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Proverbs and Hebrew Poetry Part 2

Monday, June 11, 2018

In our last article we discussed some of the features of Hebrew poetry; specifically, synonymous and antithetical parallelism. There are a few more literary devices I would like to mention before we start in on the text of the book of Proverbs.

The first might be described as numerical parallelism. It is an “X + 1” formula authors use to indicate that numerous examples could be provided but only a certain number will be. This is easier to understand with a biblical example:

“There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.” Proverbs 6:16–19

Notice that seven things are listed. This device is also used to lists the sins of various nations in the prophets. Some argue that there is an emphasis on the final item in these types of lists. I am not sure that is always the case. Here are a few more examples:

“Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin.” Proverbs 30:18f

“Three things are stately in their tread; four are stately in their stride: the lion, which is mightiest among beasts and does not turn back before any; the strutting rooster, the he-goat, and a king whose army is with him.” Proverbs 30:29–31

A final literary device that plays a role in the poetic sections of scripture are acrostics. This is a structure in which each line or section begins with a corresponding letter. Maybe you’ve seen this one before:

J – Jesus
O – Others
Y – Yourself

The original purpose of this feature seems to have been for memorization. This is seen in numerous Psalms, most famously Psalm 119. In most Bibles they will have the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet before each section. The book of Lamentations is written as an acrostic. And in the book of Proverbs, the section on the “worthy woman” is an acrostic. This is a literary device which is typically lost in translation. However, it may help us see the author’s intended structure of the text.

Understanding the literary devices of Hebrew poetry is not essential to learn from the book of Proverbs but it can help us to understand better what the wise man of old had to say about living life. Any advantage we can get in understanding the word of God ought to be utilized and I hope to do some of this as we begin to explore the text of Proverbs together.

Proverbs and Hebrew Poetry

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

When we think of poetry, we often think of lines of similar length which end with words which rhyme.

“Roses are red, violets are blue.
Sugar is sweet, and so are you.”

I understand that this is not the defining characteristic of poetry, but it is a generally quality which calls our attention to the poetic verse of what we are reading or singing.

One of the main characteristics of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. The Anchor Bible Dictionary says that parallelism is “the most prominent rhetorical figure in ancient Near Eastern poetry…it can be defined as the repetition of the same or related semantic content and/or grammatical structure in consecutive lines or verses.” While this may sound technical it is very simple and also very important to understand for interpreting Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and much of the prophets.

There are two main forms of parallelism, with a third that is not as common, though we see it in scripture.

Synonymous Parallelism

The phrase “synonymous parallelism” is used when two lines express similar ideas with similar language. There is some debate over whether or not the second line adds to or builds upon the first. Some might refer to this as “synthetic parallelism” but it is just synonymous parallelism. For those who are more numerically inclined, we might express this as a math problem.


This is the basic structure of the proverbs:

  • “Righteous lips are the delight of a king, and he loves him who speaks what is right.” Proverbs 16:13
  • “Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger.” Proverbs 19:15
  • “Plans are established by counsel; by wise guidance wage war.” Proverbs 20:18

You should be able to see how the second phrase is synonymous with the first. It might be helpful to separate the proverb into two lines. Consider Proverbs 23:12. I’ve divided it by phrase and emphasized the synonymous aspects of the proverb.

“Apply your heart to instruction
and your ear to words of knowledge.”

This proverb has an A-B-A-B pattern. Sometimes the proverb might present itself as an inverse statement. Consider again Proverbs 16:13:

Righteous lips are the delight of a king,
and he loves him who speaks what is right.”

This proverb has an A-B-B-A pattern.

Antithetical Parallelism

The phrase “antithetical parallelism” is used of two lines which express similar truths using oppositional language. Again, we can present this numerically:


The same point is being made, but the writer approaches it from both positive and negative sides. This is basically, the other half of the structure of the proverbs:

“A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother.”
Proverbs 10:1

“The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.”
Proverbs 15:2

“The way of the guilty is crooked, but the conduct of the pure is upright.”
Proverbs 21:8

We can do the same breakdown with these proverbs. Consider Proverbs 28:5

Evil men do not understand justice,
but those who seek the Lord understand it completely.”

