When the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant lockdowns first struck in the late winter of 2020, like any other sensible person I binge-watched the Lord of the Rings movies and listened to Stevie Wonder’s catalog on repeat in order to cope. But I also picked up a more spiritual discipline, for myself as much as for my people, in preparing a devotional that I called the Daily Psalmanac.
Over the course of the next nine months or so, I ate, drank, and breathed the Psalms. Though they have always had pride of place in my personal meditation, by reflecting on the psalter so deliberately during that time I noticed that not only their content but also their form began to shape my preaching. In particular, the phenomenon of parallelism.
In his book Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible, Thomas Long defines parallelism thusly: “Simply put, parallelism is a device in which a poet gives us part of a line, usually half, here called A, and then gives us the next part of the line, B, in such a way that the content of B has some connection to the content of A.” Take this example from Psalm 114:
A When Israel went out from Egypt,
B the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
A Judah became his sanctuary,
B Israel his dominion.
(Psalm 114:1-2 ESV)
Recognizing that A and B are related in both of those verses, the question then becomes: what is the nature of that connection between “the content of B” and “the content of A”? Here it’s a little murkier. For our purposes, it suffices to say that parallelism typically works to restate an idea or phrase, often layering additional shades of nuance or meaning in the process. “House of Jacob” is another way to describe “Israel” that also evokes the deceptive past of the people’s namesake; “dominion” tells us that “sanctuary” is a place not only of refuge but also of rule.
Think of how your view of what a person looks like changes when you see him in profile and then also straight-on. That additional angle of vision gives depth to your perception. This is what parallelism does: it adds perspective to the picture. In this way, it can be a helpful tool in the preacher’s toolbox.
Briefly, then, let me suggest three ways, a trio of means, by which this biblical device can aid our contemporary proclamation.
This is what parallelism does: it adds perspective to the picture.
1. Parallel phrases
The simplest way to incorporate parallelism into your preaching is to mimic its biblical use by restating a sentence or phrase. This is how I most commonly employ parallelism. For instance, in a recent sermon on Luke 14 I spoke about how the pattern of humbling and exalting, present throughout the Scriptures, “culminates in Christ and finds its fulfillment in Jesus.” Given the multiplicity of names for our Lord, it’s often not difficult to paraphrase a statement involving Him.
I daresay that you use parallelism in this way as well, though you might not have consciously reflected upon the practice. Now that you’re aware of it, though, I’d encourage you more intentionally to incorporate a few phrases of parallelism—perhaps especially in those moments of the message where you want to slow down and ensure that the hearers take in what you are trying to stress.
2. Parallel metaphors
I’m a staunch advocate for the use of metaphors in preaching, and especially for using a “master metaphor” in any given sermon that can provide a consistent thread throughout the sermon. Sometimes, though, a singular metaphor just can’t cut it. Ask St. Paul, who at times could speak of pregnant ladies armoring up and avoiding the drink so as not to get robbed (see 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11).
In keeping with the function of biblical parallelism noted above, a parallel metaphor can not only restate something but also further elucidate it. For example, to take a page from Paul’s playbook, I can underscore our eager expectancy when I use the metaphor of pregnancy to describe our posture toward the Last Day. The analogy of warfare, however, emphasizes the vigilance necessary as we await Jesus’ return. They are complementary messages, and parallel metaphors can help to bring out those additional nuances.
3. Parallel stories
Jesus masterfully used parallelism in His preaching and teaching. Perhaps you have noticed how often He will tell different parables that have the same or similar upshot. He will recount, say, how the kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that, despite being the smallest of the seeds, overtakes the garden. Then, in the next breath, He will tell the story of a woman who hid leaven in her flour, until it was all leavened. Two stories that jointly illustrate the single point that the “little” kingdom will in due course suffuse its surroundings.
Using a multiple-story structure is a way in which you can utilize this sort of parallelism. David Schmitt writes, “The strategic placement of the stories allows them to interact with one another, reinforcing experiences or themes for the hearers or qualifying these experiences or themes.” Alternatively, shorter parallel stories can simply be used for one section or rhetorical unit of the sermon. In either case, this recursive approach deepens the hearer’s engagement with the topic.
The message of the gospel is a multifaceted diamond. Parallelism in preaching helps you to bring out the beauty of those different facets. Or you might say that the good news presents a panoply of weapons that ward off sin, death, and Satan, and parallelism aids your spiritual armament. Or again…well, you get the idea.