2007-09-01 Hardcover Brand New Copy! New from publisher. C. Hassell Bullock, a noted Old Testament scholar, delves deep into the hearts of the five poetic books, offering ...readers helpful details such as hermeneutical considerations for each book, theological content and themes, detailed analysis of each book, and cultural perspectives. Copyright 1979, 1988 by C. Hassell Bullock. 332 pages.Read moreShow Less
The poetic books of the Old Testament--Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon--are often called humankind's reach toward God. The other books of the Old Testament picture God's reach toward man through the redemptive story. Yet these five books reveal the very heart of men and women struggling with monumental issues such as suffering, sin, forgiveness, joy, worship, and the passionate love between a man and woman.
C. Hassell Bullock, a noted Old Testament scholar, delves deep into the hearts of the five poetic books, offering readers helpful details such as harmeneutical considerations for each book, theological content and themes, detailed analysis of each book, and cultural perspectives.
Hebrew is a language of "intrinsic musical quality that naturally supports poetic expression," says Bullock in his introduction. That poetic expression comes from the heart of the Old Testament writers and reaches all of us exactly where we are in our own struggles and joys.
C. HASSELL BULLOCK (B.A., Samford University; B.D., Columbia Theological Seminary; University Ph.D., Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) is professor of Old Testament studies at Wheaton College. Since the completion of his formal education, Dr. Bullock has served as both a professor and as a pastor in 10 different churches.
He is the author of An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books, Encountering the Book of Psalms, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books, and An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books.
The Old Testament books considered in this volume contain some of the most potent literature of human history, and the ideas they treat are among the most cogent that the human heart has entertained.
These books are not historically oriented. In fact, with the exception of the Psalms, they are relatively devoid of historical allusions. But while they do not reflect upon historical events, they are alive with the spirit of history. They grasp for and grapple with those essential concepts that set the Hebrew faith apart from that of its neighbors and ensure its survival in a pantheistic, power-greedy world.
Reflecting the essential theology of the Pentateuch, these books in general do not seek to convey directly God's word to man, as do the Prophets (e.g., "thus says the Lord"), but they entertain the questions that arise in the presence of the divine imperative. In part, the spokesmen in these five books speak for man to God (esp. in Job and many of the psalms), in contrast to the Prophets, who normally speak for God to man. Yet the book of Ecclesiastes is more a human monologue than a dialogue between man and God, whereas the Song of Songs is even more anthropocentric.
Moreover, they breathe a certain universality. The problem of suffering, the conscience marred by sin, the transience of human life, and the passionate love of woman and man, to mention only a few of the matters dealt with in these books, cut across national and ethnic lines to include all of the human race. The spokesmen in these books formulate questions that have lain in man's subconscious mind, often without his having had courage to bring them to the surface.
The courageous spirit of Job, Ecclesiastes, and many of the psalms, therefore, is another characteristic of this literature. It is marked frequently by a mood of challenge and skepticism, saying things that are rooted deeply in man's being. These books focus on man's reflections on God and His response rather than on God's search for man.
Yet the divine Spirit hovers over man's effort to understand, to figure out his world, to fathom the meaning of his relationship to God. The theological orientation toward creation in wisdom literature is not coincidental. For to unravel the meaning of human life will lead one all the way back to its beginning. The individual and personal nature of the books that we undertake to study is evidence of the attention given in the Old Testament to the importance of the individual to God. He began the race with an individual, and His love continues to be applied personally as well as corporately. One might read the Pentateuch and see only a faint shadow of himself reflected there. The historical books may overwhelm him with facts and events. The Prophets, by some mere chance, may pass him by with their deep convictions and concerns about their own societies and world. But the poetic books will find him wherever he is.
THE POETIC BOOKS
The five books known as the Poetic Books are found in the third division of the Hebrew Bible, which is called the "Writings," or Kethubim. The Greek language has given this division the title Hagiographa (sacred writings). The term "Poetic Books" obviously points to the poetic nature of the contents, even though Ecclesiastes is included and is written in an elevated prosaic style that only at times has a metrical pattern (e.g., 11:7–12:8).
