Have You Read the Arts Section of the Bible? Experience the 5 Poetic Books in Scripture August 16th, 2016 Randy Petersen
Have You Read the Arts Section of the Bible?
Have You Read the Arts Section of the Bible? Experience the 5 Poetic Books in Scripture August 16th, 2016 Randy Petersen
Bible Engager’s Blog

You might call it the Arts Section of the Bible. Five books, smack dab in the center, that follow their own rules. Some call them Wisdom Literature, or the Writings, or the Poetic Books, but nothing else in Scripture is quite like this collection.

The Psalms, of course, are songs, but we don't know how they sounded in ancient Israel. We're given the names of some tunes and some musical terms, but we don't have musical notation from back then. Yet we do find a certain rhythm in the ideas; it's a two-step. Hebrew poetry is built on parallel lines. Say it once, and say it again in slightly different words. Then maybe add a kicker.

Song of Songs (aka Song of Solomon) and Job both carry hints that they were originally dramas. There seem to be three main characters and a chorus in Song of Songs, and it's not always clear who's saying what. (Some modern translations try to assign lines, but this is all interpretation.) Early Greek theater often had messengers running in to report disasters, long passages in which characters explored the meaning of life, and the appearance of a god at the end to sort things out. That's also what we find in Job.

Proverbs is largely a collection of sayings, sort of the Twitter of its day. These sayings are generally simple, usually best-case scenarios. Ecclesiastes (sometimes known as Qoheleth, the Hebrew word for Preacher) is quite the opposite—essays on how everything under the sun goes wrong.

Don't try to read these books in the same way as you read other parts of Scripture. While these books are all immensely quotable, you can get in trouble if you don't account for the unique purpose and character of each book.

I also believe there's an important life progression reflected in these books.

Proverbs is for kids—especially thirteen-year-old boys. "Listen, my son, to your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching" (Proverbs 1:8 NIV). These rules for living were part of a young man's training. That explains the strong emphasis on avoiding loose women (see Proverbs 5-7). The lessons seem simple because they're intended for the early steps of a person's faith journey. Indeed, the fear of the Lord is the "beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10 NIV), but wisdom matures as we do.

Song of Songs is a story of young love, full of ardent infatuation, longing, fretting, and joy. The young woman has white teeth and glowing cheeks, the young man has black hair and a smooth face (Song 6:6-7; 5:11). Let's assume they are in their early twenties, if that. This book has long been seen as a picture of God's relationship with his chosen people, or of Christ's love for the church, and it functions that way. But don't overlook its celebration of human love.

The book of Job is about a middle-aged man. He has already built his fortune and earned respect in the community. He also has adult children. Then he loses it all. Younger people who read this book often make it an intellectual exercise. Why did Job have to suffer like this? He didn't deserve it. But when you're fifty, you really get it—not the answers, but you get the experience. You sit on the ash heap with Job and his tiring friends wondering where all the hope went. And when the Creator finally speaks up, saying essentially, "I'm God and you're not," you get that too. You've spent your whole life gaining control of your world—and then you learn it's out of your control.

Ecclesiastes is a book of old age. "So remember your Creator while you are still young, before those dismal days and years come when you will say, 'I don't enjoy life'" (Ecclesiastes 12:1). We often quote the song from chapter 3—"To everything there is a season"—but the author has been through the seasons of life. Been there, done that. And every human pursuit he hoped would give his life meaning has vanished in a puff of smoke. It's all emptiness. The one hint of hope we find from old Qoheleth is his repeated phrase "under the sun." When we ignore the Creator, when we limit our perspective to this world, life is indeed meaningless.

The Psalms ride with us through this whole life journey. There are some basic songs (like 19 or 119) that fit well with Proverbs, and a few (like 23 or 122) that share the youthful passion of Song of Songs (though it's a spiritual or national passion rather than romantic). Some Psalms (like 73 or 137) seem to come from middle age, like Job, dealing with the challenges of life. And a few (like 42 and 90) seem old and weary, like Ecclesiastes.

Don't just read these biblical books—sing them, act them, dance them. Let these creative writings spur your own artistic outpourings. Imagine yourself in the stories, or as the target reader receiving this wisdom for the first time.

Talk back to the text. What would you say to Job's misguided friends? How would you cheer up Qoheleth? What advice would you offer to the couple in Song of Songs?

How do the Psalms capture the key moments of your spiritual journey? Can you find a passage from any of these books to fit the major periods of your life? Could you gather people of different ages to study these books with you? What insight does each person bring at that particular stage of life?

Yes, there are lessons we can learn in these books, but beyond that, there are experiences to encounter. Open your heart and soul to the panorama of life we find here in the Bible's Arts Section.


Want to explore the Bible's arts sections a little more?

Resources on wisdom literature in the Bible »

Randy Petersen
Randy Petersen

Randy Petersen is Director of Scripture Engagement Content for American Bible Society. Writer of more than sixty books and hundreds of church curriculum lessons, he has also served churches as a Bible teacher, small-groups coordinator, drama director, preaching consultant and softball pitcher.

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