Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible
PARABLE (IN OT)
1 . The word represents Heb. mÃ¢shÃ¢l , which is used with a wide range of meaning, and is very variously tr. [Note: translate or translation.] both in LXX [Note: Septuagint.] and in EV [Note: English Version.] . The root means ‘to be like,’ and Oxf. Heb. Lex . refers the word to ‘the sentences constructed in parallelism,’ which are characteristic of Heb. poetry and gnomic literature; i.e . it refers to the literary form in which the sentence is cast, and not to any external comparison implied in the thought. Such a comparison, however, is often found in the mÃ¢shÃ¢l , and, according to many scholars, is the main idea underlying the word. We are concerned here with the cases where the EV [Note: English Version.] tr. [Note: translate or translation.] ‘parable’; it is important to notice that in OT ‘parable’ has the varying senses of mÃ¢shÃ¢l , and is never used in the narrow technical sense of the NT. In Numbers 23:7 etc. it is used of the figurative discourse of Balaam (cf. Isaiah 14:4 [RV [Note: Revised Version.] ], Micah 2:4 , Habakkuk 2:3 ); in Job 27:1; Job 29:1 of Job’s sentences of ethical wisdom, differing little from the ‘ proverbs ’ of 1 Kings 4:32 , Proverbs 1:1; Proverbs 10:1 (the same word mÃ¢shÃ¢l ). So in Luke 4:28 (RV [Note: Revised Version.] ) it is used of a proverb. Proverbs 26:7-9 speaks of ‘a parable in the mouth of fools,’ which halts and is misapplied. In Psalms 49:4; Psalms 78:2 ‘parable’ is coupled with ‘ dark saying ’ and implies something of mystery; cf. the quotation in Matthew 13:35 and John 16:25 AVm [Note: Authorized Version margin.] , RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] , where it represents a Gr. word usually tr. [Note: translate or translation.] ‘proverb.’ In Wis 5:3 (AVm [Note: Authorized Version margin.] , RV [Note: Revised Version.] ), ‘parable’ means ‘by-word,’ a sense which mÃ¢shÃ¢l often has. In Ezekiel 17:2 we have ‘the parable’ of the eagle, really an allegory (see below); cf. the use in John 10:3 , Hebrews 9:9 RV [Note: Revised Version.] , Hebrews 11:19 RV [Note: Revised Version.] , where it represents a figure or allegory. Closely connected is Ezekiel 24:3 , the parabolic narrative of the caldron; the action described was probably not actually performed. Such mysterious figures are characteristic of Ezekiel, and he is reproached as ‘a speaker of parables’ ( Ezekiel 20:49 ).
2 . The meaning of ‘parable’ in the technical sense . If Christ did not create the parabolic type of teaching, He at least developed it with high originality, and gave it a deeper spiritual import. His parables stand as a type, and it is convenient to attach a technical sense to the word, as describing this special type. As distinguished from fable (wh. see), it moves on a higher ethical and literary plane. Fables violate probability in introducing speech of animals, etc., in an unnatural way, and their moral is confined to lessons of worldly wisdom. The allegory , again, is more artificial. It represents something ‘other’ than itself (the Gr. word means ‘speaking other’), the language of the spiritual life being translated into the language, e.g ., of a battle, or a journey. ‘The qualities and properties of the first are transferred to the last, and the two thus blended together, instead of being kept quite distinct and placed side by side, as is the case in the parable’ (Trench, On Parables , ch. 1). Hence each detail has its meaning, and exists for that meaning, not for the sake of the story. In the parable , particularly in those of the NT, the story is natural and self-sufficient as a story, but is seen to point to a deeper spiritual meaning. The details as a rule are not to be pressed, but are simply the picturesque setting of the story, their value being purely literary. In the allegory, each figure, king or soldier, servant or child, ‘is’ some one else without qualification; each detail, sword or shield, road or tree, ‘means’ something perfectly definite. It is not so in most of the parables; the lesson rests on the true analogy which exists between the natural and the spiritual world. Without requiring any fictitious ‘licence,’ the parable simply assumes that the Divine working in each sphere follows the same law. Like an analogy, it appeals to the reason no less than to the imagination.
