The Prayers of the Psalter


Dom Henry Wansbrough

Excerpts from

'Parallelism in the Psalms'

The most obvious characteristic of Hebrew poetry, which holds a place corresponding to rhyme in English poetry, is parallelism. It has, however, a quite different function to rhyme. Rhyme, for example in the heroic couplets of Pope or Dryden, is primarily pleasing to the ear, secondarily giving a sense of completion. Repetition is a function of oral writing, and the psalms were clearly written to be heard rather than read, so that the repetitions serve the purpose of easing comprehension. Parallelism also gives a sense of intensification, for the second member either intensifies or echoes the first.

The parallelism of Hebrew poetry was first extensively investigated by Robert Lowth in his lectures at Oxford in 1741. He divided such parallelism into three categories:

Psalmist with Harp

Psalmist with Harp
by Artists at Turvey

Synonymous Parallelism

  1. Both paired lines say more or less the same thing.
    1. 'O God, come to my assistance ,
      O Lord, make haste to help me .'
    2. In fact there is often, an intensification or completion in the second line. In the case of this prayer it is not simply a call for assistance but a call for speedy help.
  2. In the second line the image is more precise and opens up wider vistas.
    1. 'For they wither quickly like grass ,
      they fade like the green of the fields.'
      (Ps 36.2)
  3. The second line adds to the first, because in it the way of owning the land and its benefits are indicated.
    1. 'But the humble shall own the land
      and enjoy the fullness of peace. '
      (Ps 36.11)
  4. Sometimes more complicated balances may be seen, such as the double balance in Ps 71.1-2. There is both balance within each couplet and chiastic balance (judgement-justice-justice-judgement) between them.
    1. ‘O God, give your judgement to the king
      - your justice to a king’s son
      that he may judge your people with justice
      - and your poor with judgement.

Antithetical Parallelism

When the positive sentiment in one line is echoed by a negative sentiment in the other

  1. The first line built on a positive command and the second on a negative, but the second adds to the first because in it the result of ill-temper is expressed.
    1. ‘Calm your anger and forget your rage,
      do not fret, it only leads to evil’
      (Ps 36.7)
  2. The first line is negative, the second positive. The second line is stronger than the first: the just man does not merely repay, but goes positively beyond wiping out a debt.
    1. ‘The wicked man borrows and cannot repay,
      but the just man is generous and gives’
      (Ps 36.21))

Synthetic Parallelism

Joining two elements together. This is a sort of rag-bag of all the other kinds of parallelism, of which there are many. Some of them may be listed.

  1. Paired genders (masculine and feminine nouns) or paired words, like day-night, heaven-earth.
    1. ‘He covers the heavens with clouds
      - he prepares the rain for the earth’ (Ps 146.8).
    2. ‘By day the Lord will send his loving-kindness
      - by night I will sing to him ...(Ps 41.9)
  2. A whole series of verbal pairs occurs in Psalm 32:
    1. By his word the heavens were made,
      - by the breath of his mouth all the stars.
    2. He collects the waves of the ocean,
      - he stores up the depths of the sea.
    3. Let all the earth fear the Lord,
      - all who live in the world revere him.
    4. He spoke and it came to be,
      - he commanded, it sprang into being.
    5. He frustrates the designs of the nations,
      - he defeats the plans of the peoples.
    6. His own designs shall stand for ever,
      - the plans of his heart from age to age.
  3. The second element strengthens or outbids the first:
    1. ‘The Lord sat enthroned over the flood;
      the Lord sits as king for ever’ (Ps 28.10).
    2. ‘The Lord is the strength of his people,
      the stronghold where his anointed find salvation.
      (Ps 27.8)
  4. The second element strengthens or outbids the first:
    1. ‘He drew me from the deadly pit,
      from the miry clay’ (Ps 39.3).
    2. ‘He put a new song into my mouth ,
      praise of our God ’ (Ps 39.4).)
  5. It is rewarding to notice that this same balance and parallelism persists into the New Testament, not only in the Lukan canticles, but in many of the Jesus-sayings, such as the neatly-balanced chiasmus
    1. ‘The sabbath was made for man
      not man for the sabbath ’ (Mk 2.27)
  6. These are most highly developed in Matthew, where this kind of creative genius is seen at its fullest development:
    1. ‘Forgive us our debts
      as we too forgive our debtors. (Mt 6.12)
    2. ‘My yoke is easy
      and my burden is light.’ (Mt 11.30) 1