Sermon 12 May 2013 Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 Old Testament Intro – Historical, Poetry and Wisdom Books Let me start with some reminders… a summary of where we have been over the past month in our overview of the Old Testament. We need to remember always that the Old Testament is not just one book, but a collection of books (and even some individual books show signs of more than one author, and existence in oral form initially) We also need to remember that the Old Testament is set in the context of not just the land of Israel-Palestine (The Promised Land) but the Fertile Crescent (from the Persian Gulf round to Egypt. There are some significant dates and events that are useful to remember when we are reading the OT: 2000 BCE Abraham 1720BCE Jacob, Joseph and family travelling to Egypt 1280 BCE The Exodus – the Jews, under Moses, leaving Egypt for 40 years nomadic existence in the Wilderness, before entering the Promised Land. 1050 BCE Kings Saul, David, Solomon and the formation of the United Kingdom 930 BCE The Divided Kingdoms of Israel (to the north, with its ‘capital’ of Samaria), and Judah (to the south, with Jerusalem) 722 BCE Fall of Samaria to Assyria (end of the Northern Kingdom) 587 BCE Fall of Jerusalem & Southern Kingdom of Judah to Babylon. Exile in Babylon 538 BCE Return and rebuild of Jerusalem and Temple 430 BCE Last of OT books written (Malachi) We need to remember the Organisation of the Old Testament: Torah/Pentatuech (Jesus reference to The Law and the Prophets) Genesis Exodus Leviticus Numbers Deuteronomy Historical Books A) The Former Prophets Joshua Judges 1 & 2 Samuel 1 & 2 Kings B) The Writings Ruth 1 & 2 Chronicles Ezra Nehemiah Esther (Daniel is included in this section in the Jewish Scripture) The Prophets A) The Major Prophets Isaiah Jeremiah Ezekiel B) The Minor Prophets Daniel Hosea Joel Amos Obadiah Jonah Micah Nahum Habbakkuk Zephaniah Haggai Zechariah Malachi Poetical and Wisdom Books Job Psalms Proverbs Ecclesiastes Song of Songs Lamentations Today we focus on the Historical Books and the Poetical and Wisdom Books. Within them are numerous wonderful passages with which we are familiar and which will have influenced our faith and our understanding of God in significant ways. Let us go through overviews of them now…. The Historical Books These books are history in the best sense – that is, they do more than present data about past events – rather, they present the data in a form that tries to explain what the events mean and how God was working in them. The Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings) record the history of the period from the death of Moses to the fall of the Southern Kingdom of Judah (1200 – 586 BCE). This period includes the settlement of Israel in the land, the tribal government under the Judges, the time of seeking a king, the golden age under David and Solomon, and the division and downfall of the kingdoms. All through the narrative runs the understanding of God’s judgment and redemption in political and social life.
The Writings Ruth emphasizes God working through a foreign woman to bring forth King David. It carries a strong warning against excluding anyone from a place among God’s people. 16 But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.’ (1:16, 17) 1 & 2 Chronicles cover much of the same history as the Former Prophets, but from a different perspective. They were written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE and try to answer the question, “Why did God choose to punish his people in such a way?” The answer is found in history – God’s people were unfaithful and what happened in social and political history is an expression of God’s judgement on an unfaithful people. These books reminded people they were still God’s chosen people even though they no longer had a king in the line of David and were subject to Persia. Ezra picks up the themes of Chronicles and argues for national purity and exclusiveness. Ezra may have also been the author of Chronicles. Nehemiah is the account of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and the re- establishment of the covenant. It, too, argues for exclusiveness. Esther is the account of a Jewish heroine whose faithfulness saved her people from certain death. It explains the origins of the Jewish festival of Purim. Poetical and Wisdom Books In the Hebrew or Jewish scriptures, these books are included in the ‘Writings’. The books of poetry are Psalms, Song of Solomon and Lamentations. The wisdom books are Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. This does not mean that all poetry is found in Psalms and Song of Solomon, nor that all wisdom is found in only three books. Poetry abounds in the Torah and the Prophets. Much of the Wisdom literature is written in poetic form. The Psalms were the hymn book and prayer book of the second Temple (built from 537 BCE), and continue to be used in the same way by the Jewish community today. Traditionally the Psalms were ascribed to David – but of the 150 individual Psalms, 100 have clear references to their authors – 73 by David, 12 by Asaph, 10 by the Sons of Korah, and even one by Moses. There are also many kinds or styles of Psalms, just as there are many types of hymns in a modern hymn book. There are songs of praise and thanksgiving, songs of ascent that were sung going up to the Temple, royal psalms, prayers, laments and more. Many are structured according to traditional Jewish poetical forms – eg 145 is an acrostic, poem, working through the letters of the Hebrew alphabet for the beginning of each line. (Relatively simple acrostics may merely spell out the letters of the alphabet in order; such an acrostic may be called an 'alphabetical acrostic'. These acrostics occur in the first four of the five songs that make up the Book of Lamentations, in the praise of the good wife in Proverbs 31, 10-31, and in Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119 and 145 of the Hebrew Bible. Notable among the acrostic Psalms are the long Psalm 119, which typically is printed in subsections named after the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each of which is featured in that section; and Psalm 145, which is recited three times a day in the Jewish services. Acrostics prove that the texts in question were originally composed in writing, rather than having existed in oral tradition before being put into writing.)