3 . OT parables . There are five passages in the OT which are generally quoted as representing the nearest approach to ‘parables’ in the technical sense. It is noticeable that in none of them is the word used; as we have seen, where we have the word, we do not really have the thing; in the same way, where we have the thing, we do not find the word. The first two passages ( 2 Samuel 12:1-4 [Nathan’s parable], 2 Samuel 14:6 [Joab’s]) are very similar; we have a natural story with an application. The first is exactly parallel to such a parable as ‘the Two Debtors,’ but the second has no deep or spiritual significance. The same is true of 1 Kings 20:39 [the wounded prophet], where the story is helped out by a piece of acting. In all three cases the object is to convey the actual truth of the story, and by the unguarded comments of the listener to convict him out of his own mouth. The method has perhaps in the last two cases a suspicion of trickery, and was not employed by our Lord; the application of the parable of the Wicked Husbandmen ( Matthew 21:33 ) was obvious from the first in the light of Isaiah 5:1-8 . This passage is the fourth of those referred to, and is a true parable, though only slightly developed. It illustrates well the relation between a parable and a metaphor; and a comparison with Psalms 80:8 shows how narrow is the border-line between parable and allegory. The last passage is Isaiah 28:24-28 , where we have a comparison between the natural and the spiritual world, but no story. It should be noted that post-Biblical Jewish literature makes a wide use of parable, showing sometimes, alike in spirit, form, and language, a remarkable resemblance to the parables of the NT.
C. W. Emmet.
PARABLE (IN NT) . 1. Meaning and form . (1) The constant use of a word, meaning resemblance both in Hebrew and in Greek, makes it evident that an essential feature of the parable lay in the bringing together of two different things so that the one helped to explain and to emphasize the other. In the parables of Christ the usual form is that of a complete story running parallel to the stages and divisions of a totally different subject. Thus in the parable of the Sower ( Matthew 13:1-8 ) the kinds of soil in the narrative are related to certain distinctions of character in the interpretation ( Matthew 13:19-28 ), The teaching value thus created came from an appeal to the uniformity of nature. In the Oriental thought of the Bible writers this contained a factor or field of illustration often grudgingly conceded by the materialistic provincialism of modern Western science. It was recognized and believed by them that the Lord of all had the right to do as He pleased with His own. Instead of being an element of disruption, this was to them the guarantee of all other sequences. He who gave to the frail grass its form of beauty could be relied upon with regard to higher forms of life. The attention given to the fall of the sparrow would not be withheld from the death of His saints. The conception gave solidarity to all phenomenal sequences, and forced into special notice whatever seemed to be subject to other influences. Such was the parable value of contrast between the behaviour of Israel towards God and the common seotiment of family relationship, and even the grateful instincts of the beasts of burden ( Isaiah 1:2 , Isaiah 1:3 ). Thus also Christ spoke of His own homelessness as a privation unknown to the birds and the foxes ( Matthew 8:20 ). This effect of contrasting couples formed a literary feature in some of Christ’s parables where opposing types of character were introduced side by side ( Matthew 21:28; Matthew 25:2 , Luke 18:10 ).
(2) The use of the word paroimia in LXX [Note: Septuagint.] and in the Gospel of John indicates that a proverb or parable, being drawn from common objects and incidents, was available and meant for public use. What was once said in any particular case could always be repeated under similar circumstances.
(3) Occasionally the public parable value was reached by making an individual represent all others of the same class. The parable then became an example in the ordinary sense of the term (Luke 14:8; Luke 14:12-13 ). In John 10:1-8; John 15:1-7 , there is no independent introductory narrative dealing with shepherd life and the care of the vineyard. Certain points are merely selected and dwelt upon as in the interpretation of a parable story previously given. Here there is all the explanatory and persuasive efficiency of the appeal to nature and custom, but, as in this case the reference is to Christ Himself as Head of the Kingdom, the parable has not the general application of those belonging to its citizenship. It is nevertheless a parable, though ‘the Door’ and ‘the Vine’ are usually called emblems or symbols of Christ.
