Songs, Poetry, Wisdom
Between the historical books and the prophets, we have several books that, in the Jewish Bible, appear in the final “writings” section. In the Tanakh, the “writings” are Job, Proverbs, Psalms, Ruth, Song of Songs, Daniel, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles).(1) In the Christian Old Testament, some of these writings are found among historical writings, and others between 2 Kings and Isaiah.
Here again, we encounter a portion of the Bible that doesn’t at first sight seem to fit with what came before, as I’ll discuss in a moment. These writings are among the beloved portions of the whole Bible.
Job is the well-known story (a long poem framed by short narrative sections) of a righteous man who suffered terribly. He and his friends try to plumb the mysteries of God’s providence.
The Psalms are 150 songs of praise, complaint, lamentation, penitence, and supplication. They were used in the rebuilt Temple and, eventually, in synagogues and churches.
Proverbs is a collection of sayings, many attributed to Solomon, on topics like morality, knowledge, justice, and other issues of right living.
Ecclesiastes is a reflection upon the seasons of life, the difficulties of gaining wisdom, and the ultimate vanity of human striving.
The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is an emotional poem of love and longing between two people.
Some of the writings are connected to Jewish festivals. Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther are known as the Five Scrolls (Hamesh Megillot) and are read in synagogues on Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), Tisha be-Av (anniversary of the destruction of Jerusalem), Sukkah (feast of tabernacles), and Purim, respectively. What enrichment these books bring to the Bible! In Ruth, we find not only a story of family love and loyalty, but also a warm illustration of how God can work through faithful people, including Gentiles like the Moabite Ruth. Esther is a counterpart to Ruth: in Ruth, a Gentile survives within a Jewish majority, while in Esther, a Jew must survive (with more ominous stakes) in a Gentile world.(2) Esther also is a reminder that God’s people the Jews have and will endure as God’s special witnesses.
Ecclesiastes and Job provide a check against any theology that takes a flippantly “sunny” approach to life: as if our walk with God was a victory-to-victory process. Although you wouldn’t want this material to “have the last word,” we need material in the Word of God that, paradoxically, rise the issue of the difficulties of knowing God—and the difficulties of managing the tragedies and pain of life.
Song of Songs can be interpreted as an allegory and as such is beloved by many as a religious paean. As I’ve written in my Bible, though, its interpretations have been many, and reading it as erotic poetry—in the Word of God—is also quite permissible, and anyone who’s been in love can be happy that God so blesses mutual human love, including physical attraction. (In fact, the prophets depicted the relationship between God and Israel in often startling terms that we might feel inappropriate if we were writing the Bible.)
The term “wisdom literature” refers to different biblical material, not only Proverbs but also Ecclesiastes, Job, the Song of Songs, and Psalms such as 1, 19, 37, 49, 73, and others.(4) Wise men and women are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible (Genesis 39:1-6, 41:8-32, 2 Samuel 14:1-20, 16:23, 20:14-22), and King Solomon, of course, the designated author of many of the proverbs, earned a reputation as the wisest man of all (1 Kings 4:29-33).
But wisdom literature has different characteristics compared to previous material in the Old Testament. Here again, we have to think about how this material fits and contrasts with other biblical literature. For instance, as Anderson puts it: “The prophetic themes that dominate the Pentateuch and the prophetic writings—Israel’s election, the Day of Yahweh, the covenant and the Law, the priesthood and the Temple, prophecy and the messianic hope—are dealt with hardly at all.” In fact, wisdom seemed to be criticized in prophetic passages like Jeremiah 8:9 and Isaiah 29:4.(4)
Furthermore, wisdom authors did not address legal and religious obligations (as did the priests of Israel), and usually they did not explicitly communicate God’s own oracles, like the prophets. Only in the Apocrypha’s wisdom books, like Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) and Baruch, do we find more obvious linkage of wisdom with law and covenant. (5)
Wisdom literature, instead, aims to uncover some of the lessons which a wise person would have learned about “life” in general and how life should be lived. Life experiences, rather than the law per se, guide to moral behavior and correct judgments. Remember, for instance, that Job seeks answers to the problem of his suffering in a series of conversations with his friends, since his religious and moral uprightness implies that his suffering is undeserved. Remember, too, that Ecclesiastes reflects on life’s meaning after long reflection on the problems of suffering, human pride, and God’s providence. The Song of Songs, a much happier and more confident book, also reflects the meaning of life as discovered through the experience of God’s creation and human love.
