Today I want to introduce you to what is probably the most useful Bible study tool I have ever been shown.
It’s the idea of Hebrew parallelism. Now, before you let the name put you off, please let me reassure you: it’s really very simple!
Much of the Bible, including much of Jesus’s and Paul’s teachings, is written in the style of Hebrew poetry, in which two concepts or ideas are presented together, so as to emphasise the point being made. This is called ‘parallelism’, and there are two types of parallelism: ‘synonymous’ or ‘synthetic’ parallelism; and ‘antithetic’ parallelism.
Again, don’t be scared off by the technical terms; it’s really easy to understand. It simply means that the two concepts either compare with each other, or they contrast with each other. Synthetic means that the concepts compare; antithetic means they contrast. The Biblical books of Psalms and Proverbs are full of such writings, and it is mainly from these books that I will draw examples.
So, synthetic parallelism is where the two concepts agree and reinforce each other. Think of it that the two concepts ‘rhyme’, if you like. In synthetic parallelism, the second line of the stanza completes, clarifies or complements the first line. For example, Proverbs 2:6 says,
“For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding”
So we see here two rhyming concepts – the Lord gives wisdom, and from His mouth come knowledge and understanding. The writer is helping us to understand that wisdom is to do with both knowledge and understanding. He also tells us that these benefits come from God, and not only from God, but from His mouth – as in, they are personal and integral to God’s character and what He says. So, the second phrase clarifies and defines the first – and not only that, but the truth is greater than the sum of its parts, because we get to look at the idea from two different yet complementary angles. We therefore get the idea that wisdom and listening to God are in fact intertwined; although this is not explicitly stated in the stanza, the conclusion is inferred by the parallelism and would not have been apparent without it.
A second example would be from Psalm 23:6 –
“Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.“
Here’s an interesting one. He refers to ‘all the days of my life’, and yet also refers to ‘[dwelling] in the house of the Lord forever’. Does this mean, then that David (it was the legendary King David who wrote the psalm) feels that he will have ‘life’ in the house of the Lord forever? Like, for eternity? Is this an early indication of belief in an afterlife? But whatever the case, David is equating dwelling ‘in God’s house’ with ‘goodness and love’. Each line by itself would not communicate this, but when combined using synthetic parallelism, the two lines complete and explain one another. Lovely!
So, this is synthetic parallelism. The joining together of two complementary ideas in order to improve the benefits gained from what is written.
The other type of parallelism is called ‘antithetic parallelism’. Antithetic parallelism is where, instead of complementing each other, the two lines contrast with each other. If you like, they are opposite concepts, rather than rhyming concepts. The use of opposites clarifies both extremes, and the truth of the statement is found somewhere in between. In Hebrew poetry, the use of opposites brings a sharper contrast to the statements and provides a greater focus to the desired message.
For example, let’s take a look at Proverbs 28:1 –
“The wicked flee when no-one is chasing them, but the righteous are bold as a lion”
Again, standing on their own, these lines would not mean much more than they say. The wicked flee when no-one is pursuing them. Oh. Is that right? But when contrasted with the antithetic line ‘the righteous are bold as a lion’, then it makes sense. It shows the benefits of being righteous – because the boldness of the righteous is great just because they are righteous, whereas the wicked flee for no reason. It’s a bit like saying the wicked have a guilty conscience, whereas those who are righteous – in right standing with God – do not.
Or in another example, Ephesians 5:18 says,
“Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit”.
This is not an injunction that Christians must never be drunk, as it is most commonly used to ‘prove’. Instead, this is an antithetic parallelism that contrasts being drunk on alcohol with being filled with the Spirit. Both situations produce ‘good feelings’; both might lead us to do things we wouldn’t normally do. But when taken together, the contrast of being filled with the Spirit (and its consequence of gorgeous singing*, worship and general well-being) is so far away from drunkenness (and its consequence of ‘debauchery’ – doing possibly harmful or hurtful things; what some call ‘sin’) that you would be almost forced to agree that being filled with Holy Spirit is far, far better than being drunk. You see the point? Two opposing concepts are presented that, when contrasted, bring out the meanings of ‘why’ we perhaps should think twice about getting drunk, but instead go on being filled with Holy Spirit. I’m not trying to lay down rules here, of course – far from it, I’m just using this passage as an example of how much we can get out of using parallelism in our studies.
So, this is parallelism. As you study your Bible, then, try to look for examples of these parallelisms in your reading…and then when you combine this use of parallelism with the illumination of Holy Spirit, what you have is dynamite. Your understanding of the Scriptures will be so much better!
I could go into whole passages where the parallelism is not so much in one phrase following another, but indeed whole passages using this technique from paragraph to paragraph. Really, once you start to see this parallelism stuff, you will keep on noticing it and recognising it for what it is. And, when you do, remember how to use the tool to get the most out of the passage. A particularly beautiful use of parallelism is in the so-called ‘Beatitudes’ passages in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Matt 5:3-12; Lk 6:20-22) where Jesus uses it in both ways, but the whole concept is in terms of the brilliant sequence of synthetic and antithetic lines used with that first line of each beatitude, ‘Blessed are….’. Read those passages with parallelism in mind, and you will immediately see not only how useful this tool is for understanding, but also how useful it is for teaching as well. Those lines would have sunk in, believe me!
So, that’s parallelism. Give it a go. Use it if you find it useful. Discard it if not. The choice is yours. It’s just that I’ve found it really, really useful and I wanted to share it here so that you can use it too.
*If you’ve never heard the wonderful sound of people singing ‘in the Spirit’, have a listen to the beginning of the track ‘Come Sup with Me’ in my previous post. That’s a bit rhythmic; there is a lot of softer stuff on my Vintage Worship Tapes site. Go take a look.