Walt Kaiser notes that Poetry “is important enough to occupy about one-third of the Old Testament.”* It is a medium of communication that uses figurative language to explore the intricacies of life, and it has the capacity to provide an extraordinary view of ordinary things. Grant Osborne notes,
Semitic poetry had its origin in the religious life of the people, both corporate and individual. Prose was inadequate to express the deep yearnings of the soul, and poetry as an emotional, deep expression of faith and worship became a necessity. The many types of religious needs called for different types of hymns. Hebrew poetry was not recreational but was functional in the life of the nation and its relationship with Yahweh.**
It is important to understand a primary pattern found in Old Testament poetry-semantic parallelism. Kaiser describes semantic parallelism as of “major importance both for identifying the literary form and for getting at its meaning.” He further states, “The basic idea of parallelism is that two or more lines of poetry express either a synonymous idea by use of an equivalent but different word, or an antithetic idea by some type of contrast. The parallelism may be semantic (dealing with meaning) or grammatical (pertaining to form).”
Despite the predominance of the Psalms as Old Testament poetry, there are many other examples of poetry in Scripture. In particular, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon all contain poetry. Further, large portions of the prophets are poetic.
Poetry is often difficult to interpret because it contains so much figurative language and there are numerous ways that poets may incorporate the use of figurative language. One of the primary figurative devices found in Scripture is the simile. Similes, like metaphors, are “used as a means of comparing things that are essentially unlike. The only distinction between them is that in simile the comparison is expressed by the use of some word or phrase, such as like, as, than, similar to, resembles, or seems.” (Perrine)
While similes express the comparison, metaphors imply the comparison. That is, “The figurative term is substituted for or identified with the literal term.”
Personification also is a type of figurative language found in Scripture. In personification, objects, animals, or ideas are given human attributes.
Paradox is yet another form of figurative language. A paradox is an apparent contradiction that is nevertheless somehow true.
Irony is a form of figurative language that occurs in Scripture, although it is not as common as those listed above. Irony is saying the opposite of what one means.
We must be careful not to over-exegete figurative language in Scripture. However, a commitment to allow the context to determine their meaning will put us well on our way to understanding Scripture’s rich use of figurative language.
Wisdom literature in the Bible is often associated with the books of poetry. In fact, the books of wisdom often utilize poetics. While all of Scripture may be described as containing God’s wisdom for his world, the books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon are unique in their discussion and treatment of God’s principles of wisdom for his people.
In his book The Hermeneutical Spiral, Osborne provides a wonderful overview of the ten forms that wisdom writing may take.*** First, he defines the proverb, the most prominent form of wisdom writing, as a “brief statement of universally accepted truth formulated in such a way as to be memorable.” Second, there are wisdom sayings. These differ from typical proverbs in that they may not be prescriptive in nature. Rather, they suggest possible outcomes based on potential choices. Third, is the riddle. This is used rarely in Scripture, yet the riddle was a key form of wisdom literature in the ancient world.
Fourth, is the admonition. This form of wisdom writing presents the hearer with a wise course of action and immediately provides positive or negative reinforcement by revealing a potential outcome based upon the choice made. Fifth, is the use of allegory in wisdom literature. Allegory, as a literary device, involves communicating a deeper meaning through the use of symbols or story (cf. Ecclesiastes 12:1-7).
Sixth, are hymns and prayers found in wisdom literature. Often these prayers are written as poetry. The same is true for the hymns. Seventh, there is the dialogue. The dialogue is found primarily in Job, but is used in Proverbs as well. This type of wisdom writing chronicles a conversation between people, with the goal of attaining wisdom or understanding.
Eighth, is the confession. Found primarily in Ecclesiastes, this form of wisdom writing functions as an autobiography of sorts, where life’s lessons are recounted-both the good and the bad. Ninth, is what is called onomastica. This type of wisdom writing, found rarely in Scripture, recounts the attributes of God (cf. Job 38). Tenth, are beatitudes. They are found throughout Scripture, but are most noted for their use in the Sermon on the Mount. Beatitudes provide examples of the kind of wise choices that result in the blessing of God.
Wisdom literature is one of the most challenging genres to interpret correctly. Because of their practical nature, it is easy to lose sight of the theology that supports them. It is also easy to lose sight of Christ if we forget He is the very wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:30)! For instance, the book of Proverbs contains practical advice on everything from marriage to personal finances. However, every proverb is built upon this truth: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7).” We can see clearly, then, that the foundation for every aspect of practical wisdom is an authentic relationship with God through the Messiah Jesus. As interpreters, we must be careful that our teaching reflects this truth when we deal with Wisdom literature.
* All quotes from Walt Kaiser found in Toward An Exegetical Theology (Baker, 1981), 92.
** Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (2nd Edition; IVP, 2006), 231.
*** See Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 247-250.