The evil men are contrasted with “those who seek the LORD.” What is the difference between the two? The first group does not understand justice. They second group does.

A subgroup of antithetical parallelism is the “better than” statements we read in Hebrew poetry. Typically, these proverbs pair some righteous or wise behavior with a poor setting and proclaim that condition superior to a sinful or foolish behavior with a prosperous setting.

  • “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it.” Proverbs 15:16
  • “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it.” Proverbs 15:17
  • “It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.” Proverbs 16:19
  • “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.” Proverbs 21:9

We will look at a few more literary devices used in Hebrew poetry next time.


What Is a Proverb?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

As we begin to think about the book of Proverbs, we might start by defining the term. Dictionary.com has the following definitions: 1. a short popular saying, usually of unknown and ancient origin, that expresses effectively some commonplace truth or useful thought; adage. 2. a wise saying or precept; a didactic sentence. 3. a person or thing that is commonly regarded as an embodiment or representation of some quality; byword. 4. Bible: a profound saying, maxim, or oracular utterance requiring interpretation.

When you begin to look at the definitions offered by Biblical scholars, you see a whole host of different ideas which express the concept of a proverb. In Paul Koptak’s commentary on Proverbs he notes the irony that it is easy to recognize a proverb but difficult to define it. Numerous descriptions have been provided in the past. “Short sentences drawn from long experience” (from Don Quixote). “The wit of one and the wisdom of many” (Lord J. Russell). Kenneth Burke argued that a proverb was like shorthand for situations that occur often enough that people recognize them. These are helpful but Klyne Snodgrass goes to the root of why proverbs are meaningful: he says it connects with our human desire to think in comparisons.

We understand what proverbs are and we use them every day. They apply to specific circumstances that we easily recognize and there are proverbs for every situation. Notice these examples:

 “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

“The pen is mightier than the sword.”

“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Proverbs offer advice on relationships, morals, work ethic, and so much more. The proverbs of the Bible are no different. In fact, they are often random, just like life. One moment Solomon offers advice on controlling your anger and the next he says to be diligent in your work.

Jesus taught in proverbs. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “It is better to give than to receive.” “Take the beam out of your own eye, then you can see to remove the speck out of your brothers.” “Those who are well have no need of a doctor.”

The beauty of proverbs is that they are practical and powerful. Something becomes proverbial because it is almost universally true and only a fool would not act on such advice. But how much more powerful are proverbs which come from God? Think about this: the one who created life and everything in it has given us a book which tells us the best way to live here on earth! Only a fool would not act on such advice.

A New Series on Proverbs

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

As I study scripture, I often find myself focused on the trivial—details, numbers, literary devices, and such. These aspects of Bible study can be fun and, sometimes, enlightening. But we all understand the danger of focusing on the tress so much that we miss the forest. We cannot allow our Bible study to be a purely academic exercise.

In Bible class at church we are going through a three-year study of the Biblical story. There are several things we are striving to keep at the front of our study. First, obviously we want to understand what the text/story says. Second, we want to see how this small section fits into the larger whole. How does the story of Noah, David, or Elijah fit into the larger Biblical narrative? Thirdly, we want to recognize that this applies to us today. In many ways, the Bible is less a theoretical textbook and more a user’s manual.

If the Bible is going to make an impact in our lives and the lives of others, then we must practice what we read and study. The Bible is a practical book. This is most clearly seen in the book of Proverbs. The book begins with a father’s lectures to his son(s) about what is right and the need to find wisdom and heed the advice of those who are wiser. In chapter 10, the wise man lays out practical, everyday advice about everything in life; from controlling your temper to how you spend your money to how much you talk.

In our society, one need not look very hard to find someone lacking common sense. In fact, I’ve seen this phrase a lot lately, “Common sense isn’t very common.” I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that we aren’t reading and studying our Bibles and then putting it into practice.