2 . Advantages and Disadvantages . In the parable two different planes of experience were brought together, one familiar, concrete, and definite, the other an area of abstractions, conjectures, and possibilities. At the points of contact it was possible for those who desired to do so to pass from the known to the unknown. Imagination was exercised and the critical faculty appealed to, and sympathy was enlisted according to the merits of the case presented. A moral decision could thus be impartially arrived at without arousing the instinct of self-defence, and when the parallelism was once recognized, the hearer had either to make the desired application or act in contempt of his own judgment ( 2 Samuel 12:1-4 ). In Christ’s parables, as distinct from the ordinary fable which they otherwise completely resembled in form, the illustrations were always drawn from occurrences that were possible, and which might therefore have belonged to the experience of the hearer. When the meaning was perceived, this fact gave to the explanation the persuasive value of something sanctioned, by the actualities of life. But, on the other hand, the meaning might not be understood. Its acceptance was limited by the power to discover it. Only he who could see the prophet’s chariot could use the prophet’s mantle. The transition of responsibility from the speaker to the hearer was sometimes indicated by the words, ‘He that hath ears to hear, let him hear’ ( Matthew 13:9 ). Christ’s most solemn utterances were directed towards the insensibility that took its music without dancing, and sat silent where the wail for the dead was raised ( Matthew 11:17 ). His last act towards such imperviousness was to pray for it and to die for it ( Luke 23:34; Luke 23:37 , Romans 5:8 ).
3 . The special need of Parables in Christ’s teaching . If the teaching of Christ had been devoted to matters already understood and accepted as authoritative, such as the conventional commentary on the law of Moses, such a presentation of moral and spiritual truth, while imparting the charm of freshness to things familiar, would not have been actually necessary. The Scribes and Pharisees did not require it. Even if, passing beyond the Jewish ceremonial observance and externalism, He had been content to speak of personal salvation and ethical ideas after the manner so prevalent in the Western Church of to-day, He would not have needed the vehicle of parable instruction. But the subject which, under all circumstances, privately and publicly, directly and indirectly, He sought to explain, commend, and impersonate, was that of a Kingdom that had for its destiny the conquest of the world. Alike in His preaching and in His miraculous works, His constant purpose was to reveal and glorify the Father ( John 15:8; John 16:25 ) and to unfold the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven ( Matthew 4:23; Matthew 13:11 , Luke 8:10 ). These mysteries were not in themselves obscure or remote ( Matthew 16:1-4 , Luke 17:21; Luke 18:16 ), but its principles and motives and rewards were so opposed to all that had entered the mind of man, that it had to be characterized as a Kingdom that was not of this world ( John 18:36 ). It was this Kingdom of Messianic expectation that united Christ with the historic past of the elected nation to which according to the flesh He belonged. Its appearance had been the chief burden of prophecy, and its expansion and attendant blessing to humanity had been dwelt upon as the recompense for the travail of Zion. The Messiah was to be the Prince of Peace in that Kingdom of exploded and exhausted evil, where in symbol the wolf and the lamb were to feed together ( Isaiah 65:25 ). The princes of the people of the earth were to be gathered together to be the people of the God of Abraham ( Genesis 12:3 , Psalms 47:9 ). But the same mysteries of the Kingdom, which connected Christ with the prophetic utterances and developed history of Israel, also brought Him into a relationship of antagonism towards the religious teaching of His own time. The people recognized in His words the authority that belonged to Moses’ seat, but they saw very clearly that another than Moses was there. The point of distinction between Him and the Pharisees was that in His hands the Law was no longer an end in itself, but became a minister to what was beyond and greater than itself. While the Rabbinical teaching boasted that the world had been created only for the Torah, He taught that the Law had been created for the world. This radical opposition appeared in what He said about the proper use and observance of the Sabbath day, and in His condemnation of those who would neither enter the Kingdom nor allow others to do so. They taught with pride and complacency that the Kingdom of God had reached its final consummation and embodiment in their own exclusive circle, whereas the message of Christ was to be borne over new areas of progress and expansion until it reached and conquered the uttermost parts of the earth. It was a parting at the fountain-head. One teaching meant the extinction of the other. Of this Kingdom and its mysteries Christ spoke in parables. He thereby turned the thoughts of men from the Mosaic succession of Rabbinical precedents and their artificial mediation of the Law of God, and discovered a new source of illumination and authority in the phenomena of the seasons, the