Books of Wisdom and Poetry

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The Books of Wisdom and Poetry, Job through Song of Songs, make up the section of the Christian Bible that follows the Pentateuch and the Historical Books. The exciting narratives of the Pentateuch and the Historical Books tell the story of the people of Israel from the creation of the world to their settlement in the land of Canaan, their defeat by foreign nations, and their return from exile in Babylonia. The Books of Wisdom and Poetry are a completely different type of literature from these narratives (see the article called “Different Kinds of Literature in the Bible”). The books in this section include excellent examples of Hebrew poetry, characterized by repetition of words and phrases (parallelism) and by patterns of rhythm. While some of these books fall into the category of “wisdom” writings (like Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs), the others are collections of love poems (Song of Songs) or worship prayers and songs (Psalms).

Books of Wisdom. The Wisdom writings explore important questions about life and give advice for practical living, especially in community with others. But these writings make it clear that true wisdom is a gift that “comes from the LORD,” who gives helpful advice to everyone who obeys God’s Law. These verses summarize two important understandings of wisdom found in the Hebrew Scriptures. First, true wisdom comes from God (Prov 2:6,7). Second, God offers wisdom and guidance for daily life (Prov 6:23). The writer of Psalm 1 puts it this way:

God blesses those people
    who refuse evil advice
    and won’t follow sinners
    or join in sneering at God.
Instead, the Law of the LORD
    makes them happy,
and they think about it
    day and night.
            (Ps 1.1,2)

The story of Job focuses on the question, “Why do innocent people suffer?” Job is a faithful man who must struggle with the loss of his family, his home, and his wealth. In his sadness and despair he cries out for answers, and God responds. Ecclesiastes focuses on the question of finding meaning in life. The writer asks why human beings must work and wonders about the real source of happiness. The final verses of the book return to a common theme of the Wisdom writings: “Respect and obey God! This is what life is all about” (Eccl 12:13).

Proverbs celebrates human wisdom and the wisdom that comes from God’s Law as the way to a happy and prosperous life. The book is filled with wise sayings and common sense advice on issues of everyday life, like honesty (11:1-3), hard work (12:24), humility (15:33; 16:18-19), and generosity (3:27-28). Some of these sayings are said to come from King Solomon (Prov 1:1; 10:1), but others are words of people from other nations (Prov 30:1; 31:1). While some proverbs may come from the time of Solomon, the collection called Proverbs likely includes wisdom sayings from as many as five centuries later.

Books of Poetry. Although many of the books in the Old Testament include sections of poetry, two books in this section are written entirely in poetic form. Song of Songs is a beautiful example of Hebrew poetry. It was originally written as a love poem to describe the joy and extreme happiness of two people in love. But it has also been understood in some Jewish traditions as a description of God’s love for Israel, and in some Christian traditions as a description of Christ’s  love for the Church.

Psalms is named after the Greek word psalmos, which means “song.” The songs and prayers found in this book were used by the Hebrew people to express their relationship with God. They cover a whole range of human emotions from joy to anger, and from hope to despair. Some include supertitles claiming they were written by David, but others were written by different poets over a period of centuries. Many of the psalms were written for use in group (communal) worship, while others were likely written as private prayers but also were used in worship. Psalms includes songs of praise to God the Creator; songs of sorrow and anger; prayers of confession; prayers of thanksgiving; hymns to celebrate the crowning of kings; and prayers celebrating God’s Law and Wisdom.

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