5) Wisdom, Longing & Despair: Israel’s Poetry

When we think of the Bible as a story – of God’s interaction with his people over many centuries – ‘wisdom literature’ doesn’t feature. It isn’t history, and it doesn’t tell a story, so we don’t know where it fits. It simply gets left out. This is deeply ironic because Hebrew poetry and wisdom literature is the absolute pinnacle of Hebrew thought, philosophy and literary genius. It ranks with the finest literature composed anywhere in the ancient world – the Illiad, Hindu Vedas, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Aeneid… all of which are in verse or poetry. Quite an accomplishment for a tiny nation that had only a brief ‘golden age’ unhindered by the great civilizations surrounding it – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon.

But this should alert us that in the ancient world, literature in poetic form encapsulated the greatest expression of human thought and achievement. It was highly sophisticated, polished, carefully crafted, and served a high purpose of corporate national identity. This was not like someone on a park bench composing a limerick or reflecting on a sunrise. These were cultural treasures – but designed for popular consumption. Why? Because poetry could be memorised. If you think about it, what do we have memorised today? Song lyrics, the national anthem, nursery rhymes, hymns, a few proverbs. All poetry! A nation forged its common identity through its great works of poetic inspiration. This helps us understand why over 33% of the entire Bible is poetry.

But Hebrew poetry is wildly different from English poetry. It doesn’t rhyme, but uses many unfamiliar stylistic devises like parallelism, wordplay, chiasm, and reiteration. It expresses the deepest emotions, creativity, imagination, philosophy, majestic worship, religious devotion, and national lament. All this is encapsulated by the term ‘wisdom’. Virtually all ‘wisdom literature’ is poetry, but not all poetry is wisdom literature.

The Wisdom Books are a specific group of writings – each entirely unique – including Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (and sometimes Lamentations*). Job is a narrative masterpiece asking the age-old question, ‘why do bad things happen to good people’? Psalms is a collection of 150 compositions designed to be sung – in corporate worship, lament, praise, or thanksgiving. Proverbs are, well, proverbial – so look before you leap. Ecclesiastes is a philosophical treatise exploring the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life, while Song of Songs is an epic love poem. The common element? ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’.

*Lamentations was written by Jeremiah, so today we include it with the major prophets. But the Hebrew Bible (our OT) had different categories, namely: Law, Prophets and Writings. Wisdom, Lamentations (and a few others) were part of ‘the Writings’.

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