THE POETS OF ISRAEL
ON THE front cover of this volume is a representation of the sixty-six books which constitute "The World's Greatest Library"the Bible. In the Old Testament collection there are indicated five poetical books: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and The Song of Solomon. These books are usually spoken of as the poetry of Israel. There is another one which must be included in this listthe Lamentations by Jeremiah. This is pure poetry. There is still another volume which properly belongs to the collection of Israel's poets, and which is Isaiah, with the exception of the historical portion of chapters 36-39. These chapters are prose. Usually we think of Isaiah, a great man of God, simply as a prophet and not as a poet. Rightly understood, he is a prophet-poet.JOB
In the short space which we have for this discussion, we can simply note a few things about this marvelous collection of Israel's poetry.
A study of the Book of Job leads one to the conclusion that in it is depicted the primitive life of the ancient Orient. It is quite likely that Job, one of the children of the East, lived at Ur, which was probably located somewhere southeast of ancient Petra. But we cannot be dogmatic as to the exact location.
The probabilities are, according to the opinion of many conservative scholars, that Job was a contemporary of Melchizedek, the king-priest of Salem (Jerusalem); Abraham, the father of the faithful, whom God called out of a heathen environment to become a citizen of the kingdom of God over which Melchizedek reigned (Genesis 14); and Hammurabi, the outstanding king of the First Dynasty of Babylon. The first three of these men knew God in an intimate and personal manner. The last one was a heathen king, who doubtless borrowed laws from God's primitive revelation and incorporated them into his now famous code. The verbal agreements between many things in the Mosaic Code and the Laws of Hammurabi show that copying was done by someone. Hammurabi lived four hundred years before Moses and, of course, could not copy from him. Moses would not copy from a heathen code, because he was inspired of God. Since there was copying done and since there were statutes, commandments, and laws given by the Lord which Abraham in the days of Melchizedek obeyed (Gen. 26:5), we may be certain that Hammurabi borrowed from this primitive revelation. (For a discussion of this most important question, see pages 28, 29, and 30 of the volume, The Eternal God Revealing Himself to Suffering Israel and to Lost Humanity.)
The Book of Job is indeed the most wonderful drama in the world. By literary critics this point is conceded. Nothing that is produced by men can in any wise be compared with the dramatic effectiveness of this most ancient production. It is written and arranged with such skill and deals with such great, fundamental facts and doctrines, as well as practical ethical problems, that it is just as modern as if it had appeared from the press today. No one can correctly claim to be a student of literature who is not thoroughly conversant with this most entrancing book.
In order for the reader to appreciate it, I wish to call attention to its general structure. Chapters 1 and 2 are truly the prologue. Chapters 3-37 constitute the body of the work, which gives cycles of debates between Job and his would-be comforters. Chapters 38-41 record the message which the Almighty delivered to Job after his debate with his friends had been brought to a conclusion. In 42:1-6 appears Job's reply to the Lord. The epilogue consists of 42:7-17 which sets forth the outcome of the trying experiences through which this faithful servant of God passed.
In the first act, scene 1, we see a picture of Job as one of the powerful men of his time. He was fabulously rich in livestock, but was especially devout and most solicitous concerning his children. In the second scene of this first act we get a glimpse of the immediate presence of God. Here we see Satan among the sons of God, appearing before the Almighty, to give an account of their ministrations. The Lord immediately asked Satan concerning Job. The outcome of the conversation was His giving him permission to strike Job by taking away certain portions of his property and by slaying his children.
The third scene shows Satan, moving various tribes in robbing Job of his livestock. Furthermore, he used the elements in their destructiveness to accomplish his plan and purpose.
The next scene of this act is laid in heaven. Satan appears before the Almighty but does not acknowledge his failure. He boldly asks for permission to strike the body of Job. This request is granted. We see Job lying on an ash heap outside the city, smitten with disease from head to foot, but maintaining his integrity and his faith in God.
These two chapters open before our vision a field of thought that is of vital importance to every child of God. There is a spirit world over which Satan predominates, and which is in constant opposition to the children of God; but Satan and his hosts cannot do anything without first obtaining permission from the Lord. (Compare Luke 22:31-34; I Corinthians 10:13.)
In the great body of this work we see cycles of speeches made by Job and his friends, who came to explain to him the reasons for his affliction. They desired to assist Job in his difficulty, but each had some special theory with reference to the problem of evil and the underlying principles of practical daily life. It is quite evident from a careful study of these speeches that they had access to the Word of God as it was given then. For instance, Job says in 6:10, "Yea, let me exult in pain that spareth not, That I have not denied the words of the Holy One." This statement shows that Job was in possession of a portion of God's Word. There are other echoes here and there in this book to the same effect.
