How are we to view Hebrew Poetry in the Bible (Part 3)?


In the last two Q&As, we discussed several variations of the concept of parallelism in biblical Hebrew Poetry, namely identical and similar synonymous parallelism, and introverted and antithetic parallelism.

As we will recall, Synonymous Parallelism describes the repetition of identical or similar thoughts; while in Introverted Parallelism, the order of thoughts is reversed, and in Antithetical Parallelism, opposite thoughts are expressed.

In this final Q&A in our series about Hebrew Poetry in the Bible, we will discuss further concepts of poetic devices.

One of these devices is the concept of SYNTHETIC PARALLELISM, which is also sometimes referred to as constructive or epithetic parallelism.

In Synthetic Parallelism, the word “synthesis” describes a combination of separate parts or elements into a whole. In other words, thoughts are built upon each other.

In Synthetic Parallelism, the second thought adds something fresh or new to the first thought, or it may explain the first thought.

We can divide this concept further.

First, we are going to review two examples in which a thought in the first line is complemented by another related thought in the second line.

Psalm 2:6:

“Yet I have set My King
“On My holy hill of Zion.”

In this passage, the first thought in the first line needs to be complemented by the second thought in the second line, in order to express a complete statement and give a complete sentence. In this meaningful statement, God the Father explains to the nations and the kings of the earth, who are scoffing at God, that He has already set “His King” on “His holy hill of Zion.” The King is a reference to the Son, the Anointed One, Jesus Christ (compare verses 2, 7 and 12). Long before Jesus Christ would be born as a human being, it was clear to the Father that He would qualify as Ruler of the coming Kingdom of God. When the Father says, “My King,” He did not mean that Jesus would be superior to Him, but just the opposite: Jesus is the Father’s King—He belongs to and is under the Father.

Psalm 138:4

“All the kings of the earth shall praise You, O LORD,
“When they hear the words of Your mouth.”

In this passage, the first thought in line 1 is complemented by a second thought in line 2: All the kings of the earth will praise and give glory to God when they hear His words. The context is the Millennium, when the glorified Jesus Christ will rule the earth (verse 5)—it will be then that they will understand what God is telling them, and then they WILL praise Him for the truth.

Let us focus now on one example of Synthetic Parallelism, where the thoughts in both lines are compared or contrasted with each other.

Proverbs 15:17:

“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is,
“Than a fatted calf with hatred.”

The contrast or comparison can be clearly seen by the phraseology, “better … than.”  It is better to have little with love than much with hatred. Solomon contrasts a dinner of herbs with a fatted calf, but points out that such physical riches are never satisfying when there is no love in the house.

As a third variation, we are looking at two examples where the thought in the second line explains the thought in the first line. This is an important device to understand; otherwise, we might not grasp the fully intended meaning of a particular statement.

Proverbs 26:4:

“Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
“Lest you also be like him.”

In this passage, the thought of the first line is explained by the thought in the second line. If answering a fool according to his folly would result in us becoming like him, we should refrain from doing so.

Proverbs 26:5:

“Answer a fool according to his folly,
“Lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

In this passage, the thought in the first line is also explained by the thought in the second line, but in contrast with the previous example, we are told here that we are to answer a fool according to his folly, if he might otherwise think that he is wise and that we are unable to respond to him. So, depending on the circumstances, we ought not answer a fool according to his folly so that we do not become like the fool, but we should answer him according to his folly, if the fool would otherwise think that he is wise. Our Q&A on Proverbs 26:4 and 5 gives several examples as to how to apply these passages in practice. We also stated this:

“In verse 4, we are told not to answer a fool, ‘…Lest you also be like him.’ We are admonished to avoid a pointless argument, wasting fruitless time and energy on foolishness, and to avoid responding approvingly by like folly. However, in verse 5, we are told to answer a fool, ‘… Lest he be wise in his own eyes.’ There is a time when we cannot give tacit approval by silence. There is a selective time to stand up, and not close our eyes to damage.”

Let us continue by focusing on the concept of CLIMACTIC PARALLELISM in Hebrew Poetry. Depending on certain commentaries and designations, this concept is also sometimes referred to as comprehensive parallelism, stair-like parallelism or anaphora parallelism.

Climactic Parallelism describes the concept that a thought in the first line becomes greater and more comprehensive in the second line. The second line reaches a climax. A thought in the first line is repeated in the second line, but a new and climactic thought is added (like stepping on the next step of a stair), making the entire statement more comprehensive.

Psalm 29:1:

“Give unto the LORD, O you mighty ones,
“Give unto the LORD glory and strength.”

The first thought in line 1 (“Give unto the LORD”) is repeated in line 2, but then line 2 adds what is to be given—“glory and strength.” The “mighty ones” could refer to angels or to humans whose potential it is to become God beings. But all are to give glory and strength to God. In using this poetic device, it is emphasized WHAT everyone is owed to give to God.

Psalm 29:8:

“The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness;
“The LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.”

In the second line, the wilderness is identified as the “wilderness of Kadesh,” making this a climactic statement, since Kadesh was in the wilderness to which the spies returned from Jericho (Numbers 13:26). The fact that the LORD’s voice shook the wilderness of Kadesh shows His displeasure with the evil report which the spies brought when returning.

Psalm 1:2:

“But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
“And in His law he meditates day and night.”

This example of Climactic Parallelism is also an example of Introverted Parallelism, showing that sometimes, different devices are being used in one particular passage. The climax here is expressed by the fact that the person, who delights in the law of God, meditates on it day and night. It is also an example of Introverted Parallelism, as the order of the thoughts is reversed (thought 1 in line 1 [“delight”] is expressed in thought 2 in line 2 [“meditates day and night”]).

Another device in Hebrew Poetry, which is used in the Bible, is that of EMBLEMATIC PARALLELISM.

The word “emblem” describes a symbol or a design that represents something; for instance, a dove is oftentimes used as a symbol of peace.

This is an important devise of Poetry, in that a literal statement in one line is contrasted with a metaphor or a simile in the other line.

A metaphor indicates something different from the literal meaning, such as, “You will eat my words,” or, “You have a heart of stone.” A simile compares one thing to another, such as, “He is as brave as a lion,” or, “childhood is like a passing dream.”

We distinguish between Emblematic Parallelism with a link and Emblematic Parallelism without a link. Many times, in the Hebrew text, the link is designated with the word “so,” connecting the different thoughts and making the contrast with a metaphor or simile quite clear.

Notice the following two examples of Emblematic Parallelism WITH a link:

Psalm 42:1:

“As the deer pants [longs for] the water brooks,
“So pants my soul for you, O God.”

The word “so” indicates here that the thought in line 1 is contrasted with the thought in line 2. While line 1 describes a literal occurrence (the thirsty deer longs for water), line 2 describes an emblem—a simile or a metaphor: David’s soul—his entire being—longs for God.

Proverbs 25:25:

“A cold water to a weary soul,
“So [is] good news from a far country.”

Here we find another contrast between something literal (cold water for a weary person) and something emblematic (good news from a far country). Even though good news from a far country can be quite real, it is contrasted here symbolically with the effect of cold water for a weary soul.

In the next example, no link to a metaphor or simile is given, but it is clear that in the Hebrew, a link is intended.

Emblematic Parallelism WITHOUT a link:

Proverbs 11:22:

“[As] a ring of gold in a swine’s snout,
“[so is] a lovely woman who lacks discretion.”

In the Hebrew, the words “as” in the first line and “so is” in the second line are not in the Original, but it is obvious that they must be added (as the translators did) to make the meaning clear. The literal statement (“a ring of gold in a swine’s snout”) is contrasted symbolically with a lovely woman (“the ring of gold”) who lacks discretion (“the swine’s snout”).

As another device of Hebrew Poetry, let us now focus on PALILOGICAL PARALLELISM.

The word “palilogy” describes the repetition of a word or phrase for emphasis. In Palilogical Parallelism, one or more words within the first thought are repeated, as an echo, in the second or third thought. As we will see, especially in this device, other devices may also be used. This is important to understand, if we want to grasp the full meaning of a particular statement.

