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Introduction to the OT Books of Wisdom and Poetry

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General Info

In the Old Testament (OT), the Books of the Law, or Books of Moses (Genesis - Deuteronomy) give us a narrative of God’s interaction with humanity from Creation to the period just before His chosen people’s entry into the Promised Land of Israel (~1405 BC).  Then, the historical books (Joshua -  Esther) carry forth the narrative through the conquest of Canaan, the formation of the Israeli Monarchy, the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, their fall due to disobedience to the covenants, their exile to Assyria and Babylon, and finally to the restoration of the people in Judah (~1405 - ~400BC).  After that, we encounter five books, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs (aka Songs of Solomon) that are commonly referred to as the Wisdom Books or Poetic Books of the OT. 

Technically, with respect to genre, the books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes are classified as “Wisdom Books”, and the books of the Psalms and Song of Songs are typically classified as “Poetic Books”.  That said, the “Poetic Books” contain a fair amount of wisdom and the “Wisdom Books” are written primarily in Hebrew Poetry.  As we've noted for other Bible books and sections, in comparing our modern canons with the Hebrew canons and scrolls, we find many books arranged in different categories and sequence, and the Wisdom Books are no exception.  In the typical English canons, we find our five books in a section called the “Poetic Books”, sandwiched between the Historic and the Books of the Major Prophets.  In the Tanakh (OT Hebrew Bible), made up of the Torah (Books of the Law), the Neviim (the Prophets), and the Ketuvim (the Writings), our five Wisdom / Poetic books are located in the Writings along with Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah and the Chronicles.

In the Hebrew Bible Canon, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel (along with the twelve minor prophets) are grouped into a section called the Nevi’im Aharonim, or the “Latter Prophets” (the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings make up the Nevi’im Rishonim section, or “Former Prophets”).  While the latter prophets also deal with portions of Israel’s history, including details surrounding their actions, visions, circumstances surrounding their received messages etc, the heavier emphasis is generally on the prophetic aspects.  The books of Daniel and Lamentations are located in the section of the Hebrew Canon known as the Ketuvim, or “Writings”.  With regard to the sixteen scrolls that make up the Tanakh, Psalms takes up Scroll 10, Proverbs Scroll 11, and Job Scroll 12.  Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes resides on Scroll 13 along with Ruth, Lamentations, and Esther, so Scroll 13 is often called the “Five Megillot” (megillot is the Hebrew word for “scroll”).  Each of the books in the Megilloth is associated with a Jewish festival.  Song of Solomon is associated with Passover, and Ecclesiastes with the Festival of Weeks.

The books of wisdom and poetry (Job—Song of Songs) make a distinctive contribution to the canon of Scripture.  The books of law and history (Genesis—Esther) present a narrative of God’s interaction in Israel’s past and express God’s will to his people in the form of commands. The prophets (Isaiah—Malachi) boldly speak in the name of God. In comparison, the books of wisdom and poetry have a more experiential tone. In these books, humans express their joyful and troubled prayers to God (Psalms), offer wise advice for healthy living (Proverbs), struggle with the apparent unfairness of life (Job and Ecclesiastes), and celebrate God’s creation of male and female (Song of Songs).  Though these books are presented more from a human perspective than other parts of Scripture, God’s message remains clear and authoritative.

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Historical Background and Timeline

The Books of Wisdom / Poetry were written such that, their instructions and examples may be followed regardless of the era in which they are read.  Yet, each book is firmly rooted in history.  Unlike other religions that are based on someone’s philosophy and teachings, the Judeo-Christian faith in based on the True God’s revelation to us.  That said, we have very little extra-biblical historical writings or archeological evidence that would document exactly how the scribal class of Hebrew poets came to be.  Most of the available evidence comes from the books themselves.  It is obvious from their writings that the scribal poets were highly literate and educated, but we can only speculate as to their origins and development.

The OT books of poetry and wisdom are set throughout the history of Israel from the time of Abraham (around 2200 BC) to the end of the OT period, several hundred years before Christ (around 400 BC).  The events in the book of Job could be some of the oldest in the Bible.  Some argue for a later date, but the many references to the flood (~2350 BC) using concise language of those who likely had personal knowledge of the cataclysmic event leads us to believe that Job and his friends may have been living during the lifetime of Noah and his sons.  After the flood, Noah lived an additional 350 years and his son Shem just over 500 years (Shem also outlived Abraham).

The book of Psalms contains writings from as early as the time of Moses (Ps 90 - 15th Century BC) and as late as the postexilic period, perhaps even as late as the last books of the OT (Pss 126, 137 - 5th or 4th Century BC).  The largest group of psalms was written by King David, who reigned over the united kingdom of Israel from 1004 to 971 BC.  Approximately 50 Psalms were written by anonymous authors.

As for Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, their superscriptions all associate them with Solomon, the son of David and third king of Israel (971–931 BC), with the exceptions of Proverbs 25–29, that was written during Solomon’s reign but compiled during the reign of King Hezekiah (728–686 BC).  For more about the date and composition of each book, see the introduction to the individual books.

