Introduction to Poetic Wisdom
"How much better it is to get wisdom than gold!
And to get understanding is to be chosen above silver"
A. The Poetic/Wisdom Books
The five books known as the Poetic Books are found in the third division of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible has these three divisions:
(1) The Torah or Law (the Pentateuch)
(2) The Prophets
a. Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings)
b. Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Minor Prophets)
(3) The Writings (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel, Lamentations, Chronicles)
In Greek these books are called Hagiographa or the "sacred writings". They are called the Poetic books because of the poetic nature of much of their contents. Ecclesiastes, however, is not strictly speaking poetic in nature.
The Latin Vulgate put Job at the head of the list because of the belief that it had been written first. The Psalms came next, because the majority of which had been written by David. The last three books follow the Psalms because of their association with David's son Solomon. [Be it noted, of course, that the present order of the books of the Bible is not necessarily the result of divine inspiration. Inspiration applies on to their content.]
Of the five Poetic books, three are also called the wisdom literature of the OT: Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes.
* Students of the OT have generally identified two main types of wisdom writings: (1) Proverbial wisdom, which consists of short, pithy statements that set forth rules and principles for successful and happy living; these maxims are designed to condense the wisdom of experience and offer specific observations and insights on the most effective way to live life. The book of Proverbs obviously fits here. (2) Contemplative or Speculative wisdom usually consists of monologues, dialogues, or essays that address the problems and mysteries of human existence such as suffering, the meaning of life and death, and issues of justice. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes are excellent examples of this form of wisdom literature.
* It is important to remember that "wisdom" as a literary and theological form is found throughout the OT, not just in those books which we will study in this course. See the appended chart from Berry which lists other wisdom texts in the OT.
B. The Concept of Wisdom in the ancient world
As Bullock has pointed out, "Biblical wisdom was a dynamic in ancient Israel that operated in three dimensions: the personal, universal, and literary" (An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books [Moody Press, 1988], 22). We will examine each of these in turn.
(1) Wisdom as a Personal Dynamic
A survey of the uses of the noun "wisdom" (hochmah) in the OT, as well as the adjective "wise" (hacham) reveals that they were often used to refer to practical arts and skills. These terms were applied to the artisans who designed and constructed the Tabernacle (Exod. 35:30-36:1), the craftsmen who made Aaron's priestly garments (Exod. 28:3), and the women weavers (Exod. 35:25-26). It is said of Bezalel and Oholiab that the Lord "filled them with skill [lit., hochmah of heart] to perform every work of an engraver and of a designer and of an embroiderer" (Exod. 35:35). Furthermore, goldsmiths (Jer. 10:9), magicians and soothsayers (Gen. 41:8; Isa. 44:25), sailors (Ps. 107:27; Ezek. 27:8), women who mourned (Jer. 9:17), as well as military strategists and politicians (Isa. 10:13; 29:14; Jer. 49:7) are all said to perform their tasks because of "wisdom". Even music is attributed to this "skill" (1 Kings 4:32).
Wisdom was also used to describe the ability of people to gather, summarize, and sort through issues of life both to make sense of it and to discern the most effective way to be productive and successful in the pursuit of its many dimensions. This applied not simply to the individual, but to those skills necessary for a stable and productive community as well. As Donald Berry has said,
"The secret of wisdom is to know when and how. It involves the ability to match activities with the proper circumstances" (An Introduction to Wisdom and Poetry of the OT, [Broadman & Holman, 1995], 3).
(2) Wisdom as a Universal Dynamic
Wisdom is also portrayed as an emanation of divine life that gives shape and substance to the created realm. In Prov. 8:22-31, Solomon seems to speak of wisdom almost as if it were a person of the Godhead, an existent being much like the Logos or Word of John 1. However, it is most likely that Solomon personifies a divine attribute. In other words, he portrays this expression of God's power and skill in creating and governing all things as if it were a person, attributing to it personal characteristics and activities; describing it as if it could feel and think and be known relationally. Thus, as Berry explains,
"Israel's wisdom teachers were first and foremost students of the universe. They studied Yahweh's creation to determine order and commend human conduct which would sustain that order socially and cosmologically" (19).
(3) Wisdom as a Literary Dynamic
Finally, there emerged in Israel a distinctive form of literature that embodied certain characteristics called "wisdom". There are a variety of literary forms that should be subsumed under the category of wisdom such as proverb, riddle, allegory, dialogue, autobiographical narrative, and prophetic address.
B. Characteristics of Poetic/Wisdom Literature
Several features are worthy of note:
First, the poetic books are not historically anchored. That is to say, they are largely devoid of historical references (aside from the Psalms) and do not reflect at length upon nor are tied to specific historic events. Their concern for the past was more philosophical than historical.
Second, unlike the prophetic books which convey directly God's word to man, the poetic books speak for man to God (especially Job and the Psalms).
Third, these books breathe with a certain universality. That is to say, the principles and ideas and recommendations they contain cut across ethnic, national, and historical barriers and address the totality of the human race. Roland Murphy explains:
"The most striking characteristic of this literature is the absence of what one normally considers as typically Israelite and Jewish. There is no mention of the promises to the patriarchs, the Exodus and Moses, the covenant and Sinai, the promise to David (2 Sam. 7), and so forth. . . . Wisdom does not represent the actions of God in Israel's history; it deals with daily human experience in the good world created by God" (The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature [Eerdmans, 1990], 1).
Fourth, these books generally give expression to man's deepest feelings about life, its mysteries, and God and his relationship to the world. Therefore, they are often both challenging and skeptical, courageous and cynical.
Fifth, one central purpose in this literature is to instruct the young people on how to live well, achieve the good life, and serve the social order.
Sixth, God is often portrayed in this literature as uniquely sovereign. His power and providence are often mysterious and misunderstood, but they stand out as the basis for one's belief that there is purpose to all that happens.
Seventh, appeal is often made in this literature to what theologians refer to as natural theology. In other words, emphasis is placed on what we can learn from routine observation of lie, the animal kingdom, human common sense, experience, etc.
Eighth, the poetic/wisdom literature is almost devoid of eschatology. That is to say, it is more concerned with "why are we here?" than with "where are we going?"
Ninth, there is also a strong emphasis on human responsibility. Whereas God is portrayed as sovereign, man is not allowed any excuses for his position in life. He is expected to understand the laws that govern human behavior as well as the consequences that violation of those laws will bring. As Bullock points out, "the basic universal principle in biblical wisdom is that the physical and moral universe operates by the law of cause-and-effect. This means that in the realm of human actions, good deeds are rewarded, and evil deeds are punished" (57; see Prov. 10:30).
Tenth, the poetic/wisdom books, moreso than anything else in the OT, call on the individual to think, to meditate, to ponder life in all its beautiful as well as confusing aspects. Derek Kidner, in contrasting this literature with the Law and the Prophets, put it this way:
" . . . in the Wisdom books the tone of voice and even the speakers have changed. The blunt 'Thou shalt' or 'shalt not' of the Law, and the urgent 'Thus saith the Lord' of the Prophets, are joined now by the cooler comments of the teacher and the often anguished questions of the learner. Where the bulk of the OT calls us simply to obey and to believe, this part of it . . . summons us to think hard as well as humbly; to keep our eyes open, to use our conscience and our common sense, and not to shirk the most disturbing questions" (The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes, [IVP, 1985], 11).