Why Hebrew Parallelism Ought to Matter to You

Catchy title huh? Ha! In our current world of social media saturation we usually only click on links if they grab our attention. I’m aware of this. But I’m also aware that most of that is just ‘click bait’, a kind of deception trying to lure you in with a cleverly phrased title. I’m not trying to do that here, clearly. Rather than trying to trick you, I’m seeking to introduce you to a word that you’ve probably never heard before but have certainly felt the effects of. What is this word? Parallelism. So, if you’re reading this, I’m glad you clicked, and you’ll be glad for having read this.

In Hebrew poetry there are many ways to place emphasis, but one way in particular stands out as important to how we interpret Hebrew poetry in general, as well as the Psalms in particular. Parallelism in Hebrew poetry has been defined by many as simply ‘saying the same thing twice.’ For example, in Psalm 1 we read of those who delight in the Law of the LORD and meditate on it day and night. 1:3 then says, “He is like a tree planted by streams of living water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does he prospers.” If parallelism is simply saying the same thing twice we would interpret v3 to be describing the character of the one who does v2. But I’m convinced parallelism is more than this. Rather than saying the same thing twice, Dr. Mark Futato has said Hebrew parallelism is “the art of saying something similar in both cloa but with a difference (whether small or great) added in the second cola.” Wait, what is a cola? It’s not a soda, no. It’s a Hebrew line of poetry, that’s all. So if this is true, which I think it is, we interpret Psalm 1 differently. Rather than merely describing the godly character of the one who meditates on the Law of the LORD with similar repetition, each new line, or cola, adds to and expands on the lines that come before it, giving us a progressively increasing view of all that meditation does within the heart of man.

Confused? Let me show you this in one of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 46. Go ahead and open up there and follow along verse by verse:

v1 – The first cola presents God as being two things for His people, a refuge and strength. This on its own is encouraging but the second cola heightens the ideas of refuge and strength by adding how these realities of God meet God’s people day to day. In other words, the second cola explains why the first cola matters so much.

v2 – The first cola of v2 brings about the first implication of v1, that God’s people shouldn’t fear because of what v1 has taught. This remains true even if the earth itself gives way. The second cola then, expands on the earth giving way by actually giving us the means by which the earth gives way, namely, the mountains falling into the heart of the sea.

v3 – The first cola of v3 describes why the mountains of v2 fall into the sea, because the waters roar and foam. The second cola raises this image to a higher level by speaking of the mountains fearing the waters because the waters are raging with a swelling pride or majestic terrible haughtiness (this comes out clearer in the NASB).

v4 – The first cola describes the image of water changing from causing chaos to serving the gladness of God’s people in the city of God. The second cola expands on the reality of the city of God by adding another name to it, the holy habitation of the Most High. Which means then, this is no ordinary city. God’s very presence is there dwelling with His people.

v5 – The first cola in v5 expands on the reality v4 taught. Because God dwells in the city it shall not be moved or shaken. The second cola than adds to this reality of God helping by speaking of His help coming as morning dawns, which brings a fuller understanding of why the city won’t ever be shaken. When the inhabitants of this city wake, God is already at work to help. This is a figurative way of saying the Lord’s help is ever near and brightest to God’s people after the dark of the night.

v6 – Likely the most pronounced and powerful parallelism in the whole Psalm, the first cola of v6 describes the earth shaking when the kings of the earth make their threats. As fearful as that shaking is, the second cola raises the bar to an infinite degree when it says the earth doesn’t merely shake, but melts, when the Lord opens His mouth. The conclusion is that the Lord truly is what v7 will say He is.

v7 – The first cola presents God as the LORD of hosts, Yahweh, God Almighty who is with His people. The second cola adds that this LORD of hosts is also the God of Jacob who wrestles down His enemies and sometimes even His people to make His power known. The first cola is a general statement, while the second cola expands on how this God is with and for His people.

v8 – The first cola of v8 is an invitation to God’s people to come out of the city and witness God’s works while the second cola slightly expands on what that work is in context: desolation.

v9 – The first cola is a general statement of God making war cease on earth. How does He do that? The second and third cola of v9 explain how by adding details of God piling up the weapons of His enemies in a heap that He then sets of fire. These three cola give the sense of a progressing rise in the Lord’s triumphant victory.

v10 – The first cola of v10 states what the whole Psalm means for God’s people, they should be still and know that He is God. But the second and third cola of v10 add the reason why His people should do so. Specifically His people should be still because He will be exalted, not just over the nations but over the whole earth. Which taken together forms a powerful summary statement of the whole Psalm. Both the threats of nature (v1-3) and the threats of the nations (v4-7) will ultimately come to nothing before God.

v11 – A repetition of the cola present in v7. But that we hear this again after the new information brought forward in v8-10, both cola of v11 form a fitting conclusion to the Psalm as a whole.

So as you can see, noticing the Hebrew parallelism, lingering on each cola, and seeking to notice what each new cola adds to or expands on what’s before it brings out the meaning of the Psalm in powerful ways.

Bottom line: since there is so much of it throughout the Psalms, Hebrew parallelism ought matter to you.