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Monday, March 30, 2009

The Process of Change: Guilt

We have spent a while now taking a cursory look at how to study the Bible. Of course, the whole point of our studying the Word is to grow in the Lord. Because we are sinners, it will not be unusual that as we study we find areas of our lives that do not conform to the image of Christ. That brings up a very important issue: how are we to deal with sin? How do we actively cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our sanctification?

Well, there are a few theological concepts that every believer must grasp in order to deal with sin. The first is guilt.

It is in the sinful nature of man to do all he can to rid himself of guilt and guilty feelings. Some modern schools of psychology have come up with various ways of assisting in that effort. Some teach that man is simply an evolved animal and is incapable of anything like “sin”, therefore any guilty feelings he has are “false guilt”. Others may concede that right and wrong do exist, but that feelings of guilt are most likely the result of a failure to meet social norms imposed on a person. If someone does have an obvious behavior issue, it might be categorized as a “disorder” and treated as a medical condition.

Still others, even in field of Christian psychology, believe that a person’s behavior is the result of met or unmet needs. If a man has been unfaithful to his wife, the Christian psychologist will not deny that it is sin, but will also offer that the unfaithfulness resulted because the man’s need for intimacy in his marriage had not been met. In such a case, the quickest way to remedy the problem is to encourage the wife to meet her husbands needs.

Other methods of dealing with guilt include self-esteem therapy, medication, positive thinking, and even desensitization, in which the person is encouraged to engage in the problem behavior so much that the feelings of guilt eventually go away.

In the end, this war on guilt ends up being a war on the acknowledgment of sin. Guilt is dealt with by explaining away the sin that precipitated it. The “false guilt” is simply the result of imaginary wrong-doing.

However, God’s Word will not allow us to explain away our sin. It will not allow us to claim that sin does not exist and it will not allow us to blame anyone but ourselves. James 1:13-15 says, Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God," for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. There is no explanation for my sin other than my own sinful desires.

Furthermore, the Bible does not recognize the concept of false guilt. Guilt is the legal liability and culpability to punishment that results from the breaking of God’s law. So there is no such thing as false guilt. A sin either occurred or it didn’t. All guilt is real.

There are a few biblical principles that can help us better understand and deal with our guilt. First, we must recognize the fact of guilt. Guilt really exists. There are 33 references to guilt in the book of Leviticus alone. Not only does guilt really exist, but it is universal. Romans 3:23 tells us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Guilt is not to be explained away – it is very serious because God is Holy and will judge all men according to their deeds (Rom 2:5-6).

Second, we must never explain away or ignore the feeling of guilt. When we feel guilty it is most likely because we are. Our conscience is reacting to the fact of our guilt. Now, it is possible to feel guilty for doing something that is not truly a sin. But if we committed that act while believing it was a sin, then we have sinned according to Romans 14:14, 23 because we did it out of rebellion against God. Whatever is not of faith is sin. There should be repentance of that rebellion. More often than not, the feeling of guilt is the result of the fact of guilt.

Third, we must recognize the extent to which guilt can affect our lives. Psalm 32:1-5 and Psalm 38:1-8 speak of the physical and emotional toll guilt can take on us. Those with a sensitive conscience should not expect to enjoy any kind of peace while there is guilt that has not been dealt with. If the feeling of guilt subsides over time, that is evidence that the conscience has become seared due to sin, which is an even more diabolical way that guilt can affect our lives.

In the end, there is only one way to deal with guilt. It is only by God’s forgiveness through repentance that we are able to be rid of the fact of guilt. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1John 1:9). We have a guilt-bearer in Jesus Christ (2Cor 5:21).

If we are going to enjoy change and defeat sin in our lives, we have to recognize the fact that it is there and call it what it is. Next time, we’ll talk about the issue of biblical repentance.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Studying the Bible - Cross Refs & Commentaries

Now that you have applied the principles of interpretation to your passage and arrived at a tentative understanding of the passage, it is time to check yourself. First, write out in your own words your interpretation of the passage. It doesn’t have to be lengthy, but you basically want to answer all the questions that arose during your observation of the passage.

