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The Use of Parallelism in Psalm 139
The Hebrew poem. Psalm 139, is attributed to King David of Israel. Upon the initial reading of this work, one may be tempted to conclude that the theme or purpose of the poem is the transcendent nature of God. However, lines 20-22 then become problematic, in that, they have no connection to the nature of God. Further analysis of the text and an understanding of the Hebrew use of parallelism in poetry reveal that the transcendent nature of God is merely one aspect of a plea that the author brings before God. Psalm 139 is an appeal to God, who knows and sees all, to defend David against a false accusation. His artful use of parallelism turns an otherwise dull request into a passionate, awe-inspiring experience.
The correct interpretation of all Hebrew poetry requires an understanding of parallelism. This is best accomplished by contrasting it to the more familiar poetic traditions of the west. Where western poetry makes use of meter, rhyme and alliterative patterns, Hebrew poetry takes an entirely different approach. Instead of rhyming words, Hebrew poetry will rhyme ideas. By restating the concept in a slightly different way, by contrasting it with the opposite or by building on the thought with greater specificity parallelism forms the structural foundation of Hebrew poetry.
To understand the complex use of parallelism in Psalm 139, the poem must be treated as having three sections: 1) The Invocation, 2) God as the focus and 3) David as the focus. Each section is comprised of a grouping of parallelisms that function to restate that section's claim, and nested within each group are line parallelisms that serve to further support the claim of the grouping. For the purpose of clarity, we will first examine the use of parallelism in the sections, then in the groupings and finally how parallelism is used within the individual lines.
Section 1: The invocation (lines 1, 23-24)
In line 1, David invokes God and launches his appeal for God's defense by claiming that God has already searched him and already knows him.
1. O LORD, you have searched me,
and you know me.
This claim is paralleled at the conclusion of his supplication before God in lines 23, when David invokes God to once again examine his life.
23. Search me, O God, and know my heart:
test me, and know my anxious thoughts
This main purpose is then built upon in the final line 24 when David asks that God would reveal any "offensive way" or sin remaining in his life that would hinder David from continuing in a relationship with God, or "the way everlasting."
By opening and closing the work with the main purpose of his request, the author uses parallelism to reinforce his objective, while at the same time drawing the entire work into a complete and concise whole.
Section 2: God as the Focus (lines 2-16)
In this section David points to the transcendent nature of God as evidence of his own innocence regarding the accusation. This section contains three groupings with each group describing an aspect of God's transcendent nature.
In lines 2-6, David describes the omniscience of God, expressing that God knows all of David's actions, thoughts and words.
2. You know when I sit down and when I rise,
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3. You discern my going out and my lying down,
you are familiar with all my ways.
4. Before a word is on my tongue,
you know it completely, O LORD.
Lines 3- 4 parallel line 2 and serve to reinforce the belief that whatever David does. God knows about it. David then builds upon that understanding in line 5 by claiming that God, not only knows everything that David does, but is intimately involved with him.
5. Thou hast beset me behind and before,
and laid thine hand upon me.
6. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high,
I cannot attain unto it.
In line 6, David once again points to transcendence of God's omniscience, by humbly admitting his inability to comprehend the full extent of God's knowledge and involvement in his life.
In the next grouping, lines 7-12, it is David's purpose to draw focus to God's omnipresence. Here he expresses that there is no place he can go to hide from God.
7. Whither shall I go from thy spirit?
or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
8. If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there:
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
9. If I take the wings of the morning,
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
10. Even there shall thy hand lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.
11. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me;
even the night shall be light about me.
12. Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee;
but the night shineth as the day:
the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.
In line 7 David asks the rhetorical question "Where can I go to hide from God's presence?" He then proceeds to answer that question in lines 8 - 12 by stating and restating, through parallelism, the belief that there is no place remote enough, dark enough, far enough or deep enough that God will not be there.
The final grouping in this section, lines 13-17, are designed to draw attention to God's omnipotence in David's life. Here David identifies God as his creator and the force that has determined the path that his life will take.
13. For thou hast possessed my reins:
thou hast covered me in my mother's womb.
14. I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made:
marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well
15. My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret,
and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
16. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect;
and in thy book all my members were written,
which in continuance were fashioned,
when as yet there was none of them.
In line 13, David speaks of his own creation at the hand of God and parallels this again in line 15. Building upon the knowledge of Gods power to create him, David then praises him, in line 14, for his skill. Finally, in line 16, David recognizes God's transcendent omnipotence when he claims that each day of his life was determined from before his birth.
David argues, in section 2, that the transcendent nature of God: His omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence, is the best defense against the false accusations made by David's enemies. He argues, that since God created him, sees and knows all that he thinks and does, and has planned the very course of his life, then God, above all, knows the truth of his innocence.
Section 3: Focus on David (lines 17 - 22)
Whereas David's argument in section 2 is focused on God, in section 3 David moves the focus to himself. To smooth the transition from focusing on God in the previous lines and then upon his self in the following lines, David skillfully parallels lines 17-18 with the basic elements of section 2.
17. How precious also are thy thoughts unto me,
0 God! how great is the sum of them!
18a. If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand:
18b. when I awake, I am still with thee.
More specifically. Line 17-18a reflects back upon God's omniscience, paralleling section 2 lines 2-6, while line 18b echoes section 2 lines 7-12 in reminding of God's omnipresence.
In section 3 David argues in support of his faithfulness to God. He makes a clear distinction between his own behavior and those of his accusers, who are the enemies of God, thus separating himself from any further dealings with them. He even goes so far as to wish that God would kill them.
19. Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, 0 God:
depart from me therefore, ye bloody men.
20. For they speak against thee wickedly,
and thine enemies take thy name in vain.
21. Do not I hate them, 0 LORD, that hate thee?
and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?
22. I hate them with perfect hatred:
I count them mine enemies.
In this section the parallelism is utilized in lines 19-21. Each line functions in slightly different ways, to clearly express David's intent to define his position in the matter at hand; that God's enemies are David's enemies, thus supporting his appeal for God's defense.
Now that we have successfully identified parallelism within the sections and groupings, we will briefly examine the more obvious use of parallelism within the lines. Once again, we should recall that parallelism can serve to restate a concept using a slight variation or build upon the previous concept by adding more detail. The following are examples of a concept being stated and coupled with the restated variation.
7a. Whither shall I go from thy spirit?
7b. or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
23a. Search me, 0 God, and know my heart:
23b. try me, and know my thoughts:
In both cases, the concept is presented in line "a", and then repeated in a slightly different way in line "b." As and example of the idea building upon itself we will look at the following:
17a. How precious also are thy thoughts unto me,
17b. 0 God! how great is the sum of them!
18a. If I should count them, they are more m number than the sand:
Here the concept is first stated in line 17, and then more detail is added to the concept in line 18a. For the sake of brevity we have chosen only a few examples of line parallelism, however, it should be noted that each line in this text is either paralleled to itself, or to an adjacent line.
Whether within the line, the grouping or section, the skillful use of parallelism in Psalm 139, allows the reader to better understand the force of emotions motivating David in his plea before God. The same plea, written without the parallelism would appear something like this:
God, you know everything,
see everything, and hold everything within your power
I am on your side God.
Look at my life.
You know I am innocent.
Though it presents the same appeal, it completely fails to express the desperation and emotion in David's supplication.
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