Poetic Books


The Jews organized the Old Testament into three divisions: The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The latter category contained Ruth, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra and Chronicles. Later Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon were taken out of the Writings and placed with three others – Ruth, Lamentations and Esther – and made a separate section of the Writings called the Rolls (Megilloth). This had a liturgical purpose as each of these five books were read at one of the five annual festivals of the Jews.
In 363 AD, the Church Father, Cyril of Jerusalem, was the first person we know to gather the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and call them “The Poetic Books.”

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.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 745.[/footnote]

Job was placed before Psalms because it was considered to come from the patriarchal age. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song follow Psalms because they were connected with David’s son, Solomon.
They are some of the most controversial books in the Old Testament. Debate has raged over their canonicity, authorship, date and interpretation.

I. Author(s)

Questions as to authorship of individual books will be discussed in the relevant lectures. However, as serious doubt has been cast on Solomonic authorship of much that was traditionally ascribed to him (Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon and some of Proverbs), we would like to make some general remarks regarding the suitability of Solomon to author this “Wisdom” literature.
Solomon’s God-given wisdom exceeded the sand of the seashore, Eastern, Egyptian, and Israelite wise men (1 Kings 4:29-31). His wisdom is repeatedly demonstrated and acknowledged in the historical books (1 Kings10:8). Although he spoke three thousand proverbs and composed 1,005 songs, we only have a fraction of them in the Bible. Solomon, then, is picked out in the Bible as the wise man par excellence, and as such is eminently suited to author books of “Wisdom.”

II. Date(s)

We will consider the date of each of the Poetic books in the relevant lectures. However, the following general points may be noted.
Most nineteenth century critics denied that the Hebrews could ever write hymnic, lyric or didactic poetry until after the exile when they were under the influence of cultured neighbors. Some critics went so far as to assign large parts of the poetic books to the Maccabean period (@ 160 BC).
However, during the twentieth century a number of Akkadian and Egyptian hymns dating from around 2000 BC were found. If Israel’s neighbors were cultivating this genre then, why could Israel not do the same?
Moreover, there have been a number of recent finds of Ugaritic poetry composed in a language close to Hebrew and dating from 1500 BC. We shall consider this evidence under “Historical Analysis.”

III. Historical Analysis

1. Non-historical

There is relatively little historical content in the Poetic books but that does not render them any less “historic.”

These books are not historically oriented. In fact, with the exception of the Psalms, they are relatively devoid of historical allusions. But while they do not reflect upon historical events, they are alive with the spirit of history. They grasp for and grapple with those essential concepts that set the Hebrew faith apart from that of its neighbors and insure its survival in a pantheistic, power-greedy world.[footnote]C H Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

Since wisdom literature was addressed to the individual rather than to corporate society, national interests fell into the background. In this respect the literature is quite different from the Law and the Prophets. Because of this aspect of wisdom, history was not one of the foci of the canonical wisdom writers, although we should not assume that they had no interest in history. Their concern for the past was more philosophical than historical—how does one view the past? They had little concern for writing about historical events. Thus, while the corporate concern of wisdom was in no way primary, it was nevertheless served by pointing the individual in the direction of the good life, which in the long run contributed to the good society.[footnote]Ibid., Electronic Edition. [/footnote]

2. Ugaritic Poetry

Why is the discovery of Ugaritic poetry (often called the Ras Shamra Tablets) so relevant for Biblical scholars? There are four main reasons.

a. It is written in a Canaanite dialect quite closely related to Hebrew which has helped us to understand some difficult Hebrew words.

b. It contains many similarities to Hebrew poetry (eg., parallelism). It would thus appear that the biblical writers used poetic style common to some other people of their time, although the Biblical authors used it to reveal the one living and true God.

c. It dates back to the age of Moses, and is therefore contemporaneous with Moses’ own poetry (as preserved in Ex.15; Deut. 32,33; Ps. 90).

d. Ugaritic poetry helps us understand the polytheistic world that surrounded the Hebrews.


IV. Literary Analysis

In our literary analysis we shall consider two principal areas, Hebrew poetry and Wisdom literature.

1. Hebrew Poetry

The literary characteristics of Hebrew poetry are as follows:

a. Parallelism

This term refers to the practice of balancing one thought or phrase by a corresponding thought or phrase containing approximately the same number of words, or at least a correspondence in ideas.[footnote]G L Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

i. Synonymous Parallelism (Ps.24:1)

The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof;
The world, and they that dwell therein.

