What is the literary device of antithetical parallelism used in Hebrew poetry?
Parallelism is a poetic literary device that is used to strengthen an idea. Hebrew poetry such as that used in various books of the Old Testament books like Proverbs and Psalms uses several forms of parallelism, including synonymous parallelism, antithetical parallelism, synthetic parallelism, and emblematic parallelism. Antithetical parallelism is what we discuss here.
The word antithetical etymologically derives from the word antithesis, which means "contrast." An antithetical parallelism provides contrasting thoughts that complete an idea. Parallelism implies that the phrases lie side by side.
Many philosophical books that belong to the Old Testament contain antithetical parallelism. Here is an example of antithetical parallelism found in Ecclesiastes 10:2:
"A wise man's heart inclines him to the right,
but a fool's heart to the left."
In this couplet, King Solomon contrasts the predisposition of two different hearts. The direction of hearts in this couplet is not as important as the structure of the phrases, which tells us that wise and foolish hearts take separate courses. This is a great example of how antithetical parallelism works to the advantage of the concept being conveyed.
Antithetical parallelism is often easy to spot because of the frequent use of conjunctions that set off the second phrase. Psalm 34:10 contains a clear example of the conjunction but:
"The young lions suffer want and hunger;
but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing."
In this couplet, the author is conveying that an individual who seeks the Lord has every need taken care of. This is contrasted to an individual who lives according to his primal instincts and always experiences hunger and desire. The idea becomes concrete and solid once paired together.
Sometimes in Hebrew poetry, multiple types of parallelism are used, such as in Proverbs 8:35–36:
"For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the LORD,
but he who fails to find me injures himself;
all who hate me love death."
This quatrain contains two sets of lines that create an antithetical property. The first two phrases contain synonymous ideas. These are that finding life and obtaining favor are both spiritual gains. The two synonymous ideas in the last two lines are that not finding God and hating God are harmful spiritual attributes. The two sets of lines are antithetical because the ideas conveyed in the first two lines of finding the Lord and its consequent spiritual gain is contrasted to failing to find the Lord and its harm to the spirit.
Poetic devices appeal to our philosophic nature, and thus can be richly interpreted. The beauty and depth of poetry is that it can be read into from numerous angles, including word choice, meter, and form. The form of many of the Psalms draws the reader deeper into the message because poetry is meant to be enjoyed and ingested.
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