Notes on Parallelism in the Psalms

Notes on Parallelism in the Psalms

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Gustave Doré (1855)
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Gustave Doré (1855)

Notes from “The Psalms: Spacious Places for Wrestling with God” by Daniel Russ in The Prospect of Lyric edited by Bainard Cowan.

This essay is from a gorgeous volume of essays about lyric poetry (part of a series about the four (Aristotelian) genres of literature: tragic, comic, epic, and lyric) published by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Rooted in the scholarship of Louise Cowan, my favorite professor at UD, whose visionary genius is the heart of UD’s literature department and who co-founded the Dallas Institute. I suppose you could say they are essays from scholars in the Cowan school, at least that’s how I think of them. I suspect I’ll have several blog posts about this book, if I ever get around to writing them.

Anyway this particular essay is about the psalms and it’s got so many lovely things in it that I want to talk about that I can’t even treat them all in one blog post. For now I want to focus on the section of the essay that looks at structure, analyzing the parallelism of the psalms.

This parallel structure is one of my favorite things about the Psalms, I first read about it elsewhere and I think Russ explains parallelism quite well, calling it the only distinctive technique of Hebrew poetry. In short, the Psalms have a structure that translates directly to any language. They are the truly universal poetry. It gives me the shivers thinking about it, how marvelous God’s plan is to inspire this body of poetry which translates into any language without becoming prose. I don’t think there’s any other poetic form that loses nothing of its form in translation.

Of course, all translation makes trade-offs. Translators usually have to balance between being faithful to language and meaning and being faithful to rhyme and metrical structures. But while some shades of meaning might be lost, of course, as in any translation, translators of the Psalms do not have the same dilemma to either forgo the poetic structure for the sake of staying close to the original meaning, or to lose shades of meaning while maintaining a poetic structure that mimics that of the original. Because the Psalms’ poetic structure is based on parallelism, that structure is not lost in translation. There’s no rhyme structure or metrical structure to lose. But Russ explains it better than I can. (I’ve edited this passage to add extra spaces, inserting paragraph breaks, for example, for readability in the blog format.)

Interestingly enough, the original discovery of parallelism made by Lowth in 1753 remains, with some refinements, the only certain distinctive technique of Hebrew poetry. Parallelism is simply the device of saying the same things in two ways. . . . The Psalms are replete with examples of this poetic device, beginning with the opening of Psalm 1:

1. Blessed is the man
that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
nor standeth in the way of sinners,
nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

2. But his delight is in the law of the Lord;
and in his law doth he meditate day and night.

3. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water,
that bringeth forth his fruit in his season;
his leaf shall not wither;
and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

The three verbs (“walketh,” “standeth,” and “sitteth”) in verse 1 form parallel actions that further develop the notion of what the good man doesn’t do. The parallelism in verse 2 elaborates on law (“delight is in the law” and “in his law doth he meditate”), and verse 3 provides a simile (he is “like a tree planted by the rivers”) to broaden the understanding of goodness. Later in the lyric the psalmist provides a parallel to the opening line (“The ungodly are not so,”) and examines the nature of the ungodly thereafter, just as he earlier examined the nature of the blessed.

These forms of parallelism were discovered by Lowth (the three varieties a, b, c, below) and by later scholars who agreed upon a few additional varieties:

(a)synonymous, “in which the second line of a couplet more or less repeats the thought of the first line in different words” (Ps 1:1, Ps 51: 1)

(b)antithetical, in which the second line of a couplet presents the opposite of the thought of the first ((Ps 1:6, Prov 11:2)

(c) synthetic, in which the second line develops or completes the thought of the first (Ps 1:2, 27:6)

(d) emblematic, in which one of the lines presents as a simile the thought in the other (Ps 1:4, Prov 25:14)

(e) stairlike, in which part of one line is repeated in the second but then developed further (Ps 29:1-2)

and (f) introverted, in which the members of the lines are in the order of the chiasmus (Ps 124:7)

Aside from it’s distinctive parallelism, Hebrew poetry shares many of the themes, devices, and tropes of the lyric poetry of many nations, enjoying (and partly having created) a continuity across cultures, languages, and time. Hence, a modern English-speaking reader may closely and confidently read ancient Hebrew poetry in an English text. In doing so he or she must rely heavily on Hebrew scholars and translators, but this reliance can be accepted with greater confidence in Hebrew poetry than in other translated verse.

I suspect that the reason parallelism came to characterize Hebrew poetry is that the vision and understanding of Hebrew Scriptures run parallel. These Scriptures introduce and celebrate a reality in which a transcendent deity has created a world and crowned it with a creature made in his image— a world and creature that he continues actively and passionately to love. These acts presume two analogous realms of reality, the invisible and the visible, that are parallel to one another from the beginning to the end of history. Indeed, history is the work of the transcendent God redeeming fallen humanity so that what goes on in the visible world has origins and implications in the invisible.

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  • […] I’ve written before about my fascination with the structure of Hebrew poetry. I was therefore delighted by this question and answer. I had never really thought before to wonder how the prayer that Jesus gave us is in continuity with other examples of Hebrew poetry that we know of, the psalms and canticles of the Old Testament. How it is also, one could say, the fulfillment of Hebrew poetry just as Jesus himself is the fulfillment of all of the Old Testament. […]

    • A good Bible class that really looks at genre and literary structure helps. I can’t remember anymore where I was first taught to start looking at the Psalms like this. Maybe in a college class?