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Wisdom and Poetical Literature Interpreting the Literary Types

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Hebrew Wisdom

The Old Testament (OT) books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are commonly referred to as “wisdom books”, but the Bible contains many others such as Psalms, Song of Solomon, and portions of other books which can also fall under the wisdom category, including the Epistle of James in the NT.

Recognizing Hebrew Wisdom Literature

Wisdom can be briefly defined as the ability to properly use knowledge in order to make godly choices in life (the Hebrew word for wisdom, chokmah is translated “skill for living”).  The quality of our life will be determined primarily by the choices we make.  So, we can recognize wisdom literature in the Old Testament by its primary purpose, to help us live godly lives by making wise choices with regard to moral behavior in our everyday lives.  While it doesn’t discount the theological or historical aspects of its subject (the wisdom writers were well versed in the teachings of Moses and the prophets), it is more focused on the meaning of life, and how to live well on a day-to-day basis in a world that, for the most part, has rejected God.

In contrast to some other genres, the authors of wisdom literature generally recorded their observations and experiences relating to their lives and within God’s Creation and reality.  In addition, like the other literary forms within Scripture, these writings were also produced under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and rooted in historical reality.  The authors typically leave it up to the reader to relate these experiences to the remainder of redemptive history, and to apply the wisdom to our own lives.  Thus, in using poetry, God in interested in challenging our minds, emotions, imagination and will, that is, both our brains and heart.

We can also identify Hebrew wisdom literature by its forms.  The first are proverbs that are usually comprised of brief stories that express practical and meaningful truths via examples, riddles, or other devices.  This type of wisdom writing is often referred to as didactic or proverbial wisdom.  We also find riddles with a spiritual meaning as well as discussions on the challenges and problems of life.  This literature also has a somewhat unique mode of observation, in that the author primarily relies on typical observations of the creation, and everyday ordinary life experiences rather than visions that often employ the supernatural.

The other common type of wisdom literature is reflective wisdom.  We find this type throughout the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.  This type examines the puzzles and mystery of life here on earth, and often employs poetic dialogue.  Reflective wisdom also helps us to see the limits of proverbial wisdom.  The proverbs are not absolute guarantees, but general statements that are true in the majority of cases.  Some of the most common examples of reflective wisdom involves God’s perceived justice (the suffering of the saints, the problem of evil etc).  Yet, it is beyond us to completely understand these issues in this life.

In wisdom literature, references to grand historical and salvific events are typically implied rather than directly proclaimed.  However, we should not take this as being divorced from the spiritual life of God’s people.  On the contrary, the wisdom writers were well versed in the writings of Moses and David, among others, which greatly influenced the interpretations of their everyday experiences.

We can also look for common themes.  One of the most common is “the fear of the Lord”, which is found over 50 times in various forms throughout the Psalms and the wisdom books.  Perhaps the best known verse is The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction (Prv 1:7).  Another common theme is the comparison of human wisdom with Godly wisdom, such as in Job chapters 28, 38 and 39.  Other examples are Psalms 8 and Ec 5:2.  Not classified as Hebrew Wisdom per se, but one of the best treatises on the contrast of human and divine wisdom is written by the Apostle Paul in 1st Corinthians 1:18-2:16.  In interpreting wisdom writings, as with other literary types, always read the snippets of wisdom in context with the overall message.   This is especially critical when reading Job.  The statements from Job's friends reflect the world's wisdom, not Biblical wisdom.  Thus we learn that not all wisdom in Biblical times was godly, and needs to be subjected to the whole of Scripture to achieve the proper end.  The final category can be found throughout the Scriptures, that of the contrast of the wicked with the righteous in their relation to God, and the resulting differences in their ultimate fates (Ps 1:5-6, Ps 37). 

As we’ve seen, in addition to poetry (see “Hebrew Poetry” below), wisdom can also be expressed through narratives, psalms, and proverbs.  Refer to the proper sections for more information regarding these literary types.

