Sunday, January 31, 2010

Parallelism in the Psalms

Traditional English poetry commonly uses two distinctive methods of communication: meter and rhyme. Meter has to do with the number of ‘beats’ in a line and rhyming usually involves ending two clauses with words that sound similar. Consider:
Mary had a little lamb, her feet were white as snow,
(And) Ev’rywhere that Mary went, her lamb was sure to go.
Each line has thirteen beats and the words snow and go rhyme. A moment’s reflection makes it clear why it is difficult to translate poetry from one language to another.

Hebrew poetry was different. It does use meter, though that is not easily reflected in translation. It doesn’t, however, use rhyme. What Hebrew poetry used is called ‘parallelism.’ This is not only found in the psalms but in all of the wisdom and prophetic literature of the Bible (Job, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and the messages of the prophets). Any elevated speech used various kinds of parallelism to communicate spiritual truth. A full study of Hebrew parallelism is very complex (many books have been written about it) but there are a few simple facts that will help you to read the psalms with more understanding and appreciation.

Parallelism involves using relatively short sentences usually made up of two brief clauses that ‘parallel’ one another in some way. Sometimes a line has three brief clauses. More rarely, there are four.

The most important kind of parallelism you need to know is called, ‘Complete Parallelism.’ This is where every single term or phrase in one line is parallel to an equivalent term or phrase in the second. There are three kinds of complete parallelism.

1. Synonymous parallelism is where the same thought is repeated twice in different but synonymous (meaning ‘nearly the same’) words. For example:
The cords of death encompassed me;
the torrents of destruction assailed me;
(Psalm 18.4)
Note how each of the phrases in the first line corresponds to a similar phrase in the second line. In this case, the phrases all appear in the same order, but that isn’t necessary. The order may change but if the same ideas in the first line all appear in similar but different terms in the second line, this kind of parallelism occurs. In other words, synonymous parallelism simply involves saying something twice.

2. Contrasting parallelism is where the two lines balance one another or contrast a thought. (This is usually called ‘antithetic parallelism’):
For you save a humble people,
but the haughty eyes you bring down.
(Psalm 18.27)
These two lines are parallel (each word or phrase corresponds to a word or phrase in the other line) but instead of saying the same thing twice the psalmist expresses the opposite or contrasting idea in the second line.

3. Comparative Parallelism (usually called ‘emblematic parallelism’) involves a simile or a metaphor. The thought expressed in one line is compared to that of the other, as in:
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
(Psalm 103.13)
Here a human father is compared to the LORD in his compassion for his children. Psalm 18.14 is probably an example of this though not as clear as the above:
And he sent out his arrows and scattered them;
he flashed forth lightnings and routed them.
(Psalm 18.14)
Here lightning is compared to arrows in the parallel thought.

There are other kinds of parallelism you will find in the psalms. Just to mention two:
Incomplete parallelism is where only some of the terms are parallel in the two lines but there are the same number of terms. In other words, the two lines are parallel but the parallelism isn’t complete. This is very common.
Formal parallelism is where the second (and, sometimes, the third) line simply continues the thought of the first line but the two lines are usually balanced in length. This is also very common in psalms.
I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised,
And I am saved from my enemies.
(Psalm 18.3)
This may all sound very complicated. It is not something you need to memorize. The most important one to remember is the fact that the psalmists usually expressed their deepest emotions by using parallel ideas. In our modern Bibles, the way the psalms are broken down into lines (as in poetry) helps us to see the parallel lines of thought that are being expressed.

In our culture, black preachers often effectively use parallelism—this may be because, under slavery in generations past, the psalms and the prophets most clearly expressed the feelings of the oppressed. They have a cadence that reflects their use of parallelism in repeating ideas, and often getting an ‘Amen’ from the worshipers, after their repetition. In fact, our current president, Barack Obama, often displays in appropriate ways the effective use of parallelism in public speaking.

This week, as we read Psalms 101–105, note that some (like Psalm 101) does not use clear parallelism while others (like Psalm 102) use parallelism constantly.