Old Testament Survey)Module VIII
Module VIII is the final one in our survey of the Old Testament. In the earlier ones, we have been introduced to the origin of all things (Module I, Genesis). The Exodus from Egypt, the establishment of the covenant at Mount Sinai, the revelation of the Law and Israel’s pilgrimage to the threshold of the Promised Land occupied us in Module II (Exodus-Deuteronomy). In Module III, we began our study of the so-called Deuteronomistic history (Joshua-II Samuel), with Israel’s entry into the Promised Land, the period of the judges and establishment of the kingship under Saul and David. Module IV helped us conclude our study of the Deuteronomistic history (I, II Kings) and then introduced us to the nature of prophetic literature with a study of the 8th century prophets (Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, and Jonah). Module V had us considering the late 7th century and early 6th century prophets, as Judah was dragged off into captivity in Babylon (Jeremiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Ezekiel and Obadiah, with Lamentations). The 6th Module dealt with Israel’s return from captivity and the prophets associated with that Second Exodus (I, II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi and Joel).
Module VII was devoted to a study of the Psalms and now in Module VIII, we wrap up our study by looking first at two books that are rather special in the history of salvation: Esther which tells how Israel was miraculously spared extinction at the hands of the Persians, and Daniel, which picks up in a fuller fashion visions as a means of revelation in what is sometimes called apocalyptic literature.
Module VIII then concludes by helping us consider more fully another type of literature which we met briefly in several of the Psalms (Psalm 1 being a classic example): wisdom literature. Included are Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. The final book we study is Song of Songs (sometimes called the Song of Solomon), a love song, reminding us that nothing is outside the Lord’s purview.
The story of Esther provides additional information about the period after the rebuilding of the temple (515 B.C) and the arrival of Ezra in Jerusalem (458 BC). It is set in Persia during the reign of Ahasuerus or Xerxes (485-465), as he is also known, when a conspiracy was set in place to do away with the Jews. It helps us understand that many Jews remained scattered throughout the Persian Empire, having chosen not to return to their homeland. The action is focused at King Xerxes’ palace in Susa. Although the name of God is not mentioned in this book, through the miraculous way in which the plot unfolds, one senses that the prevention of the Jews’ extermination is the result of divine intervention. God is providing for his people’s future and welfare through the events he is masterminding behind the scenes.
The Concordia Self-Study Bible comments in this way about the absence of God’s name in the story: “It appears that the author has deliberately refrained from mentioning God or any religious activity as a literary device to heighten the fact that it is God who controls and directs all the seemingly insignificant coincidences…that make up the plot and issue in deliverance for the Jews. God’s sovereign rule is assumed at every point…, an assumption made all the more effective by the total absence of reference to him.” (718)
Esther is the last of the five scrolls associated with the observance of the five major Jewish festivals. It is appointed to be read at the festival of Purim, which was observed in the 12th month of the Jewish calendar (Adar 14 and 15, occurring in March on our calendar). Esther itself relates the origin of the festival and calls for its continual observance. (See Esther 3:7; 9:18-32.) It is to be a perpetual memorial to celebrate the Jews’ deliverance from the plot Haman had hatched to destroy the Jews. As such it is meant to foster gratitude to God for his deliverance and to encourage the Jews to rejoice in their identity and live on the basis of it.
Author and Date
Although we do not know the author of Esther, it is appropriate to conclude from internal evidence in the book itself that it was a Jew who lived in Persia, since his writing reflects knowledge of the court, of life in Susa, and awareness of both Jewish and Persian customs. No reference is given to life in Judah or Jerusalem. The earliest date for the book to be written would be shortly after the events it records, or about 460 BC. The fact that the book implies that the Purim festival has been observed for some time prior to the writing of the book suggests that it may have been written somewhat later, undoubtedly before 331 BC when the Greeks invaded and conquered the empire, since there is no evidence of Greek influence in the book. Also the Hebrew dialect used suggests the same time period.
The Themes and Literary Features
There are echoes of Israel’s earlier history in the book. The longstanding opposition Israel experienced from the Amalekites as she made her way to the Promised Land seems to be in the background, as a predecessor to the threat under which they were living during the time of Xerxes. The story of Joseph in Genesis, with its triumph of good over evil and God’s providential care of his people seems to be reflected in Esther. The exposure and defeat of Haman, the chief antagonist against the Jews in the story, resulted in rest, a theme of Israelite theology with its emphasis on the Sabbath and entry into the Promised Land, a reality that was seen as “rest from one’s enemies.”
Noticeable in the story are the number of things occurring in pairs—like two banquets at the beginning, middle, and end of the story. How many pairs do you think you can find as you read the story?
Noticing the way in which banquets play a critical role in the unfolding of the plot, one commentator has outlined the story on that basis. Not using that outline, or a typical one to guide you, I offer the one by J. S. Wright in his article on “Esther” in the New Bible Dictionary: Second Edition (350b), which summarizes the development of the plot.
