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By Robert S. Kinney (draft 4 ­ 09/04/2008)

Poetry is an important and ubiquitous mode of communication. In most cultures, it is a greatly studied and revered artistic type of expression. It is no coincidence that the national stories of ancient Greece and Rome, the journeys of Dante and the masterpieces of Shakespeare are captured in this elevated form. Part of the greatness of this form derives from its complexity. Highly stylized structures and grammatical schemes as well as abundant usage of imagery and symbolism add multiple layers of meaning beyond just plain text. In the case of Hebrew poetry, the subject matter is similarly complex, often neither shallow nor calming. On the contrary, poetry is meant to stir the emotions, challenge common thinking, stretch the mind and touch the soul. But before we begin to explore the poetic form of Hebrew wisdom literature, we should first define the parameters of this study. In this chapter, we have chosen to combine two subjects--or genres--where many theologians and scholars would demand separation. Wisdom literature (typically referring to Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes) and poetry (typically referring to the book of Psalms and other poetic passages found within other books) are somewhat distinct. At the same time, we think it appropriate to treat the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs as a unit of wisdom literature and simply refer to "poetry" as a form of language that appears in each of these books as well as numerous other books of the Old Testament,1 rather than as its own genre. At the same time, the complexity of poetry attributes to the genre a reputation for inaccessibility. Part of this comes from our relative inexperience with poetry as a form of communication. In our culture, we tend to have much more experience working and thinking in prose. We're just not as comfortable with poetry. And this uncertainty exists on many levels, including in modern scholarship. Kaiser puts in terms of "special hermeneutical demands." "Part of the problem exists within the discipline of Bible interpretation itself, for some of the most important decisions about how we are to treat poetry still have not been successfully resolved by the scholars of this form. This means that we often must take a much more tentative attitude in interpreting biblical poetry."2 Yet, there is much we can do to get a good handle on poetry and wisdom.


A good place to start in Hebrew wisdom is this genre's function--what it is meant to do. One need not read very far to see that it does not recount laws and it does very little to move along the plot of a narrative. Because of the visual quality of poetry, it makes sense that we would find it used extensively in the Prophets and Apocalyptic sections of the Old Testament. But poetry, particularly in the wisdom books, has the apparent function of describing things the way they are (or the way they ought to or will be) in visual, nonliteral terms. Wisdom can have the apparent function of providing ethical guidelines, but this is secondary to the function of "succinctly and graphically describing the way things are."3


According to Walter Kaiser, only seven books of the Old Testament lack poetry (Leviticus, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai and Malachi). 2 Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Moises Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 88. 3 Thomas G. Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 56.

One important facet of this function is the relationship between the situation or quality being described and the prescriptive results of that situation or quality. In other words, a proverb or wisdom saying will push us as readers in two different directions: 1) make a reference backward to the situation described and 2) making a reference forward to possible situations in which the proverb could be applied. The tendency, then, will be to equate the two into some sort of universally applicable truth. Poetry's most distinctive quality--nonliteral communication--can become its greatest liability. The book of Proverbs provides a suitable example. Our tendency is to absolutize or universalize the Proverbs. "Instead of treating the proverbs for what their literary genre portends (short, memorable sayings, usually coming from one wellknown event or happening and gathering up the largest number of instances, oftentimes without taking up any or all of the exceptions), the tendency is to take them out of their original context and to make them into universal truths, true for all times, all places and all peoples regardless of any qualifications or cautions."4 "Such reductionism and isolationism turns proverbs into little more than a type of `slogan theology' or instruction manual on personal relations that is meant (contrary to the proverb's very nature) to cover every situation in that category any person will ever face." Proverbs 26.45 will be impossible to examine in this way. Proverbs 26.45 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. A wise man will take into account the nature of the fool and his folly and will apply one of the two of these proverbs accordingly. The proverb is not here to command an action, but to demonstrate what is at stake in taking one of the two approaches. This tendency to read description as prescription--this temptation--must be avoided. In wisdom literature, it is a terrible mistake to assume that the sayings are absolute laws. They are not intended to be such. Your interpretation needs to include the notion that these are general truths and you must remember that the existence of exceptions does not undo the truth of the saying. In Robert H. Stein's words, "the use of poetry in ancient times, as in our own, indicates that the writer is less concerned with precise description or scientific accuracy than with evoking emotions and creating certain impressions."5 An example of the potential for misinterpretation on this front can be found in Proverbs 22.15. Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him. If taken literally, this verse is not only a justification for corporal punishment, but makes it a Biblical imperative. While some would argue that the "rod" is not for paddling (or in the extreme, beating) but

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Walter C. Kaiser Jr., The Old Testament Documents (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity, 2001), 151. Robert H. Stein, Playing by the Rules: A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 102.

for measuring the progress of the child, Proverbs 23.1415 makes clear the subject is corporal punishment. Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol. Furthermore, these verses do not lay out any limits for the paddling/beating that a child should be given; in fact they seem to urge an aggressive use of this kind of physical punishment. It also seems that this kind of physical punishment is recommended for any and all infractions. A rigid, literal interpretation of these verses might leave one with the impression that the fiveyearold girl who leaves some of her peas on her plate should be beaten to teach her about `thankfulness for what she's been given.' After all, `she won't die and it will save her soul.' But, of course, this interpretation goes far beyond what is intended by the verses. The proverbs communicate general truths through images. The point here is that disciplining children is a good thing for them. The specifics of corporal punishment are part of the image, not part of the prescription. So a good spanking may be right and appropriate for some children in some situations. Grounding or other forms of punishment may be more effective for other children or situations. Even simply finishing one's peas may be appropriate. The idea is that the parent with Godly wisdom will discipline their children and make the appropriate decision about the form of punishment. The greater point is that there is a great danger of misinterpretation when one woodenly reads wisdom sayings as universal truths, as though their point is legally binding on the reader. A danger similar to that of rigid overinterpretation is the reduction of wisdom sayings to a mere commentary on the natural order. The wisdom materials of the Bible do not take as their only foundation creation or nature (God's direct revelation through creation), but presuppose also the covenant between God and His people. In other words, wisdom sayings are not natural theology, but practical theology from within a Judaic moral framework6. There is a point in these texts beyond simply living the good life or a life marked by wisdom. We are to live a life in relationship to God. "The wisdom literature and the Psalms speak about the fear of the Lord, which, in its broadest sense, is religion itself. Yet it is also the ancient way of talking about a personal relationship with God. The Psalms and wisdom literature teach us that the fear of the Lord is not merely the vertical relationship (divine/human), but the horizontal, too (human/human)."7 Indeed, this is the major theme of much of the Biblical wisdom materials8 and a subject which we address later in this chapter. For now, the important point is that the wisdom materials of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes are not merely ethical guidelines for good conduct, but connect


For more on this, see: Bruce K. Waltke, "Fundamentals for Preaching the Book of Proverbs, Part 2," Bibliotheca Sacra (April 2008): 138. 7 C. Hassell Bullock, Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, Michael Duduit, ed. (Nashville, Broadman & Holman, 1992), 302. 8 Early wisdom traditions have very little religious piety, but progress to point of centering on the major idea of the fear of God. Marshall D. Johnson, Making Sense of the Bible: Literary Type As an Approach to Understanding, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 11ff.

