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In Hebrew poetry, especially proverbs, we see examples of monotonically increasing numbers that set up parallels. For instance Proverbs 30:15 (NJPS):

The leech has two daughters, “Give!” and “Give!”
Three things are insatiable;
Four never say, “Enough!”:

So the progression in this case is:

N
N + 1
N + 2
Where N = 2

For a proverb about an insatiable leech, this is pretty clever technique. The two daughters each say "Give" (or are named "Give"?), then one more thing is insatiable, and finally, one more never says "Enough!" The proverb itself threatens to outstay its welcome.

But a bit later, we get a proverb where the numerical parallelism doesn't have anything to do with being insatiable. Proverbs 30:18-19 (NJPS):

Three things are beyond me;
Four I cannot fathom:
How an eagle makes its way over the sky;
How a snake makes its way over a rock;
How a ship makes its way through the high seas;
How a man has his way with a maiden.

Are we meant to imagine that there are 5 or 6 or more things that the poet doesn't understand? Or is the idea that all four things can be explained the same way somehow? Or is it just a way to introduce a list in a memorable fashion?

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In "Living by the Book" (chapters 19-23), Howard Hendricks emphasizes several points used in observation of a passage:

  1. What things are emphasized?
  2. What things are repeated?
  3. What things are related?
  4. What things are alike?
  5. What things are unalike?
  6. What things are true to life?

A literary device like this allows us to see aspects of all of these.


The author or speaker in this chapter (identified in verse 1 as Agur) uses this structure frequently. (Verses 15-16, 18-19, 21-23 and 29-31) In some cases it appears that the entire list is his focus, while in others it appears that the final item is the emphasis and the previous items are instructive toward that final item in some way. For example, verses 29-31 use a lion, rooster and ram as comparisons to a king leading his army.

There are several other sections in this chapter that follow a similar structure, even though they do not use a numeric progression. (4, 11-14, 24-28, 33)


So to answer your question, I think it varies by context but the basic ideas seem to be:

  1. A group of things that are emphasized as equivalent or comparable in some way.
  2. A specific item that is better understood through comparison to several other things. When used in this way, the final item seems to be the emphasis.
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In the case of the first example the horseleach is the emphasis since it is the deepest riddle and has the most comprehensive statement about Christ. –  Bob Jones Nov 16 '11 at 23:54
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Pr 30:15 ¶ The horseleach hath two daughters, crying, Give, give. There are three things that are never satisfied, yea, four things say not, It is enough:

one The horseleach is a word riddle representing God. The five letters of the word give us five statements about God. There is one God who has divided Holiness and Grace who has the heart of knowledge, and is the light of creation. He is the only Holy God who gives of himself. This speaks of Christ.

two The word for 'give' also means 'ascribe'. We are to ascribe to the Lord Holiness and Grace. This is how we "acknowledge God as God". Two always represents an earthly and heavenly aspect of a thing.

three The three things which are unsatiable are the Father, Son and Holy Ghost since of the increase of His Kingdom there will be no end. Three is always related to the Trinity.

four Always relates to the four voices of God as Prophet, Priest, King and Judge, therefore the four solutions given in v. 16 relate to the voices:

v.16
1. The grave; 2. and the barren womb; 3. the earth that is not filled with water; 4. and the fire that saith not, It is enough.

five Why did it stop before five? Five is the number of man. The first four speak of Christ. But the question points us back to one which has five letters. The meaning of horseleach is buried deeper than 2,3, and 4. It requires the meaning of letters to come into play, not just of the words and metaphor. So the riddle closes the loop by pointing back to the beginning. Is there any reason to believe that all numerical parallelism will use the same 'tricks' of riddle? No. But the same metaphors used here will be used everywhere they are found.

The second riddle again mentions the Trinity. The four things that follow each represent the Word of God, and are related, each one, to one of the voices of God as Prophet, Priest, King and Judge. The resolution of the riddles give deeper insight into the Word. The Trinity speaks in four voices which is the meaning of 12. The Trinity is the one speaking, the four voices are the whole revelation of God.

Hints:

  • Eagle is the Spirit
  • the word for serpent also means 'brass' as in the 'tinkling of a brass'
  • ship is a pun for 'me' or 'I'
  • and the man and the maid are Christ and his bride

Happy meditating.

The main question is "how do we interpret graded numerical parallelism." The parallels are overlaid using drash so that they speak of one topic. In this case (and all cases) Christ. The the clues given by the numbers are used to match the verse with known metaphor which is consistent through scripture. Ultimately, the composite with all the clues from others scriptures are used to produce a Christological interpretation.

So effectively, graded numerical parallelism should be interpreted the same way as all other sensus plenior.

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I'm sorry Bob, I really don't buy any of this. Plus the answer fails to addresses my question. Why does the author use progressive numerical parallelism? If it's about the Trinity, why are there four things, not three? –  Jon Ericson Nov 16 '11 at 5:22
    
@Jon It is about God. 1- his unity, 2- his Holiness and Grace, 3- The Trinity, 4- The word of God through four voices. –  Bob Jones Nov 16 '11 at 5:39
    
'progressive numerical parallelism' says that all four things are parallel. I have shown how they all speak of God. –  Bob Jones Nov 16 '11 at 5:47
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Oh... and you don't 'buy' sensus plenior. You show how it does or does not agree with all the other metaphor of sensus plenior. You 'get' a riddle or you don't. And the only answer is the one the author intended. It speaks of Christ. –  Bob Jones Nov 16 '11 at 6:29
    
One through four work in this specific case. However, in Proverbs 6:16-19 Solomon uses 6/7 items. Job and Psalms use this structure with 6/7 as well. –  GalacticCowboy Nov 17 '11 at 1:33
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