- 1:1-22. Ahasuerus deposes his wife, Vashti, for refusing to appear at his banquet.
- 2:1-18. Esther, the cousin of Mordecai, a Jew, is chosen in Vashti’s place.
- 2:19-23. Mordecai tells Esther of a plot to kill the king.
- 3:1-15. Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman, the king’s favorite, who thereupon plans to massacre the Jews on a fixed date.
- 4:1-17. Mordecai persuades Esther to intercede with the king.
- 5:1-14. Esther invites the king and Haman to a banquet.
- 6:1-14. The king makes Haman honor Mordecai publicly as a reward for revealing the plot against him.
- 7:1-10. At a second banquet Esther reveals Haman’s plan to massacre the Jews, and Haman is hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai.
- 8:1-17. Since the edict for the massacre cannot be revoked, the king sends a second edict allowing the Jews to defend themselves.
- 9:1-19. The Jews take advantage of this to kill their enemies.
- 9:20-32. The deliverance is commemorated at the feast of Purim.
- 10:1-3. Mordecai is put in a position of authority.
Author and Date
Two different positions are held on the matter of authorship and date. The first position is that the author of the book is Daniel. He was among the bright young nobility who were taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar when he conquered Jerusalem in 605 BC. The book then would have been written in the mid-500’s BC and much of its content would be seen as predictive prophecy, as the dreams and visions Daniel interpreted foretold the events of the coming centuries. Its purpose would be to encourage its readers.
The other position is that the book was written much later, perhaps in the first third of the second century BC. This position posits that the author writes as if he lived at the time of Daniel. He presents the history that transpired since the time of Daniel as still to come, events waiting to happen. Simply put, the rise and fall of the Babylonian and Medo-Persian empires, the dramatic conquests of Alexander the Great, his early death, the breakup of his kingdom into four smaller kingdoms were all presented as history that has not yet happened. The purpose of this approach is also to encourage its readers to sense that God is the Lord of history and that he knows the end from the beginning, that one can trust in him and he will not fail his people. It is seen as being written when Antiochus IV Epiphanes was desecrating the temple in Jerusalem, but before the Maccabean forces were able to drive him out. The readers would sense that as God had fulfilled promises, he would help them now.
As different scholars have pointed out, there are difficulties with the second position, which nudges conservative students to adopt the traditional (first) view, with Daniel as its author. If the second position is based on an unwillingness to accept predictive prophecy, it has to be admitted that the second position also includes an element of prediction. A second difficulty rests in the fact that, if one assumes its author is writing history as if it were predictive prophecy, one would not expect the prophecy to include historical inaccuracies, of which a number have been identified. Finally, the Hebrew and Aramaic of the text does not require a second century date; its style is such that it could originate in the middle 6th century BC.
In view of the fact that the text identifies Daniel as the author (9:2 and 10:2), and our Lord Jesus in the New Testament mentions Daniel as the author when he refers to the “abomination of desolation” (9:27; 11:31; 12:11) in Matthew 24:15, we are led to favor the position that Daniel is the author. Additionally, since the traditional view makes perfectly good sense as it is, we see no reason to abandon it.
Structure and Theme
The book is easily divided into two parts. The first six chapters are mainly historical narrative and the second six are apocalyptic material. Interesting is the fact that the book is written in Hebrew (chapters 1- 2:4a; 8-12) and Aramaic (2:4b – 7:28). Aramaic was the official international language of that day.
Apocalyptic literature utilizes symbolic, visionary images to convey its message of encouragement to its readers. Normally this type of literature flourished under oppressive conditions when the people of God are being opposed and persecuted for their identity and faith. The images communicate to the people of faith, since they know and understand their symbolism. For other examples of apocalyptic, prophetic literature, recall the visions granted to Zechariah and in the New Testament the Revelation to St. John. The challenge for us who live centuries after these writings and are not privy to the meaning of much of the symbolism is to become familiar with the images and learn their message.
The historical narrative also provides encouragement to an oppressed people. Daniel and his three friends did not suffer from following their wholesome Jewish diet, but enjoyed good health and the favor of their superiors. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar had erected, God protected them and enabled them to escape from the fiery furnace with not a hair singed. When Daniel refused to give up praying to the true God, against the king’s edict, God spared him from being eaten alive by the lions. These latter two events were fomented by those antagonistic to the success and influence of these Jewish aliens in Babylon. The retelling of these stories, along with Daniel’s ability—given by God—to interpret dreams (Nebuchadnezzar’s two dreams in chapters 2 and 4, and the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast in chapter 5) surely served to inspire Jewish readers to remain true to their faith.
At the heart of the historical narratives of the first part and the visions granted to Daniel in the second part was the reality that God is the Lord, the ultimate sovereign governing the affairs of men and nations, and directing history to his goals. Daniel 5:21 expresses this theme most directly, “the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes.” At the conclusion of the story of Daniel in the lions’ den, we have King Darius issuing this proclamation: “I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.
