Course: Essentials of the Old Testament
Lecture: Poetic Books
Our last block of Old Testament books is categorized as the Poetical books. There are five of these. You could also include Lamentations in if you wished but many people conclude that they are best left with the Prophetical Books. But we are going to talk in this little overview about Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.
To introduce these five books it is very important to introduce the concept of wisdom, Israelite wisdom. What was it? The English word wisdom is actually only a best attempt to render the concept that is intended by the Hebrew word that gets translated wisdom. The Hebrew word is chokmah.
A. Because it is not a matter of having a high I.Q. It is not a matter of having lots of experience. It is not a matter of being well educated, formerly trained, anything like that.
B. What the Bible commends as wisdom is the ability to make the right choices in life. Wisdom is choice-making literature. That is what Job and much of Psalms, and Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs are dealing with. They are dealing with life’s choices. What are the choices? What advice can help you make the right choices? What role does God have in your making of your choices? The particular emphasis of Israelite wisdom, that is Old Testament wisdom, is one being sure that those choices are not just wise choices, that is right choices as a lot of human beings would appreciate, but being sure that regardless what human beings may think they are godly choices. So the Book of Proverbs says in several places, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. That is where you start. If you are afraid of the consequences of not obeying Him, which is what the fear of the Lord means, you are a person who has the basic orientation necessary for real wisdom.
II. Five poetical books
A. Let’s start with the Book of Job. How does it fit in this whole question of wisdom? How do I make the right choices in life? Job is a good person whose life falls apart and he does not know why. We know, but he does not, he never knows. Reading the Book of Job is like seeing one of those movies where you can realize that the hero is stepping into danger because you know what is behind the next door, or whatever, but the hero does not know that, and so he steps into danger while you watch it happen. All Job knows is that suddenly he gets sick and suddenly there are disasters then his family is killed except for his wife and he loses everything and on and on and on and on. That everything that you can think of from physical health to wealth to purpose in life is all taken away from him; that is all he knows.
1. We know that it is part of God’s plan to glorify Himself, not to make life miserable for Job per say but to glorify Himself.
2. God actually tricks Satan into something. Satan is “reporting to God” which is a way of describing God’s superiority to Him and God says, “Have you considered My servant Job?” And Satan says, “Aw sure, I know him. He’s a great guy and he is righteous and he’s famous for his righteousness but if You would get him into my hands, I could make him curse You.” God says, “Okay, give it try,” because that is the challenge. Can Satan cause Job to curse God?
3. Of course, given the special and unusual powers that God gives Satan, by the way, Satan does not normally have the power to cause floods and disasters and storms and to cause illness or anything else; he does not normally have that power at all. His power is limited to the power to deceive. But, extraordinarily God gives Satan such powers. That is the description given to us in the first two chapters. Given that power, Satan can of course make Job miserable, and of course he can make him suffer, and of course he can make him angry, and of course he can make him frustrated; that goes without saying. But can he get him to curse God, that is the question. Now God knows Satan and what Satan will bite on. God also knows Job and God has confidence that Job will end up honoring him. So the contest is underway. All the miseries come on Job. What will happen?
4. He expresses eloquently in a series of dialogues with friends who come to comfort him the fact that his suffering was not earned. He did not get all of the hardships because he was an especially bad person and Job eloquently expresses an important Biblical fact.
5. In this life you don’t get a fair response to your behavior. Job says, “Some very evil people seem to get along beautifully; they live long lives, they seem happy, they have a lot of money, they live well, etc. Some perfectly good people on the other hand, really good people, now nobody is perfect but we say “perfectly good” as an expression, some very good people have nothing but trouble and suffering. Their lives are hard in every way. Now this is not the view that his so-called comforters have. They are not evil people; they are trying to be his friends but hey believe earnestly that you do get what you deserve in this life. So their approach is to tell Job, “Look, God is good. He wouldn’t have caused all these terrible evils to come upon you, the loss even of all your children and the horrible diseases that you are experiencing if you hadn’t sinned. So why don’t you repent? Why don’t you say God I’m sorry?” Job says, “Because, that is not the reason these illnesses have come.” Now Job never says that he would not be sorry for his sins and Job never says that he is not a sinner; he admits he is. But he says that is not what has happened. He says, “I haven’t done the sorts of things that would cause this level of misery to come upon me.” The comforters keep saying, “No, no, no, you must have earned it because it is not the random world where things just happen. God is control and He would not have allowed this.” Eventually, even another “comforter” shows up and tells both Job and the others that they are wrong in certain ways. But finally to the great satisfaction of the questions that the story raises, God Himself shows up. Now what God does not do is say, “Hey Job, it was all a contest. See, I tricked Satan into thinking he could get you to curse Me, and of course you didn’t curse Me, frustrated as you were with all the questions you had and all the complaints you put forward you certainly did not trust Me, so I won, thank you, good job, I’m proud of you.” No.