Psalm. 72:17:

“His name shall endure forever;
“His name shall continue as long as the sun.
“And men shall be blessed in Him;
“All nations shall call Him blessed.”

This example combines several devices of Hebrew Poetry.  First, it incorporates the concept of Palilogical Parallelism. The thought of “His name” in line 1 is repeated, as an echo, in line 2, and the concept of being blessed in line 3 is repeated, as an echo, in line 4. In addition, we find here also an example of Synonymous Parallelism in lines 1 and 2. The concept of “endur[ing] forever” in line 1 is equated with the concept of “continu[ing] as long as the sun.” This is interesting in light of the fact that Jesus also said that as long as heaven and earth remain, the law of God will remain in force as well (Matthew 5:18). So, since God’s name will endure as long as the sun continues, so will His law.

Nahum 1:2:

“God is jealous, and the LORD avenges;
“The LORD avenges and is furious.
“The LORD will take vengeance on His adversaries,
“And He reserves wrath for His enemies.”

The thought in line 1 (“the LORD avenges”) is repeated as an echo in line 2. In line 3, it is almost repeated (“the LORD will take vengeance”), and the thought of Him being “furious” in line 2 is equated with His “wrath” in line 4, while His “adversaries” in line 3 are equated with His “enemies” in line 4, showing that when man acts adverse to the Will of God, God is angry with man and regards him as His enemy.

Judges 5:27:

“At her feet he sank, he fell, he lay still;
“At her feet he sank, he fell;
“here he sank, there he fell dead.”

Certain words in line 1 (“at her feet he sank, he fell”) are repeated as an echo in line 2, and to an extent in line 3, but other thoughts are added: “he lay still” in line 1 is repeated, as an identical thought, in line 3 (“he fell dead”). This shows that a dead person lies still; there is no continuation of life or consciousness when one dies.

Before concluding this series, we want to address one more device in Hebrew Poetry. It does not contain the concept of Parallelism, but it is known as the “Acrostic” device. “Acrostic” literally means, “beginning of the line.” It refers to instances when each line—or each series of lines—begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which has 22 letters.

For instance, Psalm 119 has 176 verses. Each verse of the first eight verses begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet; each verse of the second eight verses begins with the second letter of the alphabet, and so on. Each verse of the last eight verses of the psalm begins with the last or 22nd letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Many translations, such as the Authorized Version or the New King James Bible, have these passages marked and designated in Psalm 119. Each verse of the first eight verses begins with the letter “Aleph,” followed by the second stanza of eight verses with the letter “beth,” and so on. The last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the letter “tau,” is prominent in verses 169-176, where each verse of these last eight verses begins with the letter “tau.”

There are additional acrostic poems in the Bible.

Psalm 34:1-22 is an acrostic psalm, and so is Psalm 25, where with “minor exceptions, each verse of this alphabetic acrostic psalm begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet” (compare Ryrie Study Bible, comments to Psalm 34 and 25). In addition, Psalm 37 is an “alphabetic acrostic, every second verse beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet” (compare Ryrie Study Bible). Other acrostic psalms can be found in Psalms 9 and 10, “every alternate verse (for the most part) beginning with the next successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet” (Ryrie Study Bible).

Proverbs 31:10-31 is an acrostic poem as well, and much of the book of Lamentations contains acrostic poems. (For instance, the Jewish Bible, Tanakh, designates quite nicely the different original letters of the Hebrew alphabet in these passages in the English translation) The Ryrie Study Bible explains that “the book [of Lamentations] consists of five poems, one for each chapter, the first four being written as acrostics (each verse begins with a word whose first letter is successively one of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet—except in chapter 3, where three verses are allotted to each letter).”

To summarize, recognizing the different devices of Hebrew Poetry, as used in the Holy Bible, should give us a deeper understanding of the intended meaning of certain passages and also additional appreciation of the beauty contained in those passages. The Bible is a living book—the Word of the living God—and its richness should fill us with amazement and thankfulness, always remembering that man does not live by bread alone, but by EVERY Word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4).

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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