Intro to Poetic Wisdom Literature

Photo by Lammyman

Photo by Lammyman

Duneland Community Church is doing an Introduction to the Old Testament series in August, and are kids are with us for the whole service all month long.  This week, I'm introducing Poetic Wisdom Literature.  All month, we're starting with a game show format, and this week the game is "Name That Poet," in contestants draw out a few lines of poetry and have to guess whether it's from pop culture or the Bible (in The Message version).  

    If we can get past some of the “church language,” the Bible’s poetry is not actually all that different from today’s poetry.  Both are trying to make sense of life, grieving the hard parts of life, and celebrating the good stuff of life.  

    Today, I just want to do two things.  First, I’ll give a brief overview of each of the Bible’s poetic books or wisdom books.  Second, I’ll explain some of Poetic Wisdom’s core values and why they matter.  

    So on to the first point - a brief look at the Bible’s wisdom books.  Actually, some of the prophetic books are written in a form of Hebrew poetry, but in the wisdom books poetry seems to be more important to the basic form.  Let’s look them over, one by one.

  • First, JOB - is the story of a very rich, very good man named Job looses everything.  He spends most of the rest of the book arguing with God and his friends that God has done him wrong.  Job is a place to go when life is really hard and you wonder where God is.
  • PSALMS -  is the prayer book, hymnal, or IPod of the Jewish people.  The great value of the Psalms is that they help us express our prayers to God more honestly and more thoroughly than we usually do if we just sit down and try to pray.  Go to Psalms if you feel bored with prayer or if you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere when you sit down to pray.  Just read one and then rephrase it in your own words.
  • PROVERBS - is the collected wisdom of God’s people.  The first part is mostly about the value of pursuing wisdom of all else, and the second part is little truisms about daily life.  There are all these little gems of wisdom like: “Better a dry crust of bread eaten in peace than a house filled with feasting - and conflict” (17:1).  Go to Proverbs for a refresher on how to live daily life well.
  • ECCLESIASTES is the home for cynics and skeptics.  The author looks at all the stuff that’s going wrong with the world and the hollowness of all the stuff we normally pursue, and he concludes, “Everything is meaningless.”  But there’s this very subtle conclusion that’s easy to miss: “Everything is meaningless outside of God.”  Ecclesiastes is the place to go if you are starting to doubt everything - not just God, but all the systems of life.  Ecclesiastes will remind you that this doubt is a healthy and normal part of a robust faith.
  • SONG OF SONGS is the Bible’s great celebration of marriage and sex.  This is one of the R-Rated sections of the Bible.  Somewhere along the way, some Christians started teaching that sex is only for making babies.  Song of Songs says that’s stupid - you’ll either have way too many babies or way not enough sex!  Go to Song of Songs to understand why having a celebratory love life is good and holy and fun.


    Now, on to the second point - Poetic Wisdom values some key things, which we should value too.

  1. Poetic Wisdom values BEAUTY.  Life is not all about budgets and dishes and homework.  Life is just as much about sunsets, stars, and daisies - romance, sex, and love.  God is beautiful, and God’s world is beautiful.  Wisdom celebrates beauty wherever we see it, and poetic wisdom goes out of its way to see more beauty.
  2. Poetic Wisdom values DISSENT.  Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are kind of opposites.  Proverbs mostly says that life will work out for you if you follow the rules and live generously.  Ecclesiastes says that sometimes if you do everything right, you still get screwed.  Job basically calls God an unjust jerk, and while God doesn’t quite agree, he affirms Job’s right to question.  Doubt and diversity of opinion are central to a healthy community and absolutely necessary as we all try to figure out God and life together.
  3. Poetic Wisdom values EMOTION.  Never let the logic humbugs make you feel bad for having feelings.  Joy and sadness and anger - even in their extremes - are important and healthy.  We need to express them to each other and to God in prayer.  
  4. Poetic Wisdom values DAILY LIFE.  Life is not all about vacations and graduations and mountaintop experiences.  The daily grind of cooking and working and sleeping are just as important - maybe more important.  Through drawing out the beauty of the daily and by giving us guidance for things as simple as conversation, poetic wisdom celebrates and affirms that our daily, ordinary lives are rich and worth our attention.  


    I love Psalm 27 because it really gets at the whole point of poetic wisdom literature.  Listen to a few verses again:

I’m asking God for one thing,

    only one thing:

To live with him in his house

    my whole life long.

I’ll contemplate his beauty;

    I’ll study at his feet. ...

Point me down your highway, God;
    direct me along a well-lighted street;
    show my enemies whose side you’re on...

I’m sure now I’ll see God’s goodness
    in the exuberant earth.
Stay with God!
    Take heart. Don’t quit.
I’ll say it again:
    Stay with God.