Many of the things which these men said were and are true. At the same time much of what they asserted, we know, by comparing it with other portions of the Scriptures, is not correct. The principal, fundamental doctrines are touched upon in their speeches. As a rule, Job was correct in the positions which he took. Sometimes, however, he was driven to the point of exasperation and approached the point where he was almost ready to blaspheme the Almighty and to challenge His righteousness and justicebut he always stopped short of such outbursts of anger and wrath.
After the discussions were over, the Lord appeared to Job and propounded to him some fundamental questions regarding the universe and life. In chapters 38 and 39, there are many questions which God put to Job, and which I would like to see the scientists of the present day attempt to answer. If they should, they would find that their grades would be very, very low. In chapters 40 and 41 the Lord speaks of Satan under the symbolism of leviathan and behemoth. That He is alluding to this sinister, evil enemy in terms of these animals is evident from a close study of 40:19 and 41:34. Such language goes far beyond the description of mere animals. These statements together with other things show that the Almighty was picturing to Job, in terms of vicious monsters, the great enemy who had moved Him to take action against Job without cause (Job 2:3). One is delighted with the sequel found in the epilogue. After Job's faith had been purified and he had been refined by these experiences as silver tried seven times, the Lord blessed him abundantly and used him mightily. His latter end was indeed glorious.
Let us for a few minutes study the inspiration of the Book of Job. When anyone examines the various speecheseven those of Job himselfhe sees that the speakers very frequently made statements that are absolutely untrue. Even Job uttered things which are not in harmony with revealed truth. How can we account for this? How can the book be inspired of God since these erroneous positions are given in it? These are proper questions.
The Book of Job as a record was infallibly and unerringly written by a man who was under the complete sway and power of the Holy Spirit. He gave us a faithful account of the various statements made and positions taken by the different speakers, whose messages are recorded in the book. At the time of the debate between Job and his four friends, none of them were inspired by the Spirit. Job thanked God that he had not denied the "words of the Holy One." As stated above, they did have some portion of the revelation of God which was given at that time. Some things they understood, and others they did not. Their situation was similar to ours in that they, as well as we, had an infallibly inspired Book. We study it; we believe it; we endeavor to interpret it. Frequently we misunderstand a passage, claiming that it teaches one thing whereas it says something else. Sometimes one person sees one thing in a passage and another overlooks it. Thus, uninspired men as they read the inspired record can make mistakes and often do now, as then. Thus, Job and his friends were in a position similar to the one in which we find ourselves. After they, with the Word of God in their hands, had discussed these questions, the Almighty Himself came to Job and had a personal conversation with him (chapters 38-41). Of course, every word which God spoke to Job was infallible. The prologue, like the epilogue, was written by an inspired writer who gave us the introduction to the story and also the conclusion. This same writer by inspiration gave us a faithful account of the various positions taken and things said by Job and his friends as they discussed the great problems of life. Their original conversation was uninspired, but the record of it, which we have in this book, is infallibly inspired by the Lord. In order that there might be no misunderstanding on this point, let me use this illustration. The material entering into this book, I am dictating to my machine. When I press the switch and the machine begins to operate, it records everything I say. What I dictate may be right or may not, but it makes a faithful record of everything spoken. Thus it was with the speeches which were made by Job and his friends found in chapters 3-37. After the discussion was over, the sacred writer, guided unerringly by the Spirit of God, explained the occasion of Job's losing all his property. Then he, by the same infallible Spirit, gave us a faithful record of the things that were said by the disputants. Following this, he likewise recorded infallibly the very message which God spoke to Job and concluded this thrilling drama by giving us an inspired record of the latter part of Job's life. This book is just as fundamental and as modern as if it had been given by the Lord at the present time.
Men in primitive times understood much about the problems of God's existence, of His creative activity, of the great calamity which overtook the earth recorded in Genesis 1:2, of the existence of Satan and his opposition to the human family, of the existence of evil in the world, of the doctrine of salvation by faith, of the future coming of our Lord and His reigning upon the earth in righteousness, and of the great ethical doctrines and affairs of life. After giving this brief survey of this ancient book, I would encourage the reader to study it and to ask God to open his eyes that he might behold the wonderful things contained in this greatest of all dramas of the world.
The Book of Psalms is one of the favorite books of the Bible. From childhood, most of us have learned at our mother's knee such selections as Psalm 23, even though we did not understand their significance. The psalms have brought comfort and consolation to the children of God in various circumstances throughout the centuries. Certain psalms have been used by Christian workers in various groups. Too much cannot be said concerning this portion of the Word.
