STUDY THREE: THE BOOKS OF POETRY AND WISDOM

© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2017

The poetry books and wisdom literature of the Old Testament are commonly known as 'the writings'. [Note that the Hebrew Bible also includes Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah and Chronicles in the 'writings' - 'Ketuvim'.]

1. THE NATURE OF HEBREW POETRY

In most modern translations it is easy to identify which parts are poetry: the lines are indented, and do not flow on to the next line at the end of each thought. [Genealogies and various lists are often indented as well, but their lines usually flow on as in prose.]

Hebrew poetry did not use rhyming words. It used parallel thoughts. By using parallel thoughts it expressed the same concept in two or more ways. Usually, when more than two parallel thoughts are expressed, each thought, while still saying the same thing, adds more intensity or depth to the previous one. Knowing this helps us to understand the text, and actually gives us many great insights into the meaning of many words. [It is abnormal for a group of parallel thoughts to contain more than two or three thoughts.] Sometimes, and it will be obvious when, the two ‘parallel’ thoughts express two opposing or ‘antithetical’ thoughts.

An understanding of these mechanics of Hebrew poetry enriches our understanding of the Bible. This is particularly evident in the Psalms and the Prophets where there is rich and abundant poetry. Understanding the concept of parallel thoughts prevents us from thinking that the writers are talking about two different things when they are actually talking about the same thing in different words. As well as preventing this kind of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, understanding Hebrew parallelism enriches our understanding of God’s truth.

Consider this example: We frequently find the words ‘salvation’ and ‘righteousness’ in parallel thoughts. This teaches us that the two words are talking about the same thing. So instead of feeling that these verses are giving a conflicting and confusing message, speaking of salvation on the one hand and God’s personal righteousness on the other [or, worse, the personal righteousness which he requires of us], we know that ‘salvation’ and ‘righteousness’ are the same thing. This perception is validated by the New Testament, in which the gospel reveals the ‘righteousness of God’ by which we are saved. [Romans 1:16,17; 3:21-24 – remembering that ‘righteousness’ and ‘justification’ translate the identical Greek word.]

2. THE PSALMS

When reading the Psalms, as well as remembering the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, we need to know that they are also songs that were sung with musical accompaniment. The book of Psalms has sometimes been called ‘the hymnbook of the second temple.’

2.1 Authorship
Seventy-three psalms are attributed to David; other named authors are Asaph, the sons of Korah, Solomon, Heman, Ethan and Moses. Various theories about authorship can be found in any good Bible dictionary.

2.2 Types of Psalms
Christian writers try to classify the psalms, usually in relation to their content. This is not easy, because many of them contain more than one type of content. The content overlaps, so that, for example, even in psalms begging God for deliverance from imminent danger we also find elements of praise and confidence. As you read the Psalms look out for:

Songs of praise and/or thanksgiving [e.g. 96]
Songs of petition for blessing and protection [102]
Songs of petition for deliverance [4]
Songs of faith and confidence [18]
Songs of penitence [expressing acknowledgement of, or sorrow for sin] [51]
Songs of intercession [pleading with God on behalf of others or of the nation] [89]
Songs of imprecation [calling God to destroy the enemies of Israel] [35]
Royal songs [songs about the king, overlap with Messianic psalms]
Songs in praise of God’s law [1,119]
Wisdom songs [songs puzzling about the way life is] [37]

2.3 Messianic Psalms
There are some Psalms which, while they were relevant and applicable in their contemporary setting, express anticipation of the longed-for Messiah, and are clearly prophetic of Jesus Christ. These are called ‘Messianic Psalms’. [Be on the look out as you study Psalms for others that speak of Christ.]

Reflection and response: Read the following Psalms. Discuss ways in which they point to Jesus Christ. Note your findings.
Psalm 2

 

Psalm 22

 

Psalm 24

 

Psalm 72

 

Psalm 110

 

 

2.4 The theology of the Psalms
When we study the Psalms we find that they have an extremely rich understanding of who God is and what God does. They also are very informative and illustrative about the relationship between man and God and the way man approaches God.

Reflection and response: As an example of discovering the theology of the Psalms read Psalm 18 and 139 and identify what it reveals about the topics in the left hand column. [It is a powerful exercise to do this with every one of the Psalms.]