The Psalms are divided into five sections or books. It is thought that this was done for the Greek version, the Septuagint, as early as the 3rd century BCE (Book 1 = Ps 1 – 41; Book 2 = Ps 42 – 72; Book 3 = Ps 73 – 89; Book 4 = Ps 90 – 106; Book 5 = Ps 107 – 150). For trivia, Ps 117 is the shortest and Ps 119, with the sections of this one labelled by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, is the longest. The Psalms continue to be important for Christians, both in terms of being a resource and inspiration for Christian worship music and a source of meaningful passages for personal study and reflection. (Older members would remember singing the Psalms and Paraphrases as part of worship) We all have Psalms (or portions of Psalms) with which we are familiar – whether something as well known as the 23rd Psalm (The Lord is my shepherd…), or verses that have become the words of our hymns and songs “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light for my path” (119:105)
Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is a collection of love poems, which are beautiful expressions of human love at its best. They remind us that God is present in all of life. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth – for your love is more delightful than wine.” (1:2) Lamentations is a collection of poems of deep bitterness and grief over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. It is traditionally attributed to Jeremiah and is printed immediately after his book in most Bibles. Wisdom literature can also take different forms – sometimes it is short sayings on how to cope with life. The theme is usually how virtue can triumph over wrong. Sometimes wisdom takes the form of riddles, or longer reflections on the meaning of life or on the life of faith. The heart of wisdom literature is a theology of creation and life. God has made the world and everything in it. We can learn something about God and life by observing nature; and because God is in all of life, we are called to live joyfully as well as responsibly – to live the life God approves. Job begins with the undeserved suffering of the patriarch, Job, and reflects on the meaning of suffering and God’s relationship to one who suffers unjustly. Job suffers most because he refuses to deny his own integrity or the integrity of God. (‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised. 1:21)
Proverbs is a collection of sayings about how to live this good and godly life. It also contains the great passage on the personification of Wisdom as God’s handmaid, delighting in the works of creation (8:22 – 31, ch 9). “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” (9:10) “Grey hair is a crown of splendour; it is attained by a righteous life.” (16:31)
Ecclesiastes reads almost like a diary of a spiritual journey. The author deals with ultimate questions of life and death, while talking about the routines of daily life. He reflects on what his life has meant from youth to old age, and how God has played a part in that life.
The Old Testament – it is a wonderful collection of books. Please be clear that in seeking to teach you more about the OT, we are not seeking to denigrate any of the individual books in any way. They are our inheritance, our legacy, our heritage… and our future They provide us with lessons from the past and hope and guidance for the future. They recognize the diversity of life’s experiences, emotions and activities – so eloquently recognized in that passage from Ecclesiastes. Today we are reading and interpreting these Scriptures in ways never dreamed of by the writers – for we are living in a different context and with vastly increased knowledge. For example, as we talked about with the children this Ascension week, what we know of the universe, will require us to take an understanding of the poetical expression in Psalm 139 that is different from the simpler one that the original readers and hearers had: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens you are there; If I make my bed in the depths (in Sheol, the place of the dead), you are there.” Ps 139:7,8) Yet the richness and robustness of Scripture allows that review and reflection (if done cautiously). And the riches that we will gain from the OT as we read it will be much greater if we take the time to increase our understanding of the original physical and political and religious context of the books, and take into account the motivation of the authors and the influences on them. As we understand the OT better, we will understand Jesus’ time and teaching better, so that we may better be the people of God today and into the future.
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