“For he is the living God
And he endures forever;
His kingdom will not be destroyed,
His dominion will never end.
He rescues and he saves;
he performs signs and wonders
in the heavens and on the earth.
He has rescued Daniel
from the power of the lions.” (6:26, 27)
Similar thoughts are expressed in the visions granted to Daniel where God is portrayed as being ultimately triumphant, such as we see in 7:14, 26, 27.
Daniel’s prayer in chapter nine is significant in this regard. There Daniel confesses his and his people’s sin. He acknowledges God’s justice and the necessity for him to punish, but he more importantly brings to mind God’s merciful rescue of Israel from Egypt (9:15) and asks God’s forgiveness not because of their righteousness, but because of God’s mercy (9:9,18). This accent in Daniel’s prayer helps us understand that the sovereign God exercises his lordship with a heart of love and mercy.
For us Christians, the most encouraging aspect of these apocalyptic dreams and visions is that they ultimately point to Jesus Christ. He is the Rock that breaks the other kingdoms of the world and then becomes a “huge mountain and filled the whole earth.” (2:34-35, 44-45). In Daniel 7, we see one “like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. . . . He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (7:13-14)
An Outline to Assist you in Your Reading
Prologue 1 (1:1-21) Hebrew Narrative
A Nebuchadnezzar dreams of 4 kingdoms & God’s kingdom (2:1-49) Aramaic Narrative
B Nebuchadnezzar sees God’s servants rescued (3:1-30) Aramaic Narrative
C Judgment on Nebuchadnezzar (4:1-37) Aramaic Narrative
C’ Judgment on Belshazzar (5:1-31) Aramaic Narrative
B’ Darius sees Daniel rescued (6:1-28) Aramaic Narrative
A’/ Prologue 2 Daniel has a vision of 4 kingdoms & God’s kingdom (7:1-28) Aramaic Vision
D Details on the post-Babylonian kingdoms (8:1-27) Hebrew Vision
E Jerusalem restored (9:1-27) Hebrew Vision
D’ More details on the post-Babylonian kingdoms (10:1–12:13) Hebrew Vision
This outline highlights the interplay between the Hebrew and Aramaic portions of Daniel. The narratives at the beginning of the book start with a Hebrew prologue that introduces important items and persons that occur in the rest of the narratives (Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel and his friends, the captured vessels from the Jerusalem temple, etc.). It is followed by narratives in Aramaic that are arranged in a concentric pattern (ABCCBA; scholars call this pattern a chiasm). The last Aramaic chapter not only finishes this concentric pattern, it also introduces the visionary portion of Daniel and its emphasis on future kingdoms that will arise. This is followed by visions in Hebrew arranged in a second concentric pattern (DED) that expands on this theme. Thus, Daniel consists of two interlocked concentric patterns: the first introduced in Hebrew and expanded in Aramaic, the second introduced in Aramaic and expanded in Hebrew.
The Wisdom Background
As we begin the study of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, it is appropriate for us to provide a brief introduction to “wisdom literature.” This was a literary genre that was widespread across the ancient Near East, stretching from Egypt to the lands east of Babylon and Persia, beginning at least from the time of the patriarchs (about 2000 BC). King Solomon, who was the greatest of the wise men, lived in the tenth century BC when this literary movement was in full flower. (See I Kings 4:29-34; 10: 23-25.) Israelite wisdom has much in common with that of its geographical neighbors, but there are differences as well.
In contrast to prophetic literature, where the oracles of the prophets reflect and convey the messages God has revealed to them [“the Word of the Lord came to…(name of the prophet)”], the sages drew their insights from keen observation and analysis. In many ways it was the product of the human mind. There is little or no reference made to the mighty acts of God in Israel’s history. Rather it is more of a common sense approach to life, but goes much deeper than applying what is obvious to the eye of reason. It seeks to understand what is taking place beneath the surface in relationships in the home, the neighborhood, the courts and the world of work. It reflects on nature and animals and makes applications from those reflections to the world of people.
We must also comment that the wisdom movement does not approach matters from the perspective of the Law of Moses, but rather what they know from observing human nature. For instance, the wise man will not approach marriage relationships from the sixth commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” but from the consequences that result when relationships between a husband and wife are not pure, wholesome, and loving, and conversely, the positive results that occur when relationships are loving and wholesome. What is sought for is what is wise, builds up, and encourages. What is to be avoided is what will hurt the partner, strain the relationship, and make life miserable, in short, what is foolish.
In this way, wisdom was realistic and very practical, the product of thoughtful consideration, of reflective insight, or the wisdom accumulated by teachers over the years. These observations were then crystallized and codified in proverbs (wise sayings), axioms, and parables. Their purpose was to provide guidance for living and relating in the various aspects of life.