The Masoretes of the Medieval Age grouped Job, Proverbs, and Psalms together by giving a special system of poetic accentuation to these three books, mnemonically called "The Book of Truth" because in Hebrew the first letter of each of these books taken together spelled 'emeth (truth). The other two books of the five, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, were included in a special sub-group of the Writings called the Five Megilloth ("scrolls"), namely, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. The purpose of this grouping was liturgical, for each book was read at an important Jewish festival, a practice that continues to this day.
The order of the Five Megilloth follows the order of the festivals to which they are assigned: Song of Songs (Passover), Ruth (Pentecost), Lamentations (Fast of the Ninth of Ab, commemorating the destruction of both Temples), Ecclesiastes (Feast of Tabernacles), and Esther (Purim). The reading of the Song of Songs during the Passover celebration alludes to the spiritual interpretation of the book that was normative in ancient Judaism, and that emphasized the love between the Lord and Israel. Since the Passover commemorated the formalization of that special relationship, the Song seemed appropriate. The reading of the book of Ecclesiastes on the Festival of Tabernacles, however, seems inconsistent with the great joy of that feast. On this matter Victor Reichert remarks:
The juxtaposition of piety and scepticism, irreconcilable as they may appear, seems to belong to the whole paradox of the Jewish mind. Faith and Reason write one upon the other in the palimpsest of our past. Perhaps it was to strike the balance of sanity that the Fathers of the Synagogue chose the recital of Ecclesiastes, with its melancholy refrain Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, on the Festival of Tabernacles when the Jew is commanded to rejoice. At all events, it is hard to escape the judgment that the major emphasis of Jewish thinking has indeed been that of setting our shoulders joyously to the world's wheel. That we have spared ourselves some unhappiness by, beforehand, slipping the Book of Ecclesiastes beneath our arm, seems likewise true.
The Greek Septuagint placed all the poetic books after the historical writings and before the Prophets in the following order: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Job. The Latin Vulgate set Job at the head of the list rather than at the end, thus giving an order that the English versions have followed. This order evidently was dictated by chronological considerations. Since Job was considered to have lived in the patriarchal times, the book of Job would precede Psalms, which was written largely by David several centuries after the Patriarchal Age. The last three books follow the Psalms by virtue of their association with David's son Solomon. Thus Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs have been grouped together as a Solomonic collection.
We must keep in mind as we approach the study of these books that the present order of the biblical books does not necessarily carry the authority of divine inspiration. Divine inspiration applies to content only. Rather, the order is the work of various editors in the history of transmission, as the varying arrangements of the versions and manuscripts testify.
Three of the five Poetic Books constitute the wisdom literature of the Old Testament: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. While most of the book of Psalms and possibly the Song of Songs cannot be strictly classified as "wisdom" in the technical sense, they certainly have affinities with it. As our subsequent discussion will show, several of the psalms may be classified as wisdom psalms, and the Song of Songs shares the didactic nature of wisdom literature as well as its literary form (i.e., a song). Therefore, we are no more inaccurate referring to this collection of five books as "wisdom literature" than we are by attributing to it the title "Poetic Books." Indeed the bulk of the material truly belongs in the category of wisdom. Thus we may better understand all these books in the context of the wisdom movement and literature in ancient Israel and the Near East.
WISDOM AS A PERSONAL DYNAMIC
Biblical wisdom was a dynamic in ancient Israel that operated in three dimensions: the personal, universal, and literary. The personal dimension was characterized by both theological and practical categories. The universal dimension dealt with the ultimate categories of theology, explaining wisdom as an attribute of God Himself. The literary dimension was merely the vehicle of the wisdom movement, inscripturating the propositions and precepts of wisdom for posterity. We shall further explain this three-dimensional nature of wisdom.
