- Written by Kevin Derksen Kevin Derksen
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Windows into the Word:
Wisdom and Worship
This morning our windows into the Word have come from a collection of books that we’re grouping together under the heading of “Wisdom and Worship."
I’ll begin by reminding us of a couple of patterns we’ve gotten into here the past few weeks. One is to use the little window insert in your bulletins to keep track of your thoughts and reflections through our worship this morning. And we’ll take a minute or two at the end of the sermon again to pause, reflect, and maybe jot down a few notes. Because there won’t be a usual worship response time today, we’ll put this big window here out in the foyer after the service and if you’re so inclined you can either jot down some of your reflections there or leave your paper in the basket to be added later.
We’ve also had a pattern the past few weeks of turning to the table of contents in our Bibles to see what we’re actually talking about. So why don’t we do that again this morning. The list of Old Testament books that you see there is hopefully becoming more familiar already, including the order in which they appear.
Although if you’re paying close attention, you might notice that we’ve gone out of order a little bit. We did the Torah, those first five books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. And then we continued with History – Joshua through Samuel, Kings Chronicles and all the way to Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. But then last week we skipped a few to pick up with Isaiah, Jeremiah and the rest of the prophets.
Those five books in the middle there are what we’re left with today. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. And we skipped over them until now because in some ways they have a different feel from the other books of the Old Testament. They’re a different kind of writing, a different genre of biblical literature, we might say.
In fact, one of the really important parts of reading and interpreting the Bible well is recognizing these different kinds of writing. We know about genre from other contexts. When we’re watching a movie, we usually know if it’s a drama, or a romantic comedy, or a documentary or an action flick. Same with the books we read – mysteries, crime, literature, non-fiction, biography, reference. And there are other types of writing too – essays, blog posts, shopping lists, journal entries, letters. Each kind of writing has its own style and its own features. And it has its own purpose. We use a different kind of writing for the different things we’re trying to communicate. No one would say that shopping lists are unimportant, but even J.K. Rowling might have some difficulty selling many copies of her collected grocery works. And even her most devoted fan would be frustrated wandering through the grocery store trying to figure out which vegetables to buy from a 900 page narrative of the state of her kitchen. Even if it is a thrilling page-turner. The genre has to match the purpose.
So too, in scripture. Our divisions of the Bible into the weeks of this series mostly follows the order in which we find these books. But they also reflect the different types of literature that are included in the Bible. So the Torah contains mostly epic narratives along with laws and instruction. Then there are the books of history, telling stories that help make sense of the past and the present. And then books of prophecy. The gospels are a particular genre that’s a kind of biography. Much of the rest of the New Testament are letters written between believers and congregations. And we’ll end a few weeks from now by exploring the book of Revelation and other texts that are known as ‘apocalyptic’ writings – where something about the true meaning of reality is revealed.
But today, we finish up the Old Testament with these five books stuck in its middle. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon. They are all very different books in a lot of ways. They each have their own purpose and context. But in terms of style and genre, there are some things that hold them together. Any guesses of what kind of writing you find a lot of in these books? It’s one I haven’t mentioned yet this morning...
Much of what we find in these particular books is best described as poetry. Not exclusively, you’ll find other kinds of writing mixed in as well. And you will certainly find poetry sprinkled through many other books and sections of the Bible too. But for today, as we’re taking our peeks into these particular windows of scripture, what we see and hear is poetry.
I suspect that poetry is one of those things that gets a mixed response in most groups of people. Some folks love poetry, and are drawn to the beauty of words and images that express what they think or feel. But for others, poetry is a black hole that sucks up sense and meaning. Stop dancing around with the words and just say what you mean! And like anything else, there are better and worse examples of poetry, more and less skilled poets. But here we’re entering realms of art and imagination, and so much does end up being in the eye of the beholder.
I would say that I’m on my way to a slow appreciation of poetry. I have never been much of a poet myself. Were I forced to gather my complete works to date, most would consist of aggressively rhyming verses written for the poetry units in Jr High English classes. Not work I care to remember. But I do love words. I love how they sound and how they flow together, and how the right combination of words can sometimes send chills down your spine. And so even though I don’t often pick up books of poetry, every once and a while I read a poem that stops me short and speaks to me. Poetry does have power, and something about it works at deeper levels than many other kinds of writing.
My guess, however, is that many of us appreciate poetry most in the context of music. Song lyrics and poetry may not always be the same thing – that’s a point of fierce debate in some circles - but there’s clearly a lot of overlap there. Certainly many of the celebrated poets in our time are musicians. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that among these books of biblical poetry is the collection of the Psalms, or songs. Many of the psalms were written to be sung, and we continue to sing them today.
But whether they are spoken or set to music, the Psalms belong first in the context of worship. They are meant to engage people in relationship and conversation with God. Sometimes in corporate worship settings, and sometimes in personal devotional life and prayer. For centuries, people have taken refuge in the poetry of the Psalms. And they continue to resonate in our lives of faith as Christians. Many of us have particular psalms that we know well and have leaned on at different points of life. They manage to express something that continues to be living and present. They are vehicles that carry our own thoughts and feelings and prayers in words that connect us back to our ancestors in faith.
Part of what makes the Psalms so durable as the poetry of worship is their variety. No matter what we bring to worship, it seems, there is a Psalm that reflects something of our experience. There are lots of psalms of praise and thanksgiving, of course. But there are also psalms of lament and frustration, psalms of petition, psalms of assurance and hope, psalms of searching and questioning. What we resonate with, I think, is often their honesty. Right to the heart, expressing the depth of our experience in ways that other mediums don’t.
