A Guide to Bible Study by J. W. McGarvey

Chapter 10: The Poetical Books

We have passed by this class of books, not because they are of later date than those mentioned in the last two sections, but because they could not be considered earlier without a break in the thread of the history.

{5} It is somewhat difficult to classify accurately the books of this section. "Poetical" does not fully describe them, since Ecclesiastes is not poetry, and then other parts of the Old Testament material are poetic, especially Isaiah fortieth through sixty-sixth. Perhaps a division of these books may be made into "Wisdom Books," including Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, and "Devotional," in which latter class the Psalms would be placed.--W.

1. Job. This is a poetical book with an introduction, or prologue, and a sequel or epilogue, in prose. The former gives the character and circumstances of the man, together with a vain attempt of Satan to prove that his motive in serving God was a selfish one. After the failure of Satan's attempt, which left Job in a state of destitution and extreme suffering, three of his friends come to console him, and after a time of mournful silence, they enter into a debate with him as to the cause of his affliction. They unitedly assume that his sufferings were due to some secret sin of which he had been guilty, and they base their conclusion on the general proposition that God never afflicts the righteous. Job denies their proposition, and defends himself the best he can, until they have had three rounds of speeches, the friends speaking in regular rotation and Job answering each one separately. Then a younger man, named Elihu, whose presence had not been mentioned, makes a speech, and finally God himself speaks from a whirlwind. In the sequel God decides that Job was right on the question debated; commands the three friends to bring an offering to the altar that Job might intercede for them, and restores Job to double the earthly prosperity which he enjoyed before the trial began. The speeches are not limited in subject matter to the question in debate; but all of them take a wide range of thought, and they contain some of the most sublime and edifying poetry to be found in any literature.

The question has been raised very often whether Job was a real or imaginary person; but it seems to be settled by the prophet Ezekiel and the apostle James, each of whom makes statements which imply the reality of his existence, his high character, his sufferings and his deliverance (Ezekiel 14:12-20; James 5:10-11). But while Job, and also his four friends, were real persons, their speeches were not delivered in the poetical form in which we have them, for this would be impossible without miraculous aid; and that they did not enjoy this appears from the fact that all of them said things for which they were censured. Doubtless the author of the book, who is unknown to us, with the argument for a starting point, worked the speeches into the form in which we have them.

The times at which Job lived cannot be definitely determined, but it was before the time of Ezekiel who refers to him as an example of eminent righteousness.

2. The Psalms. A glance through this book in the Revised Version will show that it consists of five books in one, each ending with a doxology and an Amen. These five collections were made at different times, and by different compilers; for the Psalms were not all written at one time or in the lifetime of one man. One of them (the ninetieth) is ascribed to Moses, and some of them (for example, the hundred thirty-seventh) were as late as the Babylonian exile {6}. Their dates and authorship are ascertained, so far as these can now be known, partly by the inscriptions printed above some of them, and partly by a comparison of their personal and historical allusions with the history of the people of Israel. The superscriptions are not a part of the text, but they are of very ancient date; and while they are not infallible, they are in the main, at least, reliable. By these, seventy-three Psalms are ascribed to David, {7} and this has led to styling the collection as a whole the Psalms of David, the title being taken from the principal author. This title, however, is not a part of the sacred text. The title in the original text was the Hebrew word for Praises; and the Greek translators originated the title now in use.

In order to read the Psalms with the greatest profit, every one which contains personal or historical allusions should be read in connection with the events alluded to. A good reference Bible will usually point these out to the reader; but it is better still to have such a knowledge of the historical books, that the events alluded to will be readily recalled by the allusions.

The sentiments expressed in the Psalms came from the hearts of the authors, and they show the best effects of the law of Moses, and the experience of Israel on the souls of devout men under that dispensation. They were written under so great a variety of circumstances that they express the sentiment of godly men in almost any condition in which men find themselves to-day; and therefore they are adapted to our edification in all the varied scenes of life. One who is familiar with them can readily turn to such as will comfort him in any sorrow, cheer him in any despondency, and furnish expression to his deepest gratitude and most fervid thanksgiving. They are marked, however, by one defect as compared with the sentiments inculcated by Christ, and that is their occasional expression of hatred toward enemies. Under that dispensation war was tolerated, and this rendered it impossible to suppress hostile feelings towards the enemy; consequently the best of men felt at liberty to indulge and express these sentiments. In reading the Psalms we should carefully abstain from entering into such sentiments with the authors, and should pass them by as imperfections of a preparatory dispensation of the divine government.

{6} Some students of the Psalms find in certain of them evidence of a date later than the return from Babylon, and in three or four (the forty-fourth, seventy-seventh, seventy-ninth, eighty-third) indications of origin in the Maccabean period.--W.

{7} It is usually agreed among scholars that whatever may have been the number of Psalms written by David, the following are certainly his in the order of the chief periods of his life: Psalms referring to his early life, either written then, or recollections of the period written later (the nineteenth, eighth, twenty-ninth, twenty-third); his persecution by Saul (the eleventh, eighteenth); the ark brought to Zion (the twenty-fourth, hundred first, fifteenth); David's wars (the eighteenth, twenty-first, hundred tenth, sixtieth); David's sin and repentance (the fifty-first, thirty-second); Absalom's rebellion (the third, fourth, twenty-third, sixty-third, twelfth).--H. L. Willett}

3. Proverbs. A proverb strictly speaking, is a sentence which expresses briefly and strongly some practical truth. In this sense this book is not wholly made up of proverbs; for the first nine chapters contain a series of short poems of a different character, yet they are all full of practical lessons such as proverbs teach; and consequently, they are not out of place in a book bearing the general title of Proverbs.