relationships of the family, and the industries of village life. Faith, obedience, and love took the place of technical knowledge and official position. The Kingdom of heaven was at hand, and the King’s invitation to enter was always wider than the willingness to accept it. To His disciples He more intimately explained that it was a Kingdom of relationship to God, and of men’s relationship, in consequence, towards one another. This, along with the story of His own life and ministry and resurrection, was to be the gospel they were to preach, by the power of the Spirit, as the message of God’s salvation to the whole world. In the Sermon on the Mount those mysteries of the Kingdom were indicated in outline, and in the parables the theme was still the same, whether the story started from the initiative of the Teacher in the presence of the multitude, or was suggested by some incident of the hour. In the long warfare of the world’s kingdoms men had grown familiar with the cry, ‘Woe to the vanquished!’ but, in that Kingdom of which He spoke, a new social instinct, created and nourished by its citizenship, was to inflict an intolerable pain on those who could relieve misery and uplift the down-trodden and cheer the despairing, and did it not. It was to take upon itself the world’s estrangement from God and hardness of heart, and make its own the Christless shame of moral defeat, and social discord, and all unloveliness of life. In the citizenship of that Kingdom the sorest impoverishment would not be in the humble byways of the lame and the blind, but in the homes of selfish luxury and privileged exemption. The chief crime of the Kingdom, involving a complete negation of discipleship, would be an evaded cross. ‘I was sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not’ ( Matthew 25:43 ). Both from the novelty of the vision thus presented, and from its hostility to the spirit and authority of the religious leaders, it is evident that teaching by parable was the form best adapted to Christ’s purpose and subject, and to the circumstances of the time. It was an efficient and illuminating method of instruction to those who were able to receive it. The petition once presented by two of His disciples indicates what might have become general if the rewards of the Kingdom had been announced to those who had not the true spirit of its service ( Matthew 20:21 ). By leaving altogether the traditions and controversies of the exhausted Church of that day, He gave a fresh positive re-statement of the nature and dimension of the Kingdom of God.
4. The following selection from Christ’s parables Indicates some of the points of relationship to the Kingdom. Whatever is stated generally applies also to the individual, and the latter should not regard anything as essential and vital which he cannot share with the whole membership. The humblest service is regarded as done directly to the King. (1) The parable of boundaries, the conditions and environment of the Kingdom: the Sower and the Seed ( Matthew 13:1-23 ); difficulties and dangers arising from in attention, superficiality, and divided allegiance. Failure abnormal. (2) Accepted circumstance: Wheat and Tares ( Matthew 13:24-30 ); malignity progressively revealed in the advancing stages of the Kingdom; the patience of the Spirit. (3) Continuous development and adaptation: Growing Seed ( Mark 4:26-29 ); union in the service of the Kingdom not an artificial pattern commending itself to a particular age, but a new circle of growth around the parent stem which moves onwards and upwards towards flower and fruit. (4) The appointed task: Talents ( Matthew 25:14-30 ), Pounds ( Luke 19:12-27 ); faith accepting personal responsibility; the servant of the Kingdom, being relieved from the dangers of success and failure, labours so that he may present his account with joy in the presence of the King, being prepared for that which is prepared for him. (5) The parable of office: The Husbandmen in the Vineyard ( Matthew 21:33-46 , Luke 12:42-46 ); names and claims in the Church that dispossess and dishonour Christ. (6) The King’s interest: Lost Sheep ( Luke 15:3-7 ), Lost Coin ( Luke 15:8-10 ), Lost Son ( Luke 15:11-32 ); forfeited ownership sorrowfully known to the owner; social relationship to the Kingdom indicated by the fact that the sheep was one of a hundred, the coin one of ten, and the son a member of a family. (7) Cost and recompense of citizenship: Hid Treasure ( Matthew 13:44 ), Pearl of Great Price ( Matthew 13:45 ); self is eliminated, but ‘all things are yours.’ (8) Fulfilment: The Great Supper ( Luke 14:15-24 ): the King’s purpose must be carried out; if individuals and nations of civilized pre-eminence hold back, others will be made worthy of the honour of the service. (9) Rejected membership and lost opportunity: Rich Fool ( Luke 12:16-21 ), Rich Man and Lazarus ( Luke 16:19-31 ). (10) Personality in the Kingdom: ( a ) humility ( Matthew 18:1-4 , Luke 18:9-14 ); ( b ) sincerity ( Matthew 7:15-27 ); ( c ) usefulness ( Luke 13:3-8 ); ( d ) gratitude ( Matthew 18:28-35 , Luke 7:41-43 ); ( e ) readiness to help ( Luke 10:30-37 ); ( f ) assurance of faith ( Luke 11:5-13; Luke 18:1-8 ); ( g ) patient hope ( Mark 13:34-37 , Luke 12:35-39 ).
G. M. Mackie.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Parable'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdb/p/parable.html. 1909.