the reader's relationship with God to his relationship with the people around him.9 "Therefore, wisdom is not offered as a substitute for faith or belief; it is offered to teach those who have found faith in the coming seed of promise through the line of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David about how we are to live the life of obedience as an evidence of that faith."10 Function and Biblical Theology While it is critical to consider the independent function of wisdom literature, it is also important to consider that each of the wisdom books has an integral, functional role in the Bible as well. If we look to our Biblical theology, one way of organizing the whole of Scripture is along eschatological lines--the theme of this life and the next life. In the Torah and historical books (the Old Testament Narrative genre), the people of God are presented blessing only in terms of this life. That is, the reward for obeying God's commandments is remitted in purely earthly terms. Think of Eden. There is no concept of eternity or of anything outside of the garden. Even after the fall, righteousness translated to blessing in this life. Children, land and wealth were the prizes for righteousness. If we look at apocalyptic literature, we find a very different scenario. The rewards for righteousness are purely in terms of the next life. When we look at Revelation, for instance, we see only the eternal heaven of Christ's presence or the everlasting punishment for our present, earthly behavior. Good will triumph over evil and it is our allegiance to Christ in this age that will determine on which side we battle in the last days. Epistolary literature underscores this point by focusing so clearly on the subject of "hope." Paul's letters clearly demonstrate a view that God's blessing is fully realized only in the next life. Success in this life is not guaranteed by righteousness or obedience to God. The other genres of Biblical literature represent a point of transition in the way the reward for obedience is conceived. Indeed, this eschatological question is also a major theme in the prophets. The prophets themselves go to great lengths to connect the presentday sins/injustices to imminent judgment as well as to a more permanent kind of judgment (see Hosea 6.5). But, perhaps, the clearest moment of transition comes in the gospels. Jesus spends a great deal of time teaching his followers about the eternal consequences of unbelief and not just the presentday results of how they live their lives. Wisdom literature represents an important point in this shift of focus from this life to the next life. Whether you read the Bible according to the Christian canonical construction or you read the texts chronologically, the wisdom books first pose the question: why doesn't righteousness determine earthly blessing the way it seemed to do for the Israelites of Moses' day? In other words, why do the wicked prosper on this earth and why do the righteous suffer in our day? Indeed, this eschatological question becomes a significant one in the Proverbs and Psalms and it becomes the dominant theme of


Brevard Childs states this idea well: "The didactic function of biblical wisdom literature is far broader than that which is usually implied by the term ethics. When the sage challenged his pupils to pursue wisdom, it not only involved moral decisions regarding wrong and right behavior, but was an intellectual and pragmatic activity which sought to encompass the totality of experience. Nevertheless, it is striking that the pattern of human conduct, which the sage sought to inculcate, overlapped to a large extent with that set as obedient behavior within the Pentateuch and prescribed for the covenant people." Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 85, note 4. 10 Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church, 8586.

Ecclesiastes and Job. The wisdom materials are the first to conceive of an eternal consequence in place of an earthly one in the blessing system that God has implemented among his people.


Hebrew poetry and wisdom literature has numerous distinct characteristics that make it easy to identify among other Biblical texts. In fact, we've already covered the idea of nonliterality. Making use of this and other characteristics, however, is a more complicated task and one worth digging into here. As a literary genre, wisdom literature tends to include a great deal of poetry but finds its unique properties in its subject matter. Identifying poetry is more an issue of observing literary and grammatical features. That is, poetry involves the issue of form. It is like prose and does many of the same things as prose, but it is quite different in form. Our task is to identify the form and different facets of poetry. Parallelism and Its Functions One of the first and most important scholars on the subject of Hebrew poetry was Robert Lowth, who published a monumental work on the idea of parallelism in 1753.11 While modern scholarship has abandoned many of his conclusions, any study of Hebrew poetry will begin with his pioneering work. He said: "the correspondence of one verse or line with another, I call parallelism. When a proposition is delivered, and a second is subjoined to it, or drawn under it, equivalent, or contrasted with it in sense, or similar to it in the form of grammatical constructions, these I call parallel lines; and the words or phrases, answering one to another in the corresponding lines, parallel terms."12 In other words, lines of Hebrew poetry often appear in pairs (or sometimes triplets) that are related to or correspond to each other in a rather specific ways. These lines are often terse,13 and so easily identified. Scholars subsequent to Lowth have noticed correspondences between larger groups of lines and also termed this parallelism. In these cases, it is best to identify strophes (or stanzas ­ this will be discussed in more detail later) composed of multiple couplets and triplets exhibiting some sort of connection. On the other end of the spectrum, parallelism exists among single words. Scholars have identified as many as 700 pairs14 of words that often appear together in the same order in parallel lines (where word A appears in line 1 and word B appears in line 2). For instance, silver tends to be paired with gold in that precise order (Psalm 68.13, Proverbs 8.10, Proverbs 17.3, Proverbs 27.21, Ecclesiastes 12.6, Song of Solomon 3.10, Isaiah 31.7, etc.).15 The challenge in identifying parallelism among two or more lines is actually in defining the correspondence between the lines. In his framework, Lowth distinguished three different kinds of parallelism: synonymous, antithetic and synthetic. More recent scholars have challenged and abandoned

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In Latin: De sacra poesi Hebraeorum praelectiones academicae, written by Robert Lowth and published in 1753. Robert Lowth, Isaiah: A New Translation, with a Preliminary Dissertation and Notes, Critical, Philological, and Explanatory (Boston: Peirce), 1834. 13 In addition to typically shorter lines, there is less variety in the size of lines in poetry. "The lines tend to be of `equal length,' whereas in prose there is great variety in the size of sentences." Robert H. Stein, Playing by the Rules: A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 101. 14 Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching & Teaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 213. 15 It should be noted, silver and gold appear together frequently, even more often, in the same line rather than in parallel lines. Proverbs 8.19, Proverbs 16.16 and Song of Songs 1.11 are notable examples where the two appear in parallel lines but in reverse order.

his categories, expanded on his work to develop additional kinds of parallelism, and developed different levels of categorization. Of course, there is no universally accepted organizational scheme or set of categories, so we will attempt to synthesize the most common schemes. The first divisions are among phonetic, syntactic and semantic parallelism. It should also be noted that these are not exclusive categories.16 That is, parallel lines can exhibit more than one kind of parallelism at the same time. Phonetic parallelism refers to lines of Hebrew poetry that are related by the sounds of the Hebrew words. As sound is intimately connected to rhyme and meter schemes, we will address this kind of parallelism in the next section. Syntactic parallelism (also called formal or sometimes grammatical parallelism) refers to lines of Hebrew poetry that that are grammatically or formally related to each other (e.g. they have identical or similar sentence structure, the same sequence of nouns and verbs and other parts of speech). As it requires a working knowledge of Hebrew and is often not especially helpful in interpretation, we will not address this kind of parallelism any more than we already have. Semantic parallelism refers to lines of Hebrew poetry that are related to each other by the meanings of the words that appear in each line. Lowth's categories and most of the subsequent categories identified by scholars fit within this branch of parallelism.17 Here, we will identify six: 1. Synonymous Parallelism One kind of parallelism is synonymous parallelism. In it, the second line repeats the first line without altering, adding, or subtracting anything significant. Genesis 4.23 "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: 2. Antithetic Parallelism Another kind of parallelism is antithetic parallelism. In it, the second line of poetry contrasts with or negates the first line in thought or meaning. Proverbs 10.1 A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother. 3. Climactic Parallelism Climactic parallelism is sometimes categorized as a subset of synonymous parallelism. In it, the second line echoes the first, in part, and adds a new element. Psalm 29.1 Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.


In fact, a wonderful text on the linguistic, grammatical, lexical, semantic and phonological aspects of parallelism can be found in Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007). 17 For an extended treatment of categories of semantic parallelism, see Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching & Teaching, 213. Kaiser categorizes some kinds of semantic parallelism into a separate category called "rhetorical parallelism."

