Saturday, June 3, 2017

Bible in a Year: The Writings

A page from a 1669 King James Version
This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

We are moving into a new section of the Bible: between the historical books and the prophets (that is, between Esther and Isaiah), we have several books of writings:

Job is the well-known story (a long poem framed by short narrative sections) of a righteous man who suffers terribly. He and his friends try to plumb the mysteries of God’s providence.

The Psalms are 150 songs of praise, complaint, lamentation, penitence, and supplication. They were used in the rebuilt Temple and, eventually, in synagogues and churches.

Proverbs is a collection of sayings, many attributed to Solomon, on topics like morality, knowledge, justice, and other issues of right living.

Ecclesiastes is a moving reflection upon the seasons of life (especially the famous 3:1-8), the difficulties of gaining wisdom, and the ultimate vanity of human striving.

The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs, or Canticle of Canticles) is an emotional poem of love and longing between two people.

In the Bibles of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, we have two more books:

The Book of Wisdom, or the Wisdom of Solomon, teachings of wisdom and righteousness.

Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Sirach, ethical teachings likely written in the 2nd century BCE.

The Jewish Bible does not contain the Book of Wisdom or Ecclesiasticus, nor do Protestant Old Testaments. The final section of the Jewish Bible, the Ketuvim (Writings), contains: Psalms, Job, and Proverbs; the Five Megillot (Scrolls), which are Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther; and finally, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles.


The term “wisdom literature” is often applied to the books Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, the Song of Songs, those two apocryphal books, and also several Psalms such as as 1, 19, 37, 49, 73, and others.

We've seen a few ways how the Torah and the historical books of the Bible fit together. Following verse after verse of laws, statutes, and material for Hebrew worship in the Torah, you might expect to find historical accounts of these laws and cultic practices carried out. We do get some, if not as much as we might've anticipated: Joshua refers to the law of Moses, 1:7ff, 8:30ff; the stories of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba also reflect concerns for cleansing rituals; and the sins of Solomon are also connected to the laws (Deut. 17:1-17 and 1 Kings 9:26-11:40).(1) But we did see how the Deuteronomic history, by forming the last book of the Torah and opening the subsequent history of the people in the land, provides a narrative of law and promise and judgment across the centuries that draws upon the covenant established in the wilderness. And then in Ezra and Nehemiah, we saw the emergence of a more obviously religious community, established in the law and covenant, with a strong post-exilic hope for a yet-greater restoration. This apparent omission of cultic practices within the historical books alerts us to topics debated in scholarly circles: the extent to which the law was codified before the Exile, the impact of the rediscovery of at least part of the law during Josiah’s reign (2 Kings 22:8 and following), and the extent to which the law became community standard during the post-exilic period (Ezra 3:2, Neh. 13).(2)

Now: how do the Psalms and Wisdom books connect theologically with the Torah and the historical books that we've studied so far?

One obvious connection is that the Psalms connect worshipers to King David, the attributed author of several psalms---and, the five sections of the book of Psalms are said to mirror the five books of the Torah. Also, the Psalms connect to the post-exilic period as "the hymn book of the Second Temple," a description one finds among many biblical scholars. Though some of the psalms are very old by the time of that temple, they were brought together and used in worship during the post-exilic period and far beyond.

Another obvious connection with the historical writings is the attribution of some of the Proverbs, as well as Song of Songs and Eclessiastes, to Solomon. Accepting that attribution, one sees different aspects of that king's famous wisdom: the importance of practical wisdom, the beauty of human love, and the hard questions that "life" raises. The connection of Wisdom literature to David and Solomon is a reason why these books follow the historical books in the Old Testament; whereas Isaiah through Malachi, which follow 2 Kings in the Jewish Bible, is another possible arrangement.

As far as the ways the Wisdom books connect with Torah and History: we see more contrasts than specific connections.

For instance, as Bernhard Anderson puts it, “The prophetic themes that dominate the Pentateuch [Torah] and the prophetic writings—Israel’s election, the Day of Yahweh, the covenant and the Law, the priesthood and the Temple, prophecy and the messianic hope—are dealt with hardly at all [in the Wisdom books].” Wisdom authors did not address legal and religious obligations (as did the priests of Israel), and usually they did not explicitly communicate God’s own oracles, like the prophets. Only in the apocryphal wisdom books like Ecclesiasticus do we find more linkage of wisdom with law and covenant.(4)

Wisdom literature, instead, aims to uncover some of the lessons a wise person would have learned about “life.” Life experiences, rather than the law per se, guide to moral behavior and correct judgments. Job seeks answers to the problem of his suffering in a series of conversations with his friends, since his religious and moral uprightness implies that his suffering is undeserved.  Ecclesiastes reflects on life’s meaning after long reflection on the problems of suffering, human pride, and God’s providence. The Song of Songs, a happier and more confident book, also reflects the meaning of life as discovered through the experience of God’s creation and human love.