See Introduction to the Wisdom Books of the Bible for additional information.

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Hebrew Poetry

Poetry is one of the most frequent literary types found in the Bible, most commonly in Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah and the other prophets.  In fact, the only books in the OT without any poetry are Leviticus, Ruth, Esther, Haggai, and Malachi, although many might contend that First Kings and Nehemiah could also possibly be placed in this category.  The easiest way to recognize poetry (in most modern Bible translations) is to look for “white space” on the page.  Pages containing prose will be filled with text, but lines of poetry are much shorter and appear in broken lines.  In some older translations, we must look for its poetic characteristics.  To see a visual comparison between poetry and prose, there are two locations in the Bible where we have poetry and prose side by side describing the same event, Exodus 14 & 15 and Judges 4 & 5.

The Nature of Hebrew Poetry

In contrast to writing prose, the composer of poetry is less concerned with explicit description or technical accuracy than with creating certain impressions and touching our emotions.  Like other genres found in Scripture, these writings were also produced under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and firmly rooted in reality.  The authors typically leave it up to the reader to relate these experiences to the remainder of redemptive history, and to apply the wisdom to our own lives.  Thus, in using poetry, God in interested in challenging our minds, emotions, imagination and will, that is, both our brains and heart.

Hebrew poetry also differs somewhat from modern English poetry.  While English poetry is usually characterized by meter and rhyme, Hebrew poetry emphasizes other characteristics such as parallelism, rhythm, imagery, and various figures of speech.  We also find use of certain rhetorical devices, in that the text sometimes contains rhyme, alliteration (repetition of initial sounds), puns, similes (a comparison using like or as),paradoxes (a statement that defies common sense, but is nevertheless true), and even sarcastic humor.  Another somewhat common literary pattern is the acrostic poem, in which each line or section begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  The first begins with aleph, the second with beth, the third with gimel, and so on.  The longest and best known acrostic in the Bible is Psalm 119, containing twenty-two stanzas of eight verses for each consecutive Hebrew letter.

The most common of these characteristic found in Hebrew poetry is parallelism.  This parallel structure is the perfect mode for many of the proverbial sayings, particularly Proverbs 10-31.  Specific forms are “Synonymous Parallelism”, in which lines express the same or similar thought in different words (Is 51:11, Lk 6:27-28), “Antithetical Parallelism”, in which the second line contrasts with the first (Prov 10:1, Lk 16:10), “Step Parallelism”, in which the second line advances the thought of the first (Mt 10:40), and “Chiastic Parallelism”, in which two thoughts are repeated in reverse order (Mt 23:12, Mk 8:35).

The language of poetry is usually highly figurative (see Figures of Speech).  This does not mean that it is any less accurate than literal prose.  Figurative language does not impugn the integrity of the Scriptures.  The doctrine of Bible inerrancy is tied to the author's intent, that is, whatever the author intended to convey while under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is completely without error.  Thus, to avoid errors in our interpretation, we must accurately determine the intended meaning of the author.

So, how do we do this?  See the other articles in this Bible Interpretation section for additional principles, but we’ll just mention a few simple rules here.  First, check the context (asking who, what, where, how etc).  Taking statements out of context is the most common Bible interpretation error.  The second most common error is interpreting the text according to incorrect rules of genre (by misapplying the rules or miss-identifying the literary type used by the author).

Now, the Holy Bible is certainly a unique book, requiring illumination by the Holy Spirit for proper understanding, but (and I usually get a few raised eyebrows when I say this), at least with respect to its various literary types, the Holy Scriptures should be interpreted in the same way that we interpret other written or verbal communications.  That is, we interpret literal statements as literal statements, hyperbole as hyperbole, poetry as poetry etc, according to the proper rules of interpretation for each type.  When the writer utilized poetic genre in Scripture, he subjected himself to the rules of poetry (which can also include “poetic license"), and he expected his reader to do the same.  So, in order to determine his original intent, we must interpret his text according to the properties, characteristics and rules of poetry.

