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What is emblematic parallelism in Hebrew poetry?

emblematic parallelism audio

Emblematic parallelism is a poetic device often used in the book of Proverbs. It is one of several types of parallelism used in Hebrew poetry (the other types being synonymous parallelism, synthetic parallelism, and antithetical parallelism). Emblematic parallelism is constructed with a symbol or a metaphor (an emblem) that is placed side by side (in parallel) with its meaning. A verse that exhibits emblematic parallelism will feature an illustration and its interpretation—an extended simile or an ancient object lesson, as it were.

Proverbs 25:13 is an example of the use of emblematic parallelism:

“Like a snow-cooled drink at harvest time
is a trustworthy messenger to the one who sends him;
he refreshes the spirit of his master.”

In this three-part proverb, the first line is the emblem, or word picture: “a snow-cooled drink.” The second line is the caption of the picture: “a trustworthy messenger.” And the third line is an added explanation—something that most instances of emblematic parallelism do not contain. As we read this verse, we ask, how is a trusted messenger like a cool drink on a hot summer’s day? The answer is provided for us: a faithful messenger refreshes the soul of the person who sends him. When a man of integrity has been given a job to do, he will complete it—and what a blessing it is to have someone like that in one’s employ!

Proverbs 25:12 is another example:

“Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold
is the rebuke of a wise judge to a listening ear.”

Here, the emblem is a piece of fine gold jewelry, illustrative of a wise rebuke. As with all proverbs of this type, we must answer the question, what is the connection? How is the first line like the second line? The answer is that heeding good advice, especially when it requires humility, is rewarding. A person who is wise and pliable enough to accept reproof is enriched; the listening ear is adorned with the “fine gold” of wisdom.

Another good example of emblematic parallelism is Proverbs 25:18:

“Like a club or a sword or a sharp arrow
is one who gives false testimony against a neighbor.”

The emblem is a set of weapons, and underneath that word picture is a reference to a liar. Note that the weapons can be considered as a series of progressively more refined instruments of death: a bludgeon, a sword, and an arrow. Some lies are blunt; others are more “civilized” and to the point; all are capable of causing pain and death. Also, note the range of the weapons gets progressively broader: a club must be used at close range, while an arrow can do its damage from a distance. Falsehoods, whether coming from near or far, can be deadly.

Other examples of emblematic parallelism include Proverbs 11:22; 25:11, 13, 19, 20, 23, 26; 27:15, 17, 19; and 28:15.

The books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations are almost entirely poetic in form. Many prophets, including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, and Micah, also recorded their oracles in poetry. Because poetry is so pervasive in the Old Testament, it is profitable for Bible students to study the structure and forms of parallelism.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022