The Book of Psalms was the songbook of Israel, which she used in connection with her worship at the Temple. Whether or not there was such a service in connection with the Tabernacle, we cannot say. We do know, however, that, when the Hebrews crossed the Red Sea, they sang the psalm which is found in Exodus 15:1-18. Just before his death, Moses spoke in the ears of the assembly of Israel the words of the song found in Deuteronomy 32:1-43. This hymn may be called "Israel's National Anthem." It outlines, in prophetic prospect, the entire career of the nation through the centuries. It is found to be one of the most graphic predictions in the entire Word of God, when it is properly studied and understood. Moses is the author of Psalm 90. Whether or not any of these hymns were used in connection with the Tabernacle, one cannot say; but we know that they sang and danced before the Lord in primitive times, for there are indications in the historical portion of the Word to that effect.
David wished to build a house to the Lord, but was not permitted to do so because he was a man of blood. Nevertheless, he made all necessary preparation for the erection of the Temple and gave Solomon specific instructions as to how the work should be done. He arranged for the musical services at the Temple. Of Hezekiah it is said that "he set the Levites in the house of Jehovah with cymbals, with psalteries, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, and of Gad the king's seer, and Nathan the prophet; for the commandment was of Jehovah by his prophets" (II Chron. 29:25). From this statement it is very clear that David introduced the instruments which he invented into the worship of the Lord at the Temple by order of Gad and Nathan, true prophets of God, "for the commandment was of Jehovah by his prophets." Hezekiah realized that it was by divine appointment that the ministry of music was introduced into the services. He therefore laid great stress upon it.
Someone has said, "Let me write the songs which a nation sings and I will control its life." Often a person can be reached by song who may not be touched in any other way. God realized the power of music and song. He therefore introduced the ministry of music into the Temple service.
David was a great musician, who composed the major portion of the psalms. Solomon wrote two; Moses, one. The sons of Korah, likewise, were used by the Spirit of God in adding to Israel's sacred collection of psalms.
The place of the song service in the ritual of the Temple was even more important from the human standpoint than our song service today, the reason being that the Scriptures were not available to the masses as now. The people did not have Bibles in their homes as we do. They had to depend largely upon what they heard in the form of song and the reading of the Word when they appeared before the Lord thrice annually. God knew these conditions. Thus He gave Israel her matchless songbook, containing 150 hymns.
One of the fundamentals of the poetry of Israel is known as "Hebrew parallelism." The simplest form of this type was the placing together of two statements dealing with the same subject. In the first, certain words were selected; in the second other terms were chosen which give the same messagebut expressed differently. The second statement is parallel to the first. Out of this grew contrast, where opposites were expressed. This is seen constantly in the Book of Proverbs. When we have simple parallelism, the second thought becomes a comment upon the first. Sometimes there are three parallel statements made in order that there may be no misunderstanding.
As time passed, this simple structure of parallelism was enlarged until certain psalms and portions of the Word were included in and involved in this scheme. This structure was, of course, familiar to the ancient Hebrews and understood by them. It is difficult, however, for us in the English to see and appreciate the beauty as it appears in the original text. There was a thought rhyme instead of the jingling of words.
As a person reads the poetical books, he will see that there is a shifting of the point of view very frequently. Unless he recognizes this fact, he will have great difficulty in interpreting the psalms. For instance, in that best known hymn, Psalm 23, David speaks of the Lord in the third person (vs. 1-3); suddenly, in verse 4, he addresses the Lord directly"Thou art with me." This was good stylein Hebrew poetry. It is not in accordance with the standards of English poetry at the present time. Another illustration may be found in Psalm 81:5. Here we are told that, "He appointed it in Joseph for a testimony, When he went out over the land of Egypt, Where I heard a language that I knew not." It is clear from the preceding verse that the pronoun, He, has as its antecedent the God of Jacob. Suddenly, however, in the last line the first personal pronoun, I, occurs. It is clear from the following verse that the "I" refers to Jehovah himself, and, as stated, "He" likewise indicates Jehovah. This is a very plain case, therefore, of the shifting from one person to another. But this should not seem strange to any mother or father who often, in speaking to a little child, says, "Come to me; I have something for you." Then suddenly he says, "Come to Daddy; Daddy will give you this." Here is a shifting from the first person to the third. This fact must be recognized as one studies the psalms and the other poetical books.
Every chord in the human heart is struck somewhere in the psalms. The theme ranges from the deepest dejection and despair to that of the highest expression of joy and rejoicing in the Lord. Moreover, the entire gamut of human experiences is run in the psalms, from the problems of the individualeven the humblestto the triumph of the race when Messiah returns in glory and makes Israel the head of the nations.