There are a couple of ways that we should always check our interpretations. The first is to look at cross-references – other parallel passages in the Bible that deal with the same subject matter as your passage. The object is to see if your interpretation contradicts what Scripture teaches elsewhere. Since most of us do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, we need tools to point us to other passages that relate to the one we are studying.

A great, simple online tool to use to find cross-references is found on the sidebar of this blog, The Online Parallel Bible. All you have to do is plug your Scripture reference into the search box, click “search”, and the page will load your passage, shown in a number of different translations with cross-references in the sidebar. Basically, you just want to go through those verses, methodically looking for anything that would contradict your interpretation of your passage. If you click on the cross-reference tab at the top of the page, you will be taken to a page that shows all of the same cross-references listed in the main body of the screen, with the sidebar now offering keywords from your passage. You can click on any of the keywords to find a list of passages that refer to that word or concept. You can’t be too thorough with this. I regret to say that there have been a good number of times that I have shared my interpretation of a passage with great conviction, only to find that my interpretation flatly contradicted what Scripture teaches elsewhere.

Another way to find cross-references is to use a topical bible. Most online bible study sites will have a tab that allows you to search one or two different topical bibles. Bible Gateway is one that is very simple to use. Just click on “Topical Index” on the left-hand sidebar. There you can choose from two different topical bibles (Nave’s Topical Bible or Torrey’s New Topical Textbook) from a pull-down menu. Pick one, then search for a topic that your passage deals with. Our text from last Sunday’s message was Ephesians 5:18, so I could search “drunkenness” and find a plethora of cross-references that deal with that subject. Again, you just want to check all the cross-references you can to make sure you haven’t arrived at an interpretation that is contradicted by other passages.

What if you did arrive at a contradictory interpretation? Don’t be discouraged – this is a good thing. You have just ruled out an erroneous interpretation. Just take the knowledge you gleaned from the cross-references and go back to your passage with fresh eyes. Apply your interpretive principles again, using Scripture to interpret Scripture. When you have worked through it again, write our your amended interpretation. You may want to take another walk through your cross-references to double-check yourself.

One word of warning – there may be some truths in Scripture that appear to contradict each other but are both clearly taught in the Word. The biggest one is God’s absolute sovereignty over all things versus man’s responsibility. These are not contradictory – we just can’t fully understand them. Don’t kill yourself trying to make it work in your mind. Scripture teaches both so we must believe both.

Once you have looked at your cross-references you can then look at systematic theologies and commentaries. The point of this exercise is not to find out what is the absolute right interpretation, but to point out any blind spots we may have and to see if we are all alone in our interpretation of the passage. If I am the only person in history to hold a certain interpretation, I have to ask myself the question, “In the 2,000 year history of the church, what are the odds that I’m the first person to get this right?” The answer is, “slim to none.” We should hold our interpretations humbly and loosely. Pride will try to convince us that we are the first to get it right, but that is a very silly place to stand.

A good systematic theology will help you to see if your interpretation fits well theologically with the Bible as a whole. Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem is a very sound tool written by a scholar in language that the average layperson can understand. If I could recommend only five books to every person in our church, one of them would be Grudem’s book. Everyone should have it. There is a Scripture Index in the back. Just look up your passage in that index and you’ll find on what pages that passage is referenced. Look up those pages and see if you find anything that might contradict your interpretation. Grudem is not the Holy Spirit and Systematic Theology is not the Bible, but it may raise some legitimate questions in your mind as to whether you’ve nailed your passage or not.

Then you can look at some commentaries. Each of the sites listed under “Bible Study Tools” on the right hand side of this blog have free online commentaries. It’s a good idea to look at several. Most of these will not be super deep, but they are free. also has free online commentaries. If you are interested in buying some deeper commentaries, let me know what book you are studying and I will make some recommendations.

Again, we’re just checking our interpretation against those of others who have studied the same passage. You may find that your interpretation is commonly held. You may find that you are all alone in the world. A teachable mind and a humble heart are the greatest tools in your Bible study arsenal and will both be crucial if you find that no one agrees with your interpretation. Weigh the arguments and determine which one best explains the passage in its context. Then amend your interpretation as necessary.

Next time, we’ll start to talk about the part that most of us overlook from time to time – application.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Models of Sanctification

What is the biblical view of sanctification? How is it that we become more like Christ? Does it happen all at once or is it a gradual process that takes place throughout our whole lives?
There are three predominant models of sanctification. As we go through these, see which one you may be holding.

