Session 9: The Writings and Wisdom Literature

Aims

By the end of this session you should be able to: 

  • identify different types and purposes of Psalms and Wisdom literature

  • describe the theologies of the Psalms and Wisdom literature

  • explore the use of Psalms and Wisdom literature in worship and ministry

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Prayer

Blessed are you Lord our God,

for you come to us and seek to make your home in us.

As we study now,

let our eyes and our ears be open to you

let our hearts find their rest and their joy in you

that we may grow in grace and live to your glory.

Blessed are you, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.

Amen.

Introduction

We have looked at the responses of the prophets to the Babylonian crisis and in this session we will explore some of the other responses found in what is known as the Writings, this is the corpus of biblical literature that includes Lamentations, Psalms and Proverbs as well as Job and Ecclesiastes (these latter three books are also known as Wisdom Literature).

Lamentations, Proverbs and Job

The book of Lamentations reflects the sense of overwhelming grief and sadness felt by the Israelites after the burning of the temple and the destruction of Jerusalem.  Once again it uses a literary form found in other parts of the OT.   As Hayes notes, “The two centuries following the destruction would prove to be a crucial period of transition, and Israelite literature in this period reflects the nation's continuing struggle with philosophical and religious challenges posed by the destruction' (p319).  Other responses can be found in the books of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and also some of the Psalms.

 

The book of Proverbs holds wisdom as the answer to so many of Israel's problems, but this view is challenged in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, both of which hold that sometimes suffering is not always a sign of judgement, nor of wickedness and nor it is always explicable.  Hayes' conclusion on the book of Job is that it offers no explanation of the reason for suffering and injustice but that it does offer a stern warning against criticising its victims by assuming that they have done something wrong as well as blaspheming against Yahweh by assuming his injustice.

Exercise

 

What do you think about Hayes' conclusions on Job?  What image of God does the book paint?   What speaks to you most from the message of Job?

What are your favourite Proverbs and why?

 

Share some of your thoughts on the discussion Forum

Ecclesiastes

The book of Ecclesiastes (or Qoheleth as it often referred to) remains an enigma.  The most well known phrase from the book is 'Vanity, vanity, all is vanity and a chasing of the wind' the translation of 'hebel, hebelim' in the Hebrew, hebel (pronounced hevel) meaning breath, wind or vapour.  Some scholars say it is profoundly joyful while others say it is relentlessly pessimistic.  Its message is so dark at times that it almost didn't make it into the canon of scripture.  Only the last few verses, which are thought to have been added by an Epilogist (someone who writes an ending) give any obvious hope of the God of the Covenant, who has been conspicuous by absence for the rest of the book. 

 

Carolyn Sharp, Professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Yale, believes this book is best understood as a work of irony and this would certainly help to explain its overriding sense of a God who does not care. 

 

You can download a short summary of this theory in the Resources section.  You will also find a longer essay on the theory in that section in case you would like to explore it in more detail at any time.

Psalms

The book of Psalms could perhaps justifiably win the award for the most loved book of the Old Testament. 

It has been used in worship for millennia.  One of the most powerful experiences of worship I can remember is the singing of Psalm 22 on Maundy Thursday as the sanctuary was stripped in darkness.  It was a powerful moment. 

 

This beautiful book is a collection of poems, only some of which are ascribed to David. Some psalms are poems of joy and celebration, others of lament and sorrow. There is something in this book that speaks to everyone and every aspect of life.

 

Exercise

 

What are your favourite Psalms and why?

 

Outline the basic structure of the book of Psalms.  What do you make of the Psalms of Lament, especially the very difficult (and rarely ever quoted) final verse of Psalm 137?

 

How have you experienced the Psalms used in worship?

 

Make notes of your thoughts for discussion on the Study Day.

Spotlight on Doctrine

Both the Apostle's and the Nicene creeds end with a declaration of faith in the Holy Spirit.  Wisdom in the Old Testament is often associated with the spirit of God, and the language used is usually female - the Spirit might be called the Mother figure of the Godhead.  In the Nicene creed the Holy Spirit (here used in the male form) is said to 'proceed from the Father and the Son', in other words an equal part of the Godhead.  What do you think about the idea that wisdom in the OT might be part of the Trinity we see more clearly outlined in the NT?

Spotlight on Spirituality

The Psalms are highly valued in many different types of Christian spirituality and particularly so for those in religious orders where they form the backbone of the rhythm of prayer, being said or sung at morning, midday and evening prayer.  Why do you think this might be the case?

Reflect

Spend some time prayerfully thinking about what you have discovered in this session. What are the most significant things for you? How might you use what you have learned in your own faith journey? Write this down in your learning journal and be prepared to share it at the next Study Day.

Prayer

Blessed are you, Lord our God, all things come from you:

from you come our life, this world and all that we have and are.

Teach us to love and respect your creation and give glory to you.

Blessed are you, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  Amen

To Do in Church This Week

Listen out for the words of Psalms in your services this week.  How are they being used? Do you say or sing a full Psalm in most of your services or are they present in other ways?

Share some of what you have found on the discussion board in the Forum.

Resources

Short Summary:

Ecclesiastes as

a Work of Irony

Ecclesiastes:

Journey to Joy or Path to Pessimism?

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