1. The Hebrews reckon but three books as poetical
, namely: Job, Psalms, and Proverbs, which are distinguished from the rest by a stricter rhythm -- the rhythm not of feet, but of clauses
(see below, No.3) -- and a peculiar system of accentuation. It is obvious to every reader that the poetry of the Old Testament, in the usual sense of the word, is not restricted to these three books. But they are called poetical in a special and technical sense. In any natural classification of the books of the Old Testament, those of Ecclesiastes and Canticles will fall into the division which contains the books of Job, Psalms, and Proverbs.
The Hebrew system of accentuation is very subtle and complicated, and there is nothing corresponding to it in our western languages. These so-called accents are quite numerous, one of them resting, as a general rule, upon each word. Certain of them are peculiar to the poetical books, and are called poetical accents. They serve a threefold office. (1.) They guide the modulated flow of the voice in cantillation, thus serving, in a certain sense, as musical notes. Some think that this was their primary office. (2.) They indicate the logical relation to each other of the words and clauses, thus performing the office of marks of interpunction. (3.) They rest, with certain exceptions, on the tone syllable, and thus serve as accents in our restricted sense of the word.
In the first division of the present chapter, the characteristics of Hebrew poetry will be briefly considered in respect to its spirit, its form, and its offices. Then will follow, in the second division, a notice of the contents of the several books.
(A.) CHARACTERISTICS OF HEBREW POETRY.
2. As it respects the spirit of Hebrew poetry, we notice, first of all, its perfect harmony with the spirit of the Theocracy. It is, in truth, an outgrowth of the Theocracy in the souls of holy men educated under its influence and thoroughly imbued with its spirit. The God of Moses and Aaron is also the God of David, Asaph, and Solomon; of Hosea, Isaiah, and Habakkuk. In his boldest flights the Hebrew poet always remains loyal to the institutions of Moses, not in their letter alone, but much more in their spirit, of which he is the inspired interpreter. The same Jehovah who thundered from Sinai and spake to the people by Moses, speaks also by the sweet psalmist of Israel, by the wisdom of Solomon, and by the whole succession of the prophets. Hence the poetry of the Hebrews is radiant throughout with the pure monotheism of the Theocracy. It exhibits God in his infinite perfections, as the Creator and sovereign Ruler of the world, without a single taint of pantheism or polytheism, and that in an age when pantheism and polytheism were the reigning forms of religion without the pale of the covenant people.
Another distinguishing mark of Hebrew poetry is the vivid consciousness of God's presence by which it is pervaded. In this respect it runs entirely parallel with Hebrew history. It has already been remarked (Ch.20, No.1) that Hebrew history differs widely from all other historical writings in its habit of looking at the course of human events from the Divine side, rather than the human; that while secular history is mainly occupied with the endless details of human combinations and alliances, and the progress of material civilization, the historical books of the Old Testament unfold to us with wonderful clearness God's presence and power as shaping the course of human events in the interest of his great plan of redemption. Take, for example, that small section of Hebrew history comprehended under the title, Affinity with Ahab. No Christian can read it without feelings of holy awe, for it is radiant throughout with the presence of that righteous God who renders to every man according to his works, and visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation. In it the retributive justice of God shines forth, like the lightning, from one end of heaven to the other. Just so is Hebrew poetry also filled with the presence and glory of God. When the Hebrew bard sweeps his lyre, all nature gives signs of her Maker's presence. The heavens rejoice before him, the earth is glad, the sea roars, the mountains and hills break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field clap their hands. He looks on the earth, and it trembles; he touches the hills, and they smoke. Nor less conspicuous is his presence in providence and in the human soul. He is seen in awful majesty high above the tumult of the nations, directing their movements to the accomplishment of his own infinitely wise purposes; making the wrath of man to praise him, and restraining the remainder of it. Meanwhile his presence shines in the believer's soul, like the sun in his strength, filling it with strength, light, and gladness. In a word, over the whole domain of Hebrew poesy, whether its theme be God or nature or human society or the human spirit, is heard continually the solemn cry of the seraphim: |Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.|
Originality is another feature of Hebrew poetry. It cannot indeed be said that this quality belongs to all the Hebrew poets. With such divinely perfect models as the later writers had before them, models with which they had been familiar from childhood, it was natural that they should imitate them. The spirit of inspiration did not prevent this, for it was not necessary to the ends of revelation that it should be prevented. Set even among the later poets we have some striking examples of originality; and Hebrew poetry, taken as a whole, is original in the fullest sense of the word, borrowing nothing that we know of from any other nation. Not to anticipate the question of the age to which the book of Job belongs, and passing by some gems of poetry contained in the book of Genesis, we may say that the oldest recorded song of certain date which the world possesses is that of the Israelites upon their deliverance at the Red sea. Exod., ch.15. Next in order (to pass by the poetic effusions of Balaam, and some other fragments, Numb., chaps.21-24) come the song which Moses wrote for the children of Israel just before his death (Deut., ch.32), and (according to the title, the genuineness of which there is no valid reason for doubting) |the prayer of Moses the man of God,| contained in the ninetieth psalm. In the period of the judges we have only the song of Deborah and Barak. The perfect originality of all these primitive songs is acknowledged by all. It constitutes indeed one of their chief charms. With |the sweet psalmist of Israel| began the era of lyric song; with Solomon that of didactic, and with Hosea, Joel, Isaiah, and their contemporaries, that of prophetic poetry. The poets to whom, under the illumination of the Holy Ghost, these different forms of Hebrew poetry owe their origin, are all distinguished for their originality. So is also the book of Job, that great didactic song so perfectly unique in its character.