Psalm 18
Who or what God is

 

 

What God does, or has done

 

 

What man is, does, or feels in relation to God

 

 

What is prayed for

 

 

 

Psalm 139
Who or what God is

 

 

What God does, or has done

 

 

What man is, does, or feels in relation to God

 

 

What is prayed for

 

 

 

3. THE SONG OF SONGS [SONG OF SOLOMON]

It is often wondered why the Song of Songs has been included in the canon of Scripture, but it is not surprising that God, who established the sanctity of marriage, should give guidelines on the purity of a relationship between two people. The world in its sinfulness has a warped view of what true love really is, and many marriage relationships crumble because of lack of commitment, love and devotion. God has provided in his Word, a picture of what he regards as true love.

A significant number of scholars view the Song of Songs as a picture of Christ’s love for his people. There is no reason why this cannot be true, as well as the other; Ephesians 5:22ff and Revelation draw parallels between the two relationships.

 

4. LAMENTATIONS – A ‘FUNERAL SONG’

Jeremiah’s primary message in Lamentations is God's judgment upon the persistent sins of His people through the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple - all in accordance with prior revelation. Each of the chapters is an acrostic based on the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet; this is said to indicate that Israel has sinned from beginning to end. [Chapter 3, of 66 verses, has 3 verses per letter].

1. Jerusalem's desolation because of her sin [Ch 1]
Israel is depicted as a widow. There is only death, sorrow and affliction. Friends have become enemies, religious life has ceased, Israel’s enemies lord it over her and her mighty men are slain.

2. God's punishment of Jerusalem's Sin [Ch 2]
In chapter 2 the Lord is shown as Israel’s enemy. He slays the mighty; he takes the gates away from Jerusalem; the priest and prophet are slain.

3. Jeremiah’s response [Ch 3]
Jeremiah here vacillates between hope and despair, he pictures the affliction of Israel but in v20ff he breaks into praise. The writer here acknowledges that hope is only found in the Lord, that God's actions are just, that he has mercy and compassion.

4. The Lord's anger [Ch 4]
Here we see the former glory of Jerusalem and the destruction upon it now. It has all been brought about because of the sins of the prophets and of Israel's priests, the sins of the elders, and Israel’s failure to trust in the Lord.

5. The response of the remnant [Ch 5]
Here there is a plea for the Lord to remember the affliction of Israel. It is a summary appeal for the Lord to put away His wrath. Jeremiah once again petitions God to heal the hearts of Israel so blessings might again be known by the people.

 

5. UNDERSTANDING HEBREW WISDOM LITERATURE

Wisdom literature is a type of writing common in the Ancient Near East. It has two main types:

Collections of proverbs – short, pithy sayings - that give good advice on how to live.

Records of the human struggle with problems relating to the meaning of life and how God governs the world.

Hebrew wisdom literature contains examples of both the first - the Book of Proverbs, and the second – Job and Ecclesiastes. In addition, there are small examples of Wisdom literature scattered in some of the other books, particularly the Psalms. Hebrew wisdom literature was sometimes written in prose and sometimes in poetry. When written as poetry the parallelism of Hebrew poetry is also present and needs to be recognized.

Because Wisdom literature of the type employed by Job and Ecclesiastes is an accurate recording of man’s quest to find the meaning of life and of God’s governance of the world, we cannot say that everything written in them is what God says. This statement does not deny that the Bible is the accurate, authoritative, infallible Word of God. Wisdom literature is a totally different literary genre [type] from history or prophecy. Just as the Gospels accurately report the theologically inaccurate statements of the scribes and Pharisees [and we never assume that what the Pharisees say is what God says], even so Wisdom literature accurately reports the speculations of men about the problems of life and God’s government of the world [but we must not assume that what Job’s three friends say is what God says]. In doing so it does not cease to be God’s word, by which he reveals the truth to us, not in this case the truth about himself, but the truth about our human lostness, arrogance, ignorance, darkness and despair and the truth about our distorted human perceptions of truth. In both Job and Ecclesiastes this despair and ignorance is balanced and countered by the statement of God’s truth.

 

6. JOB

While there is no way of telling when the Book of Job was actually written, there is fairly general agreement that its setting is the Patriarchal era. It is divided into three distinct sections:

1. The Prologue, written in prose: chapters 1 and 2. The Prologue tells us the actual facts.

2. The body of the book, written in poetry: 3 – 42:6. This section accurately reports what Job and his three friends said in response to Job’s suffering and in response to each other’s statements. It also reports what Elihu said, and what God said.