4. Emblematic parallelism Another kind of parallelism is emblematic parallelism. In it, a line takes the form of a simile or a metaphor as a figurative statement of the other a straightforward or factual statement. Psalm 42.1 As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. 5. Chiastic Parallelism Another kind of parallelism is chiastic18 parallelism (or chiasmus). In it, multiple lines or elements of lines are stated and then restated in inverse order. The pattern is often shown as ABB'A' or ABCB'A' where C represents a vertex that has no counterpart. Isaiah 11.13b Ephraim shall not be jealous of Judah, and Judah shall not harass Ephraim. In this case, the pattern is ABCC'B'A'. Where A=Ephraim, B=not be jealous/not harass and C=Judah. It would look like this: Ephraim (A) shall not be jealous of (B) Judah, (C) and Judah (C') shall not harass (B') Ephraim. (A') 6. Synthetic Parallelism The last kind of parallelism we're looking at there is synthetic parallelism. In Lowth's work, this category referred to parallel lines in which the second adds to or completes the first. Psalm 2.6 As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill. This is a difficult kind of parallelism to distinguish from those lines which are not semantically parallel at all and can be confused with lines that are only syntactically parallel. What's more, the term is now frequently used to refer to all lines of poetry that don't fit within the other kinds of semantic parallelism. It has really ceased to be a useful category. Psalm 148.712 Praise the LORD from the earth, You great sea creatures and all deeps,


This kind of parallelism is called "chiasmus" as its shape resembles half of the Greek letter chi: .

fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and maidens together, old men and children! This is the most prevalent form of parallelism in the Scripture and the most difficult to identify. While the above scheme appears to be a tidy collection that will surely include every line of poetry in all the Hebrew Bible, modern scholars are more apt to point out the lack of precision in some of the categories. James Kugel mounts a significant challenge to Lowth's categories in his monumental work, The Idea of Biblical Poetry.19 Kugel begins his study of parallelism by abandoning the notion that grammar and idea are the forces which cause parallel lines to be parallel. Rather, he points out that two parallel lines are separated from each other by merely a short (or slight) pause when read aloud. The pair of parallel lines is separated from other nearby lines by a full pause (longer in length than the short pause). In other words, the sound of the spoken word dictates the parallelism of lines. Kugel goes on to explore a variety of relationships that may exist between parallel lines, summarizing his work: "the ways of parallelism are numerous and varied, and the intensity of the semantic parallelism established between clauses might be said to range from `zero perceivable correspondence' to `near zero perceivable differentiation.'20 He goes on to suggest that rather than the two lines, termed A and B, being precisely related (as repetitions or opposites), they might be generally related. "The medial pause all too often has been understood to represent a kind of `equals' sign. It is not; it is a pause, a comma, and the unity of the two parts should not be lost for their division. Indeed, its true character might be more graphically symbolized by a double arrow." Psalm 145.10 All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD, <--> and all your saints shall bless you! "For it is the dual nature of B both to come after A and thus add to it, often particularizing, defining, or expanding meaning, and yet also to harken back to A and in an obvious way connect to it. One might say that B has both retrospective (looking back to A) and prospective (looking beyond it) qualities."21 In other words, Kugel did not believe that the first (A) and second (B) lines were ever stating precisely the same thing (what Lowth termed synonymous parallelism). For instance:


For Kugel, this challenge feeds into another, larger challenge: the very definitions of poetry and prose. For a review of this important discussion in Kugel's work, see Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, 4ff. 20 James Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1981), 17. 21 Ibid., 8.

Isaiah 1.3 The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib. But Israel does not know, my people do not understand. Here, we have two sets of parallel lines--with short pauses indicated by commas and full pauses indicated by periods. Lowth's category of synonymous parallelism would equate the two lines in each couplet, perhaps suggesting simultaneous time and equal meaning. The sense of the first couplet would be: `the ox knows its owner at the same time as and in the same way that the donkey knows its master's trough.' And therefore, `neither Israel nor God's people know God.' Kugel's analysis, however, points out slight differences in the clauses. An ox, while certainly nobody's favorite pet, was generally considered to be better than a donkey. Indeed, there is also a level of relationship considered in the objects of the two verbs. We are meant to consider the ox's relationship with his owner, whereas the donkey's relationship is with the trough. There is, as Kugel puts it, "a climactic descent."22 And so, when we consider that `knows' here really means `obey,'23 the sense of the first line becomes: `An ox obeys its master and even a donkey, at least, seeks to sate its hunger in its master's trough.' The second parallel couplet in the verse then becomes clearer: `But Israel does not obey God this much, my people don't get it at all.' The second line is not merely a restatement of the first, but the inevitable consequence, necessarily coming second. It would not make sense to switch the first and second line in either couplet, the way a typical definition of synonymous parallelism would suggest is possible. Kugel also mounts a challenge to Lowth's "antithetical parallelism" category along the same lines. "For here too A and B would then become independent (opposite) versions of `the same idea,' rather than a single statement. But single statement they are."24 Kugel's contribution to the study of Hebrew Poetry, particularly his emphasis on the intimate progression from the first line to the second,25 can be summarized in the title of his first chapter, "The Parallelistic Line: `A is so, and what's more, B.'"26 Additional Functions of Parallelism

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Ibid., 9. Ibid., 9. 24 Ibid., 13. 25 Cyrus H. Gordon suggests a variant of parallelism that is similar to and yet different from Kugel's ideas. Gordon noticed that, in some cases, an element from line A is omitted in line B. The author, for whatever reason, adds an additional element to line B in order to "balance" it out. Gordon called it a "ballast variant" of parallelism. Psalm 103.7 provides a good example: A [He made known] his ways to Moses, B his acts to the people [of Israel.] For more on the "ballast variant," see Kaiser's notes on Gordon in Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching & Teaching, 220 and Cyrus H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook: Grammar. Texts in Transliteration, Cuneiform Selections, Glossary, Indices, Analecta orientalia: commentationes scientificae de rebus Orientis antique, 35 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1965), 135. 26 James Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History, 1.

The point of identifying parallelism in Hebrew poetry is to illuminate meaning. Transitions among kinds of parallelism can be helpful in identifying structure in a poem and will be addressed later in this chapter. But the true value of parallelism is in its ability to connect words and ideas to each other. Identifying parallel lines can give you a clue to words and ideas that are similar and help you understand phrases that may not be clear. Amos 5.24a But let justice roll down like waters, It may not be immediately evident what is meant by the phrase "roll down like waters." It is clearly a metaphor, but the abstract noun "justice" strangely coupled with the verb "roll" may not be apparent. Is justice to come slowly like a trickle of water inching its way down a large rock in a light drizzle? Is it to flow rapidly down like floodwaters? The parallel line illuminates the meaning. Amos 5.24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. The second line of that parallel makes clear which interpretation we ought to adopt. And getting this verse right is key to understanding the passage as Israel's lack of commitment to justice is being contrasted with empty efforts at sacrifice and worship as a means of pleasing God. In short, parallelism gives you as a reader multiple perspectives and articulations of a single idea. It is the nature of Hebrew poetry to be selfinterpreting. The second line shades the meaning of the first, giving you a clue to the semantic quality and limits of the first. It clarifies. It adds. It protects the intended meaning. It gives a fullness of meaning. And it builds meaning in a way where the focus becomes the entire poetic structure. "Meaning is derived more by the whole than by the parts."27 Figures of Speech In addition to parallelism, poetry is probably most identified with figurative language. There are dozens of different kinds of figurative language. A glossary of these figures can be found in Appendix A. One way of categorizing these figures is: 1. Figures of comparison (simile, metaphor, parable, allegory) 2. Figures of addition/fullness of expression (pleonasm, paronomasia, hyperbole, hendiadys, hendiatris) 3. Figures of relation and association (metonymy, synecdoche) 4. Figures of contrast (irony, litotes, euphemism, figures of omission, zeugma, ellipsis) The thing to remember about figurative language is that it is meant to tickle the imagination, to appeal to your artistic sensibilities, to stir your emotions. The particular use of each figure of speech is inherent to its definition. When it comes to preaching from poetry, there are certain advantages and certain dangers to this visual way of language. In a culture where visual media is so prevalent (television, movies, video games and computer screens are just a few of visual stimuli most people encounter everyday), it is very easy to


Grant T. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 225.