We’ve already said that figurative language does not impugn the integrity of the Scriptures, but we can even add that figurative language is actually a requirement for a fuller understanding of our triune God.  Have you ever attempted to describe God literally?  In revealing Himself to us, God (thru the Holy Spirit) utilized every available literary genre, even some language that was not available before.  We find some words and literary types that were not available anywhere else at the time.  It was also commonplace for the early church theologians to invent additional words in their writings in their further development of the Biblical doctrines.  In the third century, for example, there were no words in the Latin (the language of the church) which could describe the Trinity.  Thus, the North African church father Tertullian, coined over 500 new nouns, approximately 300 new adjectives and 200 new verbs in developing the Trinitarian terminology.

So, if we interpret poetry as prose, this will almost always lead to misunderstandings.  For example, going back to Exodus 14, we see a historical account (prose) of the forces of Pharaoh “drowning” in the Red Sea, but the poetic song in Exodus 15 says they were “consumed like stubble”.  If we interpret Exodus 15:7 literally, rather than metaphorically as it was written, we would create a contradiction.  When interpreted as poetry ("consumed like stubble” is a common metaphor for God's judgment), we are consistent with the historical account.  This interpretation does not impugn the integrity of the Scriptures.  The doctrine of Bible inerrancy is tied to the author's intent.  The writer subjected himself to the rules of poetry (including “poetic license") and expected the reader to do the same, so we are interpreting in accordance with the author’s intent.

Poetry is a very compressed language.  The use of figurative language also allows the author to portray a fairly complete picture of a very complex subject (such as God) with only a few words.  For example, we can describe an aspect of God’s relationship to us by saying “The LORD is my shepherd” (Ps 23:1).  To paint the same picture using prose language would probably require hundreds of words.  Prose is typically used to express facts, while poetry paints a picture.  To illustrate, we can use this same psalm.  The prose version would read something like “The Lord comforts and protects me”.  Yet with poetry, we get a fuller picture, The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside still waters.  He restores my soul.  He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me (Ps 23:1-4, ESV).  For this reason, poetry should not be read lightly or in haste.  We can sometimes read quickly thru a literal narrative, but not with figurative language.  We should unpack the full meaning and thoughtfully contemplate the author’s intended message.

The original Hebrew poems often contained different types of plays on various word forms and sounds.  One of the better known techniques is the acrostic, beginning each verse, line, or stanza with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Ps 9, 10, 111, 112,119; Prov 31:10-31; Lam 1-4).  Unfortunately, these powerful literary devices can’t be fully represented in English and other translations.

We’ve seen that Biblical poetry, as used in wisdom literature, has many applications such as worship (often accompanied by music), instruction, and education.  It stimulates not only the intellect, but the heart.  One final primary reason for the abundant use of poetry is as a memory aid.  We know from personal experience that song lyrics are some of the easiest data to memorize.  This is due to its rhythmic nature.   I can still recall lyrics from songs that I haven't heard for years, yet often can't recall normal conversations from the past few days.  To give a specific example, most of us learned our ABCs by a familiar jingle.

In addition to the rhythm, the word-pictures illustrated by poetry also aid in recollection.  We often remember a speaker's illustration or story long after we've forgotten much of the other narratives.  It may be very difficult for the younger generations to believe, but the Israelites did not possess personal electronic devices back then.  A person could not post quotes from their cell phone to the internet and have them available around the globe within seconds.  In order to later communicate the narratives to their friends, those in the audience actually had to use their own memory, so the speaker would heavily utilize poetry in order to help the listener retain more of the divine message.  As an example, which is more likely to capture your attention, “You will have joy and peace when you follow God, which will cause you to celebrate”, or “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands”? (Is 55:12, ESV).

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