Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Books

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Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Books
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Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Books

Old Testament Poetry

The Hebrew Bible regards only Job, Psalms and Proverbs as poetic books. In the English Bible the poetic books also include Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. Neither arrangement is entirely satisfactory. For one thing, Song of Songs is written in poetry and excluded from the Hebrew arrangement. On the other hand, Ecclesiastes is a mixture of prose and poetry but included in the English arrangement. All five books have in common only that they are not historical or prophetic in a strict sense. Since, however, four of them are composed entirely in poetry, and one partially, it has become customary to speak of them all as the poetic books. Poetry is extremely common throughout the Old Testament, and the ideas discussed below apply to it wherever it is found.

Biblical poetry can be distinguished from prose in at least four important ways: regularity of rhythmic structures, frequent use of figures of speech, heavy reliance on imagery, and intense emotional expression. Prose exhibits all of these features to some degree, but they appear more frequently and noticeably in poetry.

Rhythmic Structure: In addition to features such as assonance and consonance, the formal rhythmic structure of Hebrew poetry is most clearly seen in parallelism, which is the close coordination or affiliation of one line of poetry with another. Parallel lines consist of at least two versets making up a verse. The second verset adds to, stresses, or constrasts some dimension or dimensions of the first verset. The basic idea is "A, and what's more, B."

The significance of this feature of poetry in the Old Testament may be illustrated by comparing the two records of Jael's treatment of Sisera in Judges. In the prose account of Judges 4:19 we read: "'I'm thirsty,' he said, 'Please give me some water.' She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up." In the poetic account of Judges 5:25, however, we read:

  • A verset: "he asked for water, she gave him milk;"
  • B verset: "in a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk."

In the poetic account the rhythm of parallelism between the versets is evident. The second verset, stereophonically enriches "she gave him" with "in a bowl fit for nobels she brought him" and "milk" with "curdled milk." It draws attention to the curdled milk and to the aristocratic goblet in which Jael served the delicacy. By this means, the audience could see and feel Jael's cunning. She treated her battle-weary guest as royalty in order to put him at ease and so make him vulnerable. In this sense, the prose account focuses more on the straightforward facts, and the parallelism of the poem creates a fuller impression.

Figures of Speech: Poetry also relies on figures of speech much more than prose. A figure may be defined simply as an indirect way of saying something, or saying one thing while meaning another, according to conventions shared by the writer and reader. Poets often use figures such as hyperboles or exaggerations; they employ symbolism, metaphors, similes, metonyms, synechdoches, sarcasm, irony, and a number of other well-known techniques of indirect communication.

For example, Psalm 1:3 employs the simile of a fruitful tree to describe the positive condition of those who meditate on the law of God.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in season

Psalm 34:10 uses a hyperbole of claiming to have no needs to convey David's satisfaction in God's answer to his prayers.

The lions may grow weak and hungry,
But those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

Readers of poetry must be alert to the frequency of figures of speech and how they work. Interpretations can be misleading if poetical texts are read in a woodenly literal fashion.

Imagery: Imagery may be defined as the expression of thoughts in ways that evokes mental experiences of the senses. To be sure, prose relies on imagination to communicate a writer's thoughts, but poetry relies on the imaginative power of language much more. Rather than speaking plainly about a matter, biblical poets often lead their readers into imaginative sensory experiences of their topics.

For instance, Psalm 42:7 depicts the troubles of the Psalmist in powerful language of the sound and feel of being overcome by a rushing waterfall.

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers have swept over me.

Psalm 24:2 portrays the protection of God in a picturesque expression of refreshment, comfort, color and quiet.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.

Interpreters of biblical poetry must always be aware of the frequent use of imagery. The poetic devices often afford readers opportunities for meaningful, life-changing reflection.

Emotional Expression: Biblical poetry is also especially effective at expressing and evoking the full range of emotions appropriate for the faithful. It touches on joy and pain, praise and lament, love and hatred; hardly any emotion is omitted.

For example in Psalm 130:1-2 we find desperate lament:

"Out of the depths I cry to you, O *LORD*;
O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ear be attentive
to my cry for mercy" (Psa 130:1, 2).

At the same time, in Psalm 57:7, 8 we discover ecstatic praise.

"My heart is steadfast, O God,
my heart is steadfast;
I will sing and make music.
"Awake my soul!
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn" (Psa 57:7, 8).

The emotional focus of biblical poetry calls upon interpreters to give careful attention to their own emotional reactions to these Scriptures. As we encounter the intense feelings expressed in these texts, we are challenged to bring our deepest passions into submission to the Scriptures.

Old Testament Wisdom

Three of the five poetic books comprise the Old Testament books of wisdom: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Wisdom passages appear occasionally in other books but only in limited fashion. Large portions of the wisdom books are poetry and exhibit the qualities we have mentioned above. Yet, wisdom books can be distinguished from other poetic books in a number of ways.

