The language of Isaiah was Hebrew, which belongs to the same family of Semitic languages that includes Arabic. Each has its unique alphabet and is read from right to left. When Isaiah wrote Hebrew, it contained no punctuation or capitalization. It would appear to us to be one long sentence, similar to the manuscript of the Book of Mormon that Joseph Smith dictated.
The book of Isaiah is written almost entirely in poetic form, as are most of the prophecies in the Old Testament, in what Nephi calls “the manner of prophesying among the Jews” (2 Ne 25:1).
Parallelism is the method used to produce poetry in Hebrew. Parallelism compares a keyword or idea in a first line that repeats in the second line. Sometimes the idea repeats over several lines. Learning to read in two-line sequences is a great help in understanding Isaiah’s writings. Some translations are formatted to show the short lines of poetry in Isaiah in order to make this process easier. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is one of these.
In the following example, notice that the King James Version (KJV) does not show the poetic lines, but the NRSV does.
The poetic rendering of the verse in the NRSV makes it easier to recognize that the ox and the donkey are parallel, as are the owner and the master. Similar parallels are more easily recognizable in the next two poetic lines, the second half of the verse. Studying Isaiah in poetic form, one can readily see the stacked words’ relationship.
In English poetry, the last words in a line are often rhymed. In Hebrew poetry, “idea rhymes” are used instead, while the words themselves seldom rhyme.
Types of Parallelism
- Comparison—Often the second line will help explain the first.
Example: NRSV Isa 1:31
xxx31 The strong shall become like tinder,
xxxxxxxxxand their work like a spark;
xxxxxxthey and their work shall burn together,
xxxxxxxxxwith no one to quench them.
- Comparison—Ideas are compared by means of simile or metaphor.
Example: NRSV Isa 1:18
xxx18 Come now, let us argue it out
xxxxxxxxxsays the LORD:
xxxxxxthough your sins are like scarlet,
xxxxxxxxxthey shall be like snow;
xxxxxxthough they are red like crimson,
xxxxxxxxxthey shall become like wool.
- Contrast—The second line clarifies both ideas, like the color black next to white.
Example: NRSV Isa 1:19–20
xxx19 If you are willing and obedient,
xxxxxxxxxyou shall eat the good of the land;
xxx20 but if you refuse and rebel,
xxxxxxxxxyou shall be devoured by the sword;
xxxxxxxxxfor the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Completion—The second line completes the first, in the form of
5. Chiasmus—This word comes from Greek letter Χ (chi), which is the form it describes. xxxThe second line of the parallel is inverted.
xxx(Note: Often a chiasmus has many more than four lines.)
xxxA) Old King Cole
xxxxxxB) Was a merry old soul
xxxxxxB ́) A merry old soul
xxxA ́) Was he.