I have read the Scriptures since I was a little boy, but only in the last 10 years have I become aware of the use of chiastic structures. A Chiasm is a way to organize lines of poetry or prose so the author can put emphasize a broader theme. Once you know what to look for, spotting the chiastic structure can bring a passage alive with meaning.
Robert L. Alden has written about chiasmus and offers this definition.
Sometimes the device is called alternation or introverted parallelism. The word “chiasm” itself comes from the name of the Greek letter chi, which looks like our English letter X. An outline of a verse, a paragraph, or even a book which conforms to such a shape is called “chiastic.” The simplest outline would be A-B-B-A, but more elaborate ones are easily discovered (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 21/3 (1978): 199).
One example shared by Alden is from Psalms 110:
The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at My right hand Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.” 2 The Lord will stretch forth Your strong scepter from Zion, saying, “Rule in the midst of Your enemies.” 3 Your people will volunteer freely in the day of Your power; In holy array, from the womb of the dawn, Your youth are to You as the dew. 4 The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, “You are a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek.” 5 The Lord is at Your right hand; He will shatter kings in the day of His wrath. 6 He will judge among the nations, He will fill them with corpses, He will shatter the chief men over a broad country. 7 He will drink from the brook by the wayside; Therefore He will lift up His head.
The chiastic structure of the above Psalm is shown in the following diagram. Note how each line has a corresponding thought in a later line: A to A’, B to B’ and C to C’. D is the primary thought for the poem and rests at the apex of the chasm.
Chiastic Structure of Psalms 110
For me, chiasmi reveal the beauty of the poetry and so I have incorporated this style into my own material. I published an original poem using a chiastic structure in my book, “More Than Cake.“. The two halves of this poem are unified into a holistic thought through the use of a chiasm where G is the primary emphasis.
My Use of Chiasmus in Poetry
Beyond poetry, chiastic structure can often be found in other literary forms such as narrative, parable and even, as some suggest, in entire books of the Bible like Matthew’s Gospel.
A few critics in this century have held the view that the whole gospel is governed by one great chiasm or inverted (concentric) parallelism. That is, the gospel is divided into two halves, like the two halves of a parabola: pericopes at the outer limits of the halves correspond to each other (e.g., chaps. 1–2 and 26–28), pericopes a little further in correspond to each other (e.g., chaps. 3–4 and 24–25), and so on until one reaches the center of the chiasm at the center of the gospel. Green (1968) sees the center in chap. 11, while Fenton (1959) and Ellis (1974) see the center in chap. 13 (Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol 4 pg. 627).
In my own study of Scripture, I have found a few places in the teachings of Jesus where he used chaismus to add a depth of meaning to his words. In the next few weeks, I will more examples and how they influence my understanding of Scripture.
In preparing to preach through Psalms 73, I discovered a beautiful chiastic structure embedded with many rich parallellisms.
In this post, I wont even attempt to unpack it all (you’ll have to wait for my sermon).
Instead, let me simply share the chiastic outline of the passage. Take special note of the key word pairings used by the Psalmest that I have highlighted using different colors.
I noticed that almost every commentator sees v. 17 as the central turning point of the Psalm. However, I see v.16 and the Psalmists choice to meditate upon the Lord as the focus which is then reinforced by his action in v.17.
I am ultimately intrigued by the closing thought in v.27 which emphasizes the Missio Dei (mission of God) in the life of the Psalmist. I have yet to ready anybody who talked about this aspect of the Psalm, but I see it as the second focal point of the Chiasmus.
Read through Psalm 73 and let me know what you think.
The theme of struggle against the world and turning to the one reliable foundation for faith is a strong theme in Psalm 73. It reminds me a lot of the lyrics to “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” by Sting (1993 album “Ten Summoner’s Tales“).
You could say I lost my faith in science and progress
You could say I lost my belief in the holy church
You could say I lost my sense of direction
You could say all of this and worse but
If I ever lose my faith in you
There’d be nothing left for me to do
Some would say I was a lost man in a lost world
You could say I lost my faith in the people on TV
You could say I’d lost my belief in our politicians
They all seemed like game show hosts to me
If I ever lose my faith in you
There’d be nothing left for me to do
I could be lost inside their lies without a trace
But every time I close my eyes I see your face
I never saw no miracle of science
That didn’t go from a blessing to a curse
I never saw no military solution
That didn’t always end up as something worse but
Let me say this first
If I ever lose my faith in you
There’d be nothing left for me to do
Football provides one interesting microcosm of life. There comes a point in a game when you know it is over. There is still time on the clock, there are plays yet to be called, but the scoreboard lets you know–the winer and loser is obvious. This is the time when it is most fun, to watch the players. I always laugh when a team is down by 30 points and some guy on the losing team makes a great tackle. He stands up, pounds his chest, and starts trash talking about how great a play he made. Meanwhile, the player from the winning team who just got tackled picks himself up off the turf, smiles, and points to the scoreboard because even though he lost on that play, he knows the game is already won. When you know the game is won, the hard hits don’t hurt so much. But when you know the game is lost, even the small hits hurt worse.