Characteristics of Wisdom: The books of wisdom have at least three distinguishing characteristics. First, the word "wisdom" and its synonyms, such as "understanding," appear more frequently in these books than others. Second, they share a common mode of revelation in that they rely more on observations of life than on supernatural visions and auditions. Third, because their inspiration is drawn mostly from contemporary observations of creation and human experiences, they do not focus much on the history of salvation. Little direct reflection is made on the grand redemptive events that took place in Israel's history.

Definition of Wisdom: Wisdom may be defined on two levels. On a more superficial level wisdom is significant skill, such as survival skills (Prov. 30:24-28), technical skills (Exod. 28:3; 36:1), and administrative-judicial skills (Deut. 1:15-18; 1 Kings 3:1-28). On a deeper level, however, wisdom is rooted in the created order. The Scriptures explain that God brought wisdom into existence before the rest of creation. This wisdom stands behind all natural and social relationships (Prov. 3:19, 20; 8:22-31). Insight into this created order makes one wise in the fuller sense of the term. The sages of Scripture expound this cosmic wisdom under the inspiration of God's Spirit (Eccl. 12:9-12; Prov. 25:2).

As central as ordinary observation was to the process of gaining wisdom, it was not divorced from religious commitments. The sages who contributed to and compiled the wisdom books regularly depended on the teachings of Moses and David to guide their interpretations of experience. For example, the opening superscription of Proverbs informs its readers: "The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel" (Prov. 1:1). Solomon spoke as Israel's covenant king; he brought to the task not only eyes opened wide toward the world and social behavior, but also a heart of faith from his godly heritage that led him to depend on previous revelation. Even Agur, the proselyte sage from Massa, informed his readers that he found wisdom possible only within Israel's Faith. Citing first David (Psa. 18:30) and then Moses (Deut. 4:2), he said:

"Every word of God is flawless
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Do not add to his words,
or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar"
(Prov. 30:5-6).

Didactic and Reflective Wisdom: Two main types of wisdom appear in the Old Testament. In the first place, didactic or proverbial wisdom is represented primarily in the book of Proverbs. Didactic wisdom was wisdom taught usually within a family context (Prov. 1:8, 10). It consisted primarily of easily memorized and often provocative wise sayings, riddles and parables (Prov. 1:6) that were designed to teach practical wisdom. By learning proverbs, the young of Israel were trained to discern direction for living on a plethora of subjects.

The practical value of proverbial wisdom results not only from its direct insights, but also from recognizing that it is not always easy to coordinate proverbial wisdom with experience in our fallen world.

For example, Proverbs 22:29 reads,

Do you see a man skilled in his work?
He will serve before kings;
he will not serve before obscure men.

It does not take much familiarity with life to know that a measure of dissonance exists between this proverb and much of our experience. We know that this proverb does not describe an inevitable series of events because skilled people do not always serve before kings. Instead, observations of life teach us that this proverb was intended to encourage the development of skills by instilling a hope of recognition. It did not promise that everyone who is skilled will gain such recognition. Similar qualifications apply to many proverbs because sin has caused the world to fall short of the ideal patterns often described in didactic wisdom. Much of proverbial wisdom points to approximations of the ideal order that are experienced from time to time, and directs the faithful to hope to a future beyond this world (Prov. 12:28; 14:32; 23:17, 18; 24:19, 20) when all is made right by the final judgment. Then every dissonance between proverbial wisdom and experience will be eliminated.

In the second place, reflective wisdom appears in Job and Ecclesiastes. This style of writing explores the proper uses of proverbial wisdom by drawing attention to the enigmas of this life. These books help interpreters to avoid over-reading or expecting too much from proverbial wisdom. The book of Job tests the usefulness of proverbial wisdom for those who endure suffering. Where is God's justice when the righteous suffer and the wicked use proverbial wisdom to accuse them falsely? How much of God's wisdom in such circumstances can human beings understand? Similarly, Ecclesiastes marks the limits of proverbial wisdom in the pursuit of contentment and significance. Why is there so little joy in the fruit of hard work? What value is pursuing knowledge or acquiring wealth when from all appearances the righteous and wicked lose all they have accomplished in death? Both books warn against simplistic interpretations of didactic wisdom that raise expectations for immediate justice and enduring blessings.

Job and Ecclesiastes endorse the value of proverbial wisdom but they also open the way for fuller insight. First, they stress that human beings are severely limited in their ability to discern the wisdom of God, especially with respect to the perplexing anomalies of life. It is the height of folly to think that we can actually master the wisdom required to understand all of God's ways (Job 28; 40-42). Second, they remind readers that acquiring even limited awareness of wisdom requires a constant reverential fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7). Job 28:28 concludes, "The fear of the Lordthat is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding." In much the same way, Ecclesiastes 12:13 reads, "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man." Reflective wisdom stresses that recognizing human limitations and the need for submission to the Lord enables us to live as wise people.

Related Resources:

Overview of the Book of Job
Overview of the Book of Psalms
Overview of the Book of Proverbs
Overview of the Book of Ecclesiastes
Overview of the Book of Song of Solomon

Articles on the Poetic and Wisdom Books
Q&A on the Poetic and Wisdom Books
Sermons on the Poetic and Wisdom Books

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).