Informing this movement were some basic presuppositions. One was that God’s universe was governed by underlying principles, which assumed that the world was marked by order and not chaos. A person’s responsibility was to discover, discern, and learn these basic principles—and practice them. This was to “walk in the way of wisdom.” Following this way would result in success, prosperity, and good health. Rejecting the way of wisdom is to experience trouble, disappointment, and failure. Thus, another principle was that following the way of wisdom made a difference; in a sense, it paid off!
Israelite wisdom reflects the above approach to wisdom in common with its neighbors. A distinctive difference to this humanistic approach occurs, however, when the Israelite sages link their wisdom to the insights of their faith. A key principle for Biblical wisdom is expressed this way, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Job 28:28; Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; 31:30; Psalm 111:10; Ecclesiastes 12:13) For that reason it pays to reflect on the world and nature, for it in turn reflects the wisdom of its Creator, the Maker of all things.
Having mentioned this reality leads us on to another aspect of the wisdom movement, especially in Israel. How does one explain the prosperity of the wicked, when they are not walking in the way of wisdom? Why do those who are righteous suffer when they have done what is right? Is God really fair when he repays the wise with suffering and the evil with blessings? It is to this aspect of wisdom that the poem of Job directs its discourses, calling us to use our mental energies to probe the meaning of these seeming contradictions to the principle of traditional, orthodox wisdom.
Author and Date
The person of Job is presented in a way similar to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is a non-Israelite from the land of Uz, which is a large territory east of Israel, stretching from South (Edom) to the North (Aram or Syria). Thus the story is set in the period between 2000 and 1500 BC. The book of Job, however, is not from that period but sometime after King Solomon. In view of the liturgical verses and expressions reflected in the book, its similarity to the lament psalms (22 and 88), and the confessions of Jeremiah (for example, Jeremiah 20:7-18), the book should probably fit into the period between Solomon (900’s BC) and the exile into Babylon (600 BC), with it likely being closer to the latter date. Although some have dated the book as late as the 3rd century BC, this is unlikely. Its author is an Israelite of the wisdom school, but his identity is not known.
The Hebrew text of Job includes many unusual words and phrases, has an unusual style, and a number of unintelligible words, which makes the job of the translators difficult. The early translators of the book had similar challenges. The Septuagint, the Greek translation, is substantially shorter than the Hebrew text, with about 400 fewer lines. As a result of the challenge of knowing precisely what some of these phrases and words mean, modern day translators may reflect a number of different solutions to these challenges. Nevertheless, the thrust of the message is sufficiently clear to call every student of Scripture to take up the challenge of studying this deep book of divine wisdom. Everyone who does will be richly rewarded.
The Structure of the Book
An overview of the book will be helpful for the reader in sensing and hopefully understanding its purpose and message. What follows is a general introduction to the structure of the book with comments that should help the student grasp the key issues that the poet is grappling with: How can a person who has walked with integrity come to grips with the seemingly unexplained suffering that has come his way? How does this fit in with the usual wisdom teaching that the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked punished? How can one deal with this issue of undeserved suffering when it is so personal? “God, won’t you answer me? I wish I had never been born.” The book explores these issues and more from a variety of perspectives in the following manner.
The book is framed by prose: a prologue (1:1 -2:13) and an epilogue (42:7-17) provide the backdrop for the poems which occur in the intervening sections. Job is a righteous, prosperous man of God. In the heavenly council, Satan (“accuser”) gains permission from God to afflict Job with the loss of family and property, so that Satan might prove that Job is righteous to secure success. In short, Satan’s charge is that Job is being good to get something in return. Job takes his losses without contradicting his righteous ways. Then Satan is allowed to take Job’s health away, but not his life. Still Job does not sin, but after a week of agony surrounded by his three silent friends, who say nothing because of the intensity of his suffering, Job breaks loose with an agonizing lament. What follows is the intense exploration of the topic in a most personal way. At the very conclusion of these poems, the epilogue brings restoration to Job of his health, his family and a double measure of his property.
Following the Prologue, Job opens with an agonizing lament in which he curses the day of his birth (3:1-36). This introduces the major section which runs from 4:1 through 27:23. This consists of speeches by each of the three friends, followed by Job’s responses to their speeches one by one. Thus, Eliphaz speaks (4:1-5:27), Job responds (6:1-7:21); Bildad speaks (8:1-22), Job replies (9:1-10:22); Zophar speaks (11:1-20), and Job replies (12:1-14:22). The same pattern is repeated in Job 15-21, and then again in Job 22-27. These dialogues are in the form of disputations. The speakers typically begin with an opening comment which may be sarcastic in nature and attempts to belittle the other person. It is followed by reference to some aspects of wisdom teaching that might provide common ground—such as an axiom, a hymn, or an expression of wisdom theology—for them to get at the issue of Job’s suffering. An example might be that since you are suffering, Job, you must have done something wrong that has caused this. That is what wisdom teaches us. The speech might then conclude with an appeal for Job to repent and admit his wrong, or it might conclude with a summary statement.