Proverbs, too, is a confident book. You could say that its moral world is close to that of Torah without specifically citing mitzvot. A person’s growth in wisdom and knowledge (compared to the fool who is lazy and unconcerned) is not only recommended, but also ordained by God. As an author in The Interpreter’s Bible puts it, “The highest type of family life is extolled; monogamy is taken for granted; the respect for mother and wife is emphasized throughout; chastity and marital fidelity are enjoined for all. The glutton, drunkard, and sluggard, the robber and oppressor of the poor are all roundly condemned.  Those who live in accordance with wisdom’s laws are prosperous and happy.  A belief in the one true and living God who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked permeates the book from cover to cover.”(5)

But the mystery of suffering stands out among these books, raising questions about any easy linkage of rewards and punishments to human behavior. Thus, these books form another contrast to the Deuteronomistic theology that we've surveyed. For instance, Ecclesiastes famously comes down on the side of life's utter futility; even pursuing righteousness seems meaningless. Job never finds a simple answer to the reason for his suffering, other than the mysterious ways of God that are beyond human understanding. So many of the psalms, too, are beloved because they are cries to God amid human pain that are so honest and identifiable in our own experience. If you add the book of Lamentations to this mix (as the Jewish Bible does), you find heartbreaking complaints to God for social suffering, wherein the divine judgment seems not to spare the starving innocent.

My Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible has a good summary: "[Sufferings]... remind us that this life is not all there is and that there is a reality beyond this life that is the source of our lasting joy and enduring happiness. We come to see that suffering is only one side of the human experience with God, and we come to depend on him more and more to carry us through it. But there is no celebration in suffering. We live with the stark awareness that even if we could do everything right, life still may not turn out the way we hope or intend... [Yet] all suffering is redeemable.. [In suffering w]e discover the abiding, caring presence of the God who holds each and every one of us in the hollow of his hand..." (pp. 719-720).

There are MANY connections of the Writings with the New Testament.

* Proverbs is often quoted or alluded to in the New Testament. In fact, some of the New Testament’s most well known passages allude to (and sometimes directly quote) particular Proverbs.  Jesus’ words about the wise man and the foolish man who built their homes on rock and sand echo Proverbs 10:25 and 12:7. Jesus also echoes Proverbs 3:28, 11:4, 11:17, 11:28, 16:19, and 30:8-9 during his Sermon on the Mount.  Proverbs 25:21-22 admonishes the wise to take care of one’s enemy rather than retaliate, and the Apostle Paul makes use of the saying in Romans 12:20. Jesus’ maturity (Luke 2:52) echoes Proverbs 3:4. Jesus also alludes to Proverbs 16:1, 18:21, 24:12, 25:6-7, 27:1, 28:24, 29:23 in the course of his teaching (see Matt. 10:19-20, 12:36-37, 16:27, Luke 14:7-11, Luke 12:16-21, Matt. 15:4, 6, Luke 14:11 and 18:14b, respectively).(6)

* The Psalms are also frequently referenced in the New Testament: 2, 22, 34, 69, 78, 89, 110, and 118 especially, but also 33, 35, 39, 50, 102, 105, 106, 107, 116, 119, 135, 145, and 147. Several psalm passages are understood to be fulfilled in, or connected to Jesus (Matt. 13:35 and Ps. 78:3, John 19:24 and Ps. 22:18, John 19:36 and Ps. 34:20, Acts 2:25-35 and Ps. 16:8-11, 132:11, and 110:1).(7) We also find connections in Acts 4:11 and Psalm 118:22, Acts 4:25-26 and Psalm 2:1, Hebrews 1:8 and Psalm 45:6-7, Hebrews 1:10 and Psalm 102:25, and notably Hebrews 1:13 and Psalm 110:1.(8)

The Psalms connect theologically to the New Testament in another important way. My Old Testament prof for a semester, Brevard S. Childs, notes that, “the psalms function to guide Israel, both as individuals and as a community, in the proper response to God’s previous acts of grace in establishing a bond. The psalmist can praise God, complain of his sufferings, plea for a sign of vindication, but through it all and undergirding his response, lies the confession that life is obtained as a gift from God. His conduct is not seen as a striving after an ideal or toward fixed ethical norms, but a struggle to respond faithfully to what God has first done on Israel’s behalf. The response of the psalmist is so intense and directed so personally to God because the possession or loss of life is measured in terms of his relation to God who both ‘kills and makes alive’. Although the terminology of the Old Testament psalms often differs strikingly from Paul’s the theological understanding of man’s relationship to God as one of sheer grace shares much in common.”(3)

* The blamelessness and suffering of Job mirrors that of Christ's. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, without specifically referencing or alluding to Job, is in harmony with Job’s values and also promises grace to those who suffer.(9)

* A traditional, allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs is that it pertains to the Lord and Israel, and to Christ and his church.

* I found a Roman Catholic site that finds citations in the New Testament to the deuterocanonical books: It is a bone of contention between Catholics and Protestants that Catholics add too many books to the Old Testament and that Protestants omit important books that connect to New Testament teachings. The difference is not dishonesty on either side but rather different interpretations of the historical process of canonization.

(Quite a bit of this material appeared in an earlier blog post:


1.   Solomon’s sins vis-à-vis the Law are discussed in Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 122-123.

2.  Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 137.

3.  Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 209-210.

4. Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (third edition, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 531-532 (quote on page 531).

5. Charles T. Fritsch, “Introduction to the Book of Proverbs,” The Interpreter’s Bible, volume 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1955), 777.

6. Ibid, 777-778. 

7. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of the Psalms,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume IV (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 672-675.

8.  Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 199. Luke T. Johnson notes how artfully Mark 15:23-27 weaves Psalm verses in his depiction of the crucifixion: Ps. 69:21, Ps. 22:18, Ps. 22:7, Ps. 109:25, Ps. 22:8, Ps. 22:1, Ps. 69:21. Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 139. See also my blog post:

9. “Job, Theology of,” in Elwell, ed., Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, 419

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