With these things in mind, I plan to begin a series on the book of Proverbs. There is so much into which we can dig and appreciate on an academic level, but the practical application is what stares into our faces. Remember the words of James, the brother of Jesus, “Pure and undefiled religion is this: to visit widows and orphans and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Serving God is not something we theorize about. Serving God is something we do!

More Arguments for Instrumental Music

Friday, May 11, 2018

As I wrap up this series on instrumental music, I wanted to quickly deal with some arguments that have been offered in defense of the use of mechanic instruments in public worship. Some of these are simply weak, and some are downright silly. Before we begin, please notice that you cannot find a verse in the New Testament that authorizes instruments of music in our worship assemblies.

  • “Jesus never deals with instrumental music”
  • “It is a non-issue in the book of Acts”
    • I will deal with these two together. Jesus and Acts did not deal with pornography, drug abuse, or homosexuality either. This is a “fallacy of ignorance” – if we don’t know, it must be ok. You cannot quote someone on something they never said. This is a dishonest argument which strives to put Jesus (and Luke) on their side of the argument.
  • “Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 are addressed to the individual.”
    • No. This is wrong. Both passages say singing is directed at “one another.”
  • “The only mention of singing in the assemblies is 1 Corinthians 14:26 and that is a reference to solos.”
    • That this is a reference to solos is an assumption.
    • This also ignores 14:15 which mentions “sing” twice.
    • Further, it is a non sequitur; so what?
  • “A first-time reader would never conclude that instrumental praise is unacceptable to God.”
    • Except they did, for a thousand years.
    • Since when do we take advice on doctrine and practice from first time bible readers?
  • “Hebrews 1 quotes Psalm 45.”
    • This is silly. Psalm 45 mentions instruments, but that is not the verse the Hebrew author quotes.
    • Let’s just simplify the argument: the New Testament quotes the Old Testament therefore we can use instruments.
  • “We are wasting the talents of gifted musicians.”
    • This is an emotional argument, not a Biblical argument.
    • Taken to its logical conclusion, this is a ridiculous argument. Matthew is a great wrestler, let’s have a wrestling match to praise God. Joe can make balloon animals, let’s worship God with balloon animals.
  • “The Gospel is barrier enough. Why make it more difficult to reach the lost?”
    • This is emotional pleading.
    • I could argue that adding instruments add an unneeded complexity and disunity.
  • “The shift of music is in one direction. No one is changing to a cappella only.”
    • Are we really appealing to the majority?
  • “I can’t believe in a God who would send me to hell because I did not correctly infer His implication or interpret His silence.”
    • This is a subjective and emotional
    • We don’t like what is said so we use this phraseology to make God say what we want
    • This is the same language atheist use when they don’t like something
    • Logically, this is a red herring
    • And maybe worse, in the absence of clear evidence, you presume that God will be ok with instruments
  • “Miriam, Saul, and David used instruments.”
    • All were related to prophets or prophecy
    • These were not in congregational settings
  • “I can open my bible and show you why we immerse for baptism. I can show you why we partake of the Lord’s Supper. I can show you why we give. But I can’t do that with a cappella singing.”
    • I can.
    • Can you open your Bible and show why we should use instrumental music from the New Testament?
  • The first Christians still attended the sacrifices and worshipped in the Jerusalem temple
    • Did the first century Christians go to the temple as a part of New Testament worship or was is because of their Jewish background?
    • This is a localized argument. Show me the temple and we will go!
  • “New Testament documents are not a literature that regulates assemblies in particulars but calls those assemblies to reflect cruciformity.”
    • Can we really say this about 1 Corinthians 14?
    • This is a slippery slope – is whatever I think is in accord with the gospel acceptable?
    • Where is this principle found in scripture?
    • This is the use of “prestige jargon.”

Some of these arguments are laughable. Some are simply weak. And none have the same solid, authoritative, scriptural footing that a cappella singing has. These arguments are not even from denominational friends who use instruments. These arguments are from men whose churches used to be a cappella. You can tell when an argument is on shaky ground. The one who holds the weak position begins to appeal to the emotions instead of scripture. May we never be guilty of going anywhere but the word of God for our beliefs and arguments.

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