Bible Interpretation Class – Hiawatha Bible Chapel

Genre – Examples of Poetic Parallelism

Lesson 5 – March 25th  2017

Parallelism in Hebrew Poetry

About one-third to one-half of the OT is written in poetry. There are special rules for recognizing how Hebrew poetry works and how it should be interpreted. The major work on the study of Hebrew poetry was done in 1753 by the Rev. Robert Lowth. Prior to that, analyzing the poetry of the Scriptures was not done.

When we think of poetry in English, we tend to think of rhyme and meter. For example:

        Roses are red

        Violets are blue

        Sugar is sweet

        And so are you

As we pronounce the words in that poem, each line has 4 beats and the 2nd and 4th lines rhyme, pretty standard in English poetry.

Of course not all English poems rhyme. There is blank verse (no rhyme), free verse (no strict meter), Haiku (counts syllables), other kinds that count syllables, etc.

Hebrew poetry does not have rhyme or strict meter. The most distinctive feature of Hebrew poetry is called parallelism. There are numerous kinds of parallelism. The best way to understand parallelism in Hebrew poetry is to look at examples of the various kinds:

  1. Synonymous Parallelism

Synonymous parallelism is where the thought in the first line of poetry is repeated in the second line of poetry in synonymous or nearly synonymous words. This is very common in Psalms. For example,

Psalm 105:23

A                B                        C

        Israel                also came into                Egypt;

        Thus Jacob          sojourned in                the land of Ham.

        A*                B*                        C*


Notice the close parallels. “Israel” and “Jacob” are both names of the father of the 12 tribes. “Came

into” and “sojourned in” are not exact synonyms, but are close enough to be used here. Egypt and the

Land of Ham are close synonyms. Ham was the son of Noah whose descendants migrated primarily to

Africa. By synecdoche (whole stands for the part) the land of Ham stands for Egypt.


        Psalm 51:2

        A                                B

        Wash me thoroughly                from my iniquity

        And cleanse me                from my sin.

        A*                                B*


Psalm 51:7

A                                B

        Purify me with hyssop,         and I shall be clean;

        Wash me,                          and I shall be whiter than snow.

        A*                                B*

        Again, notice the repetition with synonymous or nearly synonymous terms.

Synonymous is the most common form of parallelism, but there are other kinds.

Side Note: Normally in Scripture, things are repeated for emphasis, but this is not the case in parallelism

in poetry. The purpose here is to make it into poetry.

  1. Antithetical Parallelism

Antithetical parallelism balances the parallel lines through opposition or contrast of thought. This parallelism uses antonyms, or opposites. It is especially common in Proverbs.

Psalm 90:6

A                                B

In the morning it                 flourishes and sprouts anew;

Toward evening it                 fades and withers away.

A*                                B*

Morning and evening are opposites, and flourishes/sprouts are opposites of fade/withers. For other examples see Proverbs 10:4 and Proverb 10:30.

  1. Emblematic Parallelism

Emblematic parallelism is similar to synonymous parallelism, but involves a simile or a metaphor so that the thought of the first line is compared to the second.

Psalm 103:13

A                        B                        C

Just as a father         has compassion         on his children,

So the Lord                 has compassion         on those who fear Him.

A*                        B*                        C*

  1. Incomplete Parallelism

Incomplete parallelism is parallelism in which each line has the same number of terms, but only some of the terms parallel.

Psalm 21:10

A                        B                                C

You will wipe                 their descendants                 from the earth

and their offspring                 from the human race.

B*                                C*

  1. Stair-step Parallelism

Stair-step parallelism shows progression of thought with each new line of poetry. Typically this kind of parallelism comes in triplets, repeating parts of the previous line, but extending the idea in each successive line.

Psalm 29:1

A                                B

Ascribe to Yahweh,                 you heavenly beings,

A                                C

Ascribe to the Lord                 glory and strength.

A                                D

Ascribe to Yahweh                 the glory due His name;

  1. Chiastic Parallelism (also called Chiasm)

Chiastic parallelism is similar to synonymous parallelism (or sometimes antithetical parallelism) except there is an inversion in the order of the items on the second line.

Psalm 51:1

A                                                                B

Be gracious to me, O God,                                          according to Your lovingkindness;

According to the greatness of Your compassion                blot out my transgressions.

B*                                                                A*

Picture drawing a line to the parts that correspond; it would look like a big X, or the Greek letter Chi, which is why it is called “chiastic.

  1. Synthetic Parallelism

Synthetic parallelism occurs when lines of poetry are thrown together but there is no obvious parallelism.

If you look at Psalms 2:1-5, you will see that each of the verses have synonymous parallelism. Then, it is followed by:

Psalm 2:6

I have consecrated My King

on Zion, My holy mountain.

This verse has no obvious parallelism, but is part of a poem, so the parallelism is called synthetic.

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