3. The Epilogue, written in prose: 42:7-17. Like the Prologue, the Epilogue reports facts. It tells us that what the three friends said in their speculations about what God was doing was actually wrong, and that what Job said was right.

It is thus very important to remember that in Wisdom literature we are dealing with the accurate reporting of human speculations, and that not everything that is said is actually true about God.

The apparent focus of the book’s concern is suffering. But the Prologue reveals that beyond the human questions is a challenge posed by Satan about the very nature and integrity of faith, which extends the focus of the book far beyond the perspective of the three friends. It raises the questions:

Where does suffering come from?
Why do people suffer?
Can we explain all suffering on a tit-for-tat basis?
Is it possible for a man to be so right with God that he can be confident his suffering is not punishment for sin?
Is there such a thing as genuine faith in God?
Is there such a thing as genuine faith that will trust God no matter what he does or how silent he appears?

Reflection and response: As an example of the caution that must be exercised in interpreting Wisdom literature of this type, read the verses below. Remembering what was said above about wisdom literature, and the fact that 42:7 tells us the friends said what was wrong, discuss:

Are these verses telling us the truth about God, or are they accurately reporting human ‘wisdom’?
What is the source of ‘wisdom’ in these verses?
What is wrong with what the verses say?
What are contemporary examples of similar ‘wisdom’?

4:7-9

 

 

4:12-16

 

 

8:1-10

 

 

11:1-9

 

 

7. PROVERBS

7.1 Introduction to Proverbs
Proverbs is both poetry and wisdom literature. Because it is poetry we find it jam-packed with parallel thoughts – some expressing the same thought in two different ways, some expressing opposing thoughts. Knowing this helps us to understand and appreciate its teaching.

Because it is wisdom literature it addresses the issues of life. The first four chapters set the scene, promoting wisdom as essential for life, and defining ‘the fear of the LORD’ as the ‘beginning of wisdom’ [1:7; 9:10]. This wisdom comes only from God and only through Him is a man's way prosperous and righteous. Proverbs 2:6 says ‘For the LORD gives wisdom - out of His mouth comes knowledge and understanding’. The wise man is therefore the person who not only understands the Lord and his ways but also embraces them in his heart and applies them in his life.

The author: Solomon, who asked the Lord for wisdom [1Kings 3:7-12; 2Chronicles 1:10-12] and who was acknowledged to have wisdom [1Kings 3:28; 4:29-34; 5:7, 12; 10:4-8,23-24; 2Chronicles 9], is the author of most of the proverbs; [see 1Kings 4:32, which tells us that Solomon spoke some 3000 proverbs and authored some 1005 songs]. Other authors are Agur and King Lemuel.

The Hebrew word translated ‘proverbs’ - means ‘to be like’, or ‘to be compared with’ – thus we find that many of the proverbs contain comparisons and vivid imagery. A further meaning of the word is that a proverb is a ‘by-word’ – presenting object lessons from other people’s mistakes, even taunting those who were so foolish as to make such mistakes.

7.2 Divisions of the Proverbs

Purpose and benefit of wisdom (1-9)
The path of the wise, or the righteous, and the path of the fool, or the wicked, are set forth. The righteous fear God and look for wisdom from His words (1:7, 2:6, 3:1-13). The ungodly head for destruction, despising correction and the way of God (1:7b, 1:24-32). The section closes with wisdom and folly vying for the lives of men. Folly is shown as a young man giving way to seduction and temptation (7). Wisdom is personified as one calling to men to take part in God and His ways (8,9). Pivotal verse: 1:7: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; fools despise wisdom and instruction

Reflection:
What does 1:1-7 teach us about the practical results of fearing the Lord and listening to his wisdom?

 

What are the results or rejecting the way of wisdom [1:20-33]?

 

What is the relationship between wisdom and faith? [3:1-12]

 

What are current applications of the six things the Lord hates? [6:16-19]

 

What reasons are given for avoiding adultery? [5:1-23; 6:20-35; 7:1-27]

 

Read Chapter 8. Discuss the concept that this chapter is speaking of Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

 

Solomon's orders, or precepts, of wisdom [10-22:16] [Proverbs of Solomon]
These proverbs or maxims of Solomon deal with the practicalities of life, addressing a wide subject matter. There is a general optimism about the world and its workings because God is in control, and the assumption that if we live according to God’s wisdom, things will go well. This truth must not be seen in terms of legalistic rewards and punishments, but in terms of causes, effects and consequences.

Research and reflection
Outcomes of ‘the fear of the Lord’ - 10:27; 14:26,27; 15:16, 33; 16:6; 19:23; 22:4.