import the flash and entertainment of movies or drama into poetry. We are a culture ready to imagine on a grand scale and in astonishing detail. The danger, of course, is that this tremendous ability to think and relate visually can often be at the expense of the meaning of the text or at the expense of a relationship with the text. Because imagery is such a powerful tool, a preacher must be very sure he understands the meaning of the poetry before he attempts to translate it visually. What's more, the preacher must also protect his congregation's relationship with the text. As Christians, our relationship must be with the Truth of the gospel in the Biblical text and not the illustration of the preacher. So while it may be very easy to translate the imagery of poetry into the media of today, one should do so sparingly. Rhythm and Meter, Rhyme and Alliteration A sense of rhythm and meter is probably one of the most difficult aspects of Hebrew poetry. Poetry, by its very definition, includes a sense of rhythm or meter. In English, this would include schemes of rhyming, syllable counts and emphasis or accent on particular points (e.g. Shakespeare's iambic pentameter). But, if we do not know Hebrew, we will have some linguistic difficulties in identifying the meter and rhythm of Hebrew poetry. Even if we have Hebrew skills, this is no simple task. Presently, scholars know very little about how sound and rhythm work in Hebrew poetry. Indeed, many have concluded that there is no rhythmic quality or meter.28 There aren't really any ancient poetry textbooks that would give us a clue. Rhythm ­ that is, a scheme of emphasized and deemphasized syllables ­ would be nearly impossible to reproduce in English even if it exists in Hebrew. What's more, rhyme tends not to work in Hebrew poetry the way it does in English. Hebrew poems do not end consecutive lines with similar sounds the way Frost does ("Whose woods these are, I think I know, His house is in the village, though"). In Hebrew, rather, it is far more likely to find clusters of words that have similar sounds. One form of this is called alliteration. There are numerous examples of alliteration in Hebrew poetry (clusters of words that start with the same sound). For instance, Job 14.2:

He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not. "Comes out," "flower" and "shadow" all focus on the same sound, the Hebrew letter: tsadeh. Person and Point of View Another characteristic of poetry, particularly in the Psalms, is the point of view from which the poem is written. Poetry, indeed all written material, is composed from a point of view, also called the grammatical person. It is easiest to distinguish first person, second person and third person by looking at subjective pronouns. The pronouns "I" (singular) and "we" (plural) are first person. The pronoun "you" is second person and refers to the addressee. "You" is used in both the singular and plural in English. "He," "she," "it," (singular) and "they" (plural) are third person. Any noun other than the speaker and the addressee is referred to in the third person. Hebrew poetry, much more than prose, frequently shifts from one person to another. Observing these shifts can be helpful in interpreting your text. Look at Psalm 121:


See James Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History, 1.

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore. Notice how the person shifts between the first and second strophes. The subject transitions from first person to third. The object transitions from third person to second. Christopher Ash, the Director of the Cornhill Training Course, suggests that these transitions have something to do with the communal aspect of the Psalms and, indeed, much of Hebrew poetry. Many of the Psalms were meant for public reading. That we would have an element proposed by one person and then affirmed by another (or even a choir) makes sense. It forms what we would, today, refer to as "call and response." And noticing these shifts will help you get at the reason for the composition of a psalm in the first place. It will also help you get at the shape--or structure--of a poem. Before moving on to structure and context, there are a few things you can do to help yourself when attempting a grammatical analysis. First, teach yourself enough Hebrew to be able to pronounce words. Of course, it would be ideal that you learn the grammar and style and be able to sighttranslate29. Of course, this requires a serious time

Additional linguistic clues: For those who have a good grasp of the Hebrew language, there are certain linguistic markers worth noting according to Kaiser. First, again, is selh. It occurs seventyone times in thirtynine psalms as well as three times in Habakkuk. Unfortunately, no one knows what it means and whether it is meant to mark the beginning, end, high point or even any point in a strophe. Second, Hebrew poetry often leaves out a noun or verb in the second line, thus leaving no parallel form to balance the line. Third, Hebrew poetry also is generally written without conjunctions (and, or, nor), temporal indicators (when, then) or logical transitions (thus, therefore). It also generally lacks the directobject marker et, the relative pronoun ` aser (who, which, that) and the narrative form of the Hebrew verb (consisting of the conjunction "and" plus the imperfect tense). The important thing to remember is that these characteristics are not always reflected in translations. The pronominal suffixes have peculiar forms in poetry. For m, am, em ("their," "them") we find the longer forms mo, amo, emo. For the plural ending of nouns n (in) takes the place of m (im), as in Aramaic (see Job 4:2; 12:11), and frequently obsolete case endings are preserved, but their functions are wholly lost. Thus, we have the old nominative ending o in Psalms 50:10, etc., the old genitive ending i in Isaiah 1:21, and the accusative ah in Psalms 3:3. With respect to syntax: the article, relative pronoun,


commitment. Yet, you will do well to be able to read it out loud. Then read your text out loud numerous times. The idea is that you will begin to pick up on the alliterations, the rhythm and the meter. Second, write out the text (especially if it is your own translation) and arrange the lines according to parallelism (couplets or triplets) and in strophes. This will help you identify structure (see below). Third, get a good literal translation of the Bible, such as the NASB or ESV. It should be very far on the end of the literal or wordforword translation (not toward dynamic equivalence). This will give you some clues about the rhythm, meter and alliteration in the passage. But this translation alone will not be enough. You will need the metaphor or the thought translated as well. Good places to look for this help are Biblical dictionaries and encyclopedias on this subject. Less precise but still helpful are dynamic translations and paraphrases of the Bible. You can also look in good exegetical/critical commentaries for comments on the Hebrew rhythm and meter. Another useful practice (apart from studying your particular passage) is to compare prose and poetic accounts of the same events. For instance, look at Exodus 14 (prose) and Exodus 15 (poetry). Notice how the linguistic characteristics of each passage help you understand the events in a different way. See how the literary forms contribute to your understanding. Then look at Judges 4 (prose) and Judges 5 (poetry). Repeat the exercise.30


Discovering the shape or structure of your passage is critical to understanding and especially teaching the passage. Indeed, the patterns of emphasis and deemphasis in your passage will be helpful in determining the essential truth(s) of the passage and how best to structure your sermon. Finding the pattern of emphasis--the gravity of the passage--can be done in a few ways. First, using parallelism (particularly shifts between kinds of parallelism), you can identify strophes. These strophes will be very helpful in starting to organize the themes of the passage. Kaiser, rather poignantly, identifies the main task in a discussion of the Proverbs in his book Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament. "Just as one must determine the main theme or topic sentence of every paragraph in a prose genre or the major idea of every scene in a narrative genre, so here one must see how each smaller grouping of individual proverbs contributes to the theme of the collection or larger group in this chapter or part of the chapter. When these minor groupings have been identified, then one must ask how each contributes to the total subject in which they are embraced."31 But, of course, the pattern of strophes is just the beginning. Often, there are so many strophes in a single psalm or passage that identifying strophes is only marginally more useful than identifying single lines. In these cases, you will need to use other features of the poem to divide it into groups of lines and groups of strophes. "(1) notable changes in rhythm or length of lines (shortening or lengthening the final line of a strophe); (2) repeated catchwords (such as the reiterated call `Yahweh' and the use of introductory or closing formulae such as `Thus says the Lord' or `Says the Lord'; and (3) chiasmus or `introverted parallelism' (e.g., a fourline strophe is so arranged that the first and fourth line correspond

accusative singular 'eth and also the "wawconsecutive" are frequently omitted for the sake of the rhythm. There are several examples of the last in Psalms 112:10. The construct state which by rule immediately precedes nouns has often a preposition after it. The jussive sometimes takes the place of the indicative, and the plural of nouns occurs for the singular. 30 For a good treatment of these comparisons, see Robert H. Stein, Playing by the Rules: A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, 102105. 31 Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church, 91.

to each other as do the second and third--and ABBA pattern)."32 Anacrusis (a word or few words that fall outside of basic parallel structure, like "How" in Lamentations 1.1) and distant parallelism (like Psalms 18.39 and 18.41 where smite and annihilate are parallel words but separated by four lines of poetry) are also helpful in identifying strophes. Repetition Repetition is a helpful marker in poetry. Unlike prose, which most often appears in paragraphs, poetry is typically organized as strophes or stanzas (like verses to a song) that are marked in other ways. In some places, we are clued in to see the strophes because of refrains (a feature of Ugaritic poetry). This occurs in 18 of the Psalms (39, 4243, 44, 46, 49, 56, 57, 59, 62, 67, 78, 80, 99, 107, 114, 136, 144, 145).33 Take a look at Psalms 4243. As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, "Where is your God?" These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God, my rock:


Paraphrasing Charles Franklin Kraft in Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching & Teaching, 216. 33 According to Kaiser, Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching & Teaching, 215.

"Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?" As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, "Where is your God?" Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me! For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. An entire strophe is repeated, providing the basic structure of the passage. What are left are three sections with three distinct themes (the thirst for God, the cause for anxiety and a call for vindication). The refrain provides the connective tissue among the sections and encapsulates the theme of the passage. Once you've recognized the repetition and divided the psalm accordingly, you will have a very basic outline. Formal Elements of the Psalms Harder than identifying different sections is in determining the themes or functions of the different sections. For the Psalms, it will be helpful to know the particular flavor of psalm you have before you.34


For obvious reasons, strategies for determining themes of sections of a poem differ widely in the other wisdom books. See the next section on "Literary Context" for more help dissecting Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs.

Many psalms are known to have certain elements in a certain order--a format that is typical of the genre and consistent among many of the Psalms. Here, it is useful to divide the Psalms into types or genres.35 Knowing the differences among these various types can be useful in figuring out the kind of psalm you are reading (if you recognize the progression of the elements) or in identifying the shape of the psalm if you happen to know its particular type from its occasion. Of course, to make things slightly more challenging, you should also remember that not every psalm in a particular poetic genre will display all of the elements nor will the elements always be displayed in the same order36. LAMENTS Laments are psalms "which either express or presuppose a deep trust in Yahweh, help a person to express struggles, suffering or disappointment to the Lord." 37 There are both individual laments (e.g. 3, 31, 42, 71, 88) and corporate laments (e.g. 12, 44, 94). This group is the largest among genres of Psalms and includes more than 60 examples. The elements of a lament can include: Address: The author declares to whom the psalm is sung or prayed. This is typically God. Complaint: The author declares a complaint against God (or enemies) concerning the trouble he/they are experiencing. Trust: The author expresses trust in God. Deliverance: The author appeals to God for salvation/deliverance from the difficult circumstances. Assurance: The author declares that God will deliver him/them. Praise: The author expresses thanks and praise to God for His grace. THANKSGIVING PSALMS Thanksgiving psalms are those that function nearly opposite to laments. They declare joy and gratitude at what God has done, is doing and will do for His people. According to Stuart and Fee, there are six corporate thanksgiving psalms (65, 67, 75, 107, 124, 136) and 10 individual thanksgiving psalms (18, 30, 32, 34, 40, 66, 92, 116, 118, 138). The elements of thanksgiving psalms can include: Introduction: The author summarizes how God has helped him/them. Distress: The author describes the situation from which deliverance was required. Appeal: The author restates the appeal for deliverance. Deliverance: The author appeals to God for salvation/deliverance from the difficult circumstances. Testimony: The author praises God for His mercy. PSALMS OF CELEBRATION AND AFFIRMATION These songs typically focus particular aspects of God's promises to his people, such as covenant renewal, the David covenant or the psalms dealing with kingship (also frequently called Royal psalms). This group includes Psalms 50 and 81 (covenant renewal), Psalms 89 and 132 (Davidic covenant), Psalms 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110 144 (Royal psalms), Psalms 24, 29, 47, 93, 9599 (enthronement psalms), Psalms 46, 48, 76, 84, 87, 122 (songs of Zion) and Psalms 120134 (songs of ascents). Please note that


For more on categories of Psalms, see Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993) and also Marshall D. Johnson, Making Sense of the Bible: Literary Type As an Approach to Understanding, 27. See also Tremper Longman III, How to Read the Psalms (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity, 1988). 36 Scholars, of course, do not universally agree on the particular genres of Psalms. We are adopting Stuart's and Fee's organizational scheme. For more on the following, see from Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, 2nd ed., 212220. 37 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, 2nd ed., 212.

Psalm 18 is also a thanksgiving psalm and Psalm 144 is also a lament. Because of the tremendous variety of psalms in this category, it is difficult to isolate a particular scheme or grouping of elements. HYMNS OF PRAISE Hymns of praise typically focus on God for his works (frequently creation or on behalf of his people) without reference to particular personal complaints or acts of deliverance. Examples include Psalms 8, 33, 66, 104, 145147 and several others. The elements of a hymn of praise can include: Introduction: The author calls his people to worship, typically beginning with an imperative (in the second person plural) or some sort of bidding formula ("Oh come, let us sing to the Lord...," from Psalm 95.1). Motive: The author states his/their motive for praising God. Recapitulation: Frequently, the author will end the poem with an additional summons to praise (echoing or restating the initial call). SALVATIONHISTORY PSALMS These poems focus on God's historic preservation of His people and frequently take the tone of a storyteller conveying this history. The typical response, of course, is praise and so these few psalms may be considered a subset of hymns of praise. This group consists of Psalms 78, 105, 106, 135 and 136. These songs are typically structured as hymns of praise and can include similar elements. WISDOM PSALMS These songs address the subject of Godly wisdom, a theme to be discussed later in this chapter. They can be identified by observing one or more of several features: a focus on contrasting the righteous and wicked, descriptions of conduct that result in misfortune, general statements about the "fear of God," and many others.38 The group consists of Psalms 36, 37, 49, 73, 112, 127, 128 and 133. Many would also include Proverbs 9. The elements typically included in wisdom psalms are difficult to determine as they tend not to be connected to specific liturgical occasions or other historical activities requiring public singing. As such, they structurally tend to resemble proverbs more than other psalms. SONGS OF TRUST This last type of psalm focuses on God's trustworthiness in the face of difficult circumstances and his people's expression of this trust. The group consists of Psalms 11, 16, 23, 27, 62, 63, 91, 121, 125 and 131. Structurally speaking, a song of trust is very much like a lament and may even be considered a subset of the lament category of psalms. The elements typically included in a song of trust are the same as those of laments. In considering the occasions of the Psalms, it is also important to consider that many were written as prayers to God as well as for particular liturgical events to be undertaken by people. In other words: "Because the Bible is God's Word, many Christians automatically assume that all it contains are words from God to people. Thus they fail to recognize that the Bible also contains words spoken to God or about God--which is what the psalms do--and that these words, too are God's Word."39

Literary Context


Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 188189. 39 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, 2nd ed., 205.

One of the most important facets of Hebrew wisdom literature and poetry, given their terseness and subject matter, is actually their literary context. As we suggested earlier in this chapter, it is very easy to misread a Hebrew poem by reading too literally or rigidly, by absolutizing into law the situation or moment that the poet and sage are describing. Often, a partner transgression in this kind of misreading is ripping the poem or wisdom statement from its literary context. "General statements become absolute commands when interpreters fail to note the strong clarification added when they consider the whole of Scripture on a particular issue."40 For example, an authoritarian parent may read the desires of their own hearts into the proverbs. Proverbs 1.8 Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and forsake not your mother's teaching, Many expositors and more than a few parents have interpreted this verse as suggesting that a child's first duty is obedience to the parent's command. Whether the parent suggests illegal or harmful activity is no matter, a child's trust in God is measured by his obedience to his parents. And if the parents disagree or offer incompatible commands, well, that is just Junior's tough luck. In this case, simply reading on in the literary context of the statement (through its restatement in Proverbs 6.20) will reveal clarification. The first half of chapter 4, for example, makes fairly clear that the larger passage is meant to teach the child about the value of adhering to a parent's good wisdom and learning from a parent's experiences. What's more, the larger passage instructs parents on a great many bits of Godly wisdom to pass along to their children. It never suggests that a parent's poor advice and malicious commands should be obeyed. It is clear from literary context that the author of Proverbs 1.8 assumes that the parent's commands adhere to Godly wisdom and then goes on to explain what he means. In other words, reading the whole of the book will give you, as a reader, a better understanding of the situation that the original readers experienced. It is entirely unlikely that any given passage was meant to stand alone when you consider the original audience. Elsewhere in your training, you have encountered lessons on this concept: Traveling Instructions (the idea of considering the original audience's situation as revealed in the entire book) and Melodic Line (identifying the central theme of a book to which every shorter passage relates). And so, when reading your passage, you must ask yourself a few questions: 1. Who is the original audience? What can I learn about them from this book and other books? How might their situation affect my understanding of my passage? 2. What is the main theme of the book? How might it relate to my passage and therefore affect my understanding of my passage? Given the importance of literary context, a few notes on the main theme and structures of the wisdom and poetic books of the Hebrew Bible will be helpful.


Grant T. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 2nd ed., 251.

Earlier in this chapter, we looked at the theme of "the fear of the Lord," in Hebrew poetry. This theme gets at the primary purpose and function of wisdom literature: affecting how one is to live in relationship to God. JOB Our tendency in studying Job will be to focus heavily on the dramatic elements at the beginning of the book and the end and ignore the middle of the book. Indeed, many summaries of the book speak little of chapters 341. Understanding the book will mean possessing the discipline to study the whole of the book. And when we study the whole book, it becomes clear that the main point really comes out of Job's interactions with his friends and, eventually, with God. The dramatic bits at the beginning and end are not really the point; rather they provide the setting for Job and his friends and God to say what they say in the middle. Job's thought process climaxes in chapters 2728. And while he gets the main idea, he still has more to say in the following chapters. Elihu intervenes just before God speaks and reveals to Job the wonders of Creation. Job's conclusion in 28.28 is affirmed. Here is an outline with some key verses: Job 12 Opening Drama Job 1.1/1.8/2.3 (description of Job) Job 1.9 (Satan's question that launches the whole book) Job 3 Job's Lament Job 414 First Cycle Job 4.6 (Eliphaz challenges Job) Job 1521 Second Cycle Job 15.1/15.4 (Eliphaz accuses Job) Job 2226 Third Cycle Job 2728 Job `s Summary Job 28.28 (concludes what wisdom is) Job 2931 Job's Final Discourse Job 3237 Elihu Intervenes Job 37.2324 (men fear the Almighty/contrast) Job 3842.6 God Speaks With Job Job 42.717 Drama Resolves PSALMS The macrostructure of the Psalms is, given the size of the book, somewhat complicated. Tradition breaks the Psalter into five books with an introduction and conclusion.41 Psalms 1, 2 Introduction Two main themes of the Psalms emerge here from the very first words: the idea of meditating on and obeying God's law (see 1.1 and 2.11) and the idea of an anointed king/son. Psalms 341 Book 1 These psalms focus on David and, particularly, his interactions with his enemies. This book may have originally been combined with Book 2 (given their focus on David). Psalms 4272 Book 2 These psalms also primarily focus on David, beginning with a brief interlude of songs attributed to the sons of Korah (Psalms 4249).


For more on this structure, see Grant T. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 2nd ed., 223.

Psalms 7389 Book 3 Psalms 90106 Book 4 Psalms 107145 Book 5

The first 10 psalms in this book are attributed to Asaph and are comprised mostly of laments. These psalms are far more hopeful than in the previous book and make more use of historical material (Moses is frequently mentioned). These psalms also are more confident and return to the model of the admired king: David. These psalms include the socalled "Songs of the Ascents" (Psalms 120143).

Psalms 146150 Conclusion The Psalter closes with praise for God. Because of the size of the Psalter, it is difficult to isolate a single dominant theme that runs throughout, though many have agreed that the introductory two chapters are a pretty good start. The main theme of wisdom literature--the fear of the Lord--is expectedly present both implicitly and explicitly (see Psalms 19.9, 34.11 and 111.10 as well as the Wisdom Psalms: Psalms 36, 37, 49, 73, 112, 127, 128 and 133). PROVERBS The book of Proverbs lends itself most prominently and appropriately to the "fear of the Lord" theme of wisdom literature. Beginning with what is considered a purpose statement in the book, Proverbs 1.17 climax in antithetic parallelism: Proverbs 1.7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. Several more times the book of Proverbs makes this point. See Proverbs 2.56, 8.1415, 9.10, 16.6, 31.30 for some of the more explicit statements. The structure of the book also points to this theme: Proverbs 19 father to son passing of knowledge Proverbs 1022.16 Solomon's collection of terse statements (the way things are) Proverbs 22.1724.22, 24.2334 two groups of fatherly exhortations Proverbs 2529 more sayings (revisiting Solomon, compiled by Hezekiah's men) Proverbs 30 statements on a hidden Creator/idiosyncrasies of his creatures Proverbs 31 mother and wife share wisdom

When preaching through Proverbs, it is very tempting to take one or two statements at a time, ignoring the immediate context. On the surface, individual proverbs very much appear to be haphazardly organized and even unconnected. "There is more connection and contextual relationship between an individual proverb and the ones preceding and following it than has been acknowledged heretofore."42 Indeed, more is to be gained if you consider clusters of proverbs that focus on similar topics. ECCLESIASTES When reading the book of Ecclesiastes, it is nearly impossible to miss the word: hebel. While it cannot be approximated in English by any single word, it is translated as "breath," "vapor," "vanity," "futility,"


Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church, 89.

and even "absurdity." It appears 38 times in the book, marking it as the dominant theme. The subject matter of the book reads like a lab report of activity and prosperity among his fellow citizens. The writer, coyly known as Qohelet, treats the world as series of experiments, measuring a person's righteousness and wickedness and comparing it to their corresponding blessing or misery. He concludes clearly and often that neither this knowledge nor the blessings available to the wicked or righteous will satisfy. Instead, he finishes the book with a simple realization: "The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil." While some will dispute that these verses were part of the original manuscript (and, instead, were later appended by an editor), Ecclesiastes 12.1314 brings the book to a conclusion consistent with the rest of wisdom literature.43 SONG OF SONGS Many will look at the book completely allegorically. That is, they will ignore much of what is going on in the book. And the hottest moments will suddenly become about "revival." While it is not out of the realm of possibility that this poem is an allegory for the covenantal relationship between God and Israel (or later Christ and the Church for that matter), we should also look at it in terms of its designation as wisdom literature. This context can be seen by comparing it to Proverbs 5.15 23. Notice how `drink,' `water,' `well,' `breasts' and `love' are terms and images central to the Song of Songs. Notice how the `doe' image rings of the `gazelles' in Song of Songs. "What is explicit in Proverbs is implicit in the Song, and what it is enjoined by way of instruction in Proverbs is celebrated as an experienced reality in the Song."44 Many, like Mark Dever in The Message of the Old Testament: Promises Made,45 will then look at the book as a series of poems or love songs concerning (primarily the physical) aspects of the male/female relationships. Basically, the author is relaying experientially, from his own observations, the divine truth of the male/female marriage relationship. And when you consider Proverbs 5.1523 and numerous other passages in wisdom literature where the theme centers on the subjects of sexual and marital relationships, it becomes clear that Song of Songs does belong in wisdom literature.