The responses of Job to his would be comforters—who actually are not comforting him but accusing him or seeking to engage him in theological debate—are sometimes designed to counter their logic with his own arguments, and at other times to explode with angry outbursts to God. What Job really wants—as he maintains his integrity and insists that he is blameless (not sinless, but blameless) is for God to address him—to show him where he is wrong, if he is. But God remains silent as Job launches his diatribes against God. Or, he wishes God would take his life, but that would not be an option, for God cannot commit murder.
After these exchanges conclude in Job 27, we have a wisdom poem in Job 28. It seems to be a self-contained poem that does not take up the disputations of Job 4–27. Rather, it sings the “inaccessibility of cosmic wisdom and the futility of attempting to fathom the inscrutable ways of God.” (Habel, Job, Cambridge Bible Commentary, p. 7) Does this in some way prepare the reader for Job 38–41, when God finally speaks and helps us see that he does relate to people, but that he is God and not man, and that our peace might be found in acknowledging that difference?
In Job 29-31, Job presents his final major speech, which is similar to the closing arguments in a court case. Job summarizes his position. He maintains his innocence and makes an impassioned case for his personal integrity.
Following Job’s closing soliloquy, we have unexpectedly appearing on the scene Elihu, who provides an appendix of sorts to the disputations of Job’s friends and in the process helps the reader anticipate the speeches of the Lord (Yahweh) in Job 38-41. It thus serves as a bridge to the Lord’s address to Job. In effect, God now becomes the questioner. With his questions asking Job if he were the wise man present at creation, he causes him to realize that his knowledge has limits. An arrogant, self-assured posture is inappropriate. He needs to put his hand on his mouth and be silent. Job responds with humility, repents in dust and ashes, and acknowledges the Lordship of God. Through the Lord’s speech, Job, in a sense, has a new birth. Through repentance of his arrogance, Job is forgiven and set free. The tension is resolved. God is not his enemy, but his Lord.
The drama concludes with the Epilogue where the three friends respond positively to the Lord’s instructions. They made the required sacrifices, and Job prays for them, that their folly might be forgiven, the folly of not speaking what was right, responding with pat answers and pious platitudes. God accepted Job’s prayer for them and disaster was averted. (42:7-9) God reversed Job’s terrible fate, restored his family to him, and doubled his holdings of livestock and property.
The Purpose of the Book
As part of the genre of wisdom literature, inspired as all Scripture is, it seems that one purpose of the book is to caution us against jumping to conclusions whereby we judge others, rather than genuinely listening to them and seeking to understand what they are struggling with. Further the struggles of Job challenge us to relate with God with honesty and integrity, even if we cannot fathom the depths of his wisdom, not to let go of him. And, finally, it seems critical that we see in God’s inscrutable creative wisdom and power his ability to create new beginnings, for in providing his own Son as our Redeemer who conquers our guilt, he answers our deepest questions and sticks with us in every time of trouble and difficulty, even when we cannot make sense of it. Can there be a more creative solution to our problems than that?
Wisdom Background, Purpose and Theme
Proverbs is part of the widespread “wisdom movement” that flourished across the ancient Near East in the two millennia before Christ and afterwards. The sample of wisdom literature we meet in Proverbs is quite different from the literature we met in Job and will meet again in Ecclesiastes. Those two books can be seen as a sober contrast to Proverbs. The first explores the suffering of the righteous Job and the second the emptiness of life, whereas Proverbs presents the brighter side of wisdom literature. It presents the insights of reflective thinking that will help one pursue the way of wisdom and enjoy its benefits, and conversely reject the way of folly and avoid its sad consequences.
In Proverbs we will find these insights presented for the most part in short, pithy two-line sentences that are striking and easily remembered. The insights are also presented in somewhat longer poems on pertinent topics, which can utilize the form of the personification of wisdom and folly. Both are presented as women, which we could call “Lady Wisdom,” and “Dame Folly.” (See, for instance, the contrast between the two in Proverbs 9:1-12, for Lady Wisdom and in 9:13-18 for Dame Folly. The personification of wisdom and folly occurs in various places in the opening nine chapters.)
The major purpose of wisdom literature presented in Proverbs is to provide instruction to all, but especially the young. The address of the wise man, “my son,” or “my sons” (for example in 1:8, 10, 15; 2:1; 3:1, 11, 21; 4:1, 10, 20; 5:1; 6:1, 3, 20; 7:1, 24; 8:32) highlight this dimension. The opening paragraph expresses well the overall purpose for the collection of wisdom called the Book of Proverbs:
For attaining wisdom and discipline;
For understanding words of insight;
For acquiring a disciplined and prudent life,
Doing what is right and just and fair;
For giving prudence to the simple,
Knowledge and discretion to the young—
Let the wise listen and add to their learning,
And let the discerning get guidance—
For understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise. (1:2-6 NIV)
The theme of this collection of wisdom literature is succinctly stated in 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline,” but it is echoed in numerous places, especially in the first nine chapters: 1:29; 2:5; 3:7, 9; 8:13; 9:10; but also occurs elsewhere, such as 10:27, and is implied in the many proverbs that include reference to “the Lord.” (Examples include 3:5-6, 25-26, 31-33.) While Israelite wisdom holds much in common with the wisdom of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, the divine-human relationship expressed in “the fear of the Lord” marks it off as distinct and special. As one considers the insights gained from a thoughtful consideration of the world as applied to human relationships and responsibilities, its most meaningful application will only be discovered when these insights are seen in relationship to God.
