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A New Guide to the Old Testament – Reading Old Testament Poetry

A New Guide to the Old TestamentThroughout our guide through the Old Testament, we have looked at how Christians should read the Old Testament stories and laws; now we turn our attention to the Old Testament poetry.

Location of Old Testament Poetry

Hebrew poetry is found throughout the Old Testament; only a handful of books are without a line of poetry1. In the narrative books, poetry can be found in prayers, prophecies, and editorial pronouncements.

Certain books—sometimes called the Poetic Books, Wisdom Books, or simply the Writings—are—are made up almost exclusively of poetry. Written by known and unknown poets, these passages were compiled by later editors, creating the books we now know as Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Since these books are what most people typically think of when we say “poetic books,” we will focus on these in the present study.

Purpose of Old Testament Poetic Books

While the Old Testament narratives explain what Israel did, and the Old Testament laws say why Israel should act a certain way, the poetic books focus on another aspect of Israel’s life: how Israel lived life. Covering the whole gamut of human emotions, the poetic books show how Israel engaged with and worshipped God in the good times and the bad, from the pinnacle of the kingdom when David and Solomon ruled, to the lowest of lows in the exile. Each book has a specific role:

  • Job provides an example of righteous suffering, even without the benefit of knowing why. It also helps reject the view that being good = receiving blessing.
  • The Book of Psalms, sometimes called Israel’s hymnbook, features 150 psalms covering the whole range of human emotions. Here you find psalms rejoicing in God’s favor, psalms crying for God to stop suffering, and psalms thanking God for His deliverance. Some of these psalms are thought to be liturgical in nature, meaning they were read corporately in a worship service.
  • Proverbs is a compilation of wisdom sayings, also called proverbs. But these are not fortune cookie wisdom that you collect, brining out when you need a good word. Instead, they are to help the reader see God as the source and author of all wisdom, and is something to be desired.
  • Ecclesiastes, a book written by The Teacher, who spent years looking for meaning in life, only to find a host of dead ends. He seeks to impart this wisdom to the reader, pointing out that satisfaction can only be found in God.
  • Song of Solomon, likely written around Solomon’s reign, describes the passion and feelings found between a couple.

Tips for Reading Old Testament Poetic Books

First, we must see that the poetic books—especially the Psalms—are writings directed to God, not writings from God. The psalmists are writing about God and how He is or is not working in their midst. This is helpful when we find ourselves in a similar situation as a psalmist; our prayer can echo the psalm as we cry out to God.

Second, we must recognize the wide variety of genres within poetry. Just within the Psalter, there are psalms of trust, psalms of thanksgiving, psalms of lament, and historical psalms, describing how God saved His people in the past. With each sub-genre, the psalmist has a different goal in mind—from worshipping God to blaming God—and we can’t neglect or misuse this context.

Third, for all the poetic books we must be careful to read each verse in context, specifically in the context of the entire book. It can be easy to pull a verse from Proverbs and use it as proof of your view in a discussion, but that’s not how the book of Proverbs is meant to be read. Instead, we must read this wisdom literature in light of what it is saying about God and how we are to relate to Him and others.


  1. The ESV Study Bible lists Leviticus, Ruth, Esther, Haggai, and Malachi. 

Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

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