 

 

 

God’s sovereign control - 15:11; 16:1, 4, 9, 33; 18:10; 19:21; 20:24; 21:1; 21:30.

 

 

 

Things the Lord detests - 11:1, 20; 12:2, 22; 15:8, 9, 26; 16:5; 17:15; 20:10, 23.

 

 

 


Warnings regarding the neglect of wisdom (22:17-24:34) [Sayings of the Wise]
These sayings contain many instructions about what and whom to avoid, and a section contrasting wisdom and foolishness. They also give us insight into the heart of God as we look at this father instructing his son.

Research: What do these verses teach us about the benefits of wisdom?
22:17-19

 

23:15-18

 

23:22-25

 

24:3-7

 

24:14.

 

 

 

More orders of wisdom (25-29) [Proverbs of Solomon]
This section includes wisdom in legal and political matters [25:1-10; 28:1-18]; wisdom about how to speak to one another [25:11-26:12; 26:17-27:17]; wisdom about laziness [26:13-16]; wisdom in caring for our resources [27:23-27].

Reflection and response: Proverbs 29:18 states: ‘Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint’. Consider this statement in relation to our society today which has discarded God and his Word.

 

 

 

 

 

The sayings of Agur and King Lemuel [30-31:9]
After a brief discourse on the knowledge of God and his word [30:1-6] the sayings of Agur consist mostly of numbered groups of identified items. The sayings of King Lemuel are brief snippets of advice for kings.

The epilogue on the noble wife [31:10-31)
This is a distinct section – written as an acrostic, with each of the twenty-two verses commencing with one of the twenty-two Hebrew letters in alphabetical sequence. In keeping with the rest of the book of Proverbs, which has cautioned the reader to keep away from the adulteress, and encouraged respect for mothers, this acrostic poem exalts the godly woman.

 

8. ECCLESIASTES

Ecclesiastes is Wisdom Literature: a record of man’s struggle to find the meaning of life. The New Bible Dictionary states:

‘The theme of the book is a search for the key to the meaning of life. The Preacher examines life from all angles to see where satisfaction can be found. He finds that God alone holds the key, and He must be trusted. Meanwhile we are to take life day by day from His hand, and glorify Him in the ordinary things.’

It presents an accurate picture of the hopelessness, meaninglessness and despair that characterizes those who try to live and understand life apart from God. As such it is extremely relevant in our post-modern culture which affirms that there are no absolutes and no such thing as absolute truth, so that one does not even look for truth. Ecclesiastes contains sections of poetry and sections of prose.

8.1 The teaching of Ecclesiastes

The Charge: Life is Meaningless [1:1-11]
This introductory section encompasses the whole of life and existence in its statement ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’

Reflection and response: List verses from 1:1-11 which refer to or describe the following aspects of life and existence:
Repetitiveness

Lack of satisfaction or fulfillment

 

A sense of everything happening but nothing changing

 

A sense of sameness and monotony

 

A sense of human temporariness and nothingness

 

Lack of purpose and meaning in human activity

 

The Confirmation: Every aspect of life is Meaningless [1:12-12:8]

Read the passages; list and discuss what they say about the meaningless or emptiness or ‘evil’ of the listed aspects of life.
1:12-18: Human wisdom

 

2:1-11: Pleasure

 

2:12-16: Both wisdom and folly

 

2:17-4:12: Work

 

4:13-16: Position

 

5:1-7: Much religious profession

 

5:8-6:12: Wealth

 

7:1-8:1 Trying to understand it all

 

8:2-17 Justice and injustice

 

9:1-12:8 Life and death

 

 

The confession - Life gains meaning only in God [12:9-14]
The New Bible Dictionary states:

‘Life is a riddle for which the Preacher tries to find the key…. The plan for man is to take his life each day from the hand of God, and enjoy it from Him and for Him.’

Throughout the book the writer encourages his reader to have a God-centred approach to life, summing it up with his ‘Fear God and keep his commandments’ of 12:13.

Reflection and response: What do these groups of verses teach about understanding life with a God-centred perspective?
2:24; 3:13; 5:18-20; 6:2; 8:15; 9:7; 9:9

 

 

3:17; 11:9; 12:14

 

 

2:26; 7:26; 8:12,13

 

 

5:7; 7:14; 7:18

 

 

8:17; 9:1; 11:5

 

 

12:1,6,7

 

 

12:13