Poetic Books of the Bible

The poetic books of the Bible include Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Songs of Solomon and follow the 17 historical books that comprise the first portion of the Old Testament.

These five books contain the poetry of the nation of Israel, providing the reader with important stories, poetry and wisdom. Two of the books are written entirely in poetic form - the Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, and Psalms. They are characterized by repetition of words and phrases and by patterns of rhythm.

The poetic books do not relate historical experiences but use Hebrew poetry to delve into the questions of wisdom, suffering, love, life and most importantly the character and nature of God. They also have another important function, linking the history of the past with the prophetic books of the future. The five books are some of the most hotly debated books of the Bible as there are wide disagreements among scholars on the dates of the writings in the books, their purposes and their interpretation.

Also referred to as Books of Wisdom and Poetry, the five books are a completely different type of literature from the narratives in the Pentateuch and the Historical Books. The books that fall into the category of "wisdom" writings are Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs, while the others are collections of love stories, Song of Songs, and worship prayers and songs, Psalms. The Wisdom writings explore important questions about life and also give advice for practical living, especially in community with others.

Job is named after its main character, who is a faithful man who must struggle with the loss of his family, his wealth and his home. The book deals with an ageless question that puzzles every generation - the problem of suffering and the affliction of the righteous in particular. It is an account of the sufferings of Job, of the argument between him and his friends, about the cause of his sufferings and the solution to his difficulty. Its principal aim is to refute the popular view that sin in the life of a sufferer is the cause of all sufferings.

Psalms is a collection of 150 psalms and its Hebrew name is The Book of Praise. David, Solomon, Asaph, and Moses wrote some of the psalms, while the authors of the others are anonymous. These poems depict almost every aspect of man's relation to God, including simple trust, the sense of sin, appeals to a higher power in time of trouble and the conviction that the world is in the hands of a loving God. They cover various human emotions, from joy to anger, from hope to despair. Many were written for use in group worship, while others are believed to have been written as private prayers.

Proverbs is a compendium of proverb collections. Solomon inspired the development of this book, although its entire content did not derive from him. The proverbs, which are short, pithy sayings with practical implication, cover various subjects, including chastity, control of the tongue, relations with others, knowledge and justice. Perhaps above everything else in Proverbs is the reiterated assertion that "the fear of the Lord" is the source of true wisdom.

Traditionally Ecclesiastes is believed to have been written by Solomon but later it became almost universally recognized that it is about him, rather than by him. The purpose of the author is to prove the vanity of everything "under the sun." The author first announces this truth as a fact and then proves it through the "preacher's" experience and observations. Finally, it is shown that the fullness of life is found only in the recognition of things "above the sun," both spiritual and material.

The Song of Solomon is the only book in the Bible that has love as its sole theme. It is a collection or cycle of marriage songs that is didactic and moral in its purpose. Again, the composition is about Solomon, and not by him. It was originally written as a love poem, describing the joy and extreme happiness of two people in love. However, in some Jewish traditions, it has been understood as a description of God's love for Israel, while in some Christian traditions it has been seen as a description of Christ's love for the Church.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Art of Biblical Poetry
Robert Alter.
Basic Books, 1985
Hills of Spices: Poetry from the Bible
Rena Potok.
Jewish Publication Society, 2006
The Names of God: Poetic Readings in Biblical Beginnings
Herbert Chanan Brichto.
Oxford University Press, 1998
The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism
Adele Berlin.
Indiana University Press, 1985
Librarian’s tip: Chap. I "Parallelism and Poetry"
FREE! The Poets of the Old Testament
Alex. R. Gordon.
Hodder and Stoughton, 1912
Poetry in the Hebrew Bible: Selected Studies from Vetus Testamentum
David E. Orton.
Brill, 2000
The Book of Job: A Commentary
Norman C. Habel.
Westminster Press, 1985
The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity
E. Ann Matter.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992
The Book of Proverbs and Our Search for Wisdom
Richard J. Clifford.
Marquette University Press, 1995
Spenser and Biblical Poetics
Carol V. Kaske.
Cornell University Press, 1999
Milton and Scriptural Tradition: The Bible into Poetry
James H. Sims; Leland Ryken.
University of Missouri Press, 1984
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