Historical and Canonical Context

While some scholars would separate historical context from canonical context (and to be sure, there are noncanonical historical sources that will enrich the reading of Hebrew poetry and wisdom), much of what we know of the "occasion" of Biblical poem comes from elsewhere in the Bible. When considering historical documents ­ and therefore the Biblical text ­ the idea of history tends to elicit a certain kind of rigidity in interpretation. So in preaching gospel or Old Testament narrative, for instance, part of the resonance and meaning springs from the fact ­ tacked in the back of the mind ­ that this really happened. The ideas would lose their value if the historical fact of the situation described were proven untrue. In poetry, however, we are free from that literality. Indeed, the imagery chosen and the hypotheticals suggested often make literality impossibility. The force of the words is the magic, the divine element. The inspiration is not in the reality, but in the construction of the text.

43 44

The concluding verses are also consistent with earlier moments in Ecclesiastes like in Ecclesiastes 5.7. Barry G. Webb, Five Festal Garments (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity, 2000) 30. 45 Along with its New Testament companion, they are a helpful pair of books for looking at the main themes of each book of the Bible. They are available from Crossway Publishers.

Yet, poetry will often find itself in a historical context. Poetry is often interspersed in narrative prose as a celebratory song, dirge, oracle, oratory, prophecy, reflective element or didactic argument for the purpose of heightening or summarizing some part of the prose. But it almost never functions within narrative to move along the plot or some key part of the narrative tale. There are a few exceptions (Psalm 78, 105, 106) that might fall into a category like "epic poetry." But, for the most part, Hebrew poetry avoids narrative functions. At the same time, poetry has a context. It was often written for a specific occasion. It was often written in response to a historical event (the connections between David's life as it is described in the books of Samuel and in the psalms he wrote are important). Poetry served a particular function in the community. 1 Samuel 2.110. "My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation. There is none holy like the LORD; there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed." "The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD's, and on them he has set the world." "He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might shall a man prevail. The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth;

he will give strength to his king and exalt the power of his anointed." Look at the context of the poem. The song has two contexts. First is the personal context, on the small scale. This can be seen by looking at 1 Samuel 1 (the preceding chapter) and the slightly dysfunctional little family that opens the book. But there is also a larger context. In the Hebrew Bible, 1 Samuel follows Judges. What's the refrain in Judges? "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (see Judges 17.6). And so, the careful reader of Judges will begin 1 Samuel already with two significant questions in mind: `There is no king in Israel. So when do we get a king? What will he be like?' The passage begins to answer those questions. Verses 13: These statements are very personal to Hannah. The poem begins with a personal plea. Look at verse 3. She is likely talking about her rival from 1 Samuel 1.6. Verse 48: Then Hannah moves to a series of statements that are very general, having very little to do with her specific situation. We see a series of suggestive contrasts--suggestive to one familiar with the Gospel message. Notice how the author uses antithetic parallelism. Verses 910: The antithetic parallelism continues but the scope is once again widened. The author is no longer talking about just particular groups of people, but all the saints and all those who would do evil. "The LORD will judge the ends of the earth." This song celebrates the consistency of God in rescuing His people in both the small scale of Hannah's specific family situation and also the large scale of all of God's people. The song explores "what kind of king" Israel will have. Notice how the very last lines make this idea abundantly clear. And who is Hannah's son? If you keep reading in 1 Samuel, exploring further the canonical context, you will learn that he is the one who anoints the first king of Israel. She named him Samuel because she asked for him (like Israel repeatedly asked for a king).

Gospel Context

The question we ask ourselves when we consider Gospel Context is: does this genre typically point to Christ and His death and resurrection in any particular way? In this case, can we identify any rhyme or reason to the relationship between texts in the Hebrew wisdom and poetry genre and the gospel message? The answers generally fall into a several categories ­ many attempts have been made to connect Hebraic texts to the gospel via typology, theology, linguistics and other methods. Because there are few characters and little characterization46 of those characters in wisdom and poetry, typology47 of a person is rarely, if ever, an appropriate means of getting from a specific passage to

46 47

For more on characterization, see the Old Testament Narrative materials from this course. Typology, like imagery, is a kind of symbolism. It is very common to transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament via symbolism. For the purpose of this study, we are using a narrow definition of typology as that referring only to specific characters and their traits. More general typological connections, such as that in the Psalms of the "tormented king who is ultimately justified" to Jesus Christ, are appropriate. The difference between an image of a "tormented king" and a historical

Christ. More often in wisdom and poetry, imagery and theology connect the text to the gospel. That is, the gospel typically emerges in wisdom and poetic passages either through the figurative language chosen by the poet or through the main teaching point of the passage. Imagery Imagery is at once a convenient, rich and often poorly executed way of connecting Hebrew wisdom and poetry to the gospel message. The ease and convenience comes from prominent use of figurative and emotional language in poetry. Therein also is the danger. Anytime the word "blood" is mentioned, for instance--never mind the context or point of the author--one can linguistically connect the text to Jesus Christ. And so Proverbs 30.33 ("For pressing milk produces curds, pressing the nose produces blood, and pressing anger produces strife.") ceases to be about the folly of inducing strife with anger (like inducing a bloody nose), and instead becomes about something to do with Christ's propitiatory blood sacrifice on the cross. And, more often than not, the folly of the preacher is revealed in his absurdity. The challenge, then, becomes understanding the figurative language of the poet in the context of his main point. Only then can you consider the reasons he chose the figurative or emotional language. For example, consider Psalm 124. Psalm 124 If it had not been the LORD who was on our side-- let Israel now say-- if it had not been the LORD who was on our side when people rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us; then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us; then over us would have gone the raging waters. Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth! We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped! Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth. When you read the four lines about flooding at the end of the first strophe, it is very tempting to immediately assume the position of historical context. You might think: `the author is clearly talking about the flood in Exodus 14.' You may be right, even. But, you may also be wrong. In making that

account of a "tormented king" in wisdom literature is subtle. Images, symbolically prefiguring Christ, are far more common in wisdom literature than actual historical accounts that "prophetically" prefigure Christ.

assumption, you will have forgotten that the author of the psalm is using the flood as an image, a metaphor to describe something in principle. In restricting it to one historical instance, however plausible, you might miss the richness of the metaphor. A brief study in Biblical theology will reveal that "water" is everywhere in Scripture. It is used to enact God's judgment on people to be sure (Genesis 78, Exodus 14, etc.). But it is also the metaphor for cleansing, the means of Baptism and even the metaphor for salvation (Isaiah 12.3, John 7.37, etc.). In realizing the depth of this metaphor, you are able to see not just the passing of God's judgment (as the Genesis and Exodus connections demonstrate), but you are poised to see what the water brings. In other words, you need not be restricted to the negative image of escape in Psalm 124, rather you can enjoy the positive image of the benefit to "being on God's side." At the very least, you will be ready to consider the full range of "water" metaphors and able to easily show the purifying and cleansing quality of water in a New Testament--gospel--context. Theology As we alluded to earlier in this chapter, the rhetorical function of wisdom and poetry (and particularly the eschatological implications) as well as the main theme (of "the fear of the Lord") both provide a rich theological context from which to work. The important thing in transitioning from your text to the gospel context is ensuring that you have gotten the theology of the passage right. You must rigorously dig into your text, bringing out of it all that is there and compellingly connecting your text to its contexts (literary, historical, canonical, etc.). Once you can clearly see the lines drawn between your text and the main themes of wisdom literature, you will be able to address the gospel implications. In the cases of Job and Ecclesiastes, the negative worldview described in these books highlights the need for one to put it right: the Messiah who will justify. "These books delineate the need or the necessity for such a person in human history. To make sense out of the injustices of life and the inequities of human existence, the human dilemma demands that there be some provision in the divine economy to cover these injustices and inequities."48 Job states this idea explicitly. Job 19.2527 For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me! Job and Qohelet look for answer to God's silence. They look to God--as should we--and God demonstrates personal answers to Job in creation and to us in Christ. God says, `See, I speak', as he reveals Creation in chapters 3841. Similarly, he speaks to us when he gives us his WORD in John 1.


