I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Use of Parallelisms and Figures in Psalm 35

I. The uses and purposes of parallelisms in Psalm 35

A. Parallelism defined

Parallelism in Hebrew poetry “is that phenomenon whereby two or more successive poetic lines dynamically strengthen, reinforce, and develop each other’s thought.  As a kind of emphatic additional thought, the follow-up lines further define, specify, expand, intensify, or contrast the first.”[1]  Berlin adds this insightful expansion.

Parallelism focuses the message on itself but its vision is binocular.  Like human vision it superimposes two slightly different views of the same object and from their convergence it produces a sense of depth.[2]

1. Parallelism of intensification

                        a                                             b
α.         Contend, O LORD,                with those who contend with me;
a                                              b          
β.         fight [O LORD]                      against those who fight against me!” (v 1)[3]

a. Intensification defined

A parallelism of intensificationoccurs when the second stich of a couplet restates the first in a more pointed, extreme, or forceful way…we might way the second develops the first by saying, ‘Not only that but more so.’”[4]  It is one of four variations of the (α < β) distich pattern.

b. Author’s use of intensification in 35:1

In the first stich (α), David uses the term “contend,” first as a verb (rı̂yb) with reference to Yahweh’s advocacy and second (β) as a noun (yârı̂yb), speaking of the “contender” who is striving against the psalmist.  This term carries connotations of a legal setting, which is alluded to again in v 11 (cf. Ps 43:1).  With this, David is seeking Yahweh’s advocacy; or, in NT terms, David is seeking Yahweh as his paraklētos (used of Jesus’ session ministry in 1 Jn 2:1, and the Holy Spirit in Jn 14:16; 15:26, and 16:7; cf. Is 49:25).  Thus, the α stich is a judicial petition, asking Yahweh to step into the situation David is facing and vindicate him; “Vindicate me, O LORD, my God” (v 24a).  David is seeking Yahweh’s judgment in the sense of judicial acquittal before God’s bar of righteousness, and that against the wicked, who are seeking David doom.

The couplet is intensified by the verb “fight” (lâcham) in the second stich, which parallels “contend” in the first.  By invoking Yahweh to “fight,” David has escalated the petition from a legal plea to one of warfare.  The term “fight” means to do battle, make war, etc.  Here, then, David’s anxiety is expressed by the rapid shift of the petition, from a court-like setting to one of the battlefield, where Yahweh will utterly destroy David’s enemies. 

I believe the historical background for this psalm is 1 Sam 24, the climax of Saul’s rabid hunt after David’s life.  Specifically, 1 Sam 24:15 has David finishing his speech to Saul with these words, “May the LORD therefore be judge and give sentence between me and you, and see to it and plead (rı̂yb) my cause and deliver me from your hand” (on “deliver me,” shâphaṭ, cf. Ps 35:24).    

2. Parallelism of specification

            α          Malicious witnesses rise up;

            β          they ask me of things that I do not know.  (v 11)

a. Specification defined

“In the parallelism of specification, each succeeding stich makes more specific what the opening stich states in general.  In other words, the movement is from general to specific.”[5]  There are various types of specification, e.g., spatial or geographical.  The example I have chosen represents the explanatory type. 

b. The author’s use of specification in 35:11

In Ps 35:11 the first stich (α) tells what the malicious witnesses did, they did “rise up” against David; the second stich (β) tells how they did it, by means of spurious, groundless interrogation.  This is one of many places where David is demonstrating his own relative “righteousness” in the circumstances (v 27a).  Whatever the charges of these violent accusers were, David had no consciousness of any wrong done by him, especially with respect to the particular allegations.  Thus, the second stich specifically explains the generality of the first in qualifying the “maliciousness” as bringing perfectly baseless allegations against David.  

In 1 Sam 24:9 we read, “And David said to Saul, ‘Why do you listen to the words of men who say, 'Behold, David seeks your harm'?”  This is reflected in both Ps 35:11 and 15.  This appears to be another solid allusion to the historical context of Saul’s pursuing David, especially the climax in 1 Sam 24. 

II. The uses and purposes of figures in Psalm 35

Let me say at once that parallelism, the verse form in which virtually all biblical poetry is written, is not the most essential thing that a reader needs to know about biblical poetry.  Much more crucial to the reading of biblical poetry is the ability to identify and interpret the devises of poetic language.

—Leland Ryken[6]

A. Simile  

I behaved myself as though he had been my friend or brother:
I bowed down heavily, as one that mourneth for his mother. (v. 14 KJV, italics added)

1. Simile defined

“The use of simile and metaphor is the most pervasive element of biblical poetry.  The essential feature of both is comparison.  A simile draws correspondence between two things by using the explicit formula ‘like’ or ‘as’…They both secure an effect on one level and then transfer that meaning to another level,” which “work(s) by indirection.”[7]

2. The author’s use of simile in 35:14

David highlights his pathos in the situation as emphatically as possible.  Few could deny that they bereave the calamity or death of their own kin more than they do that of others.  In this distich, David is prompting the reader to vicariously transfer their deepest feelings associated with  losing a close friend or family member to the same for a hotly-pursuing enemy, so that the word picture painfully illustrates David’s extension of true loving kindness for his enemies.  In this, David is incarnating the heart of his Greater Son’s teaching on the topic of loving one’s enemies (cf. Matt 5:43—48). 

Although not likely an allusion, 2 Sam 1:11ff provides a wonderful illustration of this situation. 

Then David took hold of his clothes and tore them, and so did all the men who were with him.  And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son and for the people of the LORD and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.  (vv 11—12)

In connection with the first section above (I.A.1, intensification), the parallelism is worth noting.  We also see in this distich the parallelism of intensification.  That is, David heightens the intensity of the pathos in the second stich by mention the grief of losing a mother.  Friends and brothers may be many in number and sort, but every person has only one mother.  Some crass family dysfunction notwithstanding, the is no closer earthly bond than that between mother and child (cf. Gen 24:67, “So Isaac was comforted after the death of his mother.”). 

B. Chiastic figure

Bullinger discerns an interesting chiastic structure with an extended alteration that frames the entire psalm.[8]  He proposes the following. 

A   a | vv 1—3. Appeal for help.
         b | vv 4—8, Imprecation.
            c | vv 9, 10, Praise.
               B | v 11, Evildoers.  Words.
                   C | v 12, Their evil for good.
                       D | v 13, His good for evil.
                       D | v 14, His good for evil.
                   C | v 15, Their evil for good.
               B | v 16, Evildoers.  Words.
A   a | vv 17, 18, Appeal for help.
        b | vv 19—26, Deprecation. 
           c | vv 27, 28, Praise. 

[1] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard contributors, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation.  Thomas Nelson: Nashville, Tennessee (2004), p. 284.

[2] Ibid.  

[3] All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version.

[4] Klein, et al., p. 295, op cit.
[5] Ibid., p. 293.
[6] How to Read the Bible as Literature.  Zondervan: Grand Rapids, Michigan (1984), p. 90. 

[7] Ibid., pp. 91—92. 
[8] The Companion Bible.  Kregel Publications: Grand Rapids, Michigan (1990), p. 751.

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