We need to note in this introductory section that the Hebrew word often translated as “proverb” is much broader than the English word, “proverb.” It is more than just the short, pithy saying which is characteristic of the book. It includes parables, extended metaphors, sayings and riddles of the wise, but, as a reading of this book will demonstrate, all of these different forms of wisdom literature have the same purpose: to teach the way of wisdom to young and old and all in between, and to urge all to walk in its way.
Authors and Date
In Israel the wisdom movement undoubtedly gained its greatest impetus from King Solomon, who was respected in his time as the greatest wise man on earth. As in other ancient Near Eastern cultures, he apparently had among his advisors people known for their wisdom. King Hezekiah, who lived two centuries later still had wise men at his court. Thus, just as there were schools of prophets and companies of priests, there were also wisdom schools in Israel.
Reading the book of Proverbs and noting its structure, one detects that the book is not just the product of Solomon’s wisdom. While many, many of the proverbs come from his sagacity—I Kings 4:32 says he spoke more than 3000 proverbs—the book itself mentions proverbs of Agur, son of Jakah (30:1), an oracle of King Lemuel (31:1-9), the sayings of the wise (22:17 and 24:33), and the section from 25:1-29:27 as a collection of Solomon’s proverbs which has been copied by the men (wise men) of King Hezekiah. In view of this, it is best to recognize that there are multiple authors; that the book is edited by the people of a wisdom school, but embodies mainly the wisdom of Solomon as the title (1:1) suggests.
Further, the fact that Proverbs 1:8–9:18 appears as a distinct unit of the book helps us understand that the book is a collection of resources which was put together after the reign of King Solomon. In this major opening section we have longer discourses, extended metaphors, and the personification of wisdom and folly, which suggest this type of presentation of wisdom is a further development of the pithy sayings for which Solomon was famous. The reference to King Hezekiah’s men copying Solomon’s proverbs (25:1) lets us know that the collection could not have been finally edited before the late eighth or early seventh century.
The Message and Its Scope
The way of wisdom presents the results of careful reflection and deliberation, so that the individual who takes wisdom’s teaching to heart can live a meaningful, productive, and rewarding life. The topics it addresses include parent-child and husband-wife relationships. It urges industry and hard work and rejects laziness and indolence. Honesty and justice are advocated and deceit and partiality are rejected. Speech is to be truthful; lies and slander are forbidden. Faithfulness in marriage is the way of wisdom; unfaithfulness and adultery are sheer folly. A reading of Proverbs will help one quickly see that virtually no area of human relationship and responsibility are ignored or neglected. From a human perspective, the advice given is what makes sense and will benefit the individual him or herself, as well as the others with whom he or she relates. When one incorporates the divine perspective (“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”) into this advice, the wise person is motivated not just by what works, is practical or beneficial, but by what is in keeping with the Creator of all, who was guided by wisdom in his creation of the universe. (See Proverbs 8:22-31.) Thus following his wisdom is life, rejecting it is death (8:32-36).
Finally, we should note that Proverbs connects us to Jesus, who is the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:21-24; see also 1 Corinthians 1:30; Col 2:2-3). We see Christ, who was active in creation (John 1;1-3), portrayed as wisdom who was active at creation (Prov 8:22-31).
The book itself naturally divides itself into the following literary structure. Paying attention to this structure will greatly assist you in reading and learning the message of Proverbs. Let it function as an amplified outline as you study this book of divine and human wisdom for meaningful living.
A short prologue states the purpose and theme of the book (1:1-7). These writings are designed to promote “the fear of the Lord” as the way of wisdom and life. A longer epilogue concludes with alphabet acrostic poem on the virtuous woman and wife (31:10-31). In view of the fact that much of the book is addressed to young men on the threshold of life, this poem can function as an exhortation to them as to what to search for in their future spouse, and secondly to suggest in an indirect and subtle way that they should seek to be yoked to the Lady Wisdom of the opening chapters of the book
In the first major unit of the book, 1:8–9:18, we have longer discourses urging the reader to heed the way of wisdom and to reject the way of folly. As indicated earlier, wisdom and folly are presented as persons: Lady Wisdom to be listened to and followed; Dame Folly to be ignored and avoided. The discourses of this major section are strikingly organized. The opening (1:8-33) and closing sections (8:1–9:18) express direct appeals and enticements to follow these two ways with the contrasting results clearly signaled. In between the opening and closing sections of this major unit are two nicely balanced units—the first devoted to the commendation of wisdom (2:1-4:27) and the second devoted to warnings against folly (5:1-7:27). They highlight the two great temptations seducing young men to follow and to which they are susceptible: a) to get ahead by dishonest and exploitative means; and b) to seek sexual pleasure outside the bonds of marriage. (CSSB, 945)
Following this major presentation, we have the main collection of Solomon’s proverbs (10:1-22:16). Here predominate the two-line pithy couplets which cover the whole gamut of human life and relationships.
