Old Testament Survey
The Poetic Books
(Job–Psalms—Proverbs—Ecclesiastes—Song of Songs)
Review: Thus far we have traced the history of the Old Testament as follows:
Week 6 focused on the development of two major aspects to Jewish history, the development of the kingship and the building of the temple. As with other parts of Jewish life, we saw how those two major developments foreshadowed the work of Jesus Christ.
We have looked at the layout of the Old Testament, and examined a helpful division of the books. Today we are going to take a break from covering the chronological development of Old Testament history and focus on a wonderful section of scripture, the poetic books. These books comprise 242 chapters, so covering content will be the journey of other classes and other days. The goal of this lesson will be to take a central lesson from each of the five books to explain their place in scripture and whet your appetite to dig deeper into them.
I avoided Psalms when I first became a Christian. The book of Psalms often gave me trouble, because there are many statements that seem to present theological problems. Certainly there are questions to answer about the Psalms, but we should not miss the blessing of the book for that reason. One key thing to learn from Psalms is how important it is for man to speak to God.
When someone is in trouble, God wants to hear from them. (Psalm 86:7—In the day of my trouble, I will call to you and you will answer me.) Even more, We discover in the Psalms the importance of being honest with God. There can be a great temptation to hide our confusion about life and even God’s seeming absence, but scripture encourages us to be honest about our struggles—Consider Psalm 22:1-4: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me and from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.” David cries out to God and even laments God’s seeming absence in his trial. Yet he will not let go of God. This is very reminiscent of Jacob in Genesis 32—“I will not let go of you until you bless me.” Even in Psalms 88 & 89, rife with confusion and despair, the Psalmist does not hide his heart or mind from God.
God wants us to speak our joy. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, to praise a thing is not merely an expression of our pleasure, but the completion of it. Perhaps the reason why many of us are not as happy as we should be is because we do not take this lesson from the Psalms, that we should praise God more loudly, to express our hearts more freely to him. As James 5 says, “Is anyone among you happy? Let him sing songs of praise.” We need to praise God for his works (Psalm 107, 135), for his protection of us (Psalm 3), for the wise law of the LORD (Psalm 19 & 119), and ultimately, simply for who God is (67, 150).
Let us learn the lesson of the Psalms and to make known to God both our sorrows and our joys.
The book of Proverbs is a training manual in basic wisdom. Like Psalms, different parts of this book were written by different authors (Solomon being the major contributor), and then assembled into its final form some years later.
The preamble (1:1-7) is critical to understanding the book:
The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth – Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.
This training manual was meant to be specifically used to train Hebrew children how to live wisely in God’s world. It further says even the wise can add to their learning through the study of Proverbs.
Of chief importance in the book is the fear of the LORD, which is called the beginning of wisdom. It is important to consider that in God’s economy wisdom is knowledge with moral direction—a Godward direction. Likewise, the author urges the reader to flee two major pitfalls for gaining wisdom, the lure of easy money and the adulteress.
As you read Proverbs, there are several helpful ideas that will help you get the most out of the book. Chapters 1-9 are a prologue, designed to prepare the reader to receive the wisdom of the rest of the book. While there is practical instruction in this part of the book, the main objective is to convince the reader of the goal—that pursuing wisdom is a more worthy pursuit than chasing wealth or women. Chapters 10-31 are body of the book. Like other biblical books, the collections of proverbs, while of value individually, also have context and a larger message. Some of the more puzzling proverbs may be resolved by understanding their surrounding context.
Job wrestles with one central question—“Why do righteous men suffer?”
The setting of Job is during the time of the Patriarchs, though probably assembled after the time of the Judges. The man Job is clearly identified to us as a righteous man from the beginning of the book (Job 1:1, 5). When God gives the Devil permission to afflict him, tragedy of every imaginable kind befalls him; in the course of a few days, he loses his vast wealth, experiences the loss of his children and finally the loss of his own health. Yet despite this, Job refuses to doubt God or curse Him for these troubles (Job 1:21-22). Three of Job’s friends come to comfort him in his misery. They say nothing for seven days (2:12-13)—the smartest thing they say. The majority of the book consists of three cycles of speeches from these friends and Job’s responses. (Job 3:1-31:40) Essentially, these friends cannot understand Job’s situation; they grow more and more convinced that he has done something drastically wrong or sinful that has brought about his suffering. By the time the three cycles of speeches are done, they are accusing him of all manner of mischief, very unbecoming of friends. Chapters 32-37 are the words of a younger man, Elihu, who has heard Job’s friends and seen that they have failed to answer his question. Elihu suggests that Job’s suffering is not because he has done anything wicked, but because God is using this trial to purge him of his remaining sin, and to keep him from falling prey to unseen dangers (33:14-30). He rebukes Job for doubting God’s purposes. Chapters 38-39 contain God’s first answer to Job, which consist of 62 unanswerable questions. By this, God demonstrates that Job does not understand most of God’s ways, and that he need not & will not. Chapters 40-41 contain God’s second answer to Job, that God does these inexplicable works to restrain evils which no other being on earth can tame (symbolized by Behemoth and Levithan). Chapter 42 contains the epilogue, showing Job’s repentance and reconciliation with his friends, and so that we are assured that Job truly was righteous, we see the restoration of blessing on his life.
One of the most challenging books of the Old Testament, it can also be one of the richest. Ecclesiastes helps us understand the fleeting nature of life and the foolishness of men’s pride and his many empty pursuits. The chief value of Ecclesiastes is to lay bare the emptiness of life without God, ‘a chasing after the wind’ (Ecclesiastes 1:14). The writer does this masterfully in two main sections: (division & outline from Bruce Waltke)
Point #1: All of life is temporary and possessions are unreliable (1:1-4:16)
Response #1: Cultivate a humble heart before God/choose enjoyment over greed (5:1-6:9)
Point #2: Everything is Elusive—Men do not know what is good; what seems good often later becomes evil and vice versa (6:10-8:17)
Response #2: Rejoice in the day you have, do not forget the day that is coming (9:1-12:8)
Song of Songs
Some people really wonder why this book is in the Bible. Yet it stands as a simple and beautiful statement that God has created romantic love, and it is a gloriously precious thing. The summary of the whole story could be found in chapter 8:7, which says:
Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.
There are issues often discussed about this book, as to who the lover is, is the whole book a metaphor, etc. I am inclined (with a debt to the help of others, like Waltke) to think this is an older Solomon reflecting on an event that really happened. He may have approached this woman, the Shunnamite, and sought to woo her. Yet this woman was already in love with a young, humble shepherd. She rejects Solomon’s advances in favor of this young man’s love. If the story is so, Solomon is reflecting on the value of such love and honoring God as its giver.