Parallelism in Hebrew Poetry and the Psalms in Particular

Parallelism in Psalms

In his book Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis gives a quick definition of parallelism as: “the practice of saying twice the same thing in different words”.[1] He has a way of being crisp and to the point, doesn’t he?  This is essentially what parallelism in poetry is, but I have found that it goes much further than that – much further.  The purpose of this post and others to follow is to share with you what I have discovered about parallelism.

A more specific definition is: a structure of thought (rather than external form like meter or rhyme) in which the writer balances a series of words so that patterns of deliberate contrast or intentional repetition appear.[2]  The Oxford Bible defines it as a “thought rhyme” as a balance in form and thought between successive members in a poem.[3]


A Word About Terms, or What in the World is a Stich?

Different writers refer to the same elements of a poem using different words.  For instance, a member could be a line of poetry and as it turns out that is mostly what we will be looking at. Some writers refer to the member as a “stich” – two members would then be a “distich” and three members a “tristich.”

Other, more common, words from the world of poetry and writing that can be and are used are “couplet”, “tricolon”, and “quatrain.”  I have decided to use “stich” and prefix the appropriate designation of “di- or tri-“.  So don’t let this confuse you; it really is just a line of poetry.  I will also use it when referring to members of parallelism in prose as well, where it will sometimes be a phrase.  This is really just a way of keeping the terminology consistent.

I’ll add more information like this in subsequent posts, but let’s get right to the matter of parallelism in Hebrew literature and in the Psalms in particular.  We’ll start with the simplest forms first and progress to the more complicated.  This post will cover only the two most-simple forms: synonymous and antithetic parallelism.

Synonymous Parallelism

In this form, the thought of the second stich repeats, or mirrors, the first. If there are more than two stichs, then different words are used in successive stichs.  The thought is not expanded or elaborated at all and it can be carried over more than two lines.

The ox knoweth his owner,
And the ass his master’s crib:  (Isaiah 1:3a.)

Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in judgment,
Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteousness: (Psalm 1:5)

But let judgment run down as waters,
And righteousness and a mighty stream. (Amos 4:24)

As you can see, this is Lewis’ “…practice of saying twice the same thing in different words.” The second line repeats the sense of the first, but in slightly different terms.

Synonymous parallelism is abundant in the Psalms and can very nearly be found by randomly opening the book to any page. Well let’s try it:

He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh:
The Lord shall have them in derision.  (Psalm 2:4)

Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron;
Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.  (Psalm 2:9)

The heavens declare the glory of God;
and the firmament showeth his handywork.  (Psalm 19:1)

I will bless the Lord at all times:
His praise shall continually be in my mouth.  (Psalm 34:1)

Here are two verses found in Matthew.  Note the tristich construction:

Ask and it shall be given to you;
Seek and ye shall find;
Knock and it shall be opened to you:

 For everyone that asketh receiveth;
And he that seeketh findeth;
And to him that knocketh it shall be opened.  (Matthew 7:7-8)

Antithetic Parallelism

This “against the theme” style is recognized by the contrasting second stich.

For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous:
But the way of the ungodly shall perish.  (Psalm 1:6)

A wise son maketh a glad father:
But a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother. (Proverbs 10:1)

The young lions lack and suffer hunger;
But those who seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing.  (Psalm 34:10)

This form is very typical of the Wisdom Literature and it is also found in many of Jesus’ sayings.

A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit,
Nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  (Matthew 7:18)

He who finds his life will lose it,
And he who loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:39)

The wicked borrow and do not repay,
But the righteous give generously.  (Psalm 37:21)

A man is not established by wickedness,
but the root of righteousness will never be moved.  (Proverbs 12:3)

In the next post on parallelism, we’ll get into some forms that are more difficult to recognize.  It gets more interesting – truly!

God Bless and thank you for reading.

[1] Lewis, C.S. (1958). Reflections on the Psalms. (p.3). New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

[2] Gabel, John B. and Wheeler, Charles B. (1986) The Bible a Literature: An Introduction. (p.38). New York: Oxford University Publishing.

[3] May, H.G., & Metzger, B.M. (Eds.) The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha. (1977). New York: Oxford University Press.

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