The next section (22:17–24:22) and the further sayings of the wise (24:23-34) we have a collection of sayings—some in the two-line couplet, some in 3 and 4 line verses, and some in a form which is “something of a return to the style of Proverbs 1–9. These sayings ‘function as a sort of an appendix to 10:1 – 22:16 and contain some similar proverbs.’” (CSSB, 945)
25:1–29:27 is a collection of more Solomonic proverbs compiled by the wise men of King Hezekiah’s court, living approximately 200 years after King Solomon. These chapters continue and re-enforce the material in the main collection of proverbs, 10:1–22:16.
30:133, the words of Agur, include what is called the numerical proverbs (30:15, 18, 21, 24, 29). Together with the poem of King Lemuel (31:1-9), we have an appendix which brings us to the concluding epilogue, of which we have written earlier.
Our confidence is that as you study the Book of Proverbs, and meditate on its advice, you will be encouraged to walk in the way of wisdom and so demonstrate in the everyday affairs of life what it means to fear and trust in the Lord.
The title Ecclesiastes stems from the Greek translation of the Hebrew work, Qoholeth. Qoholeth comes from a root that means “to call, to gather.” The Teacher of this book calls people to gather to hear and consider the wisdom he desires to share. In that sense, the title is appropriate, for it reflects the person speaking to the gathering.
Author and Date
While some might suggest that Solomon is the author of this book, it is better understood that the author is speaking as if he were Solomon (1:1, 12-18), the king well known for his wisdom, or quoting Solomon (see I Kings 3; 4:29-34; 10:23-24). Such an association would lend credence to the book and commend it to the hearer/reader. As one continues reading the book of Ecclesiastes, he notices that the author takes the viewpoint of a subject rather than the king, noting conditions of oppression (4:13), injustice (4:8; 5:8), and social upheaval (10:6-7).
The book is framed by a title (1:1) and an epilogue (12:9-14) which makes this the application of what has been presented: “Fear God, and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13b-14). This frame has an inner frame—with both the beginning and the end repeating: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” (1:2; 12:8)
Attempts to find a structure in the book have failed. Professor Fuerst (Cambridge Bible Commentary) suggests that the pattern is circular, with three major sections beginning at 1:2, 4:1, and 9:11, “with the second and third sections recycling the ideas that are stated in the first.” (95) He adds that the author’s “materials do indicate that his thoughts return in a pattern, first small, and then like concentric circles in a large and all-embracing arc back to his starting-point.” (95)
In his notes on Ecclesiastes, Dr. Walter Roehrs compares the structure of Ecclesiastes to a tapestry. “The whole is like a piece of tapestry which cannot fail to attract attention. Its woof is as black as night; woven back and forth into it are threads of a bright hue. The lines so created form no regular pattern, but the abrupt change in color makes the contrast more impressive.” (Concordia Self-Study Commentary, 426)
In an earlier portion of his notes, Dr. Roehrs suggests that Ecclesiastes should be seen as a complement to the book of Proverbs. It is a warning against thinking that following the wisdom of Proverbs is going to lead automatically to success. “To expect wise living to produce the unmarred bliss of the Garden of Eden is to live in a fool’s paradise” (425).
Raymond C. Van Leeuwen’s comments in the HarperCollins Study Bible help us appreciate not only Ecclesiastes’ content but also its purpose: “Ecclesiastes focuses upon the limits and contradictions of life in order to teach wisdom (see Ps. 90). From the pinnacle of human success and power (1:12-2:26), Qoheleth surveys life and finds it ‘vanity.’ Even the best life is limited in knowledge, virtue, and power, troubled by evil and injustice, and ultimately ended by death. This focus on human limits and absurdity attacks those, like Job’s friends, who selectively misuse traditional wisdom (see Proverbs) to argue neat connections between godly goodness and success or wickedness and failure) see notes on 7:15; 8:10-17; 9:1-12). Yet, in spite of its limits and destruction by death, Qoheleth maintains wisdom is better than folly (see notes on 2:11, 12-17; 6:8).
“In the face of death and ‘vanity,’ Qoheleth repeatedly urges humans to embrace life and its goods—food, drink, love, work, and play—as gifts from God (see note on 9:7-10).” (987)
Interpretation and Application
One cannot help but notice the puzzle-like character of the book as it presents life’s contradictions. It helps us see that one ought not to seek to reduce life’s complexities to simple, sound-bite type explanations. Rather, the book’s point seems to be that the tensions and contradictions presented in Ecclesiastes are “precisely its point. Qoheleth is an utter realist, yet he will not let go of God” (HCSB, 987).