In Personal Skills
An examination of those passages in the Old Testament that use the noun "wisdom" (hochmah) and the adjective "wise" (hacham) reveals that they were used even in reference to practical arts and skills. These terms were applied to those artisans who designed and constructed the Tabernacle: Bezalel, the architect of the Tabernacle (Ex. 35:30–36:1), the craftsmen who made Aaron's priestly garments (Ex. 28:3), and the women weavers (Ex. 35:25–26). Of Bezalel and Oholiab it is said 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" (Ex. 35:35). The application of these terms to the practical arts is even broader than the Tabernacle narrative. Goldsmiths (Jer. 10:9), sailors (Ps. 107:27; Ezek. 27:8), women skilled in lamentation (Jer. 9:17), magicians and soothsayers (Gen. 41:8; Isa. 44:25), and military strategists and statesmen (Isa. 10:13; 29:14; Jer. 49:7) share these terms to designate their particular skills. Moreover, wisdom is closely associated with the musical arts in 1 Kings 4:32, for the product of God's gift of wisdom to Solomon included songs as well as proverbs.
In Personal Philosophy
Yet this use of the terms "wisdom" and "wise" does not get to the heart of the personal dimension of wisdom. The nature of language is to develop a broad spectrum of meaning for a single word, and the above examples illustrate the use of our terms for the technical arts and skills without actually opening up the essential meaning of wisdom as it is used in the wisdom literature of the Bible. As one reads through that material, one quickly recognizes that wisdom was a personal life dynamic that enabled one to assimilate, sort, and categorize the elements and issues of life so as to provide a meaningful synthesis. Its wide span encompasses the struggle of a righteous man to understand his suffering and the limp efforts of a lazy man to overcome his sloth. We might begin with examples out of Proverbs regarding the basic relationships within the family unit, which are frequently the subject of this literature, both from the standpoint of the parents' responsibility to their children (Prov. 13:22, 24; 22:6) and the children's to their parents (1:8–9; 15:5). The stability of the family is further assured by admonitions that highly esteem marriage (12:4; 19:14; 31:10–31) and warn against adultery and sexual promiscuity (5:1–14).
Yet the scope of wisdom reaches outside the family unit to regulate personal and social behavior that builds a stable and productive community. Moral virtues such as self-discipline (10:17; 13:13), temperate speech (10:19; 11:12), and honesty (15:27; 16:11), and vices such as slander (10:18; 19:5), envy (23:17–18), and gluttony (23:1–3), are subjects of wisdom's regulatory function. The scope broadens to include advice for the people's relationship to the king (25:67) and the king's to the people (14:28; 25:4–5), and justice in the courts (24:23). This list could be greatly extended.
While these principles and regulations describe the horizontal scale of ancient Israelite life, wisdom admonished her patrons on the vertical aspect of their lives as well. The Lord's sovereign will was uppermost in the world, and the individual was the object of His careful guidance:
The mind of man plans his way, But the Lord directs his steps.
Many are the plans in a man's heart, But the counsel of the Lord, it will stand.
Human ingenuity has its place, but only God can assure success in life:
Commit your works to the Lord, And your plans will be established.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight.
Indeed, the undergirding notion of the wisdom-controlled life is the "fear of the Lord." It is a phrase that has layers of meaning. The ground layer may be understood as a personal attitude or disposition toward the Lord, illustrated by the analogy of one's fear of the king:
My son, fear the Lord and the king; Do not associate with those who are given to change; For their calamity will rise suddenly, And who knows the ruin that comes from both of them?
At the risk of confusing the issue by modern use (or abuse) of theological terminology, the "fear of the Lord" denotes piety in the most positive sense of the word, a spiritual disposition that may be described as a proper relationship to God and one's neighbor. It is wisdom's comprehensive term for religion.
A second layer, not unrelated to the first, is that of moral virtue or appropriate behavior. Job is described in these terms as one who was "blameless, upright, fearing God, and turning away from evil" (Job 1:1, emphasis added; cf. also Prov. 8:13). "Fearing God" and "turning away from evil" are parallel expressions, the second expanding on the first. The book of Proverbs, as seen above, provides ample proof that moral virtues are an important part of the personal portrait of one who feared the Lord. Admittedly the revelation at Sinai is not consciously wisdom's mode of communicating the will of God, but the theological/ moral principles of the books of Proverbs and Job are those of the Decalogue, which calls for sexual purity, honor of parents, integrity toward one's neighbor, and so on.
A third layer intermeshes with the second. The knowledge of human frailty and divine strength is endemic to the fear of the Lord (Prov. 3:5–7). It is a balanced perspective on God and man.