1. The Wesleyan View
This view is also referred to as the Nazarene view, or Christian Perfection. In this view a person can live for years going through a sporadic patterns of spiritual peaks and valleys, in which he or she will make progress towards Christlikeness only to take a few steps backward toward the old self.

However, after a heavy spiritual experience, which may take the form of strong biblical teaching, a “second work of grace” catapults the person to a state of Christian perfection, also known as “entire sanctification”. A person in this state is considered sinless. The Wesleyan view defines sin as a willful transgression of the known law of God. Any unintended transgression or a transgression about which the person was ignorant is considered a “mistake”, rather than a sin. After the second work of grace, the person will continue to make mistakes, but there will be no willful sins. Once this state is achieved, there is no more spiritual growth per se – the person just increases in good works.

2. The Keswick View
This view is also called the Higher Life or Deeper Life. Similar to the Wesleyan view, the Keswick view teaches that a person can spend much of life in an ongoing struggle against sin, characterized by many spiritual peaks and valleys. These peaks and valleys can come in the form of a spiritual high obtained at a Christian camp or revival followed by the waning of that spiritual excitement. At the next spiritual event, the person “rededicates” his or her life and the cycles goes on and on.

Finally, a super spiritual experience leads the believer to a unique commitment or enlightenment in which the person yields and surrenders his whole life to the Lord. This experience occasionally will be expressed by “He was my Savior, but now He’s also my Lord.” This view is also associated with the phrase “let go and let God.” This surrender effectively let’s go of the struggle with sin and allows God to do all the heavy lifting of sanctification, so that dramatic spiritual growth takes place, and the spiritual peaks and valleys are significantly smaller and generally trend upward. The person is still capable of sin, but there is no longer an intense struggle with sin.

3. Biblical Progressive Sanctification
This view is also referred to as the Reformed View. Biblical Progressive Sanctification teaches that sanctification is a lifelong cycle of sin, repentance, renewal, and growth that is only completed when we go to be with the Lord (Rom 6-8). It is accomplished through the believer’s active, intentional discipline of himself, trusting that the Holy Spirit is empowering his efforts (Phil 2:12-13). In other words, the believer works and the Holy Spirit works. There is no singular experience by which the person is catapulted to a higher level of sanctification. There is simply a slow, methodical upward trend to Christlikeness.

Like the Keswick view, there is a surrender to God. However, this surrender is not a one time thing, but takes place repeatedly in the daily decision to yield to God’s revealed will. Then the believer determines to walk in obedience, trusting in the Holy Spirit’s power.

While I think most of us at PBF would say that we hold the Biblical Progressive Sanctification view, it is possible that we are living our lives according to the other two views. When we wait for some super spiritual experience to take away our strong desires for sin and remove the need for habitual self-discipline, we are living according to both the Wesleyan and Keswick views. But 1 Tim 4:7b says, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness (NAS). There is no Scriptural evidence that during this life our struggle with sin will be anything less than a struggle. The Christian life is to be one of discipline and effort.

There is another way in which we practice something different than what we say we believe. What do we typically do when we want to overcome a certain sin? We pray about it. Certainly that is important, but if that is all we do, we are practicing a “let go and let God” theology. Phil 2:12-13 tells us …work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Work! We’ve got to actually do something. We’ve got take action against our sin rather than expecting prayer alone to fix the problem. We must struggle with sin.

Another way in which we show a practical belief in Wesleyan sanctification is in how we view sin in our lives. We have problem calling sin sin. We fail to call it what it is and we rarely confess it as sin. How many times do we sin in one day? How many times do we confess it? We may deny it, but we live as if our sin is more akin to a Wesleyan “mistake”. That may be why we don’t seem to progress more than we do in our struggle against sin. If we don’t recognize it for what it is, how can we war against it?

1 John 1:9 says, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. This is not true only at conversion. Our sin after we are saved still interrupts our fellowship with God. We are to continually confess our sin to God so as to maintain a right relationship with Him.

