Lesson Four – Poetry

LESSON 4

POETRY

INTRODUCTION

This section includes the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon.

In a short study like this we cannot cover all the characteristics of Hebrew poetry except to say the in Hebrew poetry, thoughts and ideas rhyme rather than words.

  1. THE BOOK OF JOB

“Job” is the story, written in poetry, of a man who lived during the time of the patriarchs, although it may have been written much later by an unknown inspired Israelite author who had access to oral and written sources.

The prologue of first chapter gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the reason why Job went through terrible loss and physical suffering. God drew Satan’s attention to Job, that he was a godly man. Satan retorted that he only followed the Lord because God blessed and protected him. ‘Okay,’ said God, ‘you can touch his possessions but not his body.’

Satan caused Job to be stripped of all his wealth and even his children but Job refused to curse God. A second challenge brought physical suffering and even his wife’s contempt but Job still refused to give up on God.

His three friends came to sympathise with him but ended up accusing him of some hidden wickedness that brought God’s judgment on him. Job denied that he had done anything wrong and accused God of being unjust.

The book examines, in a series of dialogues between Job and his three friends, the question of God’s justice in the face of human suffering and particularly the suffering of the innocent. There are three possible assumptions: 1) that God is not almighty; 2) that God is not just or 3) that man may be innocent.

These three assumptions are fundamental to the theology of Job and his three friends. The conclusion they came to, logically, was that every person’s suffering indicated the measure of his guilt in the eyes of God. This may have been a logical solution but it did not fit human experience.

There was third party involved whom Job and his friends had not included in the equation – the adversary, the devil. This was the source of Job’s problem; he knew he was innocent of any great wrong, in spite of the accusation of his friends, and he could not, therefore understand the reason for his suffering.

“In the story of Job, the author portrays the adversary in his boldest and most radical assault on God and the godly man in the special and intimate relationship that is dearest to them both. When God calls up the name of Job before the accuser and testifies to the righteousness of this one on earth – this man in whom God delights – Satan attempts with one crafty thrust both to assail God’s beloved and to show God up as a fool. True to one of his modes of operation, he accuses Job before God. He charges that Job’s godliness is evil. The very godliness in which God takes delight is void of all integrity; it is the worst of all sins. Job’s godliness is self-serving; he is righteous only because it pays. If God will only let Satan tempt Job by breaking the link between righteousness and blessing, he will expose the righteous man for the sinner he is.

“It is the adversary’s ultimate challenge. For, if the godliness of the righteous man in whom God delights can be shown to be the worst of all sins, then a chasm of alienation stand between them that cannot be bridged. Then even redemption is unthinkable, for the godliest of men will be shown to be the most ungodly. God’s whole enterprise in creation and redemption will be shown to be radically flawed and God can only sweep it all away in awful judgment.

“The accusation, once raised, cannot be removed, not even by destroying the accuser. So God lets the adversary have his way with Job (within specified limits) so that God and the righteous Job may be vindicated and the great accuser silenced. Thus comes the anguish of Job, robbed of every sign of God’s favour so that God becomes for him, a great enigma. Also his righteousness is assailed on earth through the logic of the “orthodox” theology of his friends. Alone he agonises. But he knows in his heart that his godliness has been authentic and that someday he will be vindicated (13:18; 14:13-17; 16:19; 19:25-27). And in spite of all, though he may curse the day of his birth (Ch. 3) and chide God for treating him unjustly (9:28-35) – the uncalculated outcry of a distraught spirit – he will not curse God (as his wife, the human nearest his heart, proposes; see 2:9). In fact, what pains him most is God’s apparent alienation from him.

“In the end the adversary is silenced. And the astute theologians, Job’s friends, are silenced. And Job is silenced. But God is not. And when He speaks, it is to Job that He speaks, bringing the silence of regret for hasty speech in the days of suffering and silence of repose in the ways of the Almighty (see 38:1-42:6). Furthermore, as his heavenly friend, God hears Job’s intercession for his associates (42:8-10) and He returns Job’s beatitude (42:10-17).” (NIV Study Bible, page 732).

  1. PSALMS

The book of Psalms is a collection of collections and is the final stage of a process that took centuries to complete. It was probably completed and in its present form in the third century BC. It served as the prayer book – a book of prayer, praise and religious instruction — for the second temple, (rebuilt by Zerubbabel after the Babylonian exile and renovated by Herod in the first century BC) and for use in the synagogues.

The book of Psalms is divided into five Books (psalms 1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-150). Yet, in spite of the divisions, it was clearly thought of as a whole, with an introduction (Psalms 1 and 2) and a conclusion (Psalm 146-150).

Most of the psalms, except for 34 (only 17 in the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Old Testament) which have no superscriptions, either give us the name of the author or some detail about the psalm. Some of the psalms are attributed to David and others were written about him.

The psalms or songs cover a wide variety of categories; the main types being:

  1. Prayers for the individual e.g. Ps 3:7-8
  2. Praise from the individual for God’s saving help e.g. Ps 30; 34
  3. Prayers of the community e.g. Ps 12; 44; 79
  4. Praise from the community for God’s saving help e.g. Ps 66; 75
  5. Confessions of confidence in the Lord e.g. Ps 11; 16; 52
  6. Hymns in praise of Gods’ majesty and virtues e.g. Ps 8; 19; 29; 65
  7. Hymns celebrating God’s universal reign e.g. Ps 47; 93-99
  8. Songs of Zion, the city of God e.g. Ps 46; 48; 76; 84; 122; 126; 129; 137
  9. Royal psalms – by, for, or concerning the king, the Lord’s anointed e.g. Ps 2; 18; 20; 45; 72; 89; 110
  10. Pilgrimage songs e.g. Ps 120-134
  11. Liturgical songs e.g. Ps 15;24;68
  12. Didactic (teaching songs) e.g. 1; 34; 37; 73; 112; 119; 128; 133.

The book of Psalms is for the most part a book of prayer and praise. It speaks to God in prayer and it speaks of God in praise and also in professions of faith and trust. All the psalms are written in Hebrew poetry which lacks rhyme and regular metre. Instead its most distinctive feature is parallelism. Most poetic lines are composed of two and sometimes three segments, the second segment commonly shorter than the first. The second segment either echoes (synonymous parallelism), contrasts (antithetic parallelism), or completes the first segment (synthetic parallelism).

Much of Old Testament prophecy was also written in poetry.

  1. PROVERBS

The Jews sometimes speak of the Old Testament as the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. Proverbs belongs to the “Writings”. Proverbs is part of what is called wisdom literature together with Job, and Ecclesiastes.

These wisdom books were associated with a class of people called “wise men” or “sages” who were an important force in Israel together with prophets and priests. They were called on to give advice to kings and to instruct the young. They were concerned with the practical and philosophical aspects of life. Some of their writings, like Proverbs, were optimistic and others, like Job and Ecclesiastes, were more pessimistic as they wrestled with difficult problems like the problem of evil and the prosperity of the wicked.

Proverbs was written “to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and direction to the young” (1:4), and to make wise men wiser (1:5). Wisdom is based on the fear of the Lord (1:7). In the book, reverence for God is set forth as the path to life and security.

Proverbs encourages diligence and hard work and holds up the sluggard to contempt for his laziness. Honesty and justice are praised and those who are kind to the needy will be blessed. The proud and arrogant are sure to be destroyed, especially the mocker. Drunkards are despised as the epitome of the fool and their woes and miseries are graphically described (23:29-35).

“Although Proverbs is more practical than theological, God’s work as Creator is especially highlighted. The role of wisdom in creation is the subject of 8:22-31, where wisdom as an attribute of God is personified. Twice God is called the Maker of the poor (14:31; 17:25), He also directs the steps of man (16:9; 20:24), and His eyes observe all his actions (5:21; 15:3). God is sovereign over the kings of the earth (21:1), and all history moves forward under His control (16:4, 33). (NIV Study Bible, page 944).

The book is divided into well-defined units. A short prologue opens the book (1:1-7), which states the purpose and theme, and a longer epilogue closes it. The first nine chapters are addressed to “my son”. Chapters 10-22:16 form the main collection of Solomon’s proverbs, Chapter 22:17-24:22 constitute the “thirty sayings of the wise” and 24:23-34 “further sayings of the wise.”

The second collection of Solomon’s proverbs (25-29) continues the pattern of two-line verses as are found in the first section.  The last two chapters form an appendix to chapters 25-29, and Proverbs concludes with an epilogue on the noble wife who epitomises the practical wisdom extolled throughout the book.

  1. ECCLESIASTES

Although the author’s name is not found in the book, there are several passages that point to Solomon as the author. (1:1; 12; 16; 2:4-9).

The writer takes stock of the world as he is experiencing it between life and death. The world is full of puzzles; the greatest of these is man himself. From the perspective of his own understanding the Teacher measures man and examines his capabilities. He explores human wisdom, human achievements, and even human pleasure but nothing has meaning outside of God.

Life is transient (a vapour) and everything man does has no meaning in and of itself. It is like chasing after the wind. “But faith teaches him that God has ordered all things according to His own purposes (3:1-15; 5:19; 6:1-2; 9:1) and that man’s role is to accept these, including his own limitations, as God’s appointments. Man, therefore, should be patient and enjoy life as God gives it. He should know his own limitations and not vex himself with unrealistic expectations. He should be prudent in everything, living carefully before God and the king and, above all, fearing God and keeping His commandments. (12:13)” (NIV Study Bible, page 991).

  1. SONG OF SOLOMON

Solomon is undoubtedly the author of this song. His name appears in the Hebrew title, and in 1:1, 5; 3:7, 9, 11; 8:11-12, and several verses speak of “the king”, (1:4, 12; 7:5).

Biblical scholars have tried to interpret this poem from different perspectives; prophetic, wisdom, apocalyptic (revelation about the end times), and some have even seen it as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and His church.

In ancient Israel, however, abstract ideas like reverence, gratitude, anger, sorrow, suffering, trust, friendship, commitment, loyalty, hope wisdom, moral courage and repentance were expressed in words relating to experience and the senses.

“In the Song, it is love that finds words – inspired words that disclose its exquisite charm and beauty as one of God’s choicest gifts. The voice of love in the Song, like that of wisdom in Proverbs 8:1-9, 12, is a woman’s voice, suggesting that love and wisdom draw men powerfully with the subtlety and mystery of a woman’s allurements.

“This feminine voice speaks profoundly of love. She portrays its beauty and delights. She claims is exclusiveness (“My love is mine and I am his,” 2:6) and insists on the necessity of its pure spontaneity (“Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires,” 2:7). She also proclaims its overwhelming power – it rivals that of the fearsome enemy, death; it burns with the intensity of a blazing fire; it is unquenchable even by the ocean depths (8:6-7a). All a man’s possessions cannot purchase it, nor (alternatively) should they be exchanged for it (8:7b). She hints, without saying so explicitly, that it is gift of the Lord to man.

“God intends that such love – grossly distorted and abused by both ancient and modern people – be a normal part of marital life in His good creation (see Genesis 1:26-31; 2:24).” (NIV Study Bible, page 1003/4)

How legitimate is it for a poem like this to be included in Holy Scripture? In the Hebrew mind there was no such thing as sacred and secular. God was to be in the centre of all of life including sensual love, legitimately experienced and expressed. It is fitting that this aspect of human experience be included in the revelation of God and His ways to human beings because it was God, after all, not the devil, who created and sanctions marriage and sexual experience. It was His way of illustrating the unity He desires us to experience as an expression of the unity in the Godhead.

Scripture taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Have you read my new book, Learning to be a Son – The Way to the Father’s Heart (copyright 2015, Partridge Publishing)? You’ll love it!

Available on http://www.amazon.com in paperback, e-book or kindle version or order directly from the publisher at http://www.partridgepublishing.com.

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