The Writings

WritingWhen we looked at the Old Testament as a whole, we noticed its traditional division into Law, Prophets, and Writings, and we’ve taken a closer look at both law and prophets. This is really our last opportunity this semester to complete the picture and look at the Writings. Last opportunity because next Sunday is the beginning of finals week, and we’ll be thinking about the themes of judgement and mercy in Scripture, the week after is Commencement, when we’ll think about victory and reward, and the Sunday after that will be our last one till the Fall Semester, and most of you will already be on your way home anyway. So, the Writings.

The Writings are, in the order in which they occur in the Bible, Ruth, I and II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations and Daniel. They are generally thought to have been written later than the law and the prophets, except for some of the psalms, and were only accepted as Sacred Scripture during the second century BC at the earliest. But they were part of the Bible that Jesus acknowledged as the Word of God; He explicitly described the psalms as God’s word, inspired by the Holy Spirit, in Mark 12.36. He also applies some of the psalms to Himself personally on the cross, and drew on at least one other of the books mentioned.

The key to understanding the rôle of the Writings in God’s Word as something relevant to us, lies in their nature as responses to the Law and the Prophets. Many of the books in the Law and the Prophets refer to human response to God’s word, but in some of the Writings it seems as though the whole book is exactly that. I’ll give you some examples in a bit. But if they are responses to God’s Word, by ordinary sinful human beings like any of us, that God has taken into His Word, and if not sanctified, exactly, at least understood and in some way accepted, then there must be so much still to learn from them. The traditional use of most of them is what is called allegorical: as though they don’t mean what they appear to mean, and can’t be understood without a key. So the Song of Solomon, which on its face is a love poem about human love, has been interpreted as an allegory about the love between Christ and His Church. Now allegory has a place in the Christian use of Scripture—Paul demonstrates that in Galatians 4—but generally speaking it should be the last place we look for meaning, not the first. Luther describes the allegorical approach to Scripture as a way of ornamenting or decorating what Scripture says: ‘be careful, and pursue everywhere the naked text [of Scripture], and afterwards it may be that you can treat allegories without danger’. Once we have read all that Scripture says about the love of Christ for His church in literal terms, and have digested it thoroughly, then we can enjoy it more fully by applying some of the words of the Song of Solomon to it. But the Song of Solomon is about something else. It’s about love, marriage and sex, in that order, actually, and is a response to the word of God in Genesis 2, among other passages: Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. Because of the allegorical approach to the Song of Solomon, hardly any Christian has an approach to marriage that is informed by the Song of Solomon; most Christians know only some of what the Bible says about marriage, because they have never been introduced to what the Song of Solomon says about it. I won’t say more about the Song of Solomon now, but just urge you to consider that the Writings are primarily a human response to the divine word that has become part of the divine word. And that gives us a lot to think about, and the Writings a lot to teach us, about ourselves and about our relationship with God. And wherever we may eventually be led, we have no choice but to begin the process of learning from them by taking them at their face value. So let me give you a ‘publisher’s blurb’ for each of them, and you can explore further the one that sounds like it has most to say to you.

So in the order we find them in the Old Testament, the first is Ruth: the story of a Moabite woman, a widow among a people despised by the Jews. In some sense it is a response by someone who had compassion on the Gentiles to God’s decision to bless the earth through the descendants of Abraham; what about this woman? Doesn’t she have a place in the plan? Yes indeed, the story says; Ruth is brought into the chosen people by marriage, and through her participation not only do the great kings, David and Solomon, have their being, Ruth being David’s great-grandmother, but in the earthly sense she is an ancestor of the Messiah, Jesus, the Son of David. It’s a very effective way of making the point made in the letter to the Romans, there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him. For, ‘every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved’. And what brings her to salvation is human love and loyalty, the teaching and encouragement of which is the book’s great value.

Next are I and II Chronicles, which cover the same historical period as the first twelve books of the Old Testament, but draw lessons from that history that are not always the same as those drawn in the other books. One of it chief concerns is the restoration of peace between the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, a response to division by painting the picture of unity. Perhaps it has something to teach a church divided into thousands of different denominations.

Ezra and Nehemiah are almost always taken together, and were a single book in the oldest manuscripts. Some people think they were the original conclusion to Chronicles, which ends with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, giving Chronicles a happy ending by telling the story of the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its Temple under the authority of the Persians, who conquered the Babylonians. The importance of the story is in the lesson that even when the culture is hostile to our faith, God is still at work, when all His people are willing to work together. Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the layman are equal examples of commitment and leadership, and the books paint a wonderful picture of the participation of the whole people of God in His work.

