Chiastic Structures
The Old Testament

Synonymous and Antithetical Parallelisms in Hebrew Poetry

Feb. 26, 2022

Joshua Lytle

Isaiah was well-trained in Hebraic literary forms as well as in the literary traditions of Israel's Near Eastern neighbors. He used a large variety of those literary structures to convey his prophetic message. It's difficult to get much out of Isaiah without knowing the literary patterns he used. Indeed, these literary patterns tend to encode, or hide, much of his message.

Synonymous Parallelisms

The most important - and easiest - literary feature to recognize in Isaiah are synonymous and antithetical parallelisms. Most of Isaiah is written in poetic form. The key literary feature that sets apart Hebrew poetry from normal prose is not rhyme or meter - instead it's something called parallelism. Parallelism occurs when a key word or concept in one line is closely mirrored in successive lines by similar keywords or concepts. This is called a synonymous parallelism. Isaiah 29:18 is an example of this:

18 In that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book and the eyes of the blind see out of gross darkness.

The 'deaf hearing' closely parallels 'the blind seeing'. Isaiah creates this parallel to point out that this book will allow those who previously lacked understanding to finally see. They were deaf and blind originally only because they lived in darkness and the truth was not spoken to them. When they are brought into the light and the truth is preached to them, they both see and hear. These people are not responsible for their deafness and blindness, unlike in several other places in Isaiah.

Antithetical Parallelisms

Parallelism can also occur when a key word or concept in one line is sharply contrasted in successive lines. This is called an antithetical parallelism. Isaiah 45:7 is an example of this:

7 I fashion light and form darkness; I occasion peace and cause calamity. I, Jehovah, do all these things.

There are two antithetical parallelisms here. The first antithetical parallel contrasts light with darkness. The second antithetical parallel contrasts peace with calamity. Did you also notice that there is a synonymous parallelism here? The first line and the second line form a synonymous parallelism, since peace is a consequence of living in the light, and calamity is a consequence of living in darkness. In particular, when the Lord's covenant people are righteous he gives them covenant blessings. When they are wicked the Lord causes them to suffer the covenant curses associated with breaking their covenants.