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Asbury Bible Commentary – A. Major Characteristics of Hebrew Poetry: Parallelism
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A. Major Characteristics of Hebrew Poetry: Parallelism

A. Major Characteristics of Hebrew Poetry: Parallelism

Parallelism is the foundation of Hebrew poetry and registers most obviously to the English reader as a balanced repetition:

The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it,

the world, and all who live in it;

for he founded it upon the seas

and established it upon the waters. 24:1-2

The symmetrical arrangement of parallel lines of about the same length (called “cola” or “stichs”) in which meaning, grammar, syntax, form, and stress balance and reinforce one another constitute parallelism. The cadence of the Psalms even in translation rises in the main from these overlapping parallelisms-semantic, syntactic, morphological, prosodic. Usually two parallel lines appear together, forming a “bicolon” or a “dystich:”

Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?

Who may stand in his holy place? 24:3

Less frequently three lines comprise a “tricolon” or a “tristich:”

He who has clean hands and a pure heart,

who does not lift up his soul to an idol

or swear by what is false. 24:4

Types of parallelism emerge from the common patterns of meaning sustained between these parallel lines. Synonymous parallelism describes bicola or tricola in which the same or similar thoughts are repeated:

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 1:5

Antithetic parallelism describes couplets or triplets with contrasting thoughts:

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked will perish. 1:6

In synthetic parallelism the second or third lines of the unit are not synonymous or antithetic to the first line but advance the thought in a variety of other ways. For example, one of the lines may give a comparison to illuminate the other. This is emblematic parallelism:

As a father has compassion on his children,

so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him. 103:13

Other lines of synthetic parallelism relate by reason or result, as in 34:9:

Fear the Lord, you his saints,

for those who fear him lack nothing.

Many lines of synthetic parallelism simply advance or complete the thought without recourse to any of the semantic ties noted above, as, for example, in 23:6:

Surely goodness and love will follow me

all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Climactic parallelism designates a highly repetitive, slowly advancing set of lines such as in 29:1-2:

Ascribe to the Lord, O mighty ones,

ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;

worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.