As much as it is an explanation of God’s plan, a historical text, and a source of direction, the Bible is a work of literature.
Just like any work of literature, whether a novel, a play, a poem, or a short story, we can glean much more meaning by delving into the techniques used by the writers.
The Hebrew poetry in the Bible, for example, had its own conventions, literary devices, and techniques, just like our English poetry. One of these devices is called synonymous parallelism, and it can teach us a lot about which passages the poets wanted to highlight.
What Do the Literary Terms Mean?
There are a few literary terms that are helpful to understand in order to grasp the concept of synonymous parallelism.
A literary device is a structure that helps a writer convey his or her message in a simpler, more compelling way. Examples include metaphor, simile, alliteration, hyperbole, or allegory.
A poetic device is a literary device-specific to poetry used to create rhythm, enhance meaning, or intensify atmosphere/mood.
A couplet is two back-to-back lines that are joined via rhyme, meter, and/or idea to form a complete thought. This is important, as synonymous parallelism applies mostly to couplets.
Parallelism means using elements in sentences or lines that are grammatically similar, whether in structure, sound, meaning, or meter. Parallelism in English poetry is often achieved through the poetic device of rhyme.
What Does Synonymous Parallelism Mean?
Synonymous parallelism is a poetic device that involves using parallelism to create a couplet (usually) that consists of two lines in which the same idea is stated twice but in two different ways.
An easy way to remember this is that “synonymous” comes from “synonym,” and thus synonymous parallelism involves the same idea repeated in a different way like two words are synonyms if they have the same meaning, even though they are different words.
Synonyms as far as words include happy and joyful, funny and humorous, quick and fast, enormous and huge. Synonymous parallelism includes both synonyms and entire phrases that share meanings.
It is worth noting that synonyms can have the same meaning with slightly different connotations. For example, is someone confident or arrogant? Are they frugal or miserly? Inquisitive or prying? Synonyms, even when they technically mean the same thing, can have different meanings when applied.
Synonymous parallelism is helpful in this. By repeating the same idea twice, we are given a broader picture of what the writer is intending to convey.
Examples of Synonymous Parallelism in the Bible
Synonymous parallelism is found in the Hebrew poetry of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, and some of the prophetic books. Let’s explore a few examples.
Save me, Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues (Psalm 120:2).
In this example, “lying lips” and “deceitful tongues” both mean someone who isn’t telling the truth. By repeating the idea, the poet is emphasizing the danger of dishonesty.
Psalm 18:4-5 is an extended example of synonymous parallelism:
The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me.
Note that in verse four, “The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me,” we are met with a couplet in which “cords of death” entangling and “torrents of destruction” overwhelming serve to emphasize the point that the psalmist, in this case, David, is in grave danger.
Verse five then mirrors verse four; “the cords of death entangled me” becomes “the cords of the grave coiled around me” and “the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me” becomes “the snares of death confronted me.”
Not only, then, is each couplet emphasizing the depth of David’s distress, but the first couplet is then paralleled by the second, quadrupling the effect; the psalmist has thoroughly made his point that he is in desperate straits.
The psalm continues, speaking of how David called upon the Lord, and the Lord delivered him. The deliverance of the Lord is rendered even more significant after the emphasis on what a terrible situation the psalmist was in.
Other examples include Proverbs 3:11:
My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke.
And Isaiah 53:5:
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
In all of these examples, the use of synonymous parallelism emphasizes the point, brings more information, and clarifies exactly what the poet means.
What We Can Learn from Synonymous Parallelism?
When we see synonymous parallelism used, we can learn a few things.
When we see the device implemented, we should know that the idea the poet is trying to convey is important, and we should pay attention. We should also look at the parallels to glean the full meaning of what the poet is trying to convey.
Furthermore, we can look at the greater context and see if the lines employing synonymous parallelism are themselves paralleled to give even further meaning.
All of these things, together, will help us gain a greater appreciation for the beauty of the Bible as a work of literature and understand the importance and meaning of what the writers were trying to convey.
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Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Hero and has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.