Parallelism

A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother” (v. 1b).

- Proverbs 10:1

Wisdom and knowledge have a relationship to one another, as we have seen. On the one hand, one cannot have wisdom without at least some knowledge of the Lord and His creation. Since wisdom is, essentially, the right, God-honoring application of knowledge, one cannot have wisdom if one has no knowledge to apply. At the same time, we must remember that the mere possession of knowledge does not ensure wisdom. Some of the most highly educated people in the world foolishly rail against the one true God.

In regard to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, part of acquiring the knowledge needed to grow in wisdom involves a basic understanding of the literary structure of these writings. Of the Wisdom Books—Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon—only Job is not made up entirely of poetry. Yet even Job is mostly poetry, though its introduction and conclusion fall under the genre of historical narrative. To understand these books rightly, therefore, we need to have some idea of how their poetry works.

We are accustomed to finding rhyme and meter in English poetry, but Hebrew poetry is different. Hebrew poetry exhibits parallelism as its chief characteristic. We see parallelism when two or more lines of a Hebrew poem correspond closely with one another in order to make a point. There are three major types of parallelism in Hebrew poetry: synonymous parallelism, antithetic parallelism, and synthetic parallelism.

Synonymous parallelism is probably the easiest one for us to grasp. A synonymous parallel says the same thing in different ways in order to convey its teaching. Though it is not from one of the Wisdom Books, Jesus’ prayer in Matthew 6:13—“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”—exhibits synonymous parallelism. The prayer has us asking God for the same thing in two different ways, namely, that He would keep us from the full assault of the evil one. The parallel does not mean that the Lord is able to tempt us (see James 1:13).

Antithetic parallelism uses a contrast between two or more lines to teach us truth. Proverbs 10:1 is an example of antithetic parallelism; there, opposing behaviors of wise and foolish sons reveal to us the kind of children that please their parents.

Synthetic parallelism synthesizes two or more poetic lines. In such parallelism, successive lines build on and intensify the first line. Proverbs 6:16-19, wherein the list of things God hates expands over the course of the verses, illustrates synthetic parallelism.

Coram Deo

Understanding how the different biblical genres work will help us avoid misinterpretation, thereby improving our ability to find the wisdom that God is showing us in His Word. Our Creator commends the careful study of His Word (2 Tim. 2:15), and this careful study is essential for building the knowledge that is necessary for true wisdom. Getting a grasp of the basic, sound principles of biblical interpretation is a must for discipleship.

Passages for Further Study

Psalms 1:6; 2:1–3; 3:4
Proverbs 10
Ephesians 4:8
2 Timothy 2:11–13

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