Posted: 26 Mar 2011 12:00 AM PDT
THE PARALLELISM IN THE Bible's Wisdom Literature is diverse. Understanding this helps us to reflect more accurately on Scripture. It is easy to illustrate the point with two or three kinds of parallelism drawn from Proverbs 13.
Some instances of parallelism are simple opposites. "He who walks with the wise grows wise, / but a companion of fools suffers harm" (Prov. 13:20). The second line is almost the opposite of the first, and the two lines together remind readers that they will be shaped by the company they keep and by the advice they listen to. "He who spares the rod hates his son, / but he who loves him is careful to discipline him" (Prov. 13:24). The first line may employ a touch of hyperbole, but the contrast between the two lines makes the lesson of the whole verse clear enough.
In some cases the second line is not the opposite of the first line, but an extension of it. "The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, / turning a man from the snares of death" (Prov. 13:14). Of course, there is a contrast between "life" and "death," nevertheless the thought of the second line is not the opposite to what is expressed in the first line, but a further exposition of it. This is sometimes called "step parallelism."
Perhaps the proverbs that demand the most focused reflection are those in which the two lines are obviously meant to be opposites, and yet the categories do not, on first reading, quite line up. Such proverbs are gently provocative. Each of the two lines is subtly shaped by the other.
Here are two examples. "Pride only breeds quarrels, / but wisdom is found in those who take advice" (Prov. 13:10). Merely formal parallelism might have preferred, "Pride only breeds quarrels, / but humility generates peace." But the text of Scripture invites more profound analysis. "Wisdom" is contrasted with "pride"—which gently discloses what wisdom is, while implicitly saying that pride is folly. The quarrels of the first line are generated by the arrogant refusal to listen to another point of view, to take advice.
Or again, "Every prudent man acts out of knowledge, but a fool exposes his folly" (Prov. 13:16). A simple contrast would have preferred: "Every prudent man acts out of knowledge, / but a fool acts out of ignorance [or folly]." But the second line says that the fool exposes his folly. The two lines become mutually clarifying. The prudent man who acts out of knowledge (line 1) thereby displays his wisdom; the fool acts out of folly, and thereby exposes it for all to see. In this light, reflect on Psalm 14:1!
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