The wonderful freshness and simplicity of thought in Hebrew poetry is inseparably connected with its originality. A thought is fresh when it bursts forth directly from the inner fountain of the soul just as it was conceived there. But the moment the man pauses to remould it and shape it to some artificial standard of propriety, it loses its originality and its freshness together. It is no longer the living, glowing conception as it existed in his bosom, but rather what he thinks it ought to have been. In the process of working it over he has killed, if not its life, at least its power. But the Hebrew poet opens, so to speak, the floodgates of his heart, and pours forth the stream of his thoughts and emotions just as they have sprung into being there. Because he is under the sanctifying and illuminating influence of the divine Spirit, they are high and holy thoughts. Because they come forth in their primitive form, they are natural and fresh; and for this reason the lapse of ages does not diminish their power over the human spirit.
Intimately connected also with the originality of Hebrew poetry is its charming variety. The Hebrew poets are exceedingly unlike each other in native character, in training, in surrounding circumstances, and in the nature of the work laid upon them by the Spirit of inspiration. And as they all write in a natural and appropriate way, it follows that their writings must exhibit great diversities. No two writers can well be more unlike each other than Isaiah and the author of the book of Job. With Isaiah the central object of thought is always Zion, in whose interest he sees God governing the world, and whose future glory is revealed to him in prophetic vision. But Zion is not an individual. She is a divine organization which God has destined to universal victory, and around which revolve, under his almighty guidance, the great movements of the heathen nations. The prophet, accordingly, has to do not so much with particular persons, as with the destiny of society, which is involved in that of Zion. He describes her present conflicts and her future triumphs in his own peculiar and gorgeous imagery. But the problem before the author of the book of Job is God's providence towards individuals, as viewed from the position of the Old Testament before the fuller revelations of the New. He is occupied with the destiny of particular persons, rather than of nations or of human society at large. To the solution of the question of God's justice towards individual man he directs all his energy, and he discusses this great theme in a manner as effective as it is original. His imagery is as forcible as that of Isaiah, but how different, and how powerfully adapted to his end! A few passages from each of these great poets, set side by side, will exhibit the contrast between them in a striking manner.
THE PROSPERITY OF THE RIGHTEOUS. THE PROSPERITY OF ZION.
He shall deliver thee in six Violence shall no more be heard in troubles: yea, in seven there shall thy land, wasting nor destruction no evil touch thee. In famine he within thy borders, but thou shalt shall redeem thee from death: and call thy walls Salvation, and thy in war from the power of the sword. gates Praise. The sun shall be no Thou shalt be hid from the scourge more thy light by day; neither for of the tongue: neither shalt thou brightness shall the moon give be afraid of destruction when it light unto thee; but the Lord shall cometh. At destruction and famine be unto thee an everlasting light, thou shalt laugh: neither shalt and thy God thy glory. Thy sun thou be afraid of the beasts of the shall no more go down; neither earth. For thou shalt be in league shall thy moon withdraw itself; for with the stones of the field: and the Lord shall be thine everlasting the beasts of the field shall be at light, and the days of thy mourning peace with thee. And thou shalt shall be ended. Thy people also know that thy tabernacle shall be shall be all righteous: they shall in peace; and thou shalt visit thy inherit the land forever, the habitation, and shalt not sin. Thou branch of my planting, the work of shalt know also that thy seed shall my hands, that I may be glorified. be great, and thine offspring as A little one shall become a the grass of the earth. Thou shalt thousand, and a small one a strong come to thy grave in a full age, nation: I the Lord will hasten it like as a shock of corn cometh in in his time. Ch.60:18-22. in his season. Ch.5:19-26.
THE OVERTHROW OF THE WICKED. THE OVERTHROW OF ZION'S ENEMIES.
He shall flee from the iron weapon, For he bringeth down them that and the bow of steel shall strike dwell on high; the lofty city, he him through. It is drawn, and layeth it low; he layeth it low, cometh out of the body; yea, the even to the ground; he bringeth it glittering sword cometh out of his: even to the dust. The foot shall gall: terrors are upon him. All tread it down, even the feet of the darkness shall be hid in his secret poor, and the steps of the needy. places: a fire not blown shall Ch.26:5, 6. For I will contend consume him; it shall go ill with with him that contendeth with thee, him that is left in his tabernacle. and I will save thy children. And The heaven shall reveal his I will feed them that oppress thee iniquity; and the earth shall rise with their own flesh; and they up against him. The increase of shall be drunken with their own his house shall depart, and his blood, as with sweet wine: and all goods shall flow away in the day of flesh shall know that I the Lord his wrath. Ch.20:24-28. am thy Savious and thy Redeemer, the mighty one of Jacob. Ch.49:25,
If now we open the book of Psalms, we find ourselves in a new world of poetry, as different from that of Isaiah as it is from that of the book of Job. David was anointed by God to be the head and leader of Israel. As such he had a perpetual outward conflict with powerful, crafty, and malicious foes, who sought his life and his kingdom. This brought to him a perpetual inward conflict with doubts and fears. Under the pressure of this double conflict he penned those wonderful psalms, which are the embodiment of his whole religious life. And since heart answers to heart, as face to face in water, they are the embodiment of religious life in all ages. The songs of David and his illustrious collaborators, Asaph and the sons of Korah, are emphatically the poetry of religious experience. As such they can never grow old. They are as fresh to-day as when they were written. God has given them to his church as a rich treasury for |the service of song in the house of the Lord,| in the family, and in the closet. If we turn from the book of Psalms to the book of Proverbs, we have still another type of poetry, unlike any one of the forms hitherto considered. It is the poetry of reflection on the course of human life, as seen in the light of God's law and God's providence. It is, therefore, didactic in the highest sense of the word -- the poetry of practical life. The maxims of heavenly wisdom embodied in the book of Proverbs will make all who study them, believe them, and obey them, prosperous in this life and happy in the life to come. This contrast between the great Hebrew poets might be carried through the whole galaxy, but the above hints must suffice.
