Poetry and Wisdom
The poetical and wisdom section of the OT is contained in just three books but forms a very important and much loved part of Scripture. Whereas the seventeen books that precede this section are historical and are mainly concerned with a nation, the Hebrew race, these five poetical books are experiential, personal to the individual, for they are to do with the human heart.
Hebrew poetry, so characteristic of the wisdom literature of the OT, i.e. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, is unlike English poetry which emphasises rhyme and meter. Hebrew poetry relies on other characteristics for its impact. Parallelism is the chief characteristic of biblical poetry, but it has other features that distinguish it from the typical prose or narrative found in the rest of Scripture. First, there a relatively greater conciseness or terseness of form, and second there is a greater use of certain types of rhetorical devices. These are parallelism, rhythm, a rich use of imagery and figures of speech.
There are three kinds of poetry:
- Lyric poetry, which was originally accompanied by music on the lyre – the Psalms.
- Didactic poetry which, using maxims, was designed to communicate basic principles of life – Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
- Dramatic poetry, which used dialog to communicate its message – Job and the Song of Solomon.
Set probably in the time of the Hebrew Patriarchs, the Book of Job derives its name from its chief character, who experiences extreme suffering through the loss of wealth, family and health, and struggles with the question of why? The book is a vindication of God’s goodness, justice and sovereign character in the face of the existence of suffering and evil. The book wrestles with the age-old question: Why do righteous men suffer, if God is a God of love and mercy? It clearly teaches the sovereignty of God and the need for man to acknowledge such. Job’s three friends gave essentially the same answer: All suffering is due to sin. Elihu, however, declared that suffering is often the means of purifying the righteous. God’s purpose, therefore, was to strip away all of Job’s self-righteousness and to bring him to the place of complete trust in him.
The Book of Psalms is not only the largest book of the Bible, but it perhaps the most widely used book in Scripture because of the way it speaks to the human heart in all the experiences in life. Again and again sighing is turned into singing through prayer and praise. For the most part, although the texts of the psalms do not designate their authors, the titles do often indicate the author of the various psalms. Almost half were written by King David.
It is recorded that King Solomon wrote over 3,000 Proverbs, although not all of those appearing in the biblical book of that name are accredited to him as King Hezekiah’s team of scribes collected a number of them as well as two being listed as written by Agur and Lemuel.
As a book of wisdom, Proverbs is not an historical book but rather the product of the school of wisdom in Israel. Solomon’s proverbs were written before his death in 931BC, and those collected by Hezekiah’s scribes probably around 700BC.
As suggested by the title and the meaning of the term proverb, the theme and purpose of the book is wisdom for living through special instruction on every conceivable issue of life: folly, sin, goodness, wealth, poverty, the tongue, pride, humility, justice, family, i.e. parents, children and discipline, vengeance, strife, gluttony, love, laziness, friends, life, and death. No book is more practical in terms of wisdom for daily living than Proverbs.
The fundamental theme is ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’. The absence of a fear of God leads to an unbridled and foolish life. To fear the Lord is to stand in awe of his holy character and power. At the same time, Proverbs shows that true wisdom leads to the fear of the Lord.
There are two lines of evidence, external and internal, that point to Solomon as the author of Ecclesiastes. For the external evidence, the Jewish tradition attributes the book to Solomon. Internally, a number of lines of evidence show that Solomon was surely the author. First, the author identifies himself as ‘the son of David, king in Jerusalem’. Then, references in the book to the author’s unrivaled wisdom, extreme wealth, opportunities for pleasure, and extensive building activities all suggest Solomon as the author. There is simply no other descendant of David who measured up to these descriptions.
The basic theme is the futility of life apart from God. In the development of this theme, four key purposes emerge:
- Life without God has no meaning.
- Life cannot be fully understood.
- It presents a realistic view of life that counterbalances the optimism of Proverbs.
- Man, left to his own strategies, will always find life empty.
Song of Solomon
Although some critics reject King Solomon as the author and take 1:1 to mean, ‘which is about Solomon’, the internal evidence supports the traditional belief that Solomon is its author. The contents of the book agree with all that is known about the abilities and wisdom of Solomon, and there is no compelling reason not to regard him as the author.
The Song of Solomon is a love song filled with metaphors and imagery designed to portray God’s view of love and marriage: the beauty of physical love between man and woman. The book which is presented as a drama with several scenes, has three major players: the bride – Shulamite, the king – Solomon, and a chorus – daughters of Jerusalem. The purpose of the book will depend on the viewpoint taken as to the way the book should be interpreted.