BIBLE PROPHECY: Ancient Hebrew Poetry

This is the 9th post in a series I am writing about end times prophecies in the Bible.  If you would like to read the earlier posts, the series starts here.

The last thing we have to discuss before we can start taking a serious look at Biblical prophecy is the use of Hebrew poetry in prophecy.  Even in the best cases,  it can be difficult to understand exactly what the poet means by the words he uses.   And this is true even when the poetry is based in something as easily recognized as meter and rhyme.  But ancient Hebrew poetry is not based in meter and rhyme, but in parallelism.  And even then, there are different forms and levels of parallelism.  In fact, ancient Hebrew poetry often has nested layers and forms, all within the same poem.  The Book of Revelation is such a book, and so are Isaiah and Daniel.  Now, if we do not understand the poetry being used, then how can we possibly expect to properly understand the prophet’s message?  The answer should be obvious: we can’t.  Therefore, let’s look on several forms of parallelisms found in ancient Hebrew poetry.

The first thing I want the reader to understand is that this is a very deep and complicated subject, and the source of a great deal of confusion — even among the most studied of Biblical scholars.  I do not pretend to have any special insight or understanding.  At best, I am providing a very rudimentary and — if I might add — clumsy outline of this subject.  My hope is for nothing more than to make the reader aware of just how deep the subject of Hebrew poetry runs through the Scriptures, and — if I’m lucky enough — to spark an interest in the reader that will lead to more in-depth, personal study of the matter.  Now, with that said, let’s look at parallelism in Scripture.

The first thing we need to understand is that there are many forms of parallelism in Hebrew poetry.  It can be as simple as re-stating two or more central ideas, only each time they are re-stated, they either add additional information or describe something from a different perspective.  On top of this, the grammatical structure can also be parallel, even within another set of parallel passages.  For example:

Proverbs 6:20-22  New American Standard Bible (NASB)

20 My son, observe the commandment of your father
And do not forsake the [a]teaching of your mother;
21 Bind them continually on your heart;
Tie them around your neck.
22 When you walk about, [b]they will guide you;
When you sleep, [c]they will watch over you;
And when you awake, [d]they will talk to you.

These parallels can also be contrasts to each other.  One line may say one thing, then the next line could express an opposite idea.  For example:

Proverbs 11:1  New American Standard Bible (NASB)

Contrast the Upright and the Wicked

11 A false balance is an abomination to the Lord,
But a just weight is His delight.

Still other parallels can come in the form of a ,stair case,’ where the expressions used constantly intensify the central idea:

Proverbs 29:1-2  New American Standard Bible (NASB)

Warnings and Instructions

29 A man who hardens his neck after much reproof
Will suddenly be broken [a]beyond remedy.
When the righteous [b]increase, the people rejoice,
But when a wicked man rules, people groan.

However, there are two forms of parallelism which must be considered central to any attempt to study and understand prophecy.  These are the chiasim and the bifid.  Once we understand these two major forms of Hebrew poetry, we will realize that many of the books in the Bible are bifids, and a great many more contain chiasims.  So, what are bifids and chiasims?

Let’s take the bifid first.  Simply put, a bifid is a book that is divided in the middle, with each half telling the same story, only in a different way.  Isaiah is a bifid.  If you read critiques, you will find that many people have questioned whether or not the latter half of Isaiah was actually written by Isaiah.  They rightly point to some differences between it and the first half.  But their mistake is in not understanding that Isaiah is a bifid.  It stops in the middle, then starts from the beginning and retells the whole story all over, just with different information and a different perspective.  Daniel is also a bifid, but it is easier to recognize — if you read it in its original languages.  That’s right, Daniel was originally written in two different languages.  The first half is written in Chaldean and is addressing the Gentile world.  The second half is in Hebrew and addresses the Hebrew people.  Finally, the easiest bifid of all to recognize is Revelation.  It starts with Christ clearly stating that he is addressing His prophecy to the Church.  Then, in the middle of Revelation, Christ tells John that he (John) must prophecy again only, this time, he (John) is to address the Gentiles.  In all three cases, Isiah, Daniel and Revelation, both halves of the books tell the same story, only to different audiences and with different information.