Diversity of themes often coincides with difference in the character of the poets. Where the theme is the same, each writer will still pursue his own peculiar method. If that theme be the vengeance of God on the wicked, the style will naturally be rugged and abrupt. Yet the ruggedness and abruptness of David will not be that of Hosea or Nahum. But where both the theme and the character of the poet differ, there the diversity of style becomes very striking. To illustrate this, take the two following passages:
GOD'S FAVOR TO THE RIGHTEOUS. GOD'S VENGEANCE ON THE WICKED
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall The mountains quake at him, and not want. He maketh me to lie the hills mels, and the hearth is down in green pastures: he leadeth burned at his presence, yea, the me beside the still waters. He world, and all that dwell therein. restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in Who can stand before his the paths of righteousness for his indignation? and who can abide in name's sake. Yea, though I walk the fierceness of his anger? his through the valley of the shadow of fury is poured out like fire, and death, I will fear no evil: for the rocks are thrown down by him. thou art with me; thy rod and thy The Lord is good, a strong hold in staff they comfort me. Thou the day of trouble; and he knoweth preparest a table before me in the them that trust in him. But with presence of mine enemies: thou an overrunning flood he will make anointest my head with oil; my cup. an utter end of the place thereof, runneth over. Surely goodness and and darkness shall pursue his mercy shall follow me all the days enemies. Nahum 1:5-8 of my life; and I will dwell in
the house of the Lord for ever.
The passage from Nahum is like a pent-up mountain stream leaping from precipice to precipice. The psalm is like the same stream escaped to the plain, and winding its way gently and placidly through green meadows and shady groves vocal with the songs of birds. This subject might be pursued to an indefinite extent. Suffice it to say that Hebrew poetry has the charm of endless variety, always with graceful adaptation to the nature of the theme.
The oriental imagery in which Hebrew poetry abounds imparts to it a peculiar and striking costume. Palestine was, in an emphatic sense, the Hebrew poet's world. It was the land given by God to his fathers for an everlasting possession; about which all his warm affections clustered; with whose peculiar scenery and climate, employments and associations, all his thoughts and feelings had been blended from childhood. It followed of necessity that these must all wear an oriental costume. As soon as he opens his mouth there comes forth a stream of eastern imagery, very natural and appropriate to him, but much of it very strange to us of these western regions. To understand the extent of this characteristic one has only to peruse the Song of Solomon. The bride is black but comely as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. She is a dove in the clefts of the rock; her hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from Mount Gilead; her teeth are like a flock of sheep which come from the washing; her lips are like a thread of scarlet; her temples are like a piece of a pomegranate; her stature is like a palm tree, and her breasts like clusters of grapes -- all thoroughly oriental. So also the bridegroom is like a roe or a young hart leaping upon the mountains; his eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters; his cheeks are as a bed of spices; his lips like lilies, dropping sweet-smelling myrrh, and his countenance as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars. So also if we open the book of Isaiah, we find the Messiah described as |the shadow of a great rock in a weary land| -- a figure which could not well occur to an Englishman or an American, but was perfectly natural in the mouth of a Hebrew familiar with the terrible sun of the Asiatic deserts, where neither tree nor cloud offers a shelter to the thirsty and fainting traveller. Precisely here lies much of the obscurity of which the expounders of Hebrew poetry complain. True, there are other difficulties of a formidable character. The theme is often vast, stretching into the distant and dimly-revealed future; the language rugged with abrupt transitions, the historic allusions obscure, and the meaning of the terms employed doubtful. But aside from all these considerations the western scholar encounters a perpetual difficulty in the fact that he is not of oriental birth, and can enter but imperfectly into the spirit and force of oriental imagery. What costs him days of laborious investigation would open itself like a flash of lightning to his apprehension -- all except that which remains dark from the nature of the prophetic themes -- could he but have that perfect apprehension of the language, the historic allusions, the imagery employed, and the modes of thought, which was possessed by the contemporaries of the Hebrew poet.
It remains that we notice in the last place what may be called the theocratic imagery of the Hebrew poets; that is, imagery borrowed from the institutions of the Mosaic law. The intense loyalty of the Hebrew poets to the Mosaic law has already been noticed. They were its divinely-appointed expositors and defenders, and their whole religious life was moulded by it. No wonder, then, that their writings abound with allusions to its rites and usages. The sweet psalmist of Israel will abide in God's tabernacle for ever, and trust in the covert of his wings, the literal tabernacle on Zion representing God's spiritual presence here and his beatific presence hereafter (Psa.61:4 and elsewhere); he will have his prayer set forth before God as incense, and the lifting up of his hands as the evening sacrifice (Psa.141:2); he will be purged with hyssop that he may be clean, and washed that he may be whiter than snow (Psa.51: 7); he will offer to God the sacrifice of a broken spirit (Psa.51:17); the people promise to render to God the calves of their lips (Hosea 14:2); the vengeance of God upon Edom is described as |a sacrifice in Bozrah, and a great slaughter in the land of Idumea,| in which the Lord's sword shall be filled with the blood of lambs and goats and the fat of the kidneys of rams (Isa.34: 6); with allusions to the Levitical sprinklings God promises that he will sprinkle upon his penitent and restored people clean water that they may be clean (Ezek.36: 25); and with allusion to the sacrificial flocks assembled at Jerusalem on the occasion of her great festivals, that he will increase them with men like a flock -- |as the holy flock, as the flock of Jerusalem in her solemn feasts; so shall the waste cities be filled with flocks of men| (Ezek.36:37, 38). How full the book of Psalms is of allusions to the solemn songs of the sanctuary with their accompaniment of psaltery and harp, trumpet and cornet, every reader understands. This subject might be expanded indefinitely, but the above hints must suffice.
3. We come now to the form of Hebrew poetry. This is distinguished from the classic poetry of Greece and Rome, as well as from all modern poetry by the absence of metrical feet. Its rhythm is that of clauses which correspond to each other in a sort of free parallelism, as was long ago shown by Bishop Lowth in his Prelections on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, the matter of which has been revised and expanded in later treatises. Herein, as elsewhere, Hebrew poetry asserts its originality and independence. Biblical scholars recognize three fundamental forms of parallelism in Hebrew poetry, which will be briefly considered, first separately, and then in their combinations.
