The book of Psalms is a collection of prayer/hymns attributed to David and others. As such, they express — in more intimate detail than almost any other part of the Old Testament — the variety and richness of subjective human experience, as perplexing and contradictory as it sometimes is. Some of them are pious, some dejected, some fearful, some angry, some triumphant. There is probably no way to become familiar with the range of their power and expressiveness without living with them year in and year out as do, for example, the members of the cloistered orders, who recite the Psalms through in the course of each month. After twenty or thirty years of this, one will most likely get to know them rather well.
As a second-best, I have drawn up a sampling, in an attempt to be representative, though it will inevitably leave some major holes in the fabric. The fact is that each of the Psalms is genuinely unique, and none can be considered representative of anything other than itself. The diversity of the Psalms is quite simply astounding.
The structure of the Psalms deserves a little special comment. As with any other form of poetry, one probably cannot get the full impact of the Psalms in translation; but it is still one of the most translatable kinds of poetry that any language has to offer. This is because Hebrew poetry is not primarily built on the basis of regular rhyme or meter, but on the basis of parallelism of ideas. Most lines are composed of two (occasionally three) structures that are either similar in structure and sense or contrasted in some interesting kind of opposition. This is happily one of the features that can survive the process of translation into almost any language, even if the subtleties of sound cannot so easily be captured. These poems have been incorporated, with this poetic structure intact, into almost every branch of Judaism and Christianity. Every age has, in addition, produced magnificent translations of the Psalms, and the process continues to this day.
There are other clever features — often unique to the individual Psalm — that affect the construction of the poem. A good annotated translation (the Oxford Study Bible, the NIV Study Bible, etc.) will help identify some of these features. Rather than merely reading the Psalm through from the first verse to the last, look at it from above, as it were. See the whole pattern — what are the parts? Where is it headed? Seeing where the poet is going can certainly help you appreciate what he is doing to get there.
The Hebrew of the Psalms is rather difficult in spots, and translators face occasional serious problems simply figuring out what it means. Different translations will occasionally give strikingly different wordings. You should be prepared for this.
The book of Proverbs is a collection of the sort of thing that almost every world literature has produced, yet it is unmistakably rooted in the religious fabric of Judaism. Proverbs (like Ecclesiastes, and the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus) is considered “Wisdom literature” — an accumulation of wise sayings, perhaps partly rules by which the young should be raised.
There are 31 chapters in Proverbs, and under these are many, some of them sorted by topic, and others by author. Most of the book is attributed to Solomon, who was supposed to be the wisest of men.
The book of Job is unique among the books of the Bible in that it is a problem-discussion: it addresses the problem of evil, partly at the abstract philosophical level, and partly in terms of how we encounter it on a day-to-day level. “Why,” people have always asked, “do bad things happen to good people?” Given the presuppositions of Judaism and Christianity, some will modify this question a bit into a harder form: “Why, if there is a good and loving God, do bad things happen to good people?”
It’s a fair question — one of the great questions of all time, in fact, and there are no easy answers: a whole branch of theological thought (called theodicy — “god-justification”) has arisen specifically in response to this question. It’s a question that is not limited to Judeo-Christian experience. The great Greek dramatists struggle with this particular problem over and over again, suggesting only temporary and partial solutions. The great philosophers wrestled with it in different ways and at different places. Ever since, novelists, philosophers, playwrights, and poets have all felt compelled to turn their hands to the problem — a broad range of matters taking in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, or C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed, and Till We Have Faces. A book was even published not too long ago by Harold S. Kushner, a rabbi, entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. A search in Amazon on the phrase “Why bad things happen to good people” offers three pages of listings from a diversity of religious positions.
In other words, this is a question to which Christians need to have an answer. It’s not a question that is likely to go away in a hurry.
The book of Job is one of the most daring attacks ever made on this question, both in form and content. It is a formal tour-de-force: in parts it is a dialogue, as Plato’s treatments were; parts are poetry; it moves in its dramatic “camera”, so to speak, between heaven and earth, taking in God, Satan, and an impressive cast of defiantly complex human characters. Parts are straight narrative. As with so much of the Old Testament, it offers only a partial answer, shrouded in a lot of ambiguity and mystery; yet the answers it suggests are not so much a final answer to the problem as a transcendent validation of the process: it affirms two important points — that we are not out of line to ask the question, and that God is with us through it. In the course of its dialogue portions, it swiftly puts pat or facile answers in their place. Above all, it affirms the importance of wrestling with the questions honestly.
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