6. God simply says to Job in effect what He says to us, “Do you realize that I know what I’m doing? Do you understand that I am in charge of the universe? I created it, I’m superior to it, I understand all that is happening, I do what I choose to do, and isn’t that enough for you to know?” and you know it is. Job says, “I’m sorry that I questioned you. I repent in dust and ashes.” It is enough for Job to know that God knows what He is doing. And if God allows the kinds of miseries that came upon Job to occur for Job or for any other person, God knows what He is doing. And the reassurance that God knows what He is doing is enough for Job.
7. He never finds out that it was his faithfulness in suffering that was a great honor to God in heaven. We do not know it either. If you get sick, if you have tragedies occur, if you have hardships come your way, if you have difficulties that plague you year after year; your faithfulness to God likewise honors Him. You may not know the way in which angels and God Himself are watching you and cheering when you continue to be faithful. You only know that for some reason it has happened to you.
8. So the wisdom that the Book of Job advises us to get is a wisdom that in effect says the most basic thing we can do, the wisest choice, the best way we can think about living is to remember that God knows what He is doing and we trust him; we simply trust Him. We should never tell Him He is doing the wrong thing. We should instead say God give me the grace to appreciate that You know what You are doing. And that kind of faithfulness really honors God.
B. In the Psalms there is some wisdom though they are not limited to wisdom.
1. There are wisdom Psalms, a number of them, and they speak about the choices of life. Will you go this way, will you go that way? Will you sit with the scoffers and the sinners and the skeptics or will your conversation and activity be with the righteous as Psalm 1 sets it out? But there are actually ten different types of Psalms and we will talk about all ten in a little more detail in the full course. Here let me give an overview of just five of them to wet your appetite.
2. Almost half the Psalms are in the category that we call lament. These are Psalms that provide a means of expression of appeal to God for deliverance for some kind of hardship. So one could say that there are seventy chapters in the Bible devoted to suffering and how to deal with it because that is the group of lament Psalms, and there are indeed seventy of them that are there to help you pray to God for deliverance. They give you a sense of how to praise God along with offering your expressions of complaint to Him. They give you a sense of how to trust in Him along with asking Him for help and they focus your thinking on Him. It is always Him to whom you pray and bring your needs.
3. There are also thanksgiving Psalms. Samples of how to express yourself when God has delivered you from something that has been hard and difficult and you are rejoicing at the good state that you now find yourself in.
4. There are also hymns. We use the word hymn in modern times to mean a song we sing in church but hymns in the technical sense of the material of the Psalter, the Book of Psalms, are special musical poems of praise to God either for generally what He has done for His people or for what He has done in history, or for His power and goodness in creation.
5. Another type is the Torah psalm. Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible is a torah psalm. Torah is a Hebrew word that means law and torah psalms praise God for delivering His law, His word, for giving us guidance, for telling us specifically and directly, for putting it in black and white how it is that He wants us to live. Many people in many religions of the world are trying to appease God whose attitudes find vague and mysterious. They are trying to keep gods and goddesses happy when they are not sure what those gods and goddesses even want or why they are mad at them. What the torah psalms talk about is how clearly God has expressed Himself, how objectively He has made His will known and how blessed we can be if we will simply follow that will because of the rewards of obedience. The Psalms are both our words to God and God’s word to us. The Psalms are there as invitations of how to pray, how to praise, how to think about God, how to express ourselves to Him, how to talk about Him when we want to honor Him. So all peoples in all cultures have always loved the Psalms.
C. Proverbs is perhaps the most
1. specifically wisdom book in the Old Testament in the sense of containing lots and lots and lots of advice about making choices. Proverbs contains hundreds of individual brief statements about the choices of life. There are longer poems in Proverbs but the bulk of the book is a listing of things that should come to mind when you encounter certain kinds of circumstances.