The second division of the book, beginning with chapter ten, has the heading "The Proverbs of Solomon" {Proverbs 10:1}, and here the proverbs properly speaking, begin. They extend to Proverbs 22:16, and constitute the largest division of the book, giving the name to the whole. These chapters contain three hundred seventy-five separate proverbs, only a small number in comparison with the three thousand which Solomon is said to have composed (1 Kings 4:32). These proverbs are full of practical wisdom.

In Proverbs 22:17-24:34, the matter and form are much the same as in the first part of the book. Then follow five chapters with the titles, "These also are Proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out" (Proverbs 25:1). Thus the book was in part a growth.

The last section of the book, Proverbs 31:1-31, is entitled, "The Words of King Lemuel; the oracle which his mother taught him." Who Lemuel was is not known. His words and the whole book, close with a description of "A Virtuous Woman," which presents an ideal of womanhood. {8}

{8} It will be seen that the book is made up of several sections, of which the oldest seem to be Proverbs 10:1-22:16; Proverbs 25:1-29:27. These are called collections of Solomon's Proverbs. In addition there are the "Sayings of the Wise," Proverbs 22:17-24, "The Words of Agur," Proverbs 30:1-33, "The Words of King Lemuel," \\#Pr 31:1-9\\, the acrostic poem in praise of the Ideal Woman, Proverbs 31:10-31, and Proverbs 1:1-9:18, which were perhaps written by the compiler of the whole collection, who named the entire work the Proverbs of Solomon, thus using the wise King as the common denominator of all the material of which he was known to have set the pattern for later days. The relation of Solomon to the Proverb literature is the same as that of David to the Psalter. Each set in motion a type of literary activity to which others added through centuries.--W.

4. Ecclesiastes. The printed title of this book is "Ecclesiastes, or the Preacher;" but the title which it gives to itself is, "The Words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem" (Ecclesiastes 1:1). The Hebrew word rendered preacher, is Koheleth. This was rendered by the authors of the Septuagint, Ecclesiastes; and this, anglicized, gives us the word commonly used as the title of the book. Many scholars now use the Hebrew word when speaking of the book, and call it Koheleth. The preacher meant is undoubtedly Solomon; for he is the only son or descendant of David who reigned in Jerusalem, and whose experiences correspond to those mentioned in the text. There are some who doubt whether Solomon wrote the book, and some who are very positive that he did not; yet even these admit that whoever the writer was, he attempted to set forth the sentiment of Solomon, and wrote in his person.

We might look upon the whole book as a sermon (and it would not be a very long one) in which the preacher sets forth the vanity, or emptiness of this life considered within itself. His text, to use a modern expression, is "Vanity of Vanities, all is Vanity" (Ecclesiastes 1:2); and if this life ends all, we must admit the truth of the proposition. There are some passages in the book which are quite obscure, and some which have the appearance of being contradictory to others; but when we keep in view the author's purpose of looking at this life as if it were our only state of existence these difficulties nearly all disappear. In the final conclusion the author says: "This is the end of all matter: All hath been heard; fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man; for God shall bring every work into judgment, and every hidden thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil" {Ecclesiastes 12:13,14}.

This book should be read in connection with the life of Solomon, which is set forth in the books of First Kings and Second Chronicles {1 Kings 1:1-11:43; 2 Chronicles 1:1-9:31}. With this piece of history fresh in the memory, the beauty of the sermon will be more highly appreciated, and its power more seriously felt. {9}

{9} There are many considerations that make the Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes extremely improbable, and indicate that a writer in one of the latest periods of Old Testament history used Solomon as a character into whose mouth he could put the words which he desired to speak. He was troubled by the fact that nothing that one possesses or does seems to give satisfaction. He did not even consider a future life probable, for the hope of eternal life was only revealed in its fulness by Christ. The answer which Ecclesiastes makes to the problem of life is that one should receive all its good with thankfulness, and use wisely all that God gives.--W.

5. The Song of Songs. The title which this short poem assigns itself is, "The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's" (Song of Solomon 1:1). If there is any book in the Bible which found a place in it by a mistake or misjudgment of those who put the inspired book together, it must be this; for it is so totally unlike all the rest that it is difficult to see what connection it can have with the general design of the whole. Many interpreters have affected to find in it a parabolic meaning, and even a foreshadowing of the love of the Church of Christ; while others have regarded it as nothing more than a love-song with a very obscure connection of thought. According to either view it has afforded little edification to the great majority of Bible readers; and unless some significance can be found in it hereafter which has not yet been pointed out, it will continue to be but little read, and of but little practical value. {10}

{10} It is a dramatic poem. The earlier interpretation made it an epithalamium, or marriage song, recording the love and marriage of Solomon and his queen. The later, and now generally accepted interpretation makes the heroine a maiden of Shulem or Shunem, whom King Solomon takes into his court and attempts by flattery and magnificent promises to separate her from her lover, to whom, however, she remains faithful and is at last restored. The book is a beautiful tribute to true and constant love, which no wealth can dazzle and no power can overawe. It is also a refreshing picture of the virtues to be found among the common people in an age of the greatest splendor and of growing corruption in the court of Solomon. The spiritual lessons of the book are not to be found in mystical allusions to Christ and the Church, but in the purity and constancy of love, lessons needed in no age more than our own.--W.

Bible options