The first is the antithetic form, where two parallel members are contrasted in meaning, a form peculiarly adapted to didactic poetry, and therefore occurring most abundantly in the book of Proverbs. The following are examples of it:
The memory of the just is blessed:
But the name of the wicked shall rot (Prov.10:7);
where, in the original Hebrew, each clause consists of three words. In such an antithetic parallelism the words of one couplet, at least, must correspond in meaning, as here memory and name; while the others are in contrast -- just and wicked, is blessed and shall rot. Sometimes the two clauses are to be mutually supplied from each other, thus:
A wise son maketh a glad father:
But a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother (Prov.10:1);
where the reader understands that a wise son is the joy, and a foolish son the grief of both father and mother.
The second form is the synonymous, where the same general thought is repeated in two or more clauses. It is found abundantly in the whole range of Hebrew poetry, but is peculiarly adapted to that which is of a placid and contemplative character. Sometimes the parallel clauses simply repeat the same thought in different words; in other cases there is only a general resemblance. Examples are the following:
He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh:
The Lord shall have them in derision. Psa.2:4.
For thou, Lord, wilt bless the righteous:
With favor wilt thou compass him as with a shield. Psa.5:12.
Perish the day wherein I was born;
And the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived. Job 3:3.
Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom:
Give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. Isa.1:10.
In the following example we have a compound synonymous couplet:
Give them according to their deeds,
According to the wickedness of their endeavors:
Give them after the work of their hands,
Render to them their desert. Psa.28:4
Sometimes three or more parallel clauses occur, thus:
When your fear cometh as desolation,
And your destruction cometh as a whirlwind;
When distress and anguish cometh upon you. Prov.1:27.
Who forgiveth all thine iniquities;
Who healeth all thy diseases;
Who redeemeth thy life from destruction;
Who crowneth thee with loving-kindness and tender mercies; Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things;
Thy youth is renewed like the eagle's. Psa.103:3-5.
In the preceding example, synonymous parallelism passes into simple enumeration. So often with a succession of short clauses, or shorter and longer clauses, where the poetry of the Hebrews assumes the freedom of prose, thus:
Who hath woe?
Who hath sorrow?
Who hath contentions?
Who hath babbling?
Who hath wounds without cause?
Who hath redness of eyes? Prov.23:39.
A sinful nation;
A people laden with iniquity;
A seed of evil-doers;
They have forsaken the Lord;
They have despised the Holy One of Israel;
They have gone away backward. Isa.1:4.
The parallel clauses are frequently introduced or followed by a single clause, thus:
Blessed is the man
Who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly;
And standeth not in the way of sinners;
And sitteth not in the seat of scorners. Psa.1:1.
Hear, O heavens;
Give ear, O earth;
For the Lord hath spoken. Isa.1:2.
The third form of parallelism is called synthetic (Greek synthesis, a putting together), where one clause is necessary to complete the sense of the other, as in the following examples:
Better is a dinner of herbs where love is,
Than a stalled ox and hatred therewith. Prov.15:16.
Every way of a man is right in his own eyes;
But the Lord pondereth the hearts. Prov.21:2.
Whoso curseth his father and his mother,
His lamp shall be put out in obscure darkness. Prov.20:20.
The connection between the two clauses may be that of comparison, cause, effect, etc. Sometimes it is not expressed, but simply implied, as in the following:
A whip for the horse,
A bridle for the ass,
And a rod for the fool's back. Prov.26:3.
The combinations of the above forms in Hebrew poetry are exceedingly varied and graceful. Here are examples of two synonymous couplets that are antithetic to each other:
The ox knoweth his owner,
And the ass his master's crib:
Israel doth not know,
My people doth not consider. Isa.1:3.
The Lord bringeth the counsel of the heathen to naught; He maketh the devices of the people of none effect. The counsel of the Lord standeth for ever;
The thoughts of his heart to all generations. Psa.33:10, 11.
In the following example, two synonymous couplets constitute together a synthetic parallelism:
Because they regard not the works of the Lord,
Nor the operation of his hands,
He shall destroy them,
And not build them up. Psa.28:5.
In the following, three synthetic parallelisms make a synonymous triplet:
For as the heaven is high above the earth,
So great is his mercy toward them that fear him:
As far as the east is from the west,
So far hath he removed our transgressions from us:
Like as a father pitieth his children,
So the Lord pitieth them that fear him. Psa.103:11-13.
But our limits will not allow us to pursue this subject farther. The freedom of the Hebrew poet is one of his high prerogatives. He is not a slave to form, but uses form as it suits his purposes. He blends together the different kinds of parallelism as he pleases. Often he breaks through all parallelism to the freedom of prose. But he soon returns again, because this measured rhythm of clauses is to him the natural costume of poetic thought, which always seeks to embody itself in some form of rhythm.
To the form of Hebrew poetry belongs also its peculiar diction. To one who reads the Hebrew poets in the original, this is a striking characteristic. He meets with words, and sometimes with grammatical forms, that do not occur in the prose writers. Many of these peculiar words are Aramean; that is, they are words current in the Aramean branch of the Shemitic languages. Chap.14, No.1. They are to be regarded as archaisms -- old words that were once common alike to the Hebrew and the kindred Aramean, but which have been dropped out of prose usage in Hebrew. They must not be confounded, as has too often been done, with true Aramaisms, that is, Aramean words and forms borrowed by later Hebrew writers from their intercourse with those who spoke Aramean.
