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Chimes: Time’s Poetic Parallelism. A Benedictine oblate blog

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"Chimes: Time's Poetic Parallelism"

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The Bok Carillon (Bell) Tower, Florida, USA

The Big Ben chimes in our home mark every quarter hour (listen to the chimes software we use).  Hearing the chimes throughout the day turns my mind to see God’s call and opens my heart to hear His voice.  

The progression of chimes through each hour creates a kind of time parallelism. This is similar to the way Hebrew parallelism in the Psalms organizes and structures ideas.

Hebrew parallelism is discussed below here.


The famous Big Ben chimes are the most widely used chime tones for bells that mark time.

The Big Ben bell melody is also known as the "Westminster Chimes" or the Westminster or Cambridge Quarters because the chimes are written to be played every quarter hour.

Tradition has it that the Big Ben chime pattern was written about 1794 for the bells at St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge, England by William Crotch.

From Absolute Astronomy: "According to an inscription in the clockroom of Big Ben, the lyrics are":


 Words to Big Ben Chimes




"All through this hour
Lord, be my guide
And by Thy power
No foot shall slide."



According to a Wikipedia article, the Big Ben "melody consists of five different permutations of four notes."

It is commonly believed that the "first four notes of the Big Ben chimes are the same as in the fifth and sixth bars of the opening symphony of Handel’s ‘I Know That My Redeemer Liveth’ in his ‘Messiah’" and that Crotch used those notes as the foundation for his five permutations or variations. See also "The Book of World Famous Music," page 635 at Google Book Search.

In the conventional key of C Major: G, C, D, and E, the Big Ben chimes are [from Wikipedia]:

Series Number

 Notes in Series






E, D, C, G

C, E, D, G

C, D, E, C (or sometimes C, E, D, C; in either case "malformed", as it lacks G)

E, C, D, G

G, D, E, C

 The chime pattern for an hour is as follows:


Chime Series Heard
Every Hour

First quarter 1Q (1)

Second quarter 2Q (2)(3)

Third quarter 3Q (4)(5)(1)

Hour (2)(3)(4)(5)

Single note for each hour


The chimes might be viewed as introverted (or inverted) parallelism because the (1) series begins and ends the first and third quarter hours and brackets the series of (2)(3) (4)(5) in the second and third quarter hours.

The hour series of (2)(3)(4)(5) brackets the entire next hour, ending with the following hour’s (2)(3)(4)(5).

The above time parallelism of the Big Ben chimes might be shown as:


Chimes: Time's Poetic Parallelism

Over Two Hours

  1Q (1)

   2Q (2)(3)

   3Q (4)(5)

3Q (1)

Hour (2)(3)(4)(5)

  1Q (1)

   2Q (2)(3)

   3Q (4)(5)

3Q (1)

Hour (2)(3)(4)(5)



And in the striking of the bell for the time of day — each additional hour's bong is like stair-step parallelism for the day until the new day begins.

People who read the Psalms (the most quoted book in the New Testament) — like Benedictine oblates and other who pray or sing the divine office — spend a lot of time with the Psalms. We are drawn to their further study.  The Book of Psalms is the largest book in the Bible and the book that coincidently occupies the middle portion of the Bible.1 

Seeing the parallelism in a particular Psalm lets our hearts hear a deeper resonance of thought.

The following describes the basic types of parallelism in the Psalms (but these structures are found in other Bible books as well).

Hebrew Poetry — Psalm Parallelism

Unlike some modern poetry that rhymes, the main poetic forms of the Psalms, indeed of Hebrew poetry, are elegantly crafted lines that structure how one thought or idea is related to another. This poetic form is called parallelism.

"Either by repetition or by antithesis [the opposite thought] or by some other device, thought is set over against thought, form balances form, in such wise as to bring the meaning home to one strikingly and agreeably."2   This definition sounds like a definition that also describes music or our Big Ben chimes — or any great art because sll such art reveals the beauty of God in creation and time.  This truth is described in Psalm 18 (19):

  Psalm 18(19)

2 The heavens shew forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of his hands.

3 Day to day uttereth speech, and night to night sheweth knowledge. Douay-Rheims Bible


The "thought harmony" of Hebrew parallelism in the Psalms illuminates and then intensifies a Psalm’s meaning. 

From before birth, God formed in our hearts templates of relationships that correspond and respond to His truth.  Psalm parallelism in which "form balances form, in such wise as to bring the meaning home to one strikingly and agreeably" causes such reactions because the psalms strike a chord within us.  

Identifying parallelism in the Psalms helps us interpret the Psalms correctly. One thought can be clarified by another either because it is a repeated idea or because some other pattern of relationships provides the clue to an obscure meaning.

Hebrew poetic parallelism was "first identified for modern readers by Robert Lowth in 1753." 3  

Parallelism in the Bible comes in a wide variety of forms, here are the most commonly recognized types of parallelisms:


 Hebrew Poetry
Psalm Parallelism



 Synonymous Parallelism

Synonymous means
"having the same meaning"



A and A



Repetition of a thought



The idea in the first part of a line/verse is repeated in the second part of a line or in a following verse.  


  Ps 113:1-4

1 When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a barbarous people:

2 Judea made his sanctuary, Israel his dominion.

3 The sea saw and fled: Jordan was turned back.

4 The mountains skipped like rams, and the hills like the lambs of the flock. Douay-Rheims Bible




Each verse above in this example shows Synonymous Parallelism, the idea in the first part of a line is repeated in the second part of the line.





 Antithetic Parallelism

Antithetic means
"marked by being exactly opposite"



A and -A



Opposite Thoughts



The idea in the first part of a line/verse is the opposite of the idea in the second part of a line or opposite of the idea in another verse.


