The Writings

The Writings section is headed by Psalms and includes 12 other books of the Old Testament. Here’s an overview of this important section of the Bible.

After the Law and the Prophets, the third major division of the Old Testament is called the Writings. It is translated from the Hebrew word Ketubim, from katab, meaning “to write.” In the Greek the name is Hagiographa, which means “Holy Writings” (David Ewert, From Ancient Tablets to Modern Translations, 1983, p. 32).

The Writings section can be arranged in three parts:

  1. Poetic books: Psalms, Proverbs and Job.
  2. Five Festival Scrolls (also called the Megilloth): Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther.
  3. Historical books: Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.

In the Hebrew Bible the Writings consist of 11 books, but in English Bibles there are 13. This is because English Bibles list Ezra and Nehemiah as separate books and divide Chronicles into 1 and 2 Chronicles.

Significance of the books of the Writings

Jesus Christ recognized the threefold division of the Old Testament (Luke 24:44), thus giving authority to the recognized books of all three divisions, including the Writings. The collecting of the authoritative books may go back to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. “Ezra was the forerunner of a great scribal movement and it would not be stretching the truth if we said that he played an important role in the collection, transcription, study and teaching of the Scriptures” (ibid., p. 70).

Authors William LaSor, David Hubbard and Frederic Bush, in their book Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form and Background of the Old Testament, make the following comments: “Although a date for the completion of the Writings cannot be attested before ca. A.D. 100, ample evidence of a third section of the canon (in addition to the Law and the Prophets) does appear as early as 180 B.C., when Ben Sirach’s grandson noted in the prologue to Ecclesiasticus that his distinguished grandfather ‘devoted himself especially to the reading of the Law and the Prophets, and the other books of our ancestors.’ ...

“It is doubtful that the scriptures known to Jesus and the apostles varied at all in contents from the present Hebrew Bible. … They are an essential part of ‘all Scripture … inspired by God and … useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (2 Timothy 3:16)” (pp. 425, 428).

Order of the books

Poetic books

The book of Psalms is a collection of sacred poems that were intended to be sung. The author of many of the psalms is King David of Israel who was well-suited to produce these great works of song, prayer and poetry. He was described as a “skillful player on the harp” (1 Samuel 16:16), and referred to as “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1).

The book of Psalms was divided into five sections:

  1. Psalms 1-41(Book One).
  2. Psalms 42-72 (Book Two).
  3. Psalms 73-89 (Book Three).
  4. Psalms 90-106 (Book Four).
  5. Psalms 107-150 (Book Five).

Second in the Hebrew arrangement of the Writings section is the book of “wisdom literature” of Scripture, Proverbs. The book offers wise principles and suggestions that govern an orderly society and gives unchanging principles that have to do with successful everyday living. It covers virtually every aspect of human endeavor and offers advice that, if heeded, will lead to a more fulfilling and productive life.

Third in the Hebrew arrangement is Job. Halley’s Bible Handbook quotes what famous people have to say about Job:

Victor Hugo: “The Book of Job is perhaps the Greatest Masterpiece of the Human Mind.”

Philip Schaff: “The Book of Job rises like a pyramid in the history of literature, without a predecessor and without a rival.”

Job was an extremely influential and wealthy man of his time. He is spoken of as “the greatest of all the people of the East” (Job 1:3), possibly even a king or a prince. In the New Testament Job is portrayed as a historical figure (James 5:11) and not, as some suppose, a fictional individual.

The main theme of Job is about why God allows good and upright people, like Job, to suffer afflictions and hardships. Through his severe trial, Job came to understand more deeply the greatness of God and the reasons for human suffering (42:1-6, 12). His sufferings caused him to undergo a positive, life-changing experience.

Festival Scrolls

As the name implies, the Festival Scrolls have a connection with festivals outlined in the book of Leviticus and elsewhere in the Bible. The seven annual holy days were set apart by God as solemn convocations or commanded assemblies. Jesus observed them, and His apostles and disciples continued their observance long after His death and resurrection. The New