Unfortunately, many of us have the idea that the psalms are purely devotional, with an occasional prophetic utterance. If we reverse this judgment, we shall be more nearly correct. It is true that there is much devotional material in them. Everyone who has made a special study of this book is aware that it is largely prophetic. In fact, many of the psalms are pure prophecy; but all have a spiritual lesson and an application to those who are placed in a like situation.
Many of the psalms are predictions concerning Messiah's first coming. More of them, however, deal with His second appearing. A few of them give the entire redemptive career of King Messiah, consisting of His first coming, His rejection, His death, burial and resurrection, ascension to the right hand of God, and His eventual return to reign in the very place where He was rejected. A number of the psalms are devoted to exultant praise concerning the glorious conditions that will be ushered in when Messiah returns. A number of them speak about the conditions that will exist when the curse shall have been lifted from the earth and the glory of the Lord covers this earth as the waters cover the sea. There are some psalms that speak of the Antichrist and of the evil hosts about him in the time of the end. Others deal with personal problems. One's life is enriched by a close study of this marvelous book.
The psalms constitute the poetical version, in most instances, of the utterances of the prophets. Unless a person is fairly well acquainted with their messages and teachings and unless he has a clear-cut idea of the unfolding of the plan of the ages, he gets little out of many of the psalms. The one, on the other hand, who has studied carefully the prophets of Israel and sees the definite program as outlined by these spokesmen of the Almighty, can turn to these psalms and see that they are the messages of the prophets, put in the form of verse for liturgical use.
In concluding this study of Israel's psalter, I wish to call attention to a few of the outstanding psalms. The first one gives the recipe for a joyful, fruitful life in the service of God. This one is a fitting introduction. Psalm 2 is a prediction of "the forthcoming, international, atheistic, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, politico-religious convention" and God's establishing the reign of Christ upon the earth. Psalms 22, 23, and 24 constitute a series about the Shepherd of Israel. Psalm 22 speaks of the Good Shepherd; Psalm 23 tells of the Gentle Shepherd; and Psalm 24 the Great Shepherd. Psalm 45 gives us "the fourfold portrait of King Messiah." Psalms 46, 47, and 48 present pictures of the millennial Jerusalem. Psalm 51 is a penitential hymn and is a companion to Psalm 32. Psalm 58 takes us quietly into the secret council chamber of the Antichrist and lets us know something about the plans of that diabolical character to exterminate Israel from the face of the globe; but it shows that, when she cries to God for deliverance, the Lord answers and redeems. Psalm 72 is a great prophecy concerning the kingdom. Psalm 80 speaks about convicted Israel's being ready for Messiah's return and her pleading for Him to come to her rescue. Psalm 110 is, from a dispensational standpoint, one of the greatest in the book. Psalm 147 foretells the creation of the millennial Jerusalem and the amazing transformation that will take place when the Lord Jesus returns.
Let me assert that there is no book in all the Scriptures that will enrich one's knowledge of the Word and that will uplift one more than a thorough knowledge of the Book of Psalms.
The first twenty-four chapters of Proverbs are attributed to Solomon. In 25:1 we are told that the men of Hezekiah copied certain proverbs of Solomon. Whether this statement refers to the first twenty-four chapters or chapters 25-29, one cannot say. It is quite likely, however, that it refers to the latter section. If this is the correct interpretation, we are to understand that the original edition of Proverbs, which is a manual for ethics and morals (for both king and laity) consisted of the first twenty-four chapters. Then in the days of Hezekiah, certain copyists, employed by this king, copied from other writings of Solomon the material which constitutes chapters 25-29. By Agur, the son of Jakeh, is the oracle found in chapter 30. The book concludes with the "words of king Lemuel; the oracle which his mother taught him" (31:1). From these statements we see that there were at least three authors whom the Holy Spirit used in giving us this marvelous book of practical wisdom, ethics, and morals.
When the responsibility of the kingdom fell upon the young shoulders of Solomon at the death of his father, he went to Gibeah and uttered one of the most striking and unselfish prayers that is recorded in the Word. We find that petition in I Kings 3:4-15 and II Chronicles 1:7-13. From this record we see that Solomon had the proper outlook as he stood upon the threshold of a wonderful career.
In answer to his petition, God gave him wisdom, understanding, and largeness of heart. The result was that he stood head and shoulders above the men of renown of his day and time. This special talent from God made him an able statesman, a gifted writer along ethical and practical lines, and a wonderful hymn writer. He seems to have employed the deductive method and was a great zoologist and botanist. He either wrote, spoke, or lectured on these subjects. For the proof of this proposition, see I Kings 4:29-34.