Then there is the chiasim.  Most believers have heard chiasims before, but you may have never been taught that is what they are.  Simply put, a chiasim is like an ascending and descending scale.  The chiasim will address two or more ideas on the way up the scale, then address those same ideas again as it goes back down the scale, only, this time, it addresses them in reverse order.  One of the most well known chiasims in Scripture is “Your ways are not Mine, My ways are not yours.”  See how it goes up two steps, then back down two steps?  Here is another example:

Proverbs 11:19-20  New American Standard Bible (NASB)

19 He who is steadfast in righteousness will attain to life,
And he who pursues evil will bring about his own death.
20 The perverse in heart are an abomination to the Lord,
But the blameless in their [a]walk are His delight.

Chiasims are probably the hardest form of ancient Hebrew poetry to recognize.   This is because the poets often place breaks between the steps, breaks where they discuss other things.  Chiasims can also be spread throughout several chapters or even an entire book (of half of a book in the case of a bifid).  And we cannot rely on the numbering system in our Bibles, either.  We must remember they were added much later, and are not part of the original texts.   So chiasims can be difficult to spot, and even when we find them, they can be difficult to follow.  For example, Genesis 1:1 through 2:3 is written in the form of a chiasim.  There are also two parallel chiasims in Revelation, one in each half of the book.  On top of those two chiasims in the bifid that is Revelation are also three parallels of seven, with nested parallels within those seven.  So the reader should understand that, if one does not know about and have some concept of ancient Hebrew poetry, one is very unlikely to understand what the poet was trying to tell us.

OK, if you have been following me through all my posts on Biblical prophecy to this point, you should be starting to get the idea that there is much more to the language of prophecy than simply reading the English translation.  And on top of everything I have discussed so far, I still haven’t mentioned the symbolic language or numerology written into prophecy.  Now, if this is frustrating for you, I assure you, I understand. I can see how it might appear as though there’s no use even trying to study prophecy.  I mean, how can we study it when we have to learn all this other stuff before we even begin with the prophets?  Luckily, the prophets actually left us a great many clues that serve as sign posts to help us navigate our way through their prophecies.  So, this is where we will finally start our actual study of the prophets and their prophecies: with the ‘sign posts’ they left for us.

You can find the next post in this series here.


Bifids & Chiasims

Poetry in the Hebrew Bible

How Ancient Hebrew Poetry Works: A New Description

The Key to Biblical Poetry


3 thoughts on “BIBLE PROPHECY: Ancient Hebrew Poetry

  1. Came back to read this. I realized that I started to read it days ago but was interrupted and didn’t finish it! Great post! Again, I learned a lot!

    I usually like to read the commentaries of scholars at the Blue Letter Bible site. Some are more “modern” commentaries, and some are from scholars of the past (like Matthew Henry). Henry’s are often more detailed than David Guzik’s and others. But I do find the commentaries helpful – probably because they know of the bifid and chiasims that you have mentioned and defined?

    Interestingly enough, when I attended Bible Study Fellowship classes, the leadership often discouraged us from using commentaries for our lesson homework. I can understand why…they wanted us to use cross references in the Bible and not what others have gleaned and written from Scripture…but I have always found such commentaries helpful to Bible study.

    1. Personally, I would be EXTREMELY careful with people who tell me NOT to read commentaries. Essentially, they are telling you NOT to read the Apostles. After all, the Apostles were not Jesus, just His disciples. Therefore, by definition, everything they taught us was ALL ‘commentary.’

      Also, it is unscriptural. Scripture tells us that “to each is given a piece (or a little).” This means we MUST share, and study together — so that we can assemble the pieces we have all been given and use them to get a better understanding of the over all picture.

      I would rather ask people to read the Scriptures first, THEN the commentaries, and then do as Scripture says and test those understandings against the rest of Scripture. This is what I do, and the Lord has used it to teach me more and in shorter time than I think most who study Scripture for decades. Besides, it is also the way Scripture tells us to study God’s Word.

      So, be careful with folks who tell you NOT to read what the Lord has revealed to others. Just make sure you take what others share and hold it to a firm understanding of what Scripture says — so you can sort chaff from wheat 🙂

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