Section 1: Opening Prayer
Let us pray. Almighty God, your Holy Spirit equips the church with a rich variety of gifts. We give thanks for the ways these gifts have been shown forth among us through your servants. We praise you for shared joys and accomplishments, and we commend our work to you. Grant that we may continue to bear witness to Christ in lives that are built on faith and love; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
From Sundays and Seasons.com. Copyright 2014 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission under Augsburg Fortress Liturgies Annual License #47913.
Section 2: The Story
The subset of the Old Testament we refer to as “Writings” has six, two of which we have covered, Job and Psalms. This lesson covers the other four books in this section. They are:
Song of Solomon
The first thing to look at is that they all are written (at least most of the books, and in most copies of the Bible) in poem form. If you look, they go like this (from the beginning of Proverbs):
For learning about wisdom and instruction,
for understanding words of insight,
for gaining instruction in wise dealing,
righteousness, justice, and equity;
to teach shrewdness to the simple,
knowledge and prudence to the young—
let the wise also hear and gain in learning,
and the discerning acquire skill,
to understand a proverb and a figure,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Now if you look at this, it may not seem like a poem to you. That is because most Western poetry (from the Western Hemisphere, not west like cowboys and the open range) is recognized because it rhymes. That is not true with other forms of poetry. Think of a Haiku…
learning about faith in God
Growing in the Lord
The 5-7-5 pattern about a single idea is what makes a haiku. They don’t generally rhyme and certainly don’t have to. Hebrew poetry is based on the word structure and the repetition of words and sounds. Remember too that you are reading a translation, so the poetry doesn’t sound the same as in hebrew. So it doesn’t sound like poetry to us. About the only way you know poetry in the Bible is that it is printed differently. But it is important to note when you are seeing poetry because the language changes and that impacts how we understand it. Poems use metaphors and figures of speech, they aren’t always to be taken literally. They also are often more about expressing emotion than information.
Another word for “writings” that this section sometimes gets is “Wisdom Literature”. It means that these books are about practical skills for living. Not so much like the life hacks on YouTube that show you how to do something easier or in a cool way. More like guidance for behavior and how we relate to others. The Proverbs in particular teach us ethics as well as how to act if we are parents, children, teachers, etc. King Solomon, who was considered the wisest person who ever lived, is traditionally credited with writing much of these book. Parts of them may have originated with him, but like most of the Old Testament it is generally agreed, by most Lutherans Bible scholars anyway, that the books as we know them are products of many writers who produced them, edited together over a long period of time. Saying this doesn’t take anything away from the Bible… in fact, it makes it more important, because instead of claiming one person in particular wrote it, it instead says that the Bible reflects a long history of how God’s people have understood faith and God active in their life together. These books can then be understood as the collected wisdom of the people of Israel.
Section 3: The Message
This book gives us advice. Proverbs are short pieces of wisdom. Some modern examples are:
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Curiosity killed the cat.
The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
The proverbs in the bible are sometimes like those, but there is something else to them. The fact that they are IN THE BIBLE gives you a clue. They aren’t just good ideas, they come from a foundation in God.
I could go on and on about what is in Proverbs. But instead, you all will do some teaching. To get into this book, we will do an interesting exercise. Scroll down to the bottom. There will be a comment from me (PT) that gives instructions for explaining a proverb. Then scroll to the bottom of people’s answers. See what chapter they read and explained its key idea, and then take the next one. You can use whatever bible you want. A simple online NRSV (where you can just put in the book and chapter) is at bible.oremus.org . Reading through these will give us a sense of the variety of topics in the book of Proverbs.
This book, whose speaker is known as Quoholeth, meaning “preacher”, is about searching for happiness. Its message is that nothing in life will ever completely satisfy us, except God.
One of the most famous passages was recorded by the 1960s band The Byrds… it is from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 and was a well-known song during a difficult time in our country.
This passage was so meaningful, even to people who didn’t go to church regularly or perhaps didn’t know it was from the Bible, because it gave a sense of peace, that the difficult things come to an end and that there is a time for peace (much of that era was filled with young people struggling with being part of a country that was at war, with possibly being drafted to fight, and whether war is ever a good thing).
