One of the main poetic devices in Biblical poetry is a repetition of two or more ideas, called parallelism. Like most Hebrew poetic devices, this is hyper-translatable, since its beauty does not depend on the sounds of any given language. This is the major characteristic of Hebrew poetry and it parallelisms are used extensively in all the books of Wisdom and Prophets from Job to Malachi.
In synonymous parallelism one idea is repeated twice using synonyms.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
In many instances, the second line is an intensifier of the first. Take a look at Psalm 100:4
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
What do you enter first? The gates, which lead into the courts. Which is more intense, thanksgiving or praise? Probably praise.
In the fear of the Lord, one has strong confidence,
and his children will have a refuge.
Not only, but also: Not only will you yourself have confidence through the fear of the Lord, but your children will also have a place of safety. I sometimes add “and furthermore” before the second line, as reminder to myself.
Often in a synonymous parallelism, the verb is omitted in the second line, which is called an imperfect parallelism:
He will judge the world with righteousness
and (judge) the people with equity.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand (may fall) at your right hand
In synthetic parallelism, there is a bringing together of several lines around one theme. The italicized sections show two in the first few verses of Psalm 1:
Blessed is the man who does not
walk in the counsel of the wicked
nor stand in the way of sinners
nor sit in the seat of mockers,
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like
a tree planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in season,
whose leaf does not wither.
In all that he does he prospers.
(And there is also a chiasm here. Can you spot it?)
Hosea has many examples of synthetic parallelisms:
I spoke to the prophets
it was I who multiplied visions
and throught the prophets gave parables.
As robbers lie in wait for a man,
so the priests band together
they murder on the way to Shechem;
they commit villainy.
As they go, I will spread over them a net;
I will bring them down like the birds of the heavens;
I will discipline them according to the report made to their congregation.
The third type of parallelism, antithetical (or contrasting) parallelism, could be called a perpendicularism because it contrasts two ideas. The word “but” is usually a clue. Proverbs has many examples:
It is the glory of God to conceal things,
but the glory of kings to search things out.
Houses and wealth are inherited from fathers,
but a prudent wife is from the Lord.
One pretends to be rich, yet has nothing;
another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth.
In some cases, one half of the parallelism helps us interpret the other.
Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied,
and never satisfied are the eyes of man.
So, my constant desire for what I see is like the maw of death that has never swallowed enough people? That puts window-shopping into perspective.
May we shout for joy over your salvation,
and in the name of our God set up our banners.
For most of us, setting up banners is not an aspect of daily life that we understand. We do notice that this is the fifth in a series of parallelisms, so setting up banners in God’s name has something to do with shouting for joy over God’s salvation. In the context of the whole Psalm, which is an invocation of God’s help in the day of trouble, this verse is about trusting God in advance for the outcome of the battle. The singers of the Psalm are declaring that they are not going to be raising their battle standards in fear, but with shouts of joy.
Now that you have a name for it, you will spot parallelisms everywhere. I hope this enhances your enjoyment and understanding of the poetry of the Bible.
For a more technical discussion of parallelisms in the Old Testament, please see the Jewish Encyclopedia’s article.