4. As it respects the office of Hebrew poetry, it is throughout subservient to the interests of revealed religion. This is implied in what has been already said of the loyalty of the Hebrew poets to the institutions of the Theocracy. It follows that the poetry of the Bible is all sacred in its character. It contains no examples of purely secular poetry except here and there a short passage which comes in as a part of history; for example, the words of |those that speak in proverbs,| Numb.21:27-30; perhaps also the lament of David over Saul and Jonathan.2 Sam.1:19-27. It is certain that the song contained in the forty-fifth psalm and that of the Canticles were received into the canon solely on the ground that they celebrate the mutual love between God and the covenant people, considered as his bride; or, in New Testament language, between Christ and |the bride, the Lamb's wife.|
But sacred poetry has various uses. One of its earliest offices was to celebrate the praises of God for his interposition in behalf of his covenant people, as in the song of the Israelites at the Red sea, and that of Deborah and Barak. But when David was raised to the throne of Israel, the time had now come for introducing lyric poetry as a permanent part of the sanctuary service. God accordingly bestowed upon this monarch the needful inward gifts, and placed him in the appropriate outward circumstances; when at once there gushed forth from his bosom, smit by the spirit of inspiration, that noble stream of lyric song, which the congregation of the faithful immediately consecrated to the public service of the sanctuary, and which, augmented by the contributions of Asaph, the sons of Korah, and other inspired poets, has been the rich inheritance of the church ever since. In the book of Job, sacred poetry occupies itself with the mighty problem of the justice of God's providential government over men. It is, therefore, essentially didactic in its character. In the Proverbs of Solomon, it becomes didactic in the fullest sense; for here it moves in the sphere of practical life and morals. The book of Ecclesiastes has for its theme the vanity of this world, considered as a satisfying portion of the soul; and this it discusses in a poetic form. Finally, the prophets of the Old Testament exhaust all the wealth of Hebrew poetry in rebuking the sins of the present time, foretelling the mighty judgments of God upon the wicked, lamenting the present sorrows of Zion, and portraying her future glories in connection with the advent of the promised Messiah. The Hebrew harp -- whoever sweeps it, and whether its strains be jubilant or sad, didactic or emotional, is ever consecrated to God and the cause of righteousness.
(B.) THE SEVERAL POETICAL BOOKS.
5. The design of the book of Job will best appear if we first take a brief survey of its plan. Job, a man eminent above all others for his piety and uprightness, is accused by Satan as serving God from mercenary motives. To show the falsehood of this charge, God permits Satan to take from the patriarch his property and his children, and afterwards to smite him with a loathsome and distressing disease. Thus stripped of every thing that could make life valuable, he still holds fast his integrity, and returns to his wife, who counsels him to |curse God and die,| the discreet and pious answer: |Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord, and shall we not receive evil?| His three friends, who have come to comfort him, amazed and confounded at the greatness of his calamities, sit down with him in silence for seven days. At last Job opens his mouth with vehement expressions of grief and impatience, and curses the day of his birth. The three friends sharply rebuke him, and in a threefold round of addresses (only that the third time Zophar fails to speak), enter into an earnest controversy with him assuming the false ground that the administration of God's government over this world is strictly retributive, so that special calamity comes only as a punishment for special wickedness, and is therefore itself a proof of such wickedness. They accordingly exhort him to repent of his sins, and seek God's forgiveness, as the sure means of removing his present misfortunes. Conscious of his integrity, Job, with much warmth and asperity, repels their unjust charges, and refutes their false arguments by an appeal to facts. The ground he takes is that, by some inscrutable plan of God, calamity comes alike upon good and bad men. He passionately beseeches God to show him why he thus deals with him; and, according as faith or despondency prevails in his soul, he sometimes expresses the hope that he shall come out of his troubles like gold tried in the fire; and then, again, the fear that he shall speedily sink down to the grave under the weight of his sorrows, and nevermore see good. Having put to silence his three friends by an array of facts to which they can make no reply, he freely expresses the belief that the hypocrite's end shall be destruction (chap.27); shows that the wisdom by which God governs the world is above man's comprehension, whose true wisdom lies in fearing and obeying his Maker (chap.28); contrasts his present calamities with his former prosperity (chaps.29, 30); and closes with a solemn protestation of his integrity (chap.31).
Elihu, a young man who has hitherto been a silent witness of the controversy, now takes up the argument on the ground that trouble is sent by God upon men as a discipline, that by it they may be made aware of their errors and infirmities; and that, if they make a right improvement of it, by bearing it with patient submission and looking to God in penitence and prayer for its removal, it will end in renewed and higher prosperity. To show the unreasonableness of charging upon God injustice, he dwells at length upon his infinite majesty and greatness. The special ground of Job's trial, as given in the first two chapters, Elihu could not of course understand. But his general position in regard to human afflictions is right; and it should be carefully noticed that their issue as described by him in the case of a good man -- an imperfectly good man under a system of grace -- is precisely what happens to Job when he humbles himself before his Maker.
As Elihu's discourse was drawing towards a close, the signs of God's approach had already began to manifest themselves (chap.37). Now he addresses Job out of the whirlwind, rebuking him for his presumptuous language, and setting before him His infinite perfections, manifested in the creation and government of the world, as a sufficient proof that to arraign His justice at the bar of human reason is folly and presumption. Job now humbles himself unconditionally before his Maker. Upon this God publicly justifies him to his three friends, while He condemns them, declaring that he has spoken of Him the thing which is right (42:8). This is to be understood as referring not to the spirit manifested by Job, which God had sharply rebuked, but rather to the ground taken by him in respect to God's dealings with men. By God's direction the three friends now offer sacrifices for their folly, which are accepted in answer to Job's prayer in their behalf, and his former prosperity is restored to him in double measure.
6. From the above sketch of the plan of the book its design is manifest. It unfolds the nature of God's providential government over men. It is not simply retributive, as the three friends had maintained, so that the measure of a man's outward sufferings is the measure of his sins; nor is it simply incomprehensible, so that there can be no reasoning about it; but it is disciplinary, in such a way that sorrow, though always the fruit of sin, comes upon good men as well as upon the wicked, being a fatherly chastisement intended for their benefit, and which, if properly improved, will in the end conduct them to a higher degree of holiness, and therefore of true prosperity and happiness. The three friends were right in maintaining God's justice; but with respect to the manner of its manifestation their error was fundamental. Job's view was right, but inadequate. A disciplinary government, administered over a world in which the wicked and the imperfectly good live together, must be incomprehensible as it respects the particular distribution of good and evil. Elihu was right in the main position, but he wanted authority. The question was settled by God's interposition not before the human discussion, nor without it, but after it; an interposition in which the three friends were condemned, Job approved, and the argument of Elihu left in its full force.
