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Poetic and Wisdom Literature

In the Book of Psalms there are many voices, from various times and places. Gathered by anonymous authors often referred to as the “sages of Israel,” the psalms were clearly used in both private and community cultic ceremonies (Albertz, 1992, p. 509). The composition of the Psalms was motivated by a community solidarity with Israel as well as a pious personal petition for deliverance (Ps 22:23-32; 69:31, 33-36; 102:13-23) (Albertz, 1992, p. 509).

The writings found in the book of Psalms clearly demonstrate great insight and skillfully shaped poetic language. Scholars have organized the book of Psalms into five distinct sections; the particular sections are either connected to particular events or historical figures such as David. There are several different types of psalms and they are as follows: Lament, Thanksgiving, Hymn, Enthronement Hymn, Royal Psalm, Wisdom Psalm, Prophetic Judgment, Vow, Liturgy and Benediction (Gillingham, 1998, p.

195). It is important to note that not all psalms fit into one of these subcategories in fact the poetic voices of many of the psalms seemed to be muffled consequently, some psalms are really only fragments of known types and others are impossible to classify at all (Gillingham, 1998, p. 214). The laments and praises were by far the most commonly found types. The prayers of complaint, better known as laments, were normally composed during times of great distress (Gillingham, 1998, p. 189).

The usually contained a statement of the poet’s suffering, a word of trust and an appeal to God by declaring a vow of obedience and thanksgiving (Ps 22 and 26) (Gillingham, 1998, p. 189). Laments differed greatly from thanksgiving Psalms as they were commonly understood as thanks given for what God had done under specific historical circumstances to save the individual or the nation (Albertz, 1992, p. 510). Wisdom Psalms which are perhaps similar to the wisdom writings found in the Book of Proverbs reflected the teaching of the sages of Israel (Albertz, 1998, p.

512). In the Book of Psalms the wisdom writings found here could be viewed as a form of teaching to better reflect upon such concepts as divine retribution which argues that the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked will be punished (Ps 37: 20-25). Tradition ascribes the book of Psalms to David (2 Sam 23:1); about half or so are ascribed as such in the superscriptions. The Psalter is a collection, probably a collection of collections, of poems from all periods of Israel’s history (Gillingham, 1998, p.

191). The Book of Proverbs can be understood as a compilation of centuries of Israelite instruction in both the private sphere of the home and the public sphere of the school. Called by some scholars a foreign body in the Bible, Proverbs ignores major religious themes such as covenant, ancestors, Exodus, Sinai, David, and makes creative use of non-Israelite wisdom traditions, particularly those of Egyptian character (Albertz, 1992, p. 512).

In substance, it represents the results of a search for a divinely sustained cosmic order in the lessons derived from human experience; hence it is a form of theologized wisdom which differs greatly from that found in the Book of Psalms (Albertz, 1992, p. 511-12). All insight was deemed a gift of God, Proverbs was thought of as revealed wisdom and hence was incorporated into Scripture. Biblical scholars have divided the Book of Proverbs into four long collections.

Much like the book of Psalms, Proverbs has also incorporated several headings; they indicate royal patronage (1:1; 10:1; 25:1) and other such themes (22:17; 24:23; 30:1; 31:1) which testify to centuries of accumulated material. Chapters 1-9 are by far the most religious collection; at least these chapters have occasional stylistic affinities with Deuteronomy and prophecy compositions (Albertz, 1992, p. 513). The theologized wisdom found within the Book of Proverbs represents a late stage of Israelite wisdom tradition and many scholars have argued that these particular writings should be attributed to an educate upper class (Albertz, 1992, p.

512). Theologized wisdom, which can most clearly be seen in chapters 1-9, can be understood in terms of the concerns of upper class educated communities who created a philosophy of life which better matched the great moral demands within both the public and private spheres of their daily lives (Albertz, 1992, p. 513). The teachings generally reflect the agricultural economy and are for the most par optimistic despite a rigid principle of retribution; a characteristic which was also visible in some of the Psalms. There is a characteristic tendency toward sharp contrasts, such as rich/poor, wise/fool, good/evil.

Many books of the Bible are poetic works, but this category is not adequate as a generic classification because there are several very distinct types of poetry (Gillingham, 1998, p. 22). Divided broadly there are two kinds of poetic books: cultic poetry and Wisdom literature. The primary example of the former is the Book of Psalms, which is not simply a collection of poems but is also the hymn and prayer book of the second temple period. For the most part the psalms and cultic poems are lyrical, that is, they are mean to be sung and not simply read out loud (Gillingham, 1998, p. 223).

The other poetic books of the bible are more difficult to classify and they are generally considered Wisdom literature, which in and of itself is a wide range of types. Wisdom poetry ranges from the collection of sayings and poems in the Book of Proverbs to the carefully constructed poem of Job.

All of these works have in common a certain literary self-consciousness seldom found in other biblical literature (Gillingham, 1998, p. 223). Despite the differences between the Book of Psalms and the Book of Proverbs they share similar poetic format as well as similar concerns of piety and righteousness.These are writings which have aided the ancient communities of Israel not only to give voice to their religious concerns but also to create unifying bonds.


Albertz, R. (1992). A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period: From the Exile to the Maccabees. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. Gillingham, S. E. (1998). One Bible, Many Voices: Different Approaches to Biblical Studies. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

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