The first line is paralleled in the second line.

ii. Antithetic Parallelism (Ps.1:6)

For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous;
But the way of the ungodly shall perish.

The first line is contrasted with the second line.

iii. Synthetic or Constructive Parallelism

The term “synthetic” or “constructive” parallelism is used to describe all poetry which is not clearly synonymous or antithetic.

(i) Completion type (Ps.2:6)

Yet have I set my king
Upon Zion my holy hill.

The second line expands or amplifies the first line.

(ii) Comparison type (Prov.15:17)

Better is a dinner of herbs where love is,
Than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.

The second line introduces a comparison with what has been introduced in the first line.

(iii) Reason type (Prov.26:4)

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
Lest thou also be like unto him.

The second line explains what the first line affirms.

iv. Climactic Parallelism (Ps.29:1)

Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty,
Give unto the Lord glory and strength.

The first line is incomplete, and the second line takes up some of its words anew and then completes the thought.

v. Emblematic Parallelism (Prov.11:22)

As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout,
So is a fair woman which is without discretion.

The first line serves as an emblem to illustrate the second.

vi. Chiastic parallelism (Ps.51:1)

a Have mercy upon me, O God,
b According to thy loving kindness;
b’ According unto the multitude of thy tender mercies
a’ Blot out my transgressions

b. Rhythm

Cadence and meter can sometimes be observed in Hebrew poetry but neither plays a large role.

c. Figures of speech

Poetry uses figures of speech more than prose. Common figures of speech in poetry are symbolism, metaphors, similes, sarcasm, irony, alliteration, etc.

d. Imagery

Imagery is common in poetry, conveying a lot of information in a few words, stimulating imagination, and evoking emotional response.

e. Acrostic structure (Ps. 119, Prov.31)

Verses, stanzas, or sections begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet (e.g. Ps. 119)

f. Terseness

The Hebrew poets said much in few words, lines usually being only 3 or 4 words long.

g. Summary

The poetic books are set apart from the Bible books by the following features.

First, these books are almost entirely written in Hebrew poetry. Second, they are not historically oriented. Except for the Book of Psalms, there are few historical allusions here. Third, these books deal with issues which are of universal concern to mankind. From the dawn of history human minds have grappled with such issues as suffering, love, and the brevity and meaning of human life. Fourth, direct divine speech is rare here. As a rule the writers are speaking for man to God rather than the reverse which is the essential characteristic of the prophetic books. Fifth, in treating these difficult topics these books exhibit boldness and honesty. Thus one could list a courageous spirit as one of the characteristics of this literature.[footnote]J E Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), Electronic Edition[/footnote]

2. Wisdom Literature

a. Which books are “Wisdom” books?

There is some debate over which poetic books constitute the wisdom literature. All are agreed that Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes are definitely wisdom literature. However, it is easy to see some of the Psalms in that category also. Even the Song of Solomon has been regarded as wisdom literature due to its didactic nature.

Therefore, we are no more inaccurate referring to this collection of five books as “wisdom literature” than we are by attributing to it the title “Poetic Books.” Indeed the bulk of the material truly belongs in the category of wisdom.[footnote]C H Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

b. Characteristics of “Wisdom” Books

There are three main characteristics of “Wisdom” literature.

i. Frequent use of “wisdom” and synonyms such as “understanding.”

ii. Inspired observations of life rather than supernatural visions or voices.

iii. Little emphasis on redemptive history.

c. The meaning of “Wisdom.”

Wisdom (hokma) means “skill for living” and refers to literature which had a practical concern for everyday life.

There actually seems to have been a prominent class or school of wise men in ancient Hebrew society, and, as Driver puts it, “They applied themselves rather to the observation of human character as such, seeking to analyze conduct, studying action in its consequences, and establishing morality upon the basis of principles common to humanity at large.” In its highest form, Hebrew hokma sought to look into the essence of God’s truth and grasp the general ideas which gave the Israelite faith dimensions fitting it to become a world religion. From this perspective all natural and moral phenomena and experiences were reflected upon in order to apprehend more perfectly the final ground of life and the principles by which it is governed.[footnote]G L Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

Before considering the characteristics of Hebrew wisdom literature, we shall briefly note the wisdom literature of Israel’s neighbors.

d. Other Wisdom literature

Wisdom writing was widely practiced among Israel’s neighbors with most cultures having a class of “wise men” who wrote practical advice for successful living in social, business and political life. However, unlike Hebrew wisdom literature, it did not centre on God but on self-reformation and self-sufficiency.

