Hebrew poetry,  patterns in words

The Hebrew poetry, beloved by psalmists and prophets, is often structured. Typically this involves phrases that parallel one another and provide a twin witnesses to the meaning of the verse, in keeping with Moses’ principal of verifying important facts by listening to at least two witness (Deut 19:15), a principal that Jesus, would later apply when he sent out his disciples in pairs (Matt 18:16).

The phrases in such poetry are intended to be considered together and often express the same thought or an opposite thought. The second phrase may also extend the first, filling out its proposition. In passages destined for formal reading, such as the Psalms, the phrases may have been spoken/sung by alternate voices, which would have accentuated the ‘double witness’ effect. 

Sandy and Giese (1995, 299-302) distinguish several of the principal classes of parallelism. In a synonymous parallelism the two phrases state the same thing using  synonymous words or concepts. Here are a couple from Ps 149:7-8:

7To execute vengeance on the nations,
        and punishments on the peoples;  
8To bind their kings with chains, 
        and their nobles with fetters of iron; 

(Ps 149:7-8 WEB)

The synonymous articles may also be equivalent metaphors or catchwords to scriptures that mention the same process, as in these examples from Ps 103:13-14 (it helps to recall that the Lord made a man from dust in Gen 2:7):

13Like a father has compassion on his children,
        so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.  
14For he knows how we are made.
        He remembers that we are dust.

(Ps 103:13-14 HNV)

An antithetical parallelism has the two phrases stating the opposite of one another, as in:

18 I will clothe his enemies with shame,
but on himself, his crown will be resplendent

(Ps 132:18 WEB)

Synonymous and antithetical parallelism is fairly easy to spot, but a third type, synthetic parallelism, can be a bit more difficult to appreciate. In this type of parallel the second phrase develops the theme of the first without repeating its content. Often the first describes an action, the second its consequences. Some good examples are found in Psalm 104

10He sends forth springs into the valleys.
            They run among the mountains.  
11They give drink to every animal of the field.
            The wild donkeys quench their thirst.  
12The birds of the sky nest by them.
            They sing among the branches.  
13He waters the mountains from his rooms.
            The earth is filled with the fruit of your works.

(Ps 104:10-13 WEB)

A parallelism can also extend to three or more phrases in order to establish the scope of application of a final point (as in Isa 1:4) or to focus in on that final point (as in Isa 1:8).

Groups of verses can parallel one another in the same way as individual verses. Eg. A1, B1, A2, B2, as in Psalm 8:3-6.  Here, phrases parallel one another to convey the psalmist’s incredulity at the dominion which God has delegated to mankind:

  • “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
  • the moon and the stars, which you have ordained;
    • What is man, that you think of him?
    • What is the son of man, that you care for him?
  • For you have made him a little lower than God,
  • and crowned him with glory and honor.
    • You make him ruler over the works of your hands.
    • You have put all things under his feet.”
(Ps 8:4-6, WEB. Reformatted to emphasise the parallelism)

Sometimes a poem has a structure where the parallel thoughts are nested (like a Russian Doll) forming a structure known as a chiasmus. E.g. A1, B1, C, B2, A2. Such chiastic structures can be quite compact, as in Amos 5:4b-6a the example given here, or they can be deeply nested. They can extend over several pages of text with complex parallelism in each element. Sometime an author deliberately adopts a poetic structure as the framework for a historical account in order to emphasise its most significant features, e.g. as in the account of Noah’s flood (Gen 7:1-8:13).