C. Hassell Bullock, Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, Michael Duduit, ed. (Nashville, Broadman & Holman, 1992), 299.

In the cases of Psalms, Proverbs and Song of Songs, the path to gospel context comes more from the main theme(s) of wisdom literature: "the fear of God." This theme speaks to one's relationship with God and, often, one's obedience to God's commandments. The bulk of Proverbs and Song of Songs address how one is to live in a world where God's doctrine is presumed. And so we must ask ourselves: "What are the theological norms and informing doctrines announced in earlier Scriptures that are encapsulated in this new proverbial grouping that forms the basis for our lesson or sermon? Proverbs teaches that all of human life is lived in the context of a sovereign God who has showed us how we ought to live. There is a pattern or order that comes as a gift from God for all of life and for all of its relationships."49 Application of these passages then turns on this question: how does our relationship with the sovereign God (his commandments, our obedience, etc.) actually work? The answer, of course, comes through our faith in Jesus Christ. Unlike the original audience, who would have seen the practical advice of Proverbs and Song of Songs or the examples of the Psalms through the framework of the God of Israel, we apply these notions in a Christian framework. And so, our parental duties (e.g. Proverbs) or spousal privileges (e.g. Song of Songs) are not experiences out of merely a relational "fear of God," but in relationship and out of faith in God through his Son, Jesus Christ. This point, while seemingly subtle, is incredibly important and, perhaps, more easily seen in example. Gospel Context: An Example The psalms, in particular, demonstrate the importance of reflection and meditation on things God has done in the world and for us, balancing the extremes of rigid theological readings and sentimental readings (drawn from the imagery of a passage). Psalm 130 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy! If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.


Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 92.

A good first step in reading the psalm (or any Biblical passage) is to break it down into its structural elements and begin to summarize the content. In this case, the psalm is four strophes of two parallels each (the third strophe has a repeated line in the second parallel). The imagery is fairly straightforward, drawing more on emotion than metaphor. There are also a few obvious transitions between LORD and Lord. The presence of LORD is important because in identifying this God, Yahweh, we are compelled to connect this psalm to the God of the Bible through historical and literary context.50 Verse 12: In the first strophe, the author cries out of the depths in his difficult circumstances. Verse 34: In the second strophe, he makes a statement about the character of God. Verse 56: In the third strophe, he makes a statement about waiting using an image of comparison in the fourth line (and repeating it in the fifth). Verse 78: In the last strophe, he is assured of the character of God, especially the redemptive character. Look at how the author connects the idea of his tragic, terrible circumstances in the first strophe to his iniquity in the second. Why would he make such a connection? This is where we must employ our theology. It may be obvious to us in our study, but it is still worth pointing out to our listeners. There is a connection between our sin and the awful condition of our world (look at the curse in Genesis 3 for the origin on this idea). Notice how, in his despair, the psalmist's first reaction is to meditate on his own iniquity. Often, there may be a onetoone correlation between our sins and our troubles, but, frequently there is not. In this case, given that it is where the author turned, we ought to treat the text as describing one of those situations where "the depths" the author is experiencing is intimately connected to sin. It makes sense when we look at our theology. It is normal and right for the righteous judge to "mark iniquity," not to pass over our iniquity. Yet, as Christians, we know about the righteous judge who, through his sacrifice and taking our place, allows our iniquities to be passed over. At this point, it is appropriate to connect the main theme of the passage to the heart of the gospel message (e.g. maybe in Romans 3). After seeing the author's description of his circumstances and hearing his presumption that it has to do with his sin, we might expect him to turn to sacrificial rites or some other means of actively correcting, reversing or compensating for his sins. Are we surprised by the third couplet? When faced with difficult circumstances, isn't it our tendency to want to solve the problems? We are very much a fixit culture. We want to check the problems off of our lists. We want to apply the easy, simple medicine. It's our instinct. Yet the author takes a deliberate and even emotional moment to revel in the forgiveness provided by the LORD. It's only in his forgiveness that waiting is worthwhile. That is, we wouldn't want to be waiting in a condemned only state, rather we would want to wait in a forgiven state. Without that statement about forgiveness in verse 4, there is no point in waiting. But we wait as forgiven people.


On this example of Psalm 130, much is owed to Christopher Ash and the Proclamation Trust.

There is a clever word play here as well. The word watch (part of "watchmen" in verse 6) is the same as "mark" back in verse 3. The idea is that we watch for God with the hope that he does not watch our sin (i.e. he has forgiven us). It is no surprise that the last stanza begins with this notion of hope. So we continue to hope in God for the forgiveness of our sins. He holds on to the steadfast love of God and his promise to save Israel ­ his Word of promise (referenced in verse 5). Once you have considered the possibilities of waiting as a condemned person and waiting as a forgiven person in the context of iniquity and difficult circumstances and once you have identified the hopeful tone of the last two strophes, it is quite natural to answer for your people the question of how one could be hopeful in our world of difficult circumstances, sin and judgment. The answer, of course, is found in the Gospel message.


Adam, Peter. Speaking God's Words. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1996. Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative New York: BasicBooks, 1983. Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York: BasicBooks, 1987. Anderson, Bernhard W. Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000. Arnold, Bill T. and John H. Choi. A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Arthurs, Jeffrey D. Preaching with Variety: How to ReCreate the Dynamics of Biblical Genres. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007. Berlin, Adele. The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007. Carson, D.A. Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996. Chapell, Bryan. ChristCentered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005. Clowney, Edmund P. Preaching Christ in All of Scripture. Wheaton: Crossway, 2003. Duduit, Michael. ed. Handbook of Contemporary Preaching. Nashville. Broadman & Holman, 1992. Edwards, Kent J. Effective FirstPerson Biblical Preaching: The Steps from Text to Narrative Sermon. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005. Estes, Daniel J. Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker 2005. Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993.

Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible Book By Book: A Guided Tour. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002. Goldsworthy, Graeme. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000. Greidanus, Sidney. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988. Kaiser, Walter C. Jr. and Moises Silva. An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994. Kaiser, Walter C. Jr. The Old Testament Documents. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity, 2001. Kaiser, Walter C. Jr. Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003. Kaiser, Walter C. Jr. Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching & Teaching. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981. Kidner, Derek. The Wisdom of Proverbs. Job & Ecclesiastes. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity, 1985. Kugel, James. The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1981. Johnson, Dennis E. Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures. Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2007. Johnson, Marshall D. Making Sense of the Bible: Literary Type As an Approach to Understanding. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002. Long, Thomas G. Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989. Longman, Tremper III. How to Read the Psalms. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity, 1988. Mathewson, Steven. The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002. Osborne, Grant T. The Hermeneutical Spiral, 2nd ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006. Robinson, Haddon W. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001. Robinson, Haddon W. and Torrey W. Robinson. It's All in How You Tell It: Preaching Firstperson Expository Messages. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003. Scharf, Greg R. Prepared to Preach: God's Work and Ours in Proclaiming His Word. Fearn. Scotland: Christian Focus, 2005. Stein, Robert H. Playing by the Rules: A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994.

Stuart, Douglas. Old Testament Exegesis. 3rd ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. Waltke, Bruce K., "Fundamentals for Preaching the Book of Proverbs, Part 1," Bibliotheca Sacra 165:657 (JanuaryMarch 2008): 312. Waltke, Bruce K., "Fundamentals for Preaching the Book of Proverbs, Part 2," Bibliotheca Sacra 156:658 (AprilJune 2008): 131144. Waltke, Bruce K., "Fundamentals for Preaching the Book of Proverbs, Part 3," Bibliotheca Sacra 165:659 (JulySeptember 2008): 259267. Waltke, Bruce K., "Fundamentals for Preaching the Book of Proverbs, Part 4," Bibliotheca Sacra 165:660 (OctoberDecember 2008). Webb, Barry G. Five Festal Garments. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity, 2000.


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