It has been the fashion with a certain class of critics to disparage Elihu as a self-conceited young man, and to deny the authenticity of his discourses. But thus the plan of the book is fatally broken, as must be evident from the account given of it above. It was not necessary that Elihu should be named in the prologue. It is enough that he is described when he takes a part in the argument. Why he is not named in the closing chapter has been already indicated. There was nothing in his argument to be censured. As to the attacks made on other parts of the book as not authentic, for example, what is said of Behemoth and Leviathan, they rest on no valid foundation. They are only judgments of modern critics as to how and what the author of the book before us ought to have written. The attempt to resolve into disconnected parts a book so perfect in its plan, and which has come down to us by the unanimous testimony of antiquity in its present form, is a most uncritical procedure.
7. Job plainly belonged to the patriarchal period. This appears from his longevity. He lived after his trial a hundred and forty years (42:16), and must have been then considerably advanced in life. This points to a period as early as that of Abraham. To the same conclusion we are brought by the fact that no form of idolatry is mentioned in the book, but only the worship of the heavenly bodies. The simplicity of the patriarchal age appears, moreover, in all its descriptions. But we need not from this infer that the book was written in the patriarchal age, for the author may have received from the past the facts which he records. The book is written in pure Hebrew, with all the freedom of an original work, and by one intimately acquainted with both Arabic and Egyptian scenery. Some have supposed Moses to be the author, but this is very uncertain. The prevailing opinion of the present day is that it was written not far from the age of Solomon.
8. There is no ground for denying that the book of Job has a foundation of true history. He is mentioned by Ezekiel with Noah and Daniel as a real person. Ezek.14:14, 20. The apostle James also refers to the happy issue of his trials as a historic event calculated to encourage God's suffering children. Jas.5:11. But we need not suppose that all the details of the book are historic. The inspired poet takes up the great facts of Job's history and the great arguments connected with them, and gives them in his own language; probably also, to a certain extent, according to his own arrangement. The scene of the first two chapters is laid in heaven. Undoubtedly they record a real transaction; but it may be a transaction revealed to the author in an allegorical form, like Micaiah's vision (1 Kings 22:19-22), that it might be thus made level to human apprehension.
II. THE PSALMS.
9. We have seen the office of the Book of Job in the system of divine revelation. Very different, but not less important, is that of the book of Psalms. It is a collection of sacred lyrics: that is, of poems expressive of religious feeling and adapted to the public worship of God. In respect to subjects, the Psalms exhibit a wonderful diversity. They cover the whole field of religious experience, and furnish to the churches an inexhaustible treasury of sacred song for all ages. Seventy-three of the psalms are ascribed to David in their titles, and the whole book, as referred to in the New Testament, bears his name. Of the remaining psalms, Asaph is named as the author of twelve; to the sons of Korah eleven are ascribed; to Solomon two (Psalms 72 and 127); to Moses one (Psalm 90); to Ethan one (Psalm 89). The remaining fifty are anonymous. Of these, some appear from their contents to have been written as late as the era of the captivity and restoration. Some writers have referred certain psalms to the Maccabean age. But there is nothing in the contents of these psalms which makes such a reference necessary, and we have decisive evidence that the Hebrew canon was closed long before this period. See below, Chap.22, No.21.
10. In regard to the external arrangement of the Psalms, which is generally ascribed to Ezra, and cannot be earlier than his day, they are divided in the Hebrew Bible into five books, each closing with a doxology except the last, to which, as well as to the whole collection, the final psalm serves as a doxology.
The first book contains Psalms 1-41. Of these forty-one psalms, thirty-seven bear the name of David. Of the remaining four, the second and tenth undoubtedly belong to him, and in all probability the first and thirty-third also. The psalms of this book are remarkable for the predominance of the name Jehovah over Elohim, God.
The second book includes Psalms 42-72. Of these, eighteen bear the name of David; the first eight (including Psa.43, which is manifestly connected with the preceding psalm) are ascribed to the sons of Korah; one to Asaph (Psa.50); one to Solomon (Psa.72); and the remaining three are without titles. In this book the divine name Elohim, God, greatly predominates over the name Jehovah.
The third book includes Psalms 73-89, seventeen in all. Of these, the first eleven are ascribed to Asaph; four to the sons of Korah; one to David (Psa.86); and one to Ethan the Ezrahite (Psa.89). In the psalms of Asaph the divine name Elohim, God, predominates; in the remainder of the book the name Jehovah.
The fourth book includes Psalms 90-106. Of these seventeen psalms, only three bear titles; the ninetieth being referred to Moses, the hundred and first and hundred and third to David. This book is therefore emphatically one of anonymous psalms, which are for the most part of a very general character, being evidently arranged with reference to the service of song in the sanctuary. Throughout this book the divine name Jehovah prevails; the name Elohim, God, being rarely used except in connection with a pronoun or some epithet -- my God, God of Jacob, etc.
The fifth book contains the remaining forty-four psalms. Of these, fifteen are ascribed to David; one to Solomon (Psa.127); and twenty-eight are anonymous. In this book also the divine name Jehovah prevails almost exclusively.
It is probable that these five books were arranged not simultaneously but successively, with considerable intervals between some of them. The subscription appended to the second book: |The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended,| may possibly be explained, upon this supposition. It may have been added as a subscription to the first two books, before the others were arranged for the temple service.
Although the psalms belonging to the respective books are not classified upon any strict principle, yet their arrangement is not altogether fortuitous. We find psalms with the same title grouped together -- eleven psalms of Asaph. (73-83); eight of the sons of Korah (42-49); eight of David (139-145 separated from his other psalms); three psalms inscribed Al-taschith (57-59); the fifteen songs of degrees (120-134), etc. Also we find psalms of similar contents grouped together -- Psa.79, 80; 88, 89; 91-100; 105-107; etc.
