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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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παραβολη , formed from παραβαλλειν , to oppose or compare, an allegorical instruction, founded on something real or apparent in nature or history, from which a moral is drawn, by comparing it with some other thing in which the people are more immediately concerned.

( See ALLEGORY. ) Aristotle defines parable, a similitude drawn from form to form. Cicero calls it a collation; others, a simile. F. de Colonia calls it a rational fable; but it may be founded on real occurrences, as many parables of our Saviour were. The Hebrews call it משל , from a word which signifies either to predominate or to assimilate; the Proverbs of Solomon are by them also called משלים , parables, or proverbs. Parable, according to the eminently learned Bishop Lowth, is that kind of allegory which consists of a continued narration of a fictitious or accommodated event, applied to the illustration of some important truth. The Greeks call these αινοι , allegories, or apologues; the Latins fabulae, or "fables;" and the writings of the Phrygian sage, or those composed in imitation of him, have acquired the greatest celebrity. Nor has our Saviour himself disdained to adopt the same method of instruction; of whose parables it is doubtful whether they excel most in wisdom and utility, or in sweetness, elegance, and perspicuity. As the appellation of parable has been applied to his discourses of this kind, the term is now restricted from its former extensive signification to a more confined sense. But this species of composition occurs very frequently in the prophetic poetry, and particularly in that of Ezekiel. If to us they should sometimes appear obscure, we must remember, that, in those early times when the prophetical writings were indited, it was universally the mode throughout all the eastern nations to convey sacred truths under mysterious figures and representations. In order to our forming a more certain judgment upon this subject, Dr. Lowth has briefly explained some of the primary qualities of the poetic parables; so that, by considering the general nature of them, we may decide more accurately on the merits of particular examples.

It is the first excellence of a parable to turn upon an image well known and applicable to the subject, the meaning of which is clear and definite; for this circumstance will give it perspicuity, which is essential to every species of allegory. If the parables of the sacred prophets are examined by this rule, they will not be found deficient. They are in general founded upon such imagery as is frequently used, and similarly applied by way of metaphor and comparison in the Hebrew poetry. Examples of this kind occur in the parable of the deceitful vineyard, Isaiah 5:1-7 , and of the useless vine, Ezekiel 15; Ezekiel 19:10-14; for under this imagery the ungrateful people of God are more than once described; Ezekiel 19:1-9; Ezekiel 31; Ezekiel 16; Ezekiel 23. Moreover, the image must not only be apt and familiar, but it must be also elegant and beautiful in itself; since it is the purpose of a poetic parable, not only to explain more perfectly some proposition, but frequently to give it some animation and splendour. As the imagery from natural objects is in this respect superior to all others, the parables of the sacred poets consist chiefly of this kind of imagery. It is also essential to the elegance of a parable, that the imagery should not only be apt and beautiful, but that all its parts and appendages should be perspicuous and pertinent. Of all these excellencies, there cannot be more perfect examples than the parables that have been just specified; to which we may add the well known parable of Nathan, 2 Samuel 12:1-4 , although written in prose, as well as that of Jotham, Judges 9:7-15 , which appears to be the most ancient extant, and approaches somewhat nearer to the poetical form. It is also the criterion of a parable, that it be consistent throughout, and that the literal be never confounded with the figurative sense; and in this respect it materially differs from that species of allegory, called the continued metaphor, Isaiah 5:1-7 . It should be considered, that the continued metaphor and the parable have a very different view. The sole intention of the former is to embellish a subject, to represent it more magnificently, or at the most to illustrate it, that, by describing it in more elevated language, it may strike the mind more forcibly; but the intent of the latter is to withdraw the truth for a moment from our sight, in order to conceal whatever it may contain ungrateful or reproving, and to enable it secretly to insinuate itself, and obtain an ascendency as it were by stealth. There is, however, a species of parable, the intent of which is only to illustrate the subject; such is that remarkable one of the cedar of Lebanon, Ezekiel 31; than which, if we consider the imagery itself, none was ever more apt or more beautiful; or the description and colouring, none was ever more elegant or splendid; in which, however, the poet has occasionally allowed himself to blend the figurative with the literal description, Ezekiel 31:11; Ezekiel 31:14-17; whether he has done this because the peculiar nature of this kind of parable required it, or whether his own fervid imagination alone, which disdained the stricter rules of composition, was his guide, our learned author can scarcely presume to determine.

In the New Testament, the word parable is used variously: in Luke 4:23 , for a proverb, or adage; in Matthew 15:15 , for a thing darkly and figuratively expressed; in Hebrews 9:9 , &c, for a type; in Luke 14:7 , &c, for a special instruction; in Matthew 24:32 , for a similitude or comparison.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Parable'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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