Literature knows many examples of “poetic justice” – when good triumphs and evil is defeated in some surprising way, perhaps after all seemed lost. The Hebrew Bible also has stories of this type, but its “poetic justice” extends even beyond that narrative form. In songs, prophecies, and wisdom sayings, the writers of these ancient texts continually used poetry to promote justice and encourage just living.
One of the main features of ancient Hebrew poetry is parallelism, in which lines of texts usually appear as paired couplets. The best way to explain this is through examples. One of Solomon’s proverbs reads:
The treasures of wickedness will not avail,
but just living saves from death. (Prov 10:2; trans. based on Alter)
Here “the treasures of wickedness” (i.e., ill-gotten riches) are contrasted poetically with “just living.” The first “will not avail” (or “do not profit”), whereas the second provide benefit by “saving from death.” This is a parallel construction in which each word element of the first line has some relationship to the inverse elements of the second line. A little further down in the text we read a variation on the proverb, with only a few words changed in order to expound on the same theme:
Wealth avails not on the day of wrath,
but just living saves from death. (Prov 11:4, trans. based on Alter)
Interwoven throughout the whole composition are chains of these poetic variations and elaborations. Just a few lines later, several of the same words appear again:
The just living of the upright saves them,
but in disasters are traitors ensnared. (Prov 11:6; trans. based on Alter)
In the ancient Jewish-Greek Septuagint translation, the word used here for “disasters” is ἀπώλεια (apōleia) “destruction, loss.” In the first century CE, this version of the Bible was widely read throughout the Mediterranean world, and it strongly influenced authors like Shaul/Paul of Tarsus. In one of his letters, Shaul in a sense continued the chain of elaboration from Proverbs, clearly picking up on the words and themes of the above verses: “But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction (apōleia)” (1Tim 6:9 NASB). The use of the same key word and several similar thematic elements signal the reader or hearer that the author has those ancient proverbs in mind. Poetic justice indeed – carried across millennia!