Guidelines for Studying Proverbs (Part 2)

3. Recognize the significance of poetic parallelism in Proverbs. 

The dominant characteristic of poetry in the Old Testament is Hebrew parallelism in which one line corresponds with the other. There are four main types of poetic parallelism used in the book of Proverbs—synonymous parallelism, antithetical parallelism, emblematic parallelism, and synthetic parallelism. 

a. Synonymous Parallelism: In synonymous parallelism, the second line of the pair repeats the idea of the first line without making any significant addition or subtraction. This often includes the use of a strict grammatical parallel between the two lines:

  • 1:20: “Wisdom shouts in the street, she lifts her voice in the square.”

  • 17:4: “An evildoer listens to wicked lips, a liar pays attention to a destructive tongue.”

As Osborne notes, “The interpreter in some instances should not read too much into the semantic variation between the two lines, for that could be intended more as a stylistic change for effect” (Osborne 1991: 176). In other words, the student of Proverbs should guard against the common error of seeing anything more than a subtle difference in meaning between two words being used as synonyms. In addition, when the interpreter encounters synonymous parallelism and comes to an obscure Hebrew word whose definition is unclear, comparing it to its synonymous counterpart will usually shed light on its meaning.  

b. Antithetic Parallelism: In antithetic parallelism—the most common form in Proverbs—the second line is set in contrast to the idea of the first line, and usually by means of the adversative conjunction “but.” This often consists of a restatement of the idea of the first line by asserting its opposite (i.e., both lines state the same idea but in antithetical ways):

  • 10:1: “A wise son makes a father glad, but a foolish son is a grief to his mother.”

  • 12:5: “The thoughts of the righteous are just, but the counsels of the wicked are deceitful.”

According to Allen Ross, this type of parallelism emphasizes the importance of choosing the way of wisdom and avoiding the fate of a fool by setting “before the reader the choice between the wise and profitable way versus the foolish and disastrous way” (Ross 1991: 888). When encountering this form of parallelism, the interpreter is aided in determining the meaning of certain key words by comparing them to their antonyms.          

c. Emblematic Parallelism: In emblematic parallelism, one line is figurative and the other is literal, and together they form a simile with the word “like” or “as” introducing one of the lines (usually the figurative one):

  • 10:26: “Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is the lazy one to those who send him.”

  • 11:22: “As a ring of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a beautiful woman who lacks discretion.”

The fundamental question for the interpreter is: How is A like B? In answering this question, he must determine the common denominators in the comparison as well as the overall point being made by the proverb (Parsons 1995: 155-56). 

d. Synthetic Parallelism: Synthetic parallelism is a form of synonymous parallelism in which the second line completes, advances, or develops the thought of the first line by supplying additional ideas. If the second line provides no further clarification of the first, the parallelism should be classified as synonymous, but if it does bring forth clarification or expansion, it is synthetic.

  • 15:3: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, watching the evil and the good.”

  • 16:4: “The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil.”

The goal of the interpreter is to determine the contribution of that second line, as well as the point of the two statements taken together as a whole. Because synthetic parallelism usually takes the form of a wisdom saying (see 2b in part 1), the interpreter will need to determine the unstated exhortation implied by the proverb by wrestling with the question: How am I to live in light of this truth? To fail to take this extra step is to miss the point of the verse.  

Look for part 3 on Wednesday.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Have you looked at James Kugel’s work on this? His book is called _The Idea of Biblical Poetry_. He challenges the idea of these separate categories for parallelism and posits one overarching (though not absolute) idea for biblical poetry: A, what’s more, B. Very stimulating.

  2. […] Guidelines for Studying Proverbs (Part 2) « Expository Thoughts 3. Recognize the significance of poetic parallelism in Proverbs. […]

  3. Posted by jeremy on September 13, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    charting psalms 139 and wha type of parallelism is being used here.

  4. Posted by chiaka Donatus on June 4, 2011 at 9:44 am

    what types of parallelism are in this text: vouchsafe me a spirit of faith and knowledge, and let me not be dishonoured in ruin. Let not satan rule over me, nor an unclean spirit; neither let pain nor the evil inclination take possession of my bones.

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