2. And so a proverb can be as simple as, “When dining with the king, put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony.” A way of saying, “Listen, you’ve got a choice to make when you’re with somebody that you want to be sure to honor. You can act like a pig, you can pay attention to your own interests, you can stuff yourself with food if you’re eating with them, or you can indulge yourself in some other way if you’re doing something else, but if you want to give honor to somebody, pay attention to that person and stop thinking only about yourself.” It is that kind of expression of choice that a proverb like that makes. Or consider the proverb that says, “Go to the ant you sluggard and consider her ways.” That is because the word for ant is feminine in Hebrews that is why it says her ways. Well, we might say, “Wait a minute, how am I supposed to learn from an ant?” Well, the proverb tells you that the ant is an example of steady hard work. Staying at things. It may not have a lot of power, it may not have a lot of influence, but by steady effort accomplishes a great deal. God wants His people to make the choice to be responsible, hard working, diligent people. Proverbs reminds us that we are not supposed to be dependent upon other people if we possibly can be independent. That we are supposed to work hard enough that we actually have a higher income than our expenses. That we are supposed to be people who are not afraid to work hard and to plan well and to try to organized enough in all the aspects of our lives that we can actually be a blessing to our community and to our family and so on.
3. Some proverbs are very specific. They deal with how to deal with anger or how to deal with a certain kind of relationship. Other proverbs are very generally about letting God have His way and making choices according to His purposes but they all have the function of being, in the Hebrew, very memorable. Many of them are like little poems in themselves and they teach us about the significance of making choices that God wants us to make.
D. Ecclesiastes is wisdom literature in regard to kind of a big picture of life. Does it have meaning or not. Plenty of people do not think there is much meaning to life. Plenty of people, if you said to them, “Is there a real, ultimate meaning to life?” would say, “No, I don’t think so. You do what you can, you get along, if you can make money fine, do whatever makes you happy because all too soon you will be old and you’ll be sick and you won’t be able to enjoy life.” There are a lot of people for whom that is a philosophy. Proverbs looks at that philosophy from one point of view by giving a lot of individual bits of advice about how to live life.
1. Ecclesiastes looks at it from the kind of big picture overview and says,
2. “Well wait a minute, is there really meaning to life?” and does it somewhat ironically. What Ecclesiastes does is to say, “Okay, suppose all of life really is just empty, just useless, just meaningless?” Ecclesiastes repeatedly uses the term hevel which means in Hebrew something like a vapor or a wisp of something. It says life is like a vapor, like a wisp, there is not a lot to it. No matter what happens you eventually die. Humans and animals die alike. After you are dead, you are gone. Once you are dead you cannot look back on your life and say, “Gee, that was a great life wasn’t it?” You just are dead, you do not remember anything.
3. Now of course, this is not the ultimate purpose of Ecclesiastes; its ultimate purpose to cause us not to think that way. But by looking at life as honestly as possible from the point of view of a person who thinks there is not life after death and there is not judgment and that God will not call all things to account an evaluate what we have done, Ecclesiastes really forces us to ask the question, what meaning does life have without God. What meaning does life have if God only watches and does not have a direct activity in our lives?
4. What meaning is there to life if there is no final judgment? And it provides the answer at the very, very end of the book with the words, “Here is the conclusion to the whole matter after all has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments, this is the whole duty of man because God will bring everything that has been done into judgment.” So in fact, Ecclesiastes calls for us very eloquently to live our lives with God’s purposes in mind. Ecclesiastes is saying, in effect, implicitly, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But it is doing so in a kind of a reverse way by chapter after chapter examining what little there is to believe in if a person does not hold to an afterlife and does not hold to a final judgment.
E. The last of our books that we look at in this overview is the Song of Songs. For many people it is enigmatic. It appears to have a lot of love language in it but it is hard to know what is going on. Even some scholars will disagree as to its meaning but I think we can say a number of things pretty agreeably and pretty much for certain.
1. It is a combination of beautiful poems that talk about how wonderful it is for a married man and woman to love each other and enjoy each other physically. In our day there is an awful lot of sex without romance; that is not what God intends.
2. The Song of Songs talks a lot about romance as opposed to sex. It talks about liking to be with each other. It talks about caring for each other, missing each other when you are apart. It talks about how much fun a couple can have together and how agonizing it can be when they do not have a chance to do things together. In a way it is describing the joys of being one flesh which is what marriage makes a man and a woman.
3. There seems to be a kind of a plot. It looks as if a man and a woman fall in love and then there are various temptations that might keep them apart but eventually they really get married and they kind of celebrate their honeymoon and so on and think about their future together. But it is a simple plot and not elaborate on which is hung the deeper concern which is that sex without romance is really a sad and tragic thing. that what God wants for His people is to have a marriage that continues with real affection, real romance, real tenderness, real joy of being together so the couple is something better than what just each individual would be. It is not the same as the relationship of roommates or associates or co-workers. A married couple is a very special thing and their relationship is very special and God wants them to enjoy that relationship; the physical part of it but very definitely the romantic spiritual part of it above all.