In planning a beautiful garden, plants and flowers can be carefully chosen and planted in an arrangement designed to highlight the features and colors of each one by using differences in appearance and scent to complement and contrast their loveliness. In the a similar fashion, words carefully chosen and arranged provide added beauty to thoughts and ideas.
Ecclesiastes 12:9–10 (ESV)
Philip Ryken writes:
Although these words [Ecclesiastes 12:9–10] refer most specifically to what we read in Ecclesiastes, at the same times they tell us some important things about how the whole Bible was written.
The Preacher wrote with logical clarity…
Not only did the Preacher assess these proverbs studiously, but he also arranged them carefully….
In addition to writing with logical clarity, the Preacher also wrote with literary artistry. He sought to find “words of delight” (Ecclesiastes 12:10) —a marvelous phrase that expresses the beauty of the Bible….
The Preacher also wrote with intellectual integrity. Once he had found words of delight, “uprightly he wrote words of truth”…
The author of Ecclesiastes wrote with clarity, artistry, and integrity. Thus his book instructs our minds, touches our hearts, and guides us in the wisdom of God.1
One form of literary artistry found in both poetry and prose in the Bible is the chiasmus. A chiastic structure uses pairs of words or phrases with each word or phrase in the pair expressing a corresponding thought to the other. This correspondence of thought is known as parallelism: an idea can simply be repeated in each member of the pair, the ideas expressed by each phrase can be synonymous in meaning, or the idea expressed by one phrase can be antithetical in meaning to the other. A chiastic structure takes several pairs of these parallel ideas and carefully and logically arranges them in an artistic design of interwoven repetition. God’s truth is thus not only presented in a beautiful design, but the repetition also serves to drive it into our minds and hearts.
The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines a chiasmus as:
…a figure of speech by which the order of the terms in the first of two parallel clauses is reversed in the second. This may involve a repetition of the same words…or just a reversed parallel between two corresponding pairs of ideas…It is named after the Greek letter chi (χ), indicating a ‘criss‐cross’ arrangement of terms.2
Reversed and Parallel are the key words to remember. Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:30 are a simple chiasmus in which the words first and last are repeated with their order reversed in the last clause of the sentence.
But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.
A is the first idea and B is the second idea. They are stated in the first clause. The ideas are then repeated in the second clause in reverse order by repetition of the words or repetition of the ideas.
A —> B —> B1 —> A1
The B idea was last in the first clause. In the second clause it criss-crosses to be first as B1, an idea corresponding to B that repeats, explains or complements B. The A idea was first in the first clause. It criss-crosses to be last as A1, an idea corresponding to A that repeats, explains or complements A. Because the order of corresponding ideas is reversed or inverted, the reversal of corresponding ideas can be known as inverted parallelism.3
Look again at Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:30.
But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.
A: first —> B: last —> B1: last —> A1: first
Do you see how the simple chiastic structure adds an emphatic punch?
Another way to understand it is that you go from the outside to the inside, and once you’re there, you turn and go from the inside to the outside. You go through a set of doors in your house to get to a specific room, and then when you leave that room, you go through the same set of doors, beginning with the door you went through last.
Here’s another example. this quote is Dan Phillips’ translation of Proverbs 2:1, because, as he notes in God’s Wisdom in Proverbs, “They are very common in the book of Proverbs, though sometimes the English translation obscures it for the sake of smoothness.”5
My son, if you receive my sayings,
and my commandments you treasure up within you.
The yellow and green highlighting indicate the two pairs of corresponding ideas. If you draw one line from the top yellow phrase to the bottom yellow phrase, and a second line from the top green phrase to the bottom green phrase, you form an X!
Psalm 51:1 has a chiastic structure that gives beauty and depth to the beginning of David’s prayer.
Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness;
According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions.
A chiastic structure can also be more complicated with numerous groups of ideas. For example:
A —> B —> C —> C1 —> B1 —> A1
Genesis 9:6a has a chiastic structure.
Whoever sheds the blood of man, by a man shall his blood be shed. (ESV)
Do you see the structure?
A (sheds) —> B (blood) —> C (man) —> C1(man) —> B1 (blood) —> A1 (shed)
A and A1 is the outer pair of corresponding parallel ideas.
B and B1 is the next pair of corresponding parallel ideas.
C is the inner, middle group of corresponding parallel ideas.
The middle idea may not be repeated:
A —> B —> C —> B1 —> A1
Look for pairs/groups of similar words or ideas, with the repetition beginning in reverse order. Dr. Mardy Grothe is a business consultant rather than a biblical scholar, but he has an extensive discussion of chiasmus, and points out that when,
…the second part of each expression complements the first in a memorable and thought-provoking way…[the] chiasmus must be regarded as more than just a figure of speech or rhetorical device. Sometimes, it may be seen as a method for communicating great truths, and doing so in very few words.6
I know this may be hard to wrap your head around, but the chiastic structure is used so frequently in the Bible, that I think it’s important to understand. It’s also a beautiful structure because as an idea is repeated or emphasized or explained with apt phrases or profound expressions, each repetition adds depth to its meaning and expands our understanding. We can be slow to understand and stubborn to learn, and we need repetition to get an idea into our minds and hearts!
