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Wisdom as Poetry

A large majority of the wisdom literature is poetry. There are some short narrative sequences in Job and a moderate amount of prose reflection in Ecclesiastes, but the rest of the material is painted with poetry. It is important, therefore, to remember the principles of interpreting poetry that we learned back.

Thus, we find that the wisdom books use parallelism as their standard structural feature. This is obvious in Proverbs, where each verse consists of two lines that clearly combine to form one thought. However, it is important to note that the rest of the wisdom material also follows this pattern. Thus, the form of Job’s complaint in 6:2 is that of synonymous parallelism:

If only my anguish could be weighed
and all my misery be placed on the scales!

Even God’s response to Job at the end of the book is poetic, following the standard literary format of parallelism (synonymous parallelism in this example):

Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
or walked in the recesses of the deep? (Job 38:16)

Likewise, many of the verses in Ecclesiastes and most of the verses in Song of Songs exhibit parallelism.

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief. (Eccl. 1:18, synonymous parallelism)
Your cheeks are beautiful with earrings,
your neck with strings of jewels. (Song 1:10, synonymous parallelism)

Another characteristic feature of Hebrew poetry is the frequent use of figurative imagery. Previously, we noted that figurative imagery is effective especially when the author is trying to connect emotionally with the reader. However, the stress of wisdom literature, particularly the book of Proverbs, is on thinking, not on feeling. Thus, the use of poetry and figurative imagery would be surprising. Infact, the book of Proverbs rarely uses figurative imagery. While figures of speech occur throughout the book, they do not do so with the same frequency as in other poetic books. The form we find throughout the book defined as proverb is a type of poetry, but it is distinct, and it differs from traditional Hebrew poetry on some points, such as in its minimal use of figurative language. This concurs with the low level of emotional appeal in Proverbs.

The Song of Songs, however, is completely different. It is highly emotional and attempts to connect with the audience at an emotional level. It is not surprising, therefore, to find this book replete with figurative imagery. Job, also an emotionally charged book, is likewise characterized by figures of speech, while Ecclesiastes, lying somewhere between Proverbs and Job in its emotional orientation, likewise uses figures of speech more frequently than Proverbs but less than Job. Thus, if we can place the books in an order of increasing emotional orientation (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and Song of Songs), we recognize that this same order also reflects a corresponding increasing use of figurative imagery.


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