Introduction to Chiasms

The Scriptures are a collection of writings with one purpose, one message – YHWH the Father loves us and has a plan for us. We do not need a doctorate in theology or literature to understand this message protected by YHWH. However, this message is preserved through many layers, themes, and stories that only gets louder the deeper we read. Understanding how these books are structured is one key to peeling back the layers, giving us a glimpse to the mind and heart of YHWH.

In Western culture, we are linear thinkers. Our thoughts build on each other leading to a conclusion. Think about writing a paragraph. Usually, the topic sentence is first, introducing the reader to our topic. Next are the main ideas, evidence, and examples that support our topic sentence. Lastly, the conclusion sentence asserts we have made our point. When writing an essay, we prove our thesis one paragraph at a time, leading to the conclusion. 

Ancient Hebrew thought is not linear. Hebrew thought is circular and is structured in parallels and chiasms. Parallels are two statements that are connected in thought. We will go into greater description later. 

Chiasms are expanded parallels – paired thoughts stretched longer and longer. They are sometimes called concentric or ring thought.  Imagine a pebble dropped in pond. Ripples go out from that pebble. In Hebraic writing, the topic sentence is the pebble. The main ideas, examples and explanations go out from the center.  When you read scripture and come across repeated events, phrases, or words there is probably a chiasm.  These chiasms can be found in single verses, within whole chapters, or across entire books. 

Let’s look at a simple Psalm.

Psalm 70

Psa 70:1  Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O LORD, make haste to help me! 

Psa 70:2  Let them be put to shame and confusion who seek my life! Let them be turned back and brought to dishonor who delight in my hurt! 

Psa 70:3  Let them turn back because of their shame who say, “Aha, Aha!” 

Psa 70:4  May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you! May those who love your salvation say evermore, “God is great!” 

Psa 70:5  But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay! 

Now let’s identify the chiastic:

A. Make haste, O Elohim, to deliver me! O YHWH, make haste to help me! 

   B. Let the wicked be put to shame

      * Let the prideful be put to shame

   B. May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in You!

A. Make haste to deliver me!

The A lines both request YHWH to make haste.

The B lines contrast the wicked and the righteous.

The center (*) hopes the prideful will be put to shame.

When we are studying a chiastic, we need to examine the ends, the center, and each of the parallels in between.

The center is a plea for the proud to be put to shame. The ends beg Yah to deliver him quickly (from the proud). The parallels tell us what that will look like – the wicked embarrassed and the righteous rejoicing. 

Examining the parallels requires an understanding of their structure. There are 3 types of parallels: sympathetic, antithetical, and progressive.

1) Sympathetic (Similar)

Sympathetic parallels are similar in thought. They restate the same idea using the same words or synonyms. Examining these synonyms can give us deeper understanding to definitions of words.

Ps. 139:23 Search me, O El, and know my heart;

                    Try me and know my thoughts.

Ps. 139:23 Search me, O El, and know my heart;

                   Try me and know my thoughts.

From this parallel, we learn that YHWH learns about us, where we are, by trying us. Our hearts, our thoughts, are revealed through trial.

2) Antithetical (Contrasting)

Antithetical parallels are opposite in thought; they are two contrasting ideas. 

Prov 12:25 Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression,

                   But a good word makes him glad.

Prov 12:25 Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression,

                     But a good word makes him glad.

Here we learn that anxiety, or worry, (an internal voice) causes depression. BUT a good word (an external source or goal) makes him glad. The internal thoughts are contrasted with external thoughts and depression is contrasted with being glad. BUT is a keyword that indicates a contrast.

3) Progressive (Continuation)

In progressive parallels, the second line completes the thought of the first line.

Pro 2:9  Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; 

Pro 2:10  for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; 

Verse 9 tell says we will understand righteousness. Verse 10 (the parallel) tells us how – because wisdom will come into your heart. If, and, for (because) are keywords indicating a continuing thought.

Now let’s look at a longer example:

Psalm 91 – My Refuge and My Fortress

Psa 91:1  He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. 

Psa 91:2  I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” 

Psa 91:3  For He will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. 

Psa 91:4  He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. 

Psa 91:5  You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, 

Psa 91:6  nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. 

Psa 91:7  A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. 

Psa 91:8  You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked. 

Psa 91:9  Because you have made YHWH your dwelling place— the Most High, who is my refuge— 

Psa 91:10  no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. 

Psa 91:11  For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. 

Psa 91:12  On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. 

Psa 91:13  You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot. 

Psa 91:14 “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. 

Psa 91:15  When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. 

Psa 91:16  With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” 

Now let’s identify the chiastic:

A. Yah will deliver (1-3) 

   B. We are protected (4-7) 

      C. See the works of the wicked (8) 

         *(Because)You have made YHWH my refuge, the Most High – your dwelling place 

      C. We are safe from the works of the wicked (10) 

   B. We are protected (Messiah is protected) (11-13) 

A. Yah will deliver (14-16)

The A lines (vs. 1-3 and 14-16) are parallel thoughts – Yah will deliver

The B lines (vs 4-7 and vs 11-13) are parallel thoughts – We are protected

The C lines (vs 8 and 10) are parallel thoughts – Works of the wicked

In the center, we find vs 9, the main idea. 

The center tells us that Yah is our refuge. The ends stress that Yah will deliver. The parallels are the proof of that statement – we are protected.

When examining parallels, you will find some connections that are difficult to identify. This is when the fun begins! These discrepancies require deep, meditative thinking. We must search for clues in Scripture itself to determine how certain ideas are similar or different. This leaves us with greater understanding and a deeper appreciation for the mind of YHWH.  That is one of the purposes of chiasms – to encourage meditative thought. 

But his delight is in the law of YHWH, and on His law he meditates day and night.”

– Ps 1:2 

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!

– Rom 11:33

I pray that through prayer in your study and meditation, you see the manifold wisdom of YHWH Elohim. May you hear the Word of YHWH calling you to His purpose, His way, His kingdom. 

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