But there is another side to Ecclesiastes… while that passage is quite hopeful, the very next one is pessimistic… in fact the very start to the Book of Ecclesiastes can seem pretty pessimistic:
The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains for ever.
5 The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south,
and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow.
8 All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
‘See, this is new’?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.
11 The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them.
12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
15 What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.
16 I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ 17And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.
18 For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.
Yet in this pessimism, in this coming to grips with the fact that the world is hard and our understanding of it will always be limited, there is another side: that God is faithful, that God is beyond our understanding and yet cares for us and watches over us.
Song of Solomon
Have you ever read a romance novel? Or heard anything from them? This book is almost exactly that… it is a love poem of a married couple. The words “God” or “Lord” or pretty much anything else religious are just not there. Here is a section where the Bride is admiring the Groom:
10 My beloved is all radiant and ruddy,
distinguished among ten thousand.
11 His head is the finest gold;
his locks are wavy,
black as a raven.
12 His eyes are like doves
beside springs of water,
bathed in milk,
13 His cheeks are like beds of spices,
His lips are lilies,
distilling liquid myrrh.
14 His arms are rounded gold,
set with jewels.
His body is ivory work,
encrusted with sapphires.
15 His legs are alabaster columns,
set upon bases of gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon,
choice as the cedars.
16 His speech is most sweet,
and he is altogether desirable.
This is my beloved and this is my friend,
O daughters of Jerusalem.
And then in Chapter 7, the groom looks at the bride:
How graceful are your feet in sandals,
O queenly maiden!
Your rounded thighs are like jewels,
the work of a master hand.
2 Your navel is a rounded bowl
that never lacks mixed wine.
Your belly is a heap of wheat,
encircled with lilies.
3 Your two breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle.
4 Your neck is like an ivory tower.
Your eyes are pools in Heshbon,
by the gate of Bath-rabbim.
Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon,
5 Your head crowns you like Carmel,
and your flowing locks are like purple;
a king is held captive in the tresses.
6 How fair and pleasant you are,
O loved one, delectable maiden!
7 You are stately as a palm tree,
and your breasts are like its clusters.
8 I say I will climb the palm tree
and lay hold of its branches.
O may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
and the scent of your breath like apples,
9 and your kisses like the best wine
that goes down smoothly,
gliding over lips and teeth.
Can you imagine yourself writing that? Pretty over the top. But a picture of two people in love.
A good question to ask is why it is in the Bible… There are a lot of answers, but none really give a satisfactory answer. In the end, while some try to make a comparison of the love between the two lovers in the book and Gods love for Israel / the Church, I personally find that a bit disturbing. Sure the Bible uses imagery of the Church as the Bride of Christ, but the images in Song of Solomon are a bit more realistic and erotic (love between a husband and wife) than that. So there is really not a good answer other than it was a picture that God created us to love one another, and that includes the love between married people.
This last book is a poem of grief. Some of the Psalms are psalms of lament (expression of grief and sorrow), but this entire book is one. But for people who have faith, part of lamenting is re-affirming that faith, believing in God even when things are very hard. This book over and over again looks at sorrow over sin and pain, but keeps returning to hope that our faith gives, that God’s grace and love never end.
Read the following, from Lamentations 3:
22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘therefore I will hope in him.’
25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
These verses are sometimes read at a funeral. Why do you think they would be used there (Answer below)?
These books known as “The Writings” are fascinating… they aren’t written as direct quotes from God, and they aren’t stories. Instead, they are a reflection of how Israel lived, how they saw God active in their lives. They become a picture of faith in real life.
Section 4: Learn & Engage
Answer the questions above and possibly comment with a writing of your own that shows how God is active in your life.
Section 5: Closing Prayer
Almighty God, your Holy Spirit equips the church with a rich variety of gifts. Grant that we may use them to bear witness to Christ in lives that are built on faith and love. Make us ready to live the gospel and eager to do your will, so that we may share with all your church in the joys of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Opening and Closing Prayers adapted from Sundays and Seasons.com. Copyright 2017 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission under Augsburg Fortress Liturgies Annual License #25165.