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Wisdom and Poetical Literature

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Hebrew Wisdom

The OT books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are commonly referred to as "wisdom books", but the Bible contains many 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.  Wisdom can be briefly defined as the ability to properly use knowledge in order to make godly choices in life.  The quality of our life will be determined primarily by the choices we make.  One of the primary purposes of Biblical wisdom literature is to help the reader make wise choices.

In interpreting wisdom writings, 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 is godly, and needs to be subjected to the whole of Scripture to achieve the proper end.

Wisdom can be expressed through narratives, poetry, 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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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.  The easiest way to recognize poetry (in most modern Bible translations) is to look for "white space".  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.  This is not to say that the poetical writings were not based on real events, experiences or visions.  Like the other literary forms within Scripture, these writings were also produced under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and rooted in historical reality rather than human imagination.

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.

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.  A common form found in poetry is parallelism.  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), but 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.

The use of figurative language also allows the author to portray a very complete picture of a very complex subject (such as God) with only a few words.  For example, he 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.  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 was 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 conversations from the past few days.  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 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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