We also practice a “let go and let God” Keswick mentality when we think that the mere intake of Biblical teaching alone without our practicing it will change us. We can listen to great sermons and Bible lessons 24 hours a day, but it will do us no good if we do not then obey what we have heard. James warns us against being merely hearers of the Word and not doers of the Word (1:22). If we listen without obeying, we are deceiving ourselves. We think we are growing spiritually, but the only thing growing is our pride (1 Cor 8:1).

Our response to any biblical preaching should be to ask ourselves, “what do I need to do in response to this truth? What needs to change in my life? What is my plan to apply this?” One good sermon with that kind of response is far better than 100 sermons with no response at all.

Let’s approach sanctification understanding that it is a lifelong struggle with sin. It requires us to recognize sin for what it is, to confess it as sin, and to act against it. We must exert effort in our war against sin, trusting in the Holy Spirit to empower us for obedience.

Next week, we’ll begin to look at how to kill sin in our lives.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Studying the Bible: Interpretation - Prophecy

First of all, let me say that prophecy is difficult. Because the point of view of the writer can change from one verse to the next, it is often hard to know who is speaking, to whom the prophecy is being written, of whom the writer is speaking, etc. Figurative language is also used frequently, adding another layer that can obscure the meaning of the passage. Also, it may not be clear if the passage is referring to a future event, a past event, or a present event. I say all of this to encourage you to hold your interpretations humbly and loosely. Some people can be overly dogmatic about things in prophetical passages of Scripture that are just plain difficult to understand. All I know is that there are great theological minds who agree on all essential doctrines, but who disagree about much in the realm of prophecy.

But rather than discouraging us from studying prophecy, hopefully this will intrigue us. This series on bible study is not intended to be an exhaustive, meticulous methodology. My goal is to simply whet your appetite for study and get you moving. Whether studying proverbs or prophecy, we need to stay in the Word. That being said, I do think it is important to get a good bit of studying under your belt before tackling prophecy. Do some work in all the other genres first and try to gain some competence there. Then I would encourage you to get some hermeneutical tools with deeper instruction than I can give in a few blog entries. For this reason, I won’t spend a whole lot of time on interpretive principles for prophecy here on this blog.

Until you feel ready to study prophecy, the most important thing I can encourage you to do is to read it and read it and read it. It sounds simplistic, but the best way to understand prophecy is to have a familiarity with all of it. It is very easy to become dogmatic on some point after studying one prophet, only to find later on that another prophet flat out contradicts your interpretation. The breadth of your understanding of the prophets will directly affect the accuracy of the depth of your understanding. This is just another manifestation of the importance of the overview we talked about at the very beginning of this series. You need to see the forest before the trees will make sense. So read, read, read. Read the prophets all the way through. Then take one and read it repeatedly until you have a good idea of the gist. Then it’s a good idea to read all of them straight through again. Take the second one and read it repeatedly. Then read them all straight through again. Admittedly, this will take much time, but a limited idea of the greater context is a recipe for error in prophetic literature.

When we think of prophets we tend to think of those who were foretellers of future events. This is accurate, but most of the prophetic literature in the bible contains forthtelling (revealing the message of God) and only secondarily contains foretelling. Forthtelling prophecy can be approached with the principles we use to interpret poetry. Foretelling prophecy is the more difficult stuff that you may want to try after gaining some more experience.

I will share with you one important rule for handling foretelling prophecy. It involves prophecies of judgment. In Jonah 3:4, we find Jonah proclaiming to the people of Nineveh, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" There is a problem here. If you are familiar with the book of Jonah, you know that this prophecy was not fulfilled. v5 tells us, And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. This appears to have made God change his mind: When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it (Jonah 3:10).

Jonah predicted that Nineveh would be overthrown and it didn’t happen. What are we to make of this? If we look at this prophecy outside of the context of other prophecy, we would have to conclude that one of three things is true. Either 1) Jonah is a false prophet, in which case he should have been killed (Deut 18:20); or 2) God does not know the future; or 3) God does know the future, but He is a liar. None of these are handsome options. First, we know from the context of the book that Jonah is not a false prophet, but he is a somewhat reluctant prophet speaking the precise message he was commanded to speak. Second, Scripture is clear that God knows all things perfectly, including the future (Isa 46:9-10; 1 John 3:20). Third, God can’t sin, so we know He isn’t a liar (James 1:13).