Although we cannot accept the hypothesis that Israelite religion was the result of an evolutionary process or that it was the eclectic best drawn from the neighboring religious cultures, we must acknowledge the intercultural influences upon Hebrew faith and literature. Lying at the crossroads of commercial and cultural interchange between Mesopotamia and Egypt, Israel was both the beneficiary and the victim of cross-cultural currents. A recognition of the commonality of literary genres and concepts between Israel and the cognate literatures of the ancient Near East is less likely to result in a depreciation of the Old Testament faith than in enhanced appreciation.[footnote]C H Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

Egyptian wisdom tended to be practical and didactic, whereas Mesopotamian wisdom tended to be philosophical and reflective (see distinction below).

e. Hebrew wisdom literature

The Hebrew “Wise man” was a person who knew how to live well and skillfully. A person could be “wise” in a number of practical spheres: craftsmanship (Ex.31:3), music (Jer.9:17), politics and war (Isa.10:13; 29:14; Jer.49:7), judging (2 Sam 14:17 , 20 ; 19:27), sailing (Ps.107:27).

Those who were able to come up with the right answers for life’s difficulties (e.g. Joseph and Solomon) were regarded as “wise.”

Gradually wisdom came to describe the ability to get along well with God and man. It began with the fear of God and produced lives lived according to God’s law (Prov.1:7). A wise person knew how to relate to God, himself, his family, his community his nation, and his God

f. Philosophical Wisdom and Practical Wisdom

A distinction is often made between two types of wisdom that are found in the poetic books.

i. Practical Wisdom

This may be called didactic, prudential or lower wisdom and is found in the Book of Proverbs. It was usually taught within a family context and tended to be optimistic.

This “home-spun” wisdom is also grounded in the fear of Yahweh. Probably among the common people this type of wisdom was more popular than the reflective type.[footnote]J E Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), Electronic Edition[/footnote]

It consisted primarily of easily memorized and often provocative wise sayings, riddles and parables (Pr 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.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 746.[/footnote]

While practical wisdom was generally true, there were exceptions to the general rules. One of the results of sin is that the ideal order of the world as described in the didactic wisdom is not always achieved.

Much of proverbial wisdom points to approximations of the ideal order that are experienced from time to time, and it directs the faithful to hope in a future beyond this world (Pr 12:28: 14:32; 23:17-18; 24:19-20) after all has been made right by the final judgment. Then every dissonance between proverbial wisdom and experience will be eliminated.[footnote]Ibid., 746.[/footnote]

ii. Philosophical Wisdom

This may also be called reflective or higher wisdom and is found in Job and Ecclesiastes. It was often, though not always, pessimistic. These tend to be lengthy discourses and monologues grappling with life’s most difficult problems.

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….Similarly, Ecclesiastes marks the limits of proverbial wisdom in the pursuit of contentment and significance….Both books warn against simplistic interpretations of didactic wisdom that raise expectations for immediate justice and enduring blessings.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 746.[/footnote]

Reflective wisdom encouraged a sense of human weakness and a consequent submission to God’s sovereignty.

g. The Wisdom Books

i. Job: Wisdom for suffering

Job emphasizes the limits of proverbial wisdom in the reality of suffering.

ii. Psalms: Wisdom in worshipping

Four types of wisdom materials are found in the Psalms:

(i) A brief saying or proverb (Ps 127:1; 133:1).

(ii) Discussion of life’s problems (Ps.49 The right view of wealth)

(iii) Teaching psalms (Ps.2, 34).

(iv) Struggles with God’s providence (Ps 73)

iii. Proverbs: Wisdom for living

The Proverbs are the result of God answering Solomon’s prayer for wisdom (1 Ki. 3:3–15).

iv. Ecclesiastes: Wisdom for thinking

Ecclesiastes emphasizes the limits of proverbial wisdom in the reality of everyday life.

v. The Song of Solomon: Wisdom for loving

This book has also been regarded as wisdom literature because it demonstrated and taught wisdom in relationships.

It celebrates both virtue and fidelity, two qualities which certainly are prominent in wisdom literature. Furthermore, the ascription of this book to Solomon, the father of Israel’s wisdom heritage, argues that this book should be regarded as a wisdom book.[footnote]J E Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), Electronic Edition[/footnote]


V. Thematic Analysis

1. Foundation of Wisdom

Just as the historical books were founded upon the Pentateuch so are the poetic books, and especially the wisdom literature in them.

a. Wisdom begins with the fear of God (see below).

b. Wisdom literature applied general covenant stipulations to particular everyday life situations

c. Wisdom books emphasize obedience to God and penalties for disobeying God.

d. Wisdom books emphasize teaching next generations.

