Like an agile plate spinner, I’m all about keeping things moving and balanced. At work, I’m a mistress of schedules and timelines, helping coordinate the many steps required to get a magazine out the door on time. And at home, I manage a family agenda jam-packed with medical appointments, sports, church events, and school assignments. A color-coded calendar and tidy to-do list have become my best friends, allies in the battle against calamity.
But don’t think all this is onerous. I’d still sort, collate, and systemize even if life weren't so hectic, because deep down I crave order. I want a place for everything and everything in its place. However, in my attempts to keep things tidy, it’s easy to forget that structure is God’s forte too, not some burden I must bear alone. And evidence of this is everywhere, from the seasons that pass methodically one to the next, to the predictability of the tides and phases of the moon. Halley’s Comet, the Golden ratio, the geometrical skills of honeybees, the radial symmetry of a dahlia, the rightness of a C major chord: A single lifetime isn’t enough to soak in the wonder of this ordered world.
X Marks the Spot
God’s Word is also precisely arranged in ways we might not realize, and not just in the neatness of books, chapters, and verses. The Bible is filled with methodical literary devices like allusions, imagery, metaphors, similes, and symbolism—all of which are relatively familiar. However, another device, chiasmus, might not be so recognizable. The word is a Latin term taken from the Greek word khíasma, which means “crossing” or “to shape like [chi], the letter X.” In chiasmus, two or more words, phrases, or ideas are balanced against each other by the reversal of their structure. You know it well, even if you don’t realize it. Think back to your high school English teacher’s dusty classroom where you studied Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In that play, three witches observe the weather and tell readers, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” That’s chiasmus at its finest. Oh, and remember President Kennedy saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”? Yep, that’s chiasmus too.
In the Bible, this pattern is most apparent in single verses. Take Matthew 6:24, for instance: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” The verse opens with an assertion, gives evidence for that assertion, stresses it via repetition, and then closes with a restatement. In the center, two ideas—love of God and love of money—are contrasted. The crisscross structure creates emphasis and forces readers to recognize that the two cannot be reconciled. One love must be given pride of place.
This device isn’t just a nifty parlor trick. When both the Old and New Testaments were created, chiasmus was a type of mnemonic aid, a way of memorizing large passages of text. Without affordable ink and paper, people had to learn by rote. According to scholar John Breck, once the first half of a chiastic passage was memorized, recalling the second was easy since it followed the same structure.
Breck also asserts that Greek and Latin students “were trained throughout their school years to read from the center outward and from the extremities towards the center” due to the use of scrolls. “When fully unrolled, a scroll creates a symmetrical perception of the overall content,” according to theologian Brad McCoy, which led people to “focus on the content in its center.” As it turns out, all those historical movies got it right. Folks really walked around in togas reading from tightly rolled pieces of parchment. The codex—predecessor to the modern-day book—wasn’t invented by the ever-resourceful Romans until the first century. (And boy, was that a honey of an idea. By the fifth century, the codex outnumbered scrolls 10 to one. By the sixth century, scrolls had disappeared altogether.)
Knowing these facts, all of which literally shaped the way the Bible was written, should compel us to step outside our modern “bookend” mode of thinking. In a chiastic passage, the beating heart—the essential message—is found not at the beginning or end as we expect but, rather, smack in the middle.
Look and See
To see this device at work, examine Psalm 8. The song opens with a declaration of the majesty of God in verse one and then describes the scope of His dominion (Psalm 8:2-3). When faced with such wonders, David has only questions: Who is man in the face of such awesome power? Why do we matter?
These questions without answers (Psalm 8:4-5) are the central axis of the psalm—the area that should receive greater attention. Think about it. There is absolutely no reason we should be a step below the angels. We’re hot messes, grab bags of greed, lust, envy, anger, and all those other lovely sins we call our own. We bring nothing of value to God, and yet we are “crowned with glory and honor.” Selah, indeed.
The next section parallels verses two and three, detailing the things placed under man’s dominion: all manner of beasts and birds and creatures cruising the sea (Psalm 8:5-8). Finally, David closes the psalm with the same declaration he used in the opening lines (Psalm 8:9). He’s not lazy or lacking in creativity. These last verses bring balance to the passage and emphasize the central takeaway: Our authority is from God, and His granting it to humankind both gives us dignity and brings Him glory.
This structure is not mere happenstance. It is the handiwork of an almighty Father who meticulously cares for and arranges His world down to the last jot and tittle. Examples of His orderliness can be found everywhere in the Bible, and they’re cause for much oohing and ahhing—and humility as well. They’re reminders that we are meant to live and move and have our being in Him and the grander structure He has created. (See Acts 17:28.) We are free to forget ourselves and surrender the need for control to the Creator of all things fearfully, wonderfully, and perfectly made.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft