LORD, they shall inherit the earth.”

While evildoers will not live forever and inherit the earth, those who wait on the Lord to help and guide them, will live forever in the Kingdom of God, ruling the earth under Jesus Christ. It is interesting that evildoers are contrasted with “those who wait on the LORD.” If we don’t wait for God, but try to “deal” with problems on our own, we might become evildoers by choosing “solutions” which are not right and just. A classic example is the idea that we must go to war to bring peace and democracy to other nations.

Psalm 20:8:

“They have bowed down [to their chariots and horses] and fallen;
“But we have risen [in prayer to God] and stand upright.”

While pagan and Gentile nations bow down to and trust in their self-made gods, idols and the works of their hands and fall, we pray to God and stand. But more is expressed here: They bow down (in their false worship), while we rise (in prayer); they fall and we stand upright. This is not talking about in what position we ought to pray (standing, kneeling etc.), but it speaks of an attitude: When we pray to God, we expect an answer. We come boldly before the throne of God when we are in need of help. On the other hand, they bow down in anxious superstitious conduct, enslaved to their own inventions and laboring under a yoke. And so, while we are free from bondage of wrong ideas and while we have become friends of Jesus Christ, they are being held captive by Satan the devil to do his will.

Now, let us also review two examples which combine INTROVERTED and ANTITHETIC PARALLELISM. In these examples, the second line contrasts the first line, and the order of the thoughts in the first line and in the second line is reversed as well:

Psalm 1:6:

“For the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
“But the way of the ungodly shall perish.”

In this example, the order of the thoughts in the first and second lines are reversed. The way of the righteous (thought 2 in line 1) is contrasted with the way of the ungodly (thought 1 in line 2), and the knowledge of the LORD (thought 1 in line 1) is contrasted with “shall perish” (thought 2 in line 2).

God knows (in the sense of approves of) the way of the righteous, but He does not approve of the way of the ungodly, and the ungodly and his way will perish. When God approves of our way, we will succeed and endure; when He disapproves of our way (because we have become ungodly), we will perish. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. But God does not give us this gift of eternal life, if we show through our evil conduct that we do not want to be obedient to Him. God does not want us to live forever in misery and pain.

Proverbs 13:24:

“He who spares his rod hates his son,
“But he who loves him disciplines him promptly (early).”

This is another beautiful example of a combination of introverted and antithetic parallelism, where the thoughts are reversed. “Hates his son” (thought 2 in line 1) is contrasted with “loves him” (thought 1 in line 2). Also, “spares his rod” (thought 1 in line 1) is opposed to “disciplines him promptly” (thought 2 in line 2).

We hate our children if we spare the rod, but we love them if we discipline them promptly or early—that is, immediately at the time of a transgression or rebellious conduct. When parents wait too long with discipline, are inconsistent, threaten the children with discipline, without carrying it out, they really do not show the love for their children that they ought to have, by training them in the way they should go. The liberal anti-authoritarian education of especially the Western World has produced terrible fruits and does not reflect the love which parents ought to have for their children. Even though in some countries, spanking is forbidden, God tells us that in certain cases, it is biblical. But “the rod” must never be used to inflict bodily harm on the child.

In addition, we point out the following in our free booklet, “The Keys to Happy Marriages and Families”:  “Since using the rod is compared with prompt or early discipline, it is clear that this passage includes the concept of spanking, where and when appropriate. Of course, we don’t spank a teenager or an adult, so the spanking needs to be done early in the life of the child. But note, again, we discipline our children, because we LOVE them. If we discipline our children for any other reason, or because of any other motive, we do NOT follow God’s instructions. Spanking should never cause physical injury to a child. The intent is to break a rebellious spirit, not to bruise skin.”

In the next Q&A, we will continue with discussing additional devices of Hebrew Poetry, as used in Old Testament passages.

(To Be Continued)
Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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