Various attempts have been made to classify the psalms according to their subjects. But their very richness and variety makes this a very difficult undertaking. They cover the whole field of religious experience for both individual believers and the church at large. Many of them -- the so-called Messianic psalms -- are prophetic of the Saviour's offices and work. We need not wonder, therefore, that the Psalms are quoted in the New Testament oftener than any other book of the Old Testament, Isaiah not excepted.
11. Besides the names of the authors, or the occasion of their composition, many of the psalms bear other inscriptions. Of these the principal are the following:
(1.) The dedicatory title: To the chief musician, prefixed to fifty-three psalms, signifies that the psalm is assigned to him, as the leader of the choir at the tabernacle or temple, to be used in the public worship of God. The title rendered in our version: For the sons of Korah, is better translated, as in the margin: Of the sons of Korah; that is, written by one of their number.
(2.) Titles expressing the character of the composition. Here we have, as the most common and general, Psalm, a lyric poem to be sung; Song, a title borne by sixteen psalms, generally in connection with the word psalm, where the rendering should be: a psalm, a song; or, a song, a psalm. All the psalms thus designated except two (Psa.83, 88) are of a joyous character, that is, songs of praise; Song of degrees, a title the meaning of which is disputed. Many render: A song of ascents, and suppose that the fifteen psalms which bear this title (120-134) were so called because they were arranged to be sung on the occasion of the ascent of the people to Jerusalem to keep the yearly festivals. For other explanations, the reader is referred to the commentaries. The titles: Prayer (Psa.17, 90, 102, 142), and Praise (Psa.145) need no explanation. Besides these titles, there are several others left untranslated in our version, as: Maschil, teaching, that is, a didactic psalm; Michtam (Psa.16, 56-60) either a writing, that is, poem, or a golden psalm.
(3.) Titles relating to the musical performance. Of these, the most common is the much disputed word Selah. It is generally agreed that it signifies a rest, either in singing for the purpose of an instrumental interlude, or an entire rest in the performance. As a general rule, this title closes a division of a psalm. Of the titles supposed to indicate either musical instruments or modes of musical performance, the following are examples: Neginath (Psa.61), elsewhere Neginoth, stringed instruments; Nehiloth, probably flutes (Psa.5); Gittith (Psa.8, 81, 84), from the word Gath, which denotes a Philistine city, and also a wine-press. Gittith has been accordingly interpreted to mean (1) a musical instrument or a melody brought from Gath; (2) a musical instrument in the form of a winepress, or a melody used in treading the wine-press; Shoshannim, lilies (Psa.45, 69); Shushan-eduth, lily of the testimony (Psa.60); Shoshannim-eduth, lilies of the testimony (Psa.80), either a musical instrument so named from its shape, or a particular melody, or, as some think, an emblematic term referring to the contents of the psalm; Sheminith, the eighth, or octave, perhaps a musical key (Psa.6, 12); Alamoth, virgins, probably denoting treble voices (Psa.46); Al-taschith, destroy not (Psa.57, 58, 59, 75), according to some, the name of an air taken from a well-known poem; according to others, an indication of the contents of the psalm. For other titles, occurring but once or twice, the reader must be referred to the commentaries.
Whether the titles constitute a part of the psalms; that is, whether they were prefixed by the writers themselves, is a question that has been much debated, and answered differently by different writers. That they are very ancient -- so ancient that the meaning of the terms employed had passed into oblivion when the Alexandrine version was made -- must be admitted. But it would be too much to affirm that they are a part of the inspired word. The correctness of some of them is doubtful. If we admit their general correctness, reserving for critical investigation the question of the historical validity of particular titles, it is as far as we need go.
III. THE PROVERBS OF SOLOMON.
12. The place of the book of Proverbs in the system of divine revelation is obvious at first sight. It contains a complete code of practical rules for the regulation of life -- rules that have a divine breadth and fulness, and can make men wise not for time alone, but also for eternity. The principles embodied in them admit of endlessly varied applications, so that the study of a life cannot exhaust them. The more they are pondered, and prayed over, and reduced to practice, the more are their hidden treasures of wisdom brought to light. Solomon lived himself in the sphere of practical life. He had constantly to deal with men of all classes, and he knew men and the course of human events most thoroughly. His maxims are therefore adapted to the actual world, not to some imaginary state of things; and they contain those broad principles of action which meet the wants of all men in all circumstances and conditions of life. Whoever gives himself, in the fear of God, to the study of these proverbs, and conforms his life to the principles which they set forth, will be a truly happy and prosperous man. Whoever shapes his conduct by different principles will be compelled in the end to acknowledge his folly. To the young, for whose instruction they were especially intended, they are affectionately commended as their manual of action.
13. In respect to outward form, the book of Proverbs naturally falls into four parts. Of these, the first nine chapters, consisting of earnest and fatherly exhortations addressed to the young in a series of discourses, of which the parts are more or less connected with each other, constitute the first part. The title prefixed to this part, giving both the author's name and the end which he proposes (1:1-6) refers perhaps to the book considered as a whole. The second part, introduced by the title: |The proverbs of Solomon,| extends to the end of the twenty-fourth chapter. Of this, the first section (chaps.10-22:16) consists of proverbs properly so called, each verse constituting a separate maxim of heavenly wisdom for the regulation of the heart and life. Between the different verses there is either no connection, or one of a slight and casual character, consisting frequently in the common occurrence of the same word. In the remaining section (chap.22:17-24:34) the method of exhortation in discourse more or less connected is resumed. To the third part (chaps.25-29) is prefixed the superscription: |These are also the proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah copied out.| The proverbs of this part are, in general, expressed in detached maxims, as in the first section of the second part; but occasionally there is a connection between adjacent verses. There is also an effort to bring together related proverbs, as those concerning rulers (25:1-8); concerning fools (26:1-12); concerning sluggards (26:13-16); concerning busybodies and tale-bearers (chap.26:17-28). In this part also a number of proverbs are repeated that have occurred elsewhere. Finally, the fourth part, which may be considered as a sort of appendix, contains the words of Agur (chap.30), and of King Lemuel (chap.31).
