Tuesday, January 9, 2024

The Use of Parallelism (Isaiah 45:1-7)

"… I make peace and create calamity …" (Isa. 45:7).

Hebrew literature often uses parallelism. A parallelism is a relationship between two or more sentences or clauses that correspond in similarity or are set with each other. There are three basic types of parallelism: synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic.

Synonymous parallelism occurs when different lines or parts of a passage present the same thought but in a slightly different way: “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD our Maker” (Ps. 95:6). Antithetic parallelism occurs when the two parts are set in contrast to each other: “A wise son heeds his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke” (Prov. 13:1). In a synthetic parallelism, the first part of the passage creates a sense of expectation that is fulfilled in the second part. For example, “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).

Recognizing parallelism can help clear up difficult passages. For example, “I am the LORD, and there is none else. I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil” (Isa. 45:6–7 KJV). Does this passage make God the author of sin? No, not if you are faithful to the antithetic parallel structure. Light is contrasted with darkness. Peace with what? “Evil.” But what kind of evil? The kind that is opposite of peace, not the kind that is opposite of goodness. The NASB rightly takes the parallel structure into account and translates this passage, “Causing well-being and creating calamity.” The point of the passage is that God is the one who brings blessing and peace, but also creates calamity when He acts in judgment.

The appearance of parallelism can also enrich our understanding of biblical concepts. For example, we gain insight into the Hebrew understanding of blessedness when we examine the parallel structure of the classic Hebrew benediction: The LORD bless you and keep you; The LORD make His face to shine on you, and be gracious unto you; The LORD lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace (Num. 6:24–26). Note that in the last two parts of the benediction, blessedness is replaced by images of beholding God’s face. For a Jew, and for the Christian, the ultimate state of blessedness comes from being able to see God’s glory.

Read Proverbs 19:5. How is this verse a synonymous parallelism? Read Psalm 92:9. How is this verse a synthetic parallelism? Read Proverbs 10:4. How is this verse an antithetic parallelism? Spend a few minutes skimming through the book of Proverbs and Psalms, and look for various forms of parallelism.