Nowhere is there such a collection of crisp, pithy sayings to be found in any literature as that which is given in the Book of Proverbs. Nearly every subject which deals with practical life in its various relations is touched upon.
If anyone is in need of wisdom, he should read prayerfully the Book of Proverbs. God says to those who lack wisdom that they should ask of Him who gives liberally and upbraideth not. This statement by James is true; but in the Book of Proverbs the Lord has put volumes of practical wisdom, and He expects us to avail ourselves of this source of understanding, while we are asking Him for spiritual discernment. May He enable us to apply the wisdom which He has given to us in this book.
I once heard the late William Jennings Bryan make a statement in a public address regarding the Book of Proverbs. He said in part, "From childhood throughout life I have read the Book of Proverbs on an average of once a month, and I attribute whatever insight into practical affairs I have to the knowledge which I acquired from this book." That statement impressed me very greatly; and I have noted that those of my friends who especially study Proverbs, as a rule, have a clearer insight into the general problems of life than those who do not.
There are numbers of choice passages in the book, but I shall mention only a few.
Chapter 2 is a gem. It gives the four conditions for understanding and acquiring a knowledge of the Word of God. If we have a hungering and a thirsting to know the Scriptures, the first five verses of this chapter tell how we may thus acquire that knowledge. The first twelve verses of chapter 3 are most enlightening, especially verses 5 and 6 which contain a wonderful promise to the one who will trust in the Lord. Every young persongirl or boyshould familiarize himself with chapter 7. If young people would only follow this advice by the grace of God, they would be delivered from untold heartaches and sorrowsand many from actual shipwreck in life. Chapter 8 constitutes another timely revelation concerning wisdom. It is here personified. Some, however, think that this description blends into a discourse concerning the preexisting Christ. I have never been able to see that much in the passage, but it is an illuminating statement concerning wisdom. Chapter 16 is replete with meaning. It gives an insight into many things that could not be obtained from any other place. Verse 13 of chapter 17 is a stern warning to those who return evil for gooda thing that all too frequently is done. Verse 13 of chapter 28 likewise sets forth an essential truth upon which one's happiness, to a great extent, depends. In chapter 30, verse 4, is the classic passage about God the Father and God the Son. A beautiful pen-picture of the worthy woman is given in the concluding chapter. Every young man who contemplates marriage should read and re-read and read it againin fact, he should constantly keep this picture before his mind. He should ask the Lord to give him such a companion as the one described in this chapter. Since a young man has no right to expect more of a young woman than he is willing to give her, he should endeavor by the grace of God to maintain his life on a very high level of purity.
I have just noted a very few things in this great book of wisdom. May God use these remarks to encourage the reader to study this portion of His blessed, holy, Word.
The Lord had a definite, specific purpose in giving each book of the Bible. Ecclesiastes, written by the Preacher, the son of David, in Jerusalem, was inspired by the Spirit of God. This book was written in order to show the shallowness, the emptiness, and unsatisfactory character of the life that has not put God first. This booklet has been called "the book of the man under the sun." In it Solomon is either giving his own personal experiences, or he is relating the biography of the unregenerated man and, in a figure, transferring it to himself. Regardless of which way we view this problem, the lesson is the same. The preacher said that he sought pleasure by pursuing a certain course, but that he did not find it. He only met with disappointment. Then he turned in another direction and sought satisfaction, only to be disappointed again. Thus he enumerates the various things in which men, unregenerated, think they can find pleasure but cannot. Time and again he cries aloud that all the strivings of man after pleasure and happiness are vanity and vexation of spirit."This is the end of the matter; all hath been heard: Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every work into judgment, with every hidden thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil" (Ecc. 12:13, 14).
The author concludes by appealing to the young to remember their Creator in the days of their youth before the evil days come upon them, when they become ensnared in the pitfalls of sin and finally become hardened by wrongdoing until they have no pleasure in seeking the right and serving the Lord.
Finally, he concludes his message with these words:
The one lesson which God has to give the world through this book is that fleshly experiences and the possession of material things will not bring happiness, contentment, and joy. Human experience in innumerable instances prove this thesis: Some of the most miserable people in the world are the idle, rich, and unregenerated. The soul of man was made to seek after his Maker and to find Him. If he does not, there can be no further joy and peace.
On the other hand, if a person will come to God through the Lord Jesus Christ and accept Him as his personal Saviour, the Lord will regenerate his heart and give him joy, peace, and contentment, which he can through no other means acquire. Such is the message of the concluding verses of this great book.