2. The Fear of the Lord

The foundation of the wise life is the fear of the Lord. Bullock highlights three layers of meaning to this term[footnote]C H Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

a. A personal attitude or disposition toward the Lord

This is illustrated by the analogy of one’s fear of the king (Prov.24:21-22). It is the Old Testament’s way of describing the attitude of faith in God. It is a positive and comprehensive description of a right religious attitude towards God.

b. Moral virtue or appropriate behavior

Job feared God and turned away from evil (Job.1:1). The summary of Ecclesiastes is “Fear God and keep his commandments” (Eccl.12:13). Proverbs makes it clear that moral virtue is an essential component in the life of a person who feared God.

c. The knowledge of human frailty and divine strength

A balanced perspective on God and man is essential to the fear of the Lord (Prov.3:5-7).

It would not be inaccurate to say that comprehensively the fear of the Lord is a world view that attempts to synthesize the elements of human life and work. It is an “educational standard” that gives balance to the individual as he relates both to his world and God.[footnote]Ibid., Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

3. Universality

The wisdom books break out from Israel and present God as creator and teacher of all nations.

The problem of suffering, the conscience marred by sin, the transience of human life, and the passionate love of woman and man, to mention only a few of the matters dealt with in these books, cut across national and ethnic lines to include all of the human race.[footnote]C H Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

4. Individualism

As well as universality, the books show an intense interest in the individual.

Wisdom literature took the lowest common denominator of the social order, the individual, and addressed the matter of how he could contribute to social stability. The wisdom teachers, though concerned with the larger social order, recognized the truth that social change sometimes is best brought about by effecting change in the basic unit of society. The potential of man was explored and to a great extent recognized by the wisdom writers. For them, man was a marvelous creature endowed with reason and will and fully responsible for his actions in the world. He was called to personal responsibility, and how he accepted that challenge determined his destiny in life. Therefore, human weaknesses such as laziness, greed, and dissipation of resources had no valid place in the individual’s disposition, for they denied personal responsibility to use fully all human endowments. Wisdom literature called upon man to live up to his potential. It gave him no room to escape responsibility.[footnote]Ibid., Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

5. God is the source of wisdom

“Wisdom” literature points to the divine fount of all wisdom (Job 9:4; 11:6; 12:13; 32:8; Prov.2:6; 8:22–31).

6. Wisdom and the Prophets

As we have seen, Wisdom was based on the Pentateuch and so was not at fundamental variance with the prophets. Faithful wise men and faithful prophets were united in their testimony. Any variance was due to one or other moving away from God’s revelation.

7. Wisdom and the Nations

As Israel’s wisdom literature was quite similar to wisdom literature of of the ancient Near Eastern nations, there was probably an apologetic or an evangelistic aim.

By comparing Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes to the literature of the ancient Near East, we learn a great deal about how the ancient Israelites interacted with the literature and worldview of their neighbors. They were comfortable incorporating materials from other cultures, as long as they eliminated polytheistic elements. As such, the wisdom literature provides a wonderful example of cross-cultural communication of faith. Sometimes the Israelites adapted ancient Near Eastern material with little or no alterations, such as Proverbs and the Egyptian wisdom materials. At other times, the Israelite authors used pagan literature in which they made theological modifications. Other parallels appear to have been so thoroughly changed by Israelite theological alterations as to be hardly recognizable. Wisdom literature touches on all issues that explore the meaning of life in ancient Israel, that exploration was unique in the ancient world, because it had a thoroughly monotheistic perspective. In the Old Testament, the foundation of wisdom is the fear of the Lord expressed in genuine faith (Pr.1:7).[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 291-292.[/footnote]


VI. New Testament Analysis

Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Poetic books. He is the ultimate sufferer (Job), the ultimate object of worship (Psalms), the ultimate perfect life (Proverbs), the ultimate meaning of life (Ecclesiastes), the ultimate love in life (Song of Solomon).
He is the Wisdom of God and it is our greatest wisdom to fear Him and keep His commandments.

VII. The Message of the Poetic Books

Original Message: Jehovah is the fount of all saving and practical wisdom for Israel and the nations.
Present Message: Jesus Christ is the fount of all saving and practical wisdom for the Church and the whole world.

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