And I think that’s probably a gift of poetry more generally. Poetry is language of the heart. It’s not just about communicating information, but about probing our souls. Sometimes the answers are not simple. Either they’re too complicated and confusing and difficult, or they’re too wonderful and rich and beautiful. Sometimes we can’t just say what we mean or what we think or what we feel. And so we turn to poetry, we turn to music, we turn to movement, or art, or to something else that lets us express ourselves more freely and deeply.
Poetry is often about plumbing the depths of human experience and plumbing the depths of our encounters with the divine. That surely describes some of what we find in the other books that we’re considering today. Beside the Psalms, the other four I’ve named are part of what we sometimes call the “wisdom tradition” in scripture. Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon. This wisdom tradition is there at the core and heart of the Biblical vision, but it’s also at the margins chipping away at the conventions we find elsewhere in the Bible.
We might have good reason to wonder why some of these books are there in the Bible at all. Job tells of a rather dubious bet God makes with Satan that brings great suffering upon a faithful servant. And it pokes at the assumption that faithfulness to God will make for a good life. Proverbs offers a lot of commonsense advice for daily living, but lots of it isn’t particularly relevant for life in the 21st century. Ecclesiastes proclaims the futility and absurdity of life on earth. And Song of Solomon? Well, I suspect I don’t have to tell you what it’s about!
True confession time: who has ever sat in church as a kid reading from the Song of Solomon instead of listening to a sermon? I won’t ask who still does that as an adult...
If you’ve never found yourself that bored in church before, I suppose that’s to your credit. But it’s worth checking out in any case. A book of songs about the pleasures and delights of love. A racy little gem in the middle of the Old Testament that puts the lie to the common assumption that the Bible just stifles bodies and sexuality.
Each of these books of wisdom has its way of cutting across the grain of what we read in other parts of the Bible. They are, in some ways, biblical voices of dissent that say: It’s not so simple. Don’t imagine you’ve got this all figured out. These wisdom books call us to pay close attention to the ordinary and human and earthy experiences of life. They call us to use our senses and feel what it’s like to be human. To feel the wounds of suffering and loss. To feel the earth and its dust from which we’re made as it slips through our fingers. To feel the ancient wisdom that’s woven into the fabric of creation. To feel the body of our beloved and know that it is made good.
The books of wisdom call us not only to think or believe, but to feel and experience. And the language of poetry helps us to do that. The words of these texts are meant to draw us more deeply into encounter with ourselves, with the world, and with God. Not just instruction or teaching or even narrative. Poetry is invitation to the depths. It is invitation to honesty and truth beyond the surface. We will sometimes struggle to understand the meaning or purpose of poetry. It won’t always be clear or straightforward. And often it will mean something very different to the various readers or listeners who might come to it. But often as not, it’s poetry that will draw us into worship.
And so even as these books of wisdom chip away at some of the conventions we find elsewhere in the Bible, they also lodge themselves at the heart of a biblical theology that centres on the movement and activity of God.
The book of Proverbs gives wisdom a voice and identity that calls out to us. “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the square she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?” (Prov 1:20-22) And wisdom’s call is not just one more new thing that comes and will go. It is the very key to the meaning of creation.
If you have your Bibles, flip to Proverbs chapter 8. Proverbs is the next book right after the Psalms. Let’s read from verse 22.
“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth – when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Prov 8:22-31)
Wisdom as God’s co-creator, God’s partner in the shaping of the cosmos. Its deep truth runs through all that is, its poetry enlivening the world. And Christian tradition has read this wisdom as the same Word of God that spoke creation into being. The same Word of God that took human form and walked among us in Jesus Christ. Jesus as wisdom incarnate. Jesus as poetry in flesh.
There have been long periods in Christian history where interpreters of scripture have prioritized the search for this kind of deeper, spiritual meaning beneath the words of the text. Modern Christians have tended to take an almost scientific approach to interpreting scripture – figure out the historical context, go back to the original language, try to reconstruct the intentions of the author. But for many years, the important thing in reading scripture was to look for the shape of Christ moving in and behind and through the words. Even in the Old Testament, before the birth of Jesus. And so commentators in the Middle Ages had a field day with a book like the Song of Solomon. The bridegroom and the bride, they said, are figures for Christ and the church. Their passion for each other is the passion of God’s love returned in human yearning for the divine.
This led to some very interesting readings of the Song that would probably make us a bit squeamish today. We don’t often rhapsodize ardently about our longing to feel the kiss of Jesus on our lips. But the remarkable thing is how this book of wisdom, this poetry of biblical counterpoint, was able to open a space of profound encounter with God.
The wisdom of God, though sometimes neglected, sometimes left on the edges, sometimes skipped over in embrassment, is here read as the living presence of Christ embracing and enfolding the people of God. Poetry become flesh and spirit together, making space for the living and loving encounter between God and humanity. It is wisdom that opens into worship.
At its heart, that is the gift of these books we’ve peered into today. And it’s the gift of poetry, whether in these writings or in countless other places throughout the sweep of scripture. An opening and an invitation to meet God in worship. To meet God in a place that’s often just beyond the full reach of understanding. Where we touch and sense and encounter and name our experience honestly. Where we celebrate and give thanks and wail and cry out and wait in hope. Where we discover that we belong to a God who is always more, always greater, always beyond, and yet always present in the pain and in the dust and in the bodies we know.
Wisdom and worship: poetry come to life, beckoning us once more into the presence of God.