A grab-bag of poetry, proverbs and perspicacity

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The third main section of Old Testament and apocryphal books is something of a grab bag, whether we focus solely on the undisputed books, or include the deuterocanonical ones as well. For some people, poetry is the dominant characteristic, although much of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are prose. For others, wisdom is the primary emphasis, although it is not the most obvious category for many psalms, nor for the love poetry of the Song of Songs.

The Hebrew books are all classified by Jewish tradition under the miscellaneous third category of Writings. They are the books that are not Law or Prophet. Christians might add to that classification, saying they are the books that are not Law, Prophet or History. Nonetheless, poetry is the predominant form, and wisdom a frequent emphasis.

It has become the custom to print poetic passages as lines of verse, unlike the older tradition of the Authorised Version. Perhaps this is most obvious in Bibles which are printed like other books, with a single column of text on each page. The poetic lines are somewhat obscured in the majority of versions which print two columns per page.

The Jerusalem Bible’s single column view helped emphasise visually that these were poems.

Hebrew poetry is quite unlike English. Rhyme and rhythm are the basics of modern English verse;1 at the core of Hebrew poetry we find repetition. Most Hebrew verse can be divided into pairs of lines; the first line introduces the thought, the second line repeats or completes it in different words. Quite often the second line expands or develops the idea or image in some way. As an example, take what is probably the most famous psalm in the English speaking world:2

The LORD is my Shepherd ;
I shall not want.
(two connected thoughts, God’s provision and my lack of need,
make a single whole)
He makes me lie down
in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters
(two parallel thoughts, both giving a picture of peaceful rest)

This is the kind of pattern to look out for. Very often, when psalms are said or sung congregationally in church, this is emphasised either by a pause at the half-way mark of the verse, or (slightly less commonly) by half the church reading one half-verse, and the other half taking it up the parallel or echo in the second half-verse.

Wisdom is a much-prized category: it is a very practical philosophy of life that involves seeing God as the true source of wisdom, and a life oriented to God as one that walks on the right path. Much of what we today think of as religion – ethical guidance, a practical concern to live a good life – was classed in the ancient world as wisdom or philosophy (the word “philosopher” originally simply meant a person who loved wisdom).

As the tradition developed, wisdom also became a more direct theological category: Judaism increasingly identified God’s wisdom with the revelation of the Torah. The world was made according to divine wisdom, and so Torah also contained the pattern of creation.

These partially-formed Jewish traditions became an important resource for the early Christians as they began to think about Jesus as the wisdom and word of God. Words from the Hebrew Bible book of Proverbs, and the deuterocanonical books of Sirach and Wisdom, echo in New Testament texts affirming Christ as pre-existent with God. More polemically, these New Testament texts also present Jesus as a superior wisdom to both Torah and Greek philosophy.


  1. It was not always so: in the Middle Ages English verse was often marked by alliteration and rhythm, such as this beginning of the great poem Piers Plowman
    “In a somer sesun, whon softe was the sonne”
    In a summer season, when soft was the sun,
  2. This is, of course, the beginning of Psalm 23

One thought on “A grab-bag of poetry, proverbs and perspicacity

  1. Pingback: Sing us one of the songs of Zion – looking at the Psalms – Liturgica

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