  Psalm 1:6

For the Lord guards the way of the just, but the way of the wicked leads to doom. 1963 Grail Psalms



Example from
a Modern English Bible

  Psalm 1:6

God charts the road you take. The road they take is Skid Row.




Antithetic parallelism is very common in Proverbs and provides wonderful antithetic structures.

For example, note the inverted form of this antithetic parallelism:

"The curse of the LORD is on the house of the wicked, but the dwelling of the just he blesses." Proverbs 3:33





Synthetic Parallelism

Synthetic means
"put together, compounded"




A expands to A1



Expanded Thought



The idea in the first part of a line/verse is expanded or developed into a fuller thought in the second part of a line or another verse.  


  Psalm 99:3

Know ye that the Lord he is God: he made us, and not we ourselves.

We are his people and the sheep of his pasture. Douay-Rheims




The idea of "God made us" is developed and expanded to the idea of us belonging to God and dependent upon him only.  At the end of the idea we are the "sheep of his pasture." 


This type of parallelism is also called by these names

Formal Parallelism

Additive Parallelism

Climactic Parallelism




Introverted (or Inverted) Parallelism

Introverted means "to turn in upon itself"

Inverted means "to turn inside out or upside down"







An idea is bracketed around a middle idea often spanning several verses



"The lines are arranged so the 1st and 4th verses parallel and the 2nd and 3rd verses parallel."

Introverted Parallelism also exists where "The thought veers from the main theme and then returns thereto." 4 see New Advent

Inverted parallelism is also sometimes viewed as chiastic and especially so if the structure is:


in which "X" is a central theme or key idea.  This is a chiasmus form. More on chiasmus -- see Footnote 1 below.




  Ps 124:7

Our soul has escaped
as a bird out of the snare of the trapper;
The snare is broken and
we have escaped.
New American Standard Updated (NASB)



This is an


pattern.  The verse begins with the idea of "escape" and in the middle are the two clauses about the trap being broken.


This type of parallelism is sometimes called Chiasmus



Chiastic Parallelism



Other kinds of Hebrew parallelism


Stair-Step Parallelism






The thought is repeated in series of progressions or developments 




 Psalm 121:5-8

5 The Lord is your keeper;
The Lord is your shade on your right hand.
6 The sun will not smite you by day, Nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will protect you from all evil;
He will keep your soul.
8 The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in From this time forth and forever.




Emblematic Parallelism



A to "A metaphor/simile"
"A metaphor/simile" to A



An idea is illustrated with an image, metaphor, or simile, or after an image, simile/metaphor the idea is stated directly.5




 Ps 42:1

As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So my soul pants for You, O God.



In the above example, a simile is used "As the deer... so my soul."  



Knowing the parallelism of a particular Psalm helps orient us to the thoughts just as hearing a Big Ben chime anchors us in time.

Hearing chimes on every quarter hour also tells us a summary of the time — it’s half-past the hour, for example, like an antiphon gives a key thought to consider in a Psalm.

The structure imparted to time by chimes and parallelism used to craft the Psalms is not a confining apparatus any more than a bridge across a river hinders us from reaching our destination.

Chapter 47 of the Rule St. Benedict gives the abbot the responsibility to call the monastic community to the divine office at the proper times — such designation of the abbot to perform this task reveals the high importance St. Benedict placed on the "simple" act of announcing the time for the Work of God (another name for the divine office).

While we know that St. Benedict’s monks did not hear the Westminster Quarters call them to prayer, it is unknown exactly what type of devise was used to announce the time for the divine office. I don't think St. Benedict thought his abbots would be yelling out across the monastery grounds, "Hey, Listen UP! It's time for Vespers."

Benedictine monk Kardong writes that the abbot would most likely strike a gong or use a wooden clapper.6 

Kardong also writes that one commentator believes the rod often seen in depictions of St. Benedict was not for punishment, but was for the task important task of striking whatever may have been used to sound the call to prayer. 

Regardless of the problems of keeping time in the sixth century AD compared to today, the importance of the call to prayer is also based on the need to respond to God in obedience — which is just as valid for me today as it was in 530 AD when the Rule of St. Benedict was complied.  And that is what our chimes do.


In another blog I wrote about how our Big Ben chimes are working again on a used computer and that I really missed the orderliness it gives to time.


The picture is Bok Tower copied from a post card.  Bok Tower was built in 1929 as a quiet sanctuary for the American people.  It is a favorite place we visit often.  This Bok Tower picture was suggested for this blog by my wonderful wife.  Thank you, good choice.

1. The Book of Psalms is like a literary chiasmus for the Bible. A chiasmus (pronounced) is inverted parallelism around a central axis. See example above.  For an article on chiasmus in the Bible see Chiastic Parallelism.

2. Quote from the New Advent Encyclopedia article on Parallelism.

3. Quote about Robert Lowth from "Psalms," by Geoffrey Grogan, at Google Book Search.

4. The definitions of Introverted/Inverted Parallelism are from David Graves & Jane Graves, Electronic Christian Media; and from the New Advent article on Parallelism.

5. The definition of Emblematic Parallelism is from David Graves & Jane Graves, Electronic Christian Media.

6. Benedict’s Rule, by Terrence Kardong, O.S.B., The Liturgical Press, 1996, page 379

Other References:

Fact Sheet Overview of the Book of Psalms

New Advent Article, Psalms

Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device
Commonly Found in Biblical Literature

By Brad McCoy

The Prayers of the Psalter, by Henry Wansbrough

American Catholic Quarterly at Google Book Search



I began working on this material on the day of the solemnity of the Ascension, Thursday, May 21, 2009.  Due to my inability to know how to insert tables into the blog, I just added this blog as a web page to the Oblate Spring web site where it was easier for me to set the formatting.

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