According to the most natural interpretation of the words prefixed to chap.24:23 -- |these [maxims] also belong to the wise| -- the verses that follow to the end of the chapter contain also a short appendix of proverbs not belonging to Solomon.
14. From the above it is manifest that the book of Proverbs was arranged in its present form as late, at least, as the days of Hezekiah. It contains not the whole of the three thousand proverbs which Solomon spake (1 Kings 4:32), but only selections from them, such as the wisdom of God judged needful for the edification of his people. Whether the proverbs contained in the first and second parts were arranged in their present form by Solomon himself or by some other person, we do not know; but that all the proverbs of the book belong to him as their author, except those which are expressly ascribed to others, there is no valid reason for doubting.
15. The Hebrew name of this book is Koheleth, respecting the meaning of which there has been much discussion. The Alexandrine rendering of this word, Ecclesiastes, one who gathers or addresses an assembly, and the English rendering, Preacher, express for substance its probable meaning; or rather, since the form of the word is feminine, it is Wisdom as a preacher, Solomon being regarded as her impersonation. The uniform belief of the ancient church was that Solomon wrote this book in his old age, when brought to repentance for the idolatrous practices into which his heathen wives had seduced him. He had thoroughly tried the world in all its forms of honor, wealth, pleasure, and the pursuit of wisdom -- speculative wisdom -- and found it only |vanity and vexation of spirit,| when sought as the supreme good. The conclusion to which he comes is that in such an empty and unsatisfying world, where disappointment and trouble cannot be avoided, the cheerful enjoyment of God's present gifts is the part of wisdom, for thus we make the best of things as we find them. But this enjoyment must be in the fear of God, who will bring all our works into judgment; and accompanied, moreover, by deeds of love and charity, as we have opportunity. He explicitly asserts a judgment to come; yet his general view of life is that expressed in the Saviour's words: |The night cometh, when no man can work;| words which imply that God's earthly service, as well as the enjoyment of his earthly gifts, will come to a close at death. This view of the Preacher is not a denial of the future life, as some have wrongly maintained, but implies rather a less full revelation of it than is given in the New Testament.
Many evangelical men, as Hengstenberg, Keil, and others, interpret the first verse of this book as meaning not that Solomon was himself the author, or that the writer meant to pass himself off as Solomon, but simply that he wrote in Solomon's name, as assuming his character; that monarch being to the ancient Hebrews the impersonation of wisdom. Their reasons for this view are chiefly two: First, that the state of things described in the book of Ecclesiastes does not suit Solomon's age, the picture being too dark and sombre for his reign; secondly, that the language differs widely from that of the book of Proverbs and of the Canticles. Whether we adopt this view, or that above given, the canonical authority of the book of Ecclesiastes remains as a well-established fact. It always held a place in the Hebrew canon, and existed there in its present form in the days of Christ and his apostles.
16. The following summary of the Preacher's argument is condensed from Scott. He had evidently two objects in view. First, to show where happiness could not be found; and secondly, where it might. The first six chapters are principally employed on the former part of the argument, yet with counsels interspersed tending to show how the vanity, or at least the vexation of earthly pursuits may be abated. The remaining six chapters gradually unfold the latter part of the argument, teaching us how to make the best of things as we find them, how to live comfortably and usefully in this evil world, and how to derive benefit from the changing events of life. In respect to outward things, the sacred writer inculcates a cheerful, liberal, and charitable use of them, without expecting from them permanent or satisfying delight. He counsels us to take the transient pleasure which agreeable circumstances can afford, as far as consists with the fear of God; to be patient under unavoidable evil; not to aim at impracticable results; to fill up our allotted station in a peaceable, equitable, and prudent manner; to be contented, meek, and affectionate; and to do good abundantly as we have opportunity, in the expectation of a gracious reward. These general rules are interspersed with warnings and counsels to princes and great men, and to subjects in respect to their rulers.
V. THE SONG OF SOLOMON.
17. The title of this book: The Song of songs, that is, the most excellent of songs, indicates its application to the heavenly Solomon, and his spouse the church. So the Jews from the most ancient times have interpreted it. Looking at this song from the position of the Old Testament, its ground-idea is: |Thy Maker is thy husband.| Identical with this is the New Testament idea: |The bride, the Lamb's wife.| The germ of this representation exists in the Pentateuch, where idolatry is regarded as spiritual adultery. Exod.34:15; Deut.31:16. We find it fully developed in the forty-fifth Psalm, which probably belongs to Solomon's age, and which is expressly quoted in the epistle to the Hebrews as a description of the Messiah. The same figure occurs in many passages of the prophets who lived after Solomon's day. Isa.54:5; 62:5; Jer.2:2; 3:14; Hos.2:16, 19, 20. In the book of Revelation this imagery is repeated and amplified.
18. This song is not a dramatic representation, in which the action steadily advances to the end, but a series of descriptive pictures, the great theme of which is the separation of the bride from her beloved -- the heavenly Bridegroom -- for her sins, and her reunion with him by repentance. In the spiritual application of its rich and gorgeous imagery we should confine ourselves to the main scope, rather than dwell on particulars. Thus the fruitfulness of the church is set forth under the image of a garden filled with spices and precious fruits. But we are not to seek for a hidden meaning in each particular spice or fruit -- the saffron, the spikenard, the myrrh, the pomegranate, the apple, the nut; and the same is true with respect to the descriptions of the bride and bridegroom with which the book abounds.
The book has always constituted a part of the Hebrew canon.
The language of this book is pure and elegant, with all the freshness and energy of the best age of Hebrew poetry. Its most striking peculiarity is the uniform use (except once in the title) of the abbreviated form of the relative pronoun as a prefix -- shekkullam for asher kullam; shehammelek for asher hammelek, etc. -- which is manifestly a dialectic peculiarity of the living Hebrew adopted by Solomon for the purpose of giving to his song a unique costume.