The Practice of Interpreting the Bible Pt. 9

Poetry ranks second behind narrative as the most common form of literature in the Bible. Nearly one-third of the Old Testament is poetry. Poetry is unique to a cultural and language. For example, consider the poetic elements of rhyme and meter. English poetry utilizes certain words that rhyme and the syllabic construction of words that may be strategically arranged in a particular meter or rhythm. Translating a poem to another language often destroys these elements. The same is true when we translate Hebrew poetry into English. The distinctive characteristics of Hebrew poetry are not readily observed to one who does not read the original language. While some characteristics of Hebrew poetry are designed for literary aesthetics, other elements are critical to meaning. So, the one who is not familiar with the genre must acquaint himself with those characteristics.

This post will acquaint you with one of the major characteristics of Hebrew poetry; namely parallelisms. A parallelism is comprised of two or three lines that correspond in some way to communicate by the effect of their relationship. It is important to note three major types of parallelisms.

  1. Synonymous Parallelism – Synonymous parallelism occurs when different lines or parts of a passage present the same thought in a slightly altered manner of expression. For example, Psalm 16:10 says, “For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.” In the first line, David uses the words abandon and Sheol, but in the second line, he uses the synonyms allow and undergo decay.
  2. Antithetic Parallelism – Happens when the author sets two parts in contrast to each other. They may say the same thing but say it by way of negation. Consider Proverbs 13:1, “A wise son accepts his father’s discipline, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.” One of the indicators of the antithesis is the presence of the word but. The point of the parallelism is found in the contrasting idea.
  3. Synthetic Parallelism – This type of parallelism is a bit more complex. Here, the first part of the parallel creates a sense of expectation that is completed by the second. It can also take the form of moving in a progressive or staircase movement, to a conclusion in a third line. Psalm 92:9 is an excellent example of they type of parallelism. “For, behold Your enemies, O Lord, for, behold, Your enemies will perish; All who do iniquity will be scattered” (Ps. 92:9). In the first line, the psalmist simply presents God’s enemies. But, in the second line, he tells us what will happen to the enemies. Finally, the parallelism culminates in the third line with the universal judgment pronounced on all who do iniquity (which makes them an enemy of God).

Remember, in our quest to understand a specific biblical literary genre, we must not jettison the fundamentals of historical-grammatical hermeneutics. Poetry speaks, but behind every parallelism there is a message that God intended to communicate to His people. It must be the goal of the Bible student to discover the truth as God intended, not shape the truth for one’s own purpose.

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