As a church planter, I have felt the thrill of victory when, for example, we baptized 11 people. I have also felt the agony of defeat as I have watched people embrace the Gospel and then turn away from both Jesus and fellowship with our Church-Family. So in the midst of trial, how can you and I gain perspective on defeat without losing our sanity?
I believe that Romans chapter 5 teaches that the perspective we seek in daily life comes through a right relationship with Jesus–the Savior of our soul.
Romans 5:1-11 is presented by Paul in a Chiastic structure.
Chiasm is way of presenting information so that the emphasis is on the middle of the statement. In this case, Paul’s opening thought A is a mirror of his closing thought A’. His connecting though B is a mirror of his connecting thought B’. Paul’s focal point, C and its mirror C’, provides the answer to our dilemma regarding the battles we face in life.
A Right Relationship Produce Peace
1 Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
Faith heals our brokenness and puts us at rest with God. He is no longer our enemy, but our comfort in Christ Jesus.
B Right Relationship Produce Privilege
2 through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.
We stand in grace and boast in the promise that one day we will experience the fullness of God’s glorious presence.
C Right Relationship Produce Power
3a And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations [external stresses]…
The Jews boasted in the Law. The Gentiles boasted in their wisdom. The Christian boasts because we have won the war through our introduction to God, so we do not fear the battles.
As an engineer, I learned that stress, in is a good thing. If all stress were removed, the building would fall part. If the stress is in the wrong place or too great, the building will fall apart. If the stress is put in the right place and with the right design the building will stand. With the power of Christ, stress, just like in a building, will become our strength.
C’ Power is Provided through Right Relationship
3b …knowing that tribulation [stress] brings about perseverance [endurance];
4 and perseverance, proven character [scientific evidence];
and proven character, hope [anticipation];
5 and hope [anticipation] does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
B’ Privilege is Provided through Right Relationship
6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.
A’ Peace is Provided through Right Relationship
10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. 11 And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
What will today bring you? The thrill of victory? The agony of defeat? Will you find peace in the midst of the battle?
For God’s disciples, theere are no “Four Happy Hops to Hope”. There is simply stress, endurance, evidence, and anticipation… all fulfilled in the relationship with YHWH—and with church—that you cultivate each day by the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells in you.
Over the centuries, the story commonly called “The Prodigal Son” has arguably influenced more poetry, art, and literature than any other told by Jesus. This parable has been the single largest inspiration for my faith over the past 15 years. Most notably, the story of the Prodigal Son inspired the name for my first church plant “Reunion”
Read the Gospels and you will see how Jesus’ message of Divine-hope was attracting those who were outcasts from Jewish society and those who were despised by the Jewish religious leaders. The first two verses of Luke chapter fifteen set the stage.
Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
The Pharisees and Scribes were watching Jesus teach. The whole time they complained that he was hanging out with the worst sort of people. Imagine their shock to discover that Jesus was eating with sinners! “Oh no! Not sinners!” Jesus, seeing their harsh criticism and judgmentalism, decides He needs to teach these Pharisees and Scribes a valuable lesson about God’s love for Man–His greatest creation. In trying to open their minds and hearts to a radically different Kingdom view, Jesus tells three parables.
The first parable is about a lost sheep being found and the second is about finding a lost coin. Both of these stories are designed to drive home a simple message that every one of us can understand; when you lose something of value, you will do anything to get it back and when you get it back, you will be excited. Kind of obvious, right? But, the third parable challenges the obvious. Do we really rejoice when the lost are found?
This parable is often called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” which puts the emphasis upon the young son who is seen as wasteful of all that he has been given by the Father. The obvious problem here is that this title pulls the focus away from the story of the older son nor does it put a proper emphasis upon the love of the father. If I were to give a title to this parable, I think I would call it “The Unfinished Parable” because, as we shall soon see, this is probably the only parable that Jesus never finishes. The open-ended nature of this parable is discovered when we recognize Jesus’ use of chiasmus in Luke 15:11-32.
Jesus’ use of chiasmus in Luke 15:11-32
In a typical chiasm, the emphasis is placed on the center of the structure. In this parable, Jesus does something unique. In the first half, we see a complete story of the young son (A B C C’ B’ A’). In the second half, the story of the older son is left incomplete (A B C C’ B’ ?). Jesus ends this parable leaving us on the edge of our seats. There is no A’ to complete the chiasm. He leaves us wondering, “what will happen with this older son. Will the shame of his own sin and anger lead him to repent and embrace the Father’s mercy?” (B’) “Will the older son discover the joy of this family reunion and the pleasure of embracing his lost brother? “(A’) Or will he sit outside and stew; condemning his brother with every thought and look for the rest of his days?