Esther is a response to what must have seemed like God’s abandonment of His people after the destruction of Jerusalem. It is the story of a young Jewish girl who finds herself, through some pretty ungodly motives on the part of the Persian emperor who now rules the exiled people, in a position to speak for God’s chosen people, and discovers in herself the courage to do so. The real hero of the book, however, is her much older cousin Mordecai, who looked after Esther when the death of her parents left her without help in the world. It is he who inspires Esther to use her opportunity with the words if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this? (4.14)

Job is better known than some other Writings, being famous for its exploration of a theme that concerns far more than Christians and Jews, why bad things happen to good people. Job is the man who has everything the world thinks is worth having, then has it all taken away, with God’s permission, simply to prove to Satan that there is no point in trying to destroy people’s faith by that means. No matter how bad things get, and they get as bad as could be, Job refuses to blame God, and Satan is ultimately left looking stupid. Job’s words represent for me the summit of human submission to God’s will without compromising our own will: Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face.

It’s in the Psalms that we see most clearly the element of human response to the divine word, and also see most wonderfully how the human wide becomes the divine word, since it’s here that Jesus saw the passages that could shed most light on His offering of Himself. We also see most clearly just how human, how sinful, our response so often is. Those who don’t believe that the Bible really is the word of God, for instance, will often quote passages in the psalms that give vent to a most unrighteous anger, like the one in Psalm 137 where the psalmist is thinking about the army that invaded Jerusalem and burned it to the ground, and he says, ‘I wish someone would murder all their children’. ‘That can’t be the word of God,’ some people say, and one can sympathise, but the psalms, like the Song of Solomon, are poetry, and express human emotion as powerfully as any human writing ever has. They are the place in the Bible where man’s cry, whether of anguish or of joy, and God’s word, whether of comfort or encouragement, meet each other. God’s word is incomprehensible without man’s need, and nothing makes it clearer than passages like those in Job or the Psalms that God hears our cries, even when filled with pain and anger, and responds to them.

Proverbs is a collection of teaching from Solomon and others both before and after the destruction of Jerusalem, put together in response, perhaps, to the end of prophecy and the refusal or inability of the priests, after the restoration of the Temple, to exercise a teaching ministry. The fact that it contains an awful lot of teaching on how to live with a government that has no sympathy or interest in God’s way of doing things makes it a great help for Christians making their way in the world today. Billy Graham read a chapter from Proverbs every day, and if you’ve read the book on his relationships with presidents over the years, you’ll know just what an influence he has had for good at the highest levels of our national life. If you haven’t read it, do—it’s an eye-opener.

Ecclesiastes is often associated with Proverbs—and with Job and Song of Solomon, all sometimes lumped together as the Wisdom Literature— traditionally attributed to Solomon, although the text only claims to be by someone who is ‘son of David’ (v 1) and who ‘has been’ king, but now is a preacher (v 12), and it’s very hard to put any name to that person. All earthly joys are vanity, the writer says, and he has no belief in a future state that might relieve that sense of futility. But the writer cannot escape the longing for something more than he finds it possible to believe in: God has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end, 3.11. So perhaps even that longing can be accepted by God and in some way put to His purposes.

Song of Solomon we’ve already talked about; Lamentations is a response to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians; not an explanation of it, but a series of poems just simply weeping over it. The poet accepts that God is entirely justified in abandoning Judah to its fate, and models submission even to the enemy that God used for as long as he’s using them. It expresses confession and repentance as well as remorse, and a quiet note of hope, although still ending with the unanswered question, has God utterly rejected us?

Finally, Daniel. A game of two halves, as they say in soccer; the first half stories of faith and courage, the second half apocalyptic visions very much like the book of Revelation. The visions are about the end times, but there is no agreement among its readers about what the visions mean, because as God tells Daniel in the last vision, the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end. But like all apocalyptic the word of the vision have other things to say, and it’s in these visions that we come across one of the clearest Old Testament statements about the resurrection, 12.2, and the spread of the gospel, 12.3. It’s also in Daniel that the title Son of Man used in Messianic terms first appears, the title which Jesus applied to Himself most often.

So Jesus Himself saw the Holy Spirit at work in the Writings, and He specifically attributes the psalms to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and quotes them frequently and significantly. The message of salvation is to be found in them, but also, and perhaps primarily, encouragement about how to live in the light of the salvation that is our destiny, and it’s perhaps here that the Writings have their principal value for Christians. They are a much undervalued part of God’s word, which Isaiah reminds us is sent to us in order to achieve God’s purposes. When you sense something missing in your life, don’t forget these books. As Proverbs says, if you cry out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.

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