A few years ago I was privileged to visit St. Petersburg, Russia, and the world-famous Hermitage Museum. We were told that so many artifacts are on display there, if a person were to view one each minute it would take seven years to see them all. The vast array of paintings, sculpture, and historical materials was indeed staggering. But one item surpassed them all to me.
Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son is on permanent display at the museum. Standing before this massive canvas, I felt myself drawn into the scene portrayed so masterfully. The prodigal has fallen to his knees before his elderly father, his tattered clothes silent witness to the recent depravity of his life. The father’s warm hands gently caress his son. The older father and (presumably) a religious official stand to the side, their scowls revealing their joyless souls. I would have stayed at the painting all afternoon, if our tour guide had permitted such a luxury.
Part of the reason the painting was so impressive to me was that I knew something of the painter’s intention for his work. Historians speculate with good reason that Rembrandt has portrayed himself in each of the figures on his canvas. I saw his personal failures in the prodigal’s weeping shoulders; his periods of spiritual hardness in the judging spectators; his mature faith in the father’s forgiveness. Interpreting the painting according to the artist’s own story and intention brings the figures to life.
We view such a remarkably realistic portrait very differently than a work of modern abstraction. Picasso’s cubism is not meant to be interpreted literally. Jackson Pollack’s wild smatters of paint are intended to convey an intuitive, emotional reaction, not a considered theological meditation. We listen to a symphony with different expectations than we bring to a contemporary rock song or hymn.
So it is with interpreting the wisdom literature of Scripture. The poetry and symbolism of this part of God’s word is among the most powerful and moving in all of literature. Tonight we’ll survey some passages which illustrate principles of hermeneutics for wisdom and then for prophetic materials. And we’ll learn how to meet God in these classic texts together.
Interpreting wisdom literature
“Wisdom” includes Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes; also Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) and the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha. Later rabbinic tradition included the Song of Songs as well. The meaning of “wisdom”:
“Hokma” (the most common term for wisdom in the Old Testament) refers predominantly to an educated discipline or skillful performance in the world. The term can denote almost any acquired skill or learned craft, including an ability to wage war (Is. 10:13), tailor (Ex. 28:3), make cloth (Ex. 35:26), or perform political administration (Deut. 34:9). It may also concern one’s level of intelligence (Job. 39:17).
Wisdom is an attribute of God (Job. 38:36), the acquisition of some famous persons, and a distinguishing asset of some nations.
Wisdom could be learned by those outside Israel, and was apparently taught outside the home as well as inside it (2 Chr 17:7-9).
Wisdom literature is practical, not speculative. Its aim: to provide sound advice on how to act sensibly, how to succeed in life, how to avoid difficulties, and how to behave toward other people, especially high officials. It begins with the “fear of the Lord” (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7).
Ecclesiastes represents “negative wisdom.” Its central surface teaching is that life has no ultimate value (cf. 1:2). It describes life without God; thus 12:13-14 expresses the need for God. It serves as a negative argument for the necessity of faith in God.
The Book of Job centers on a character who likely predated the Hebrew race and faith. Job never refers to Abraham, the patriarchs, or the law of Moses. He makes no mention of the Promised Land or the covenant of God with the nation of Israel. The Sabeans (Job 1:15) and Chaldeans (v. 17) are likely references to peoples who thrived in the second millennium B.C. If you have ever suffered pain you did not cause, this story is yours today.
Interpreting the Psalms
The Psalms are the ancient hymn book of faith. Composed over centuries, their praise and prayers led generations of Hebrews to God. They were instrumental in early Christian worship as well:
“Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:19-20).
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).
The psalms have come to us in five “books.” They can be classified according to type. The largest group (more than 60) is the “lament,” expressions of honest pain. Thanksgiving psalms are just the opposite. Other categories include hymns of praise, reviews of salvation history, songs of celebration, expressions of wisdom, and songs of trust.
Written in poetic style, these hymns intend to communicate truth by evoking experience. They picture reality, conveying a deeper level of meaning than mere narrative or proposition can capture.
As with all literature, the psalms must be interpreted according to their authors’ intent. Hebrew poetry rhymed in meaning, not in words, in sense rather than in sound. So the artists who used poetic language usually employed “parallelism,” a technique where the second line or thought repeats the first.
Sometimes the second line is synonymous with the first, repeating its thought for emphasis (“synonymous parallelism”). For instance,
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands (Ps. 19:1)
Sometimes the second line contrasts with the first (“antithetic parallelism”). And sometimes the second line amplifies the first (“synthetic parallelism”). For instance,
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want (Ps. 23:1).
The Proverbs were written primarily by Solomon. From a brief survey of his life we learn two facts. One: the Proverbs are the product of a man whose wisdom led his nation to its greatest days of prosperity, power, and security. No ruler has ever proven more wise in conducting the affairs of his people. Two: we must depend on God for the strength and discernment we need in living by these proverbs. If their author could fall into such disastrous sin, so can we. Knowing is not doing. God’s word requires God’s power.
The Book of Proverbs appears to be organized in three sections. The prologue comes first (1:1-7) and sets out the main themes to be followed throughout the book. Second is a set of discourses which commend wisdom (chs. 2-4) and warn against folly (chs. 5-7). The remainder of the book (10:1-22:16) is a series of couplets which apply wisdom and folly to the practical problems of life.
Interpreting the prophets
Old Testament prophets were covenant enforcement mediators, as we see with Amos (Am 9:11-15). They were declarers of the message of God (cf. Ex 3:1, Is 6). And they were conveyers of a message already disclosed through the Pentateuch. In this sense they were “unoriginal.”
Several forms of utterance are clear within this genre:
Lawsuit (Isaiah 3:13-26)–demonstrates the punishment coming to Israel because of her disobedience.
Woe (Habakkuk 2:6-8)–announces woe and predicts disaster.
Promise (Amos 9:11-15)–describes future blessings.
Poetry (much of Isaiah)–relates God’s revelation in symbolic forms.
The prophets were more often forth-tellers than foretellers. We must seek the intended meaning of their declarations first within their original context and audience.
The “sensus plenior” (fuller meaning) of prophetic texts relates to those which have an apparent later application as well as their original relevance. For instance, Hosea’s description of Israel’s exodus from Egypt (Hos 11:1) was later used by Matthew to describe Jesus’ return from that nation to Israel (Mt 2:15). The biblical writers worked under a degree of inspiration which is not ours today. They were sometimes led to a fuller meaning within OT passages, but we must confine ourselves to their inspiration. We do not have their supernatural insight, and should interpret the OT prophets within their intended context and relevance.
Guidelines for interpretation:
Consider the historical context (760-460 B.C.), with its social upheaval, religious apostasy, and shifts in population and geographic boundaries.
Locate the specific context of the prophetic declaration.
Isolate individual oracles and interpret them within their specific contexts and intentions (cf. Amos 5).
Remember always: the text cannot mean what it never meant.
We have studied wisdom literature and prophets in this section. As with other literature, it is crucial to understand the words and history before determining the theological truth which applies to your life. But knowing the historical setting and literary type, especially parallelism, is especially important with this genre of Scripture.
No one would want to interpret symbolism as though it were prose. For instance:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no feet had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Aren’t you grateful for such powerful symbolism?