Jesus does not finish this parable, because the Pharisees and Scribes, who are represented by the older son, must write the ending (A’). Just like the older son, their outward actions were commendable, yet their heart did not beat in unison with the heart of the Father who wanted only to have the lost come home (Luke 15:1-2). I don’t think this parable is a condemnation of the Pharisees and Scribes as much as it is an open-ended question asking them, “what kind of son will you be to the Heavenly Father?”
Now that you can see how this chiastic structure works, it is easy to see that this Unfinished Parable is an open invitation for us to live as a people of reunion. This parable is a challenge from Jesus, “what kind of son are you, my church, going to be?”
As I listen to to the voice of Jesus in this parable, I cannot help but remember an encounter I had back when I was a student at Penn State University. Our campus ministry put on an outreach to the homosexual community by inviting in a speaker who was once living a homosexual lifestyle and who now proclaimed the message of freedom in Christ. As the speaker got up to begin his talk, two-dozen or more students stood up from the crowd, made a circle around the room and took off their outer shirts to reveal t-shirts with a message of silent protest. As the speaker talked, I was drawn by God’s Spirit to pray for a young gay man who was standing nearby. By the end of the talk, I knew that God wanted me to speak with him. As we talked, I could tell he was very interested in hearing what God had to say about the sin of homosexuality and the forgiveness in Christ but his friends kept pulling him away. Finally, I knew my time with him was at an end but I prayed that God would give me something to say that would help transform this young man’s life. As I said goodbye, I knew what I had to do. I reached out and pulled this young man to me and gave him a huge hug. In the midst of my embrace, I could feel his body tense with anxiety. He must have been wondering, “I thought this guy said homosexuality was a sin. How then can he give me this hug?” As I released my hug, I told him that God loved him and wanted him to come home.
Whatever became of that young man I may only discover some day in heaven, but as I read this parable from Jesus, I am convicted that we can do a lot more to embrace the lost sons and daughters who only wish to come home for a family celebration.
Jesus is waiting for you and me to finish this parable. How will you respond to the Father?
Last evening I was sitting with some friends discussing the meaning of the Hebrew poem in Psalms 1:1-3. The question posed to me was this, “do you see in verses 1 through 3 a progression of sinfulness?”
Psalm 1:1–6 (ESV)
1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
Basically, what my friends saw in verses 1 through 3 was that when you surround yourself with the godless, things get progressively worse; first you are walking with the wicked, then you are standing with sinners, and then finally you are sitting down with mockers.
But I think that interoperation is rooted in a western mentality and I do not see it that way. Unlike our Western culture that emphasizes the linear progression of thought, the Hebrew mindset was far more holistic. What I see in this poem is a Hebraic chiasmus of though—that is a criss-cross pattern that is not bound by the linear. Let me illustrate what I mean by breaking down the Psalm by connecting the pattern of thought:
Chiastic Structure of Psalm 1
This criss-cross (chiastic) pattern shows that the main thrust of Psalm 1 is is that the Path to Prosperity is found only when we take delight in the teachings of YHWH.
Now for those who want to dig a little deeper, let me give a few highlights on what I find most interesting about the chiastic structure itself.
First, while the verses of this poem are sung or recited in order, the pattern of thought itself is non-linear. Verses 1 through 3 make up the main thrust of the passage.
- Part A goes with A’: The Passage is bounded by the ideal that Blessing & Prosperity are both the beginning and the end of those who walk in God’s counsel.
- Part B goes with B’: The place we choose to put down roots, will determine the quality of our life.
- Part C is the central meaning
Second, verses 4 through 6 help to reinforce the main thoughts already outlined in verses 1 through 3. These later verses capture the meaning of the first verses and restate them for emphasis.
- v. 1a goes with v. 6: God knows the path we chose to walk. Blessing & Prosperity will be our reward for following after God. Destruction will be our reward when we walk the path of the godless. The structure of v.6 reflecting verse 1a, indicates it is meant to be the overall moral lesson akin to the style of wisdom literature and proverbs.
- v. 1b goes with v. 5: The poem creates a powerful contrast between the lifestyle of those who are blessed and those who will perish. The blessed man/woman does not take a stand with sinners, but stands firm in the judgement of YHWH. The blessed man/woman does not seat with those who mock righteousness, but sits with in the fellowship of God’s saints.
- v. 3a goes with v. 4: The imagery here is powerful. We are either planted firmly in soil that will produce fruit and eternal life or we will be blown about by winds that lead to destruction.
What is the Lord teaching you as you meditate on this poem and its chiastic structure?