But never fear – we do have a principle for understanding prophecies of judgment. It is found in Jeremiah 18:7-8:

7 If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.

Of course, this was Jonah’s understanding, too. He hated Nineveh. He wanted them to perish. It was because he understood the conditional nature of judgment prophecies that he didn’t want to prophesy there. He knew that if the people of Nineveh repented they would not be judged. If he had been unaware of this condition, he would have joyfully prophesied to the people of Nineveh.

This is an important rule to keep in mind. We also should know that just as judgment prophecies are conditional, many prophecies of blessing are conditional. We find this principle also in Jeremiah 18:

9 And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it (Jeremiah 18:9-10).

Again, I would encourage you to simply read the prophets repeatedly. They are rich in truth. If you have a good study bible, like the ESV Study Bible or the MacArthur Study Bible, it would be helpful to read through the study notes as you go through the prophets. These notes will frequently provide references to the other prophets, which we help you to understand prophecy as a whole and prevent you from arriving at interpretations that are contradictory to the big picture.

Next time we’ll look at the final stage in interpretation: cross-references and commentaries.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Worship That Pleases God

What kind of worship pleases the Lord? God went to great lengths in the Law to describe for His people precisely how He wanted to be worshiped. Perhaps the most tedious reading in the Bible is the portions of Scripture devoted to the sacrificial system in the Pentateuch.

Painstakingly detailed instructions for the building of the tabernacle stretch from Exodus 25:1 to 31:17, and cover everything from the precise measurements of the ark of the covenant, to the color of yarns to be used in the ten curtains, to the placement of certain precious stones on the ephod of the high priest, to the specific toes and fingers of the priests that were to be consecrated with ram’s blood. The book of Leviticus outlines the 5 major offerings, when they were to be offered, how they were to be offered, and why they were to be offered (1:1-8:38). The Sabbath and Holy Feasts are similarly explained in exquisite detail, leaving nothing to chance or interpretation (23:1-44).

God was very specific in his instructions. The seriousness of these instructions is demonstrated in Leviticus 10, where Nadab and Abihu, two sons of Aaron, presumed to worship the Lord in a way that He had not prescribed. The Lord incinerated them. Afterward Moses reminded Aaron, "This is what the LORD has said, 'Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified'" (10:3). God demands to be regarded as holy.

But when we think about worship that pleases the Lord, we must be very careful to guard against thinking that the external trappings of our worship are what determine its validity to God. The external things are to be indicative of an internal devotion, obedience, and love for God Almighty. It was not simply outward motions of worship that the Lord required of Israel. Moses told the Israelites in Deuteronomy 10:12-13 "And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?” Outward obedience is to be evidence of an internal reality of worship.

How does God feel about external worship – however accurate it may be in its execution – that is not an expression of true, internal love and devotion for Him? The first chapter of Isaiah tells us. Israel’s sacrifices, their external worship, were an abomination to Him because they were done while the nation was living in wanton, unrepentant sin:

Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations-- I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them (Isa 1:13-14).

I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. When we approach the Lord in worship, the external must match the internal. In Isaiah 29:13, the Lord refers to the Israelites as those who “draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.” They said the right things, but their hearts did not reflect it.

Of course, today we approach the throne of grace by the blood of Jesus Christ, having been reconciled to God. But this does not mean that our worship is always pleasing to the Lord. He still requires us to approach Him without unrepentant sin in our lives. We must have no broken relationships (Matt 5:23-24). We must be looking out for the lowly and keeping ourselves free from the stain of the world (James 1:27). Husbands must be honoring their wives (1 Pet 3:7). We must not take the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner (1 Cor 11:27-31).

At PBF, we pay close attention to the words of the songs we sing. We pay close attention to the words we say in worship. We strive to be as biblical as possible and to honor and please the Lord in everything we do corporately. But if we come together to worship while cherishing sin in our lives or harboring bitterness against another in the body or having unresolved conflict in our marriages, all of our outwardly theologically correct worship will be nothing but noise to the Lord. We will be people who draw near with our mouths and honor Him with our lips while our hearts are far from Him.

Our worship as the New Testament church is to sacrifice ourselves for the purpose of holy living, conformed to Christ rather than to the world. (Rom 12:1-2).