Not only do sentences in Scripture use chiastic structure, but it is also found in the organization of passages, and even entire books. As a literary device it can give focus to the main idea by placing it at the center of the piece of writing. Brad McCoy’s definition of chiasmus is:
“the use of inverted parallelism of form and/or content which moves toward and away from a strategic central component”7
He states his case on the use of chiasmus.
In its most general sense, chiasmus involves inverted parallelism between two or more (synonymously or antithetically) corresponding words, phrases, or units of thought. Examples of this basic dynamic would include the contemporary saying, “Winners [A] never quit [B] and quitters [B’] never win [A’],” as well as the biblical description of Christ in Revelation 3:7…This type of inverted parallelism between corresponding components can take place at a micro level (within a single sentence) or at a macro level (within the broad flow of a large discourse).
While chiasm inherently involves inverted parallelism, it takes this parallelism, in a sense, one step further. Although some would apply the term chiasmus to an ABB’A’ structure of only two parallel components, technically this kind of literary organization is more correctly categorized as inverted parallelism. In the sense that the term is used in modern technical literature, chiasmus always involves a balanced multi-unit inverted parallelism which leads to and then moves away from a distinct central component…8
McCoy writes the unstated, but implied central component of the winners never quitting is that perseverance is an important key to success
In an attempt to emphasize properly the importance of a central component in chiasmus, one team of scholars has recommended that displays of chiastic structures designate the pivotal central component with an “X” (as in ABXB’A’ or ABXX’B’A’). This helpful suggestion facilitates an active recognition of the fact that the “uniqueness of chiasmus, as distinct from other forms of parallelism, lies in its focus upon a pivotal theme, about which the other propositions of the literary unit are developed.”
…An excellent example of a classic chiasm, made up of two parallel components (A/A’ and B/B’) that build to and then move away from a central component (X), is found in 1 John 3:9:9
This is the chiasmus McCoy gives for 1 John 3:9, with added color highlighting.
McCoy goes on to write:
For the purposes of this introductory discussion, two prime examples of biblical chiasmus will be displayed, one from the Old Testament (Genesis 17:1–15) and one from the New (the Prologue of the Gospel of John). The two examples demonstrate the superb literary beauty of these theologically seminal passages. In addition, they indicate how recognition of the chiastic structure of such periscopes reveals their flow of thought and their focus upon a central concept.10
…the superb literary beauty of these theologically seminal passages. God’s truth is a delight. How wonderful and fitting it is that the delight of God’s truth is expressed in literary beauty. You can find McCoy’s chiasmus of Genesis 17 in his article, this is his chiasmus of John 1:1–18:11
Because translations can obscure a chiasmus, or perhaps create one where one doesn’t exist in the original language, check with your pastor about their location or consult a reliable commentary. Be aware that biblical scholars have differing perspectives on defining and recognizing one. Robert L. Alden has three articles on the Psalms that are available online: “Chiastic Psalms: a study in the mechanics of Semitic poetry in Psalms 1-50,” (.pdf), “Chiastic Psalms (II): a study in the mechanics of Semitic poetry in Psalms 51-100”, and “Chiastic Psalms (III): a study in the mechanics of Semitic poetry in Psalms 101-150”.
Ecclesiastes 12:9–10 (ESV)
Derek Kidner comments on these verses:
The opening remarks point out the partnership between thought and expression, research and teaching, which the book itself has illustrated….What emerges in the rest of these two verses is the store the author sets on his calling as teacher. He is not the proud thinker who has no time for lesser minds: rather, he accepts the challenging ideal of perfect clarity. As verse 10 points out, it will take the skill and integrity, the charm and courage, of an artist and a scholar to do justice to the task.12
May understanding more of the beauty and delight of Scripture bring praise to God for the wonders in His Word and spur you on to growth in faith, hope and love as you hear and heed the preaching and the teaching of the Bible, and through your own reading and study of His Word.
English Country Garden, FreeFoto.com
ESV: English Standard Version
1Philip Ryken, Ecclesiastes (Crossway, Wheaton IL: 2010) 275–277.
2The use of color to illustrate chiastic structure is a format I found on the internet, unfortunately, I cannot remember the site and I’m unable to give credit.
3“chiasmus.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press, 2001, 2004. Answers.com 25 Aug. 2012. http://www.answers.com/topic/chiasmus
4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11Brad McCoy, “Chaismus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature,” Chafer Theological Seminary Journal, Vol 9, No. 2 (Chafer Theological Seminary: Fall 2003) McCoy gives several terms used to designate chiastic structure on page 18, 18, 19–20, 20–21, 27, 29.
5Dan Phillips, God’s Wisdom in Proverbs (Kress Biblical Resources, The Woodlands TX: 2011) 111.
6Dr. Mardy Grothe, What is Chiasmus? Dr. Grothe is a management consultant. His page on chiasmus is well-researched, but my reference to it does not imply my agreement or disagreement with his work.
6Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes: A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance (Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England, Downers Grove IL: 1976) 105.
Original content: Copyright ©2012 Iwana Carpenter