Proverbs is also a confident book. A person’s growth in wisdom and knowledge (compared to the fool who is lazy and unconcerned) is not only recommended, but ordained by God. As The Interpreter’s Bible puts it, “The highest type of family life is extolled; monogamy is taken for granted; the respect for mother and wife is emphasized throughout; chastity and marital fidelity are enjoined for all. The glutton, drunkard, and sluggard, the robber and oppressor of the poor are all roundly condemned. Those who live in accordance with wisdom’s laws are prosperous and happy. A belief in the one true and living God who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked permeates the book from cover to cover.”(6)
I’ve saved the psalms till this point. My professor Brevard Childs notes that, “the psalms function to guide Israel, both as individuals and as a community, in the proper response to God’s previous acts of grace in establishing a bond. The psalmist can praise God, complain of his sufferings, plea for a sign of vindication, but through it all and undergirding his response, lies the confession that life is obtained as a gift from God. His conduct is not seen as a striving after an ideal or toward fixed ethical norms, but a struggle to respond faithfully to what God has first done on Israel’s behalf. The response of the psalmist is so intense and directed so personally to God because the possession or loss of life is measured in terms of his relation to God who both ‘kills and makes alive’. Although the terminology of the Old Testament psalms often differs strikingly from Paul’s the theological understanding of man’s relationship to God as one of sheer grace shares much in common.”(7)
Connections of these writings to the New Testament are many. Just a few:
* Some of the New Testament’s most well known passages allude to (and sometimes directly quote) particular Proverbs. Jesus’ words about the wise man and the foolish man who built their homes on rock and sand echo Proverbs 10:25 and 12:7. Jesus also echoes Proverbs 3:28, 11:4, 11:17, 11:28, 16:19, and 30:8-9 during his Sermon on the Mount. Proverbs 25:21-22 admonishes the wise to take care of one’s enemy rather than retaliate, and the Apostle Paul makes use of the saying in Romans 12:20. Jesus’ maturity (Luke 2:52) echoes Proverbs 3:4 Jesus also alludes to Proverbs 16:1, 18:21, 24:12, 25:6-7, 27:1, 28:24, 29:23 in the course of his teaching (see Matt. 10:19-20, 12:36-37, 16:27, Luke 14:7-11, Luke 12:16-21, Matt. 15:4,6, Luke 14:11 and 18:14b, respectively).(8)
* The Psalms are also frequently referenced in the New Testament: 2, 22, 34, 69, 78, 89, 110, and 118 especially, but also 33, 35, 39, 50, 102, 105, 106, 107, 116, 119, 135, 145, and 147. Several psalm passages are understood to be fulfilled in Jesus: Matt. 13:35 and Ps. 78:3, John 19:24 and Ps. 22:18, John 19:36 and Ps. 34:20, Acts 2:25-35 and Ps. 16:8-11, 132:11, and 110:1.(9) We also find Acts 4:11 and Ps. 118:22, Acts 4:25-26 and Ps. 2:1, Heb. 1:8 and Ps.45:6-7, Heb. 1:10 and Ps. 102:25, and especially Heb. 1:13 and Ps.110:1.(10)
* The blamelessness and suffering of Job and of Christ’s. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, without specifically referencing or alluding to Job, is in harmony with Job’s values and also promises grace to those who suffer.(11)
* As I stated earlier, the traditional, allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs with Christ and his church.
1. As I noted earlier, Jews consider the writings section (Ketuvim) to be of a lesser level of inspiration than the prophets and the Torah. The “writings” section of the Tanakh is: Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.
2. Brettler, pp. 270-271.
3. I developed these thoughts about wisdom and Proverbs in my article, “Practical Wisdom,” Adult Bible Studies, June-July-August 1998 (Nashville: Cokesbury), pages 8-10.
4. Anderson, p. 531-532 (quote on page 531).
5. Childs, Biblical Theology, pages 189-190.
6. The Interpreter’s Bible, volume 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1955), page 777.
7. Childs, Old Testament Theology, pages 209-210.
8. The Interpreter’s Bible, volume 4, pages 777-778.
9. Goldsworthy, page 199. Luke T. Johnson notes how artfully Mark 15:23-27 weaves Psalm verses in his depiction of the crucifixion: Ps. 69:21, Ps. 22:18, Ps. 22:7, Ps. 109:25, Ps. 22:8, Ps. 22:1, Ps. 69:21. The Writings of the New Testament, page 139.
10. The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), pages 672-675.
11. “Job, Theology of,” Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, page 419.