It would not be inaccurate to say that comprehensively the fear of the Lord is a worldview that attempts to synthesize the elements of human life and work. It is an "educational standard" (compare our objective standard of research) that gives balance to the individual as he relates both to his world and God.
Henri Blocher contends that all three wisdom books as they have come to us are a witness to the theological premise that the fear of the Lord is the principle of wisdom. The "fear of the Lord" forms a literary inclusion in Proverbs, for the book opens with the statement that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (1:7a), and concludes with the portrait of the virtuous woman who personifies the fear of the Lord (31:30). Moreover, the author of Job begins the book by describing his hero as the paragon of wisdom in terms of his fear of the Lord (1:1) and underscores that character portrait with God's affirmation at the end of the poem on wisdom (chap. 28, note v. 28). Likewise Ecclesiastes' assessment of human responsibility is to "fear God and keep His commandments" (Eccles. 12:13).
WISDOM AS A UNIVERSAL DYNAMIC
In addition to being a personal dynamic, wisdom is also a universal dynamic. This second dimension of wisdom is readily seen in Proverbs 8:22–31. Some scholars believe that this passage presents wisdom as a hypostasis, having an existence distinct from God though expressing His nature, much like wisdom in the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon (Wisd. of Sol. 1:6–7; 6:12–24; 7:1–8:18) or the Logos in John's gospel. The critical word is qanah (Prov. 8:22), which generally means "to acquire," or "to possess," but in fewer instances has the sense of "create" (Deut. 32:6; Ps. 139:13). The sense of "possess" is preferable in the context because the Lord is the Creator and wisdom is merely present with Him prior to and during His work of creation.
It is my opinion that Solomon seeks to personify a divine attribute. Yet, in this way he asserts that wisdom is an emanation of the divine life, much as one would understand love to be an emanation of the life of God. Whereas law and prophecy admonished Israel to turn to God for life, wisdom personified admonished individuals to turn to her and receive life. This further supports the view that wisdom was a symbol of a divine attribute. The Hebrew mind would not entertain a dualism between God as source-of-life versus wisdom as source-of-life. The effect of this argument is to connect wisdom both to God and to the created world in a way that unites God, people, and the world in an inseverable bond.
God addressed Israel through the law by commandment and precept, through the prophets by His word, and through the sages by wisdom. As a principle of revelation, wisdom was the "rationale of the cosmos," imparting understanding to mankind. Without it the world and human life would be devoid of meaning. Wisdom is the all-pervasive presence of God that permeates the physical universe and human social order (Prov. 2:1–15; 8:22). It is God's communicative word written in nature and human experience.
While redemptive history is not a conscious rubric of wisdom literature in the Bible, the sovereign control of God in the universe nevertheless lies behind the literature, and this inevitably involves history, for God is the originator of the dynamic force that moves history and nature (Job 9:4; 11:6; 12:13; 32:8; 37:16; Prov. 2:6; 8:22–31). This implicit concept came to fruition in the Wisdom of Solomon where wisdom is depicted as the driving force of history (Wisd. of Sol. 10–19). So critical is God's revelation through wisdom that the individual's posture toward her determines his destiny (Prov. 8:32–36). Just as in the Pentateuch one's response to the law, or in the Prophets one's response to the prophetic word, so in wisdom literature one's response to wisdom, the medium of divine revelation, determines one's happiness and well-being.
WISDOM AS A LITERARY DYNAMIC
The three wisdom books of the Old Testament (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes), the wisdom elements of the Psalms, and other wisdom fragments distributed throughout the Old Testament testify to the importance of the wisdom movement in ancient Israel. The literary legacy is as rich in its variety of genres as prophetic literature. In the Old Testament the term mashal is used rather broadly to include a proverb, riddle, or longer composition involving comparisons and analogies. The term itself comes from the verb that means "to be like, compare."
Bullock's book introduces the poetic books from a variety of interpretive aspects--historiography, hermeneutics, and commentary. It is a required textbook for my graduate course in seminary, and one that provides a good overview of all of the poetic books that serves as a foundation for more in-depth study. The "how to" sections for analyzing the books are very helpful.
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