Let me encourage you to prepare your hearts to worship the Lord this Sunday. Examine yourselves. See if there is unconfessed sin that needs to be dealt with. See if there are relationships that need to be reconciled. See if you are not free from the stain of the world. Let’s take care of these things so that we may approach the Lord with a clear conscience and worship Him in such a way that there is nothing hindering His taking pleasure in our singing, reading, preaching, praying, and fellowship.

See you Sunday.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Studying the Bible: Interpretation - Poetry

When we hear the phrase “biblical poetry”, most of us probably think of Psalms. That is absolutely right. However, poetry is found all over the Bible, not just in Psalms. We find poetry in the Pentateuch, History, the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Epistles, in addition to the Poetical Books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Since poetry is so pervasive in the canon, it is very important that we know how to interpret it.

The first thing we want to keep in mind about poetry is that it uses figurative language. It should not be interpreted in the same literal manner in which we would interpret prose literature, like an epistle. A great way to see the difference between figurative language and literal language is to read Judges 4-5. Chapter 4 tells of the defeat of Sisera by the Israelites. It is a straightforward, literal narrative. Chapter 5 is a poetic rendering of the same event using figurative language.

Judges 5:20 says, From heaven the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera. Some interpreters have taken this verse literally and stated with conviction that God sent a meteor shower down on Sisera. However, the prose account of the same event in chapter 4 mentions nothing about meteors or stars – a glaring omission if it literally happened! It is better to understand the poetry to be conveying the overwhelming victory given to Israel by God and the terror God caused in the hearts of the Canaanites.

So when we interpret poetry we want to remember that figurative language is the norm and we shouldn’t take everything in a literal way.

The second key to understanding biblical poetry is the concept of parallelism. Parallelism means that lines of Hebrew poetry have a similar rhythm or cadence. In other words, the lines will tend to have the same number of syllables and stress. However, this can only be seen in the original Hebrew. Don’t worry, though – you don’t have to learn Hebrew. The English translators are able to see the parallelism in the original Hebrew and then group the lines together accordingly, formatting the English in a way that sets off the lines as poetry. (If you look again at Judges 4-5, you can see how poetry is formatted differently than prose so that the English reader can distinguish between the two.)

Lines of poetry grouped together can relate to one another in different ways. When looking at biblical poetry, it is essential to identify which of the following forms is being used.

In synonymous parallelism, subsequent lines repeat the idea or theme of the first line. A good example of this is Psalm 1:1:

Blessed in the man
  • Who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
  • Nor stands in the way of sinners,
  • Nor sits in the seat of scoffers.

Each of the three indented lines is communicating the same point, blessed is the man who rejects the ways of the ungodly. The goal with this kind of parallelism is to boil all the lines down to the one idea they are all communicating.

In antithetical parallelism, the second line contrasts the first. So, the point is made by stating a truth positively and negatively. Luke 1:52 is a good example:

he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate

In this kind of parallelism, it is more difficult to boil the lines down to one sentence, but it can be done. Understanding one of the two lines can help you better understand the other. The lines are working together to make one point.

In synthetic parallelism, the second line elaborates on the first line and adds some additional information. The second line advances the thought of the first. Psalm 1:3 provides is an example:

He is like a tree planted by streams of water
  • that yields its fruit in its season,
  • and its leaf does not wither.
  • In all that he does, he prospers

The writer takes the idea of a tree planted by water and develops that with each line. Not only is it planted by water, but it is fruitful. Not only is it fruitful, but it’s leaf doesn’t wither. And not only that, but it prospers in every way. Typically, the main point being made is most fully expressed in the last line, which is certainly the case with Ps 1:3: the man who rejects the ways of the ungodly will prosper in everything.

There is one more form: non-parallel parallelism. These are poetic lines that share a common rhythm in the underlying Hebrew but do not relate to one another in any of the ways described above. Usually, the lines do not represent separate ideas but are strung together in one thought, as in Psalm 139:4:

Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.

As you can see, the lines are forming one thought. They are not synonymous, antithetical, or synthetic.

Identifying these forms of parallelism can be very enjoyable. I encourage you to open up the Psalms and take a crack at it.

Next time, interpreting prophecy.