Nor should he, for he knows two things about ‘the good.’ “The first is summarized in the epilogue: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.’ (12:13; see 3:9-17; 5:1-7; 7:13-14, 18; 8:12-13). The second is this: since humans are/not masters of the universe, but afflicted by vanity in all its forms, their good is simply to enjoy life—both work and play—as God’s gift and the ‘lot’ for which they are responsible (see 2:10; 9:7-10; 11:9)” (HCSB, 987-988).
Although the book’s presentation does not lend itself to an outline, the following one from the Concordia Self-Study Bible (p. 793) can help you sense Ecclesiastes’ purpose.
- Author (1:1)
- Theme: The meaninglessness of man’s efforts on earth apart from God (1:2)
III. Introduction: The profitlessness of working to accumulate things to achieve happiness (1:3-11)
- Discourse, Part I: In spite of life’s apparent enigmas and meaninglessness, it is to be enjoyed as a gift from God (1:12-11:6)
- Discourse, Part 2: Since old age and death will soon come, man should enjoy life in his youth, remembering that God will judge (11:7-12:7)
- Theme Repeated (12:8)
VII. Conclusion: Reverently trust in and obey God (12:9-14)
Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon)
Title, Authorship, and Date
The title in Hebrew is Solomon’s Song of Songs, which can mean a song by, for, or about Solomon. It does not necessarily mean that he is the song’s author, although that is not impossible. (I Kings 4:32 records that he wrote 1005 songs.) Song of Songs implies that this is the greatest of songs, like holy of holies implies that this is the most holy place.
A number of references are made in the poem to Solomon or to the “king,” but these references (1:1, 5; 3:7, 9, 11; 8:11-12 [Solomon], 1:4, 12; 7:15 [king] do not necessarily imply that he is the author of the poems. Some of them may be the expression of the “beloved” for her “lover,” referring to him as if he were the king, Solomon himself.
In the history of interpretation, the Song of Songs has been interpreted on two levels. Interpreted allegorically, it has been applied to the relationship between the Lord and his people Israel, or to Christ and his church. Both of these relationships have been compared to the relationship of a husband and wife in the Scriptures.
Certainly such applications of this love song can rightly be made, but we probably do best to bear in mind the comments of the Concordia Self-Study Bible: “To find the key for unlocking the Song, interpreters have looked to prophetic, wisdom and apocalyptic passages of Scriptures, as well as to ancient Egyptians and Babylonian love songs, traditional Semitic wedding songs and songs related to ancient Mesopotamian fertility cults. The closest parallels appear to be those found in Proverbs (see Proverbs 5:15-20; 6:24-29; 7:6-23). The description of love in 8:6-7 (Compare the descriptions of wisdom literature and that it is wisdom’s description of an amorous relationship. The Bible speaks of both wisdom and love as gifts of God, to be received with gratitude and celebration” (CSSB,1005). This interpretation “views the Song as a linked chain of lyrics depicting love in all its spontaneity, beauty, power and exclusiveness—experienced in its varied moments of separation and intimacy, anguish and ecstasy, tension and contentment. The Song shares with the love poetry of many cultures its extensive use of highly sensuous and suggestive imagery drawn from nature” (CSSB, 1006).
The Poem’s Message
When God created man and woman as the pinnacle of his creative work, he designed them for each other, that they should complement each other and find delight in one another. In Genesis 2, when God brought the woman to the man, one senses the excitement of the man, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man.” (Genesis 2:23) She is a match for him in a way that the animals or other parts of creation never could be. The Holy Writer then draws the application this complementarity of a common humanity implies: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) Song of Songs celebrates the beauty and delight of love between the beloved and her lover, the spontaneity that attends it, and exclusivity that marks it. Images from nature are used to express it. As one reads these poems, one senses love’s excitement, power and attractiveness. They are sensuous, evocative, expressive, but in no way crass, manipulative, or exploitative. Our hope and confidence is that this wholesome poetic expression of love may be a powerful encouragement to each of us to treasure this wonderful gift of God, to enjoy it within its divinely appointed boundaries, and let it be a powerful bond uniting husbands and wives in a mutually uplifting and beneficial relationship. May its beauty further encourage us to fight against anything that would cheapen or desecrate this good gift of God.
At the same time, the proper relationship of man and woman in marriage, which is the goal of the lovers in Song of Songs, also draws us to Christ’s relationship to his church (Ephesians 5:22-28; Revelation 9:17; 21:9). Indeed, already in the Old Testament, especially in the prophets (e.g., Hosea), the relationship of God to his people is often expressed in terms of marriage.
Rather than attempt to reduce such exquisite, sensitive poetry to an objective outline, we simply urge the student to read carefully this Song of Songs, probably drawing on a study Bible whose notes will make clear the many references to animals, trees, plants, spices, perfumes, the royal court, etc. that otherwise would escape one.