~ 2350 BC Noah and the Flood
~ 2250 BC Tower of Babel
~ 2200 BC Possible approximate time of the Events of the Book of Job
~ 2166 BC Birth of Abraham
~ 1525 BC Birth of Moses
~ 1446-1407 BC Israelites wander in the desert and camp at Plains of Moab;  Possible location of Moses composing the Books of the Law and Psalm 90
~ 1406 BC (1) Death of Moses
~ 1040 BC Birth of King David
~ 1020-974 BC David writes his approximately 75 Psalms
~ 1011-971 BC Asaph (David’s worship leader) wrote 12 songs;  the Sons of Korah wrote their 11 Psalms plus Psalm 88 with Heman
1011 BC David becomes King of Judah
1004 BC David becomes King of United Israel and Judah
971 BC Solomon becomes King of United Israel and Judah
971-931 BC Solomon writes his two Psalms, the Book of Proverbs, Song of Songs (aka Song of Solomon), and in his old age, the Book of Ecclesiastes
971-931 BC Ethan the Ezralite wrote Psalm 89 during the reign of Solomon
931 BC Division of the Northern (Israel) and Southern (Judah) Kingdoms
~728-686 BC Hezekiah King of Judah compiled a number of Proverbs written during Solomon’s reign (Proverbs 25-29)
722 BC Israel Conquered and Exiled by Assyrians
612 BC The Babylonians (Chaldeans) Conquer and Destroy Nineveh (Assyrians)
586 BC Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, Exile of much of the Population, Judean King Jehoiachin Imprisoned
539 BC Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) Captures Babylon and Establishes Persian Empire
538 BC First Return of Exiled Jews to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel
~516 BC Rebuilding of the Temple Completed
~515 BC Last of the post-exilic Psalms written (anonymous)
~430 BC Writing of the Last Books of OT - Possibly assembled by Ezra

(1) The date of Moses’ death is based upon 1 Kings 6:1, which records that Solomon began to build the temple 480 years after the exodus from Egypt.  Extra-biblical records indicate that the temple building began about 966 BC, placing the exodus about 1446BC, and the death of Moses 40 years later, or about 1406 BC.  Many scholars believe that the “480 years” is symbolic, placing the exodus in the early 1200s BC.  Most conservatives (including ourselves) favor the earlier date.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

We could begin by asking the basic question, “What is wisdom?”  It is certainly related to knowledge, but knowledge alone will not make us wise.  A simple definition might be “the skill or ability to make good judgments based on past experience”, or “the skill or ability to  apply knowledge and experience to specific occasions in order to successfully navigate life” (the Hebrew word for wisdom, chokmah is translated “skill for living”).  Mere knowledge is of little benefit without the skill of proper application.  As Christians, we must place this skill within the framework of God’s created order, His Word, and His sovereign will for our lives.  We can only have confidence in logic, because we know that our Creator God is a god of logic and order.  Thus, a primary purpose of the wisdom / poetic books is to provide skills to glorify God in all aspects of our lives.

The most common theological theme running throughout these books is that of “the fear of the Lord”.  This phrase (or similar) appears several dozen times throughout these books.  There is also the frequent comparison between Godly wisdom and human wisdom (eg Job 38-39).  We also find this theme in the New Testament (1Cor 1:18-2:16).  Another common theme contemplates the apparent fates of the righteous versus the wicked in relation to God.  Why do the righteous seem to suffer while the wicked appear to flourish.  This is addressed in Psalms 37 and 73.  The theme of Creation is also prevalent in these books, particularly in Job and the Psalms.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

The biggest challenge to interpreting and understanding the Wisdom and Poetic books is to understand the literary type or genre of the writings themselves.  Hebrew poetry is much different than our modern English poetry. English poetry is based upon Greek and Latin type poetry, typically using rhyme and metering.  On the other hand, Hebrew poetry is distinguished by highly figurative language, with liberal usage of certain techniques such as parallelism, rhythm, imagery, and various figures of speech.  We further elaborate on the characteristics and interpretation of Hebrew poetry in our Wisdom and Poetical chapter of our Biblical Genre section.

We should also recognize the different perspectives and goals of each author.  For example, the Book of Proverbs deals primarily with the general principles of right and wrong as they apply to life in general, such as why the righteous will prosper but the wicked will perish.  The books of Job and Ecclesiastes however, often looks at the exceptions to these general principles, so they tend to focus on the exception, that the righteous sometimes have difficulties and suffering while the wicked appear to enjoy peace and prosperity.  Since we are dealing with general principles, the two different approaches do not produce a contradiction in outcomes, but give us a fuller picture of the subject.

Reading the Wisdom Books for the First Time

With reading most of the books of the Bible for the first time, the simplest method is usually the best,  Simply start with the first chapter and read through to the last.  When reading the Wisdom books for the first time, this method can sometimes be confusing due to the makeup, literary genre, and other factors.  Thus, we recommend the following reading methods.  Job:  Read chapters 1 and 2, and skip to chapters 38-42, before reading the long dialogs between Job and his friends in chapters 3-37.  Psalms and Proverbs:  These two books may be read straight through in order due to the arrangement of the individual Psalms and the makeup of the Proverbs.  Song of Songs:  This collection of poems can be read in order, but note that not all are in chronological order.  Ecclesiastes:  Read the last two chapters (10 and 11) first, then go back and start with chapter 1.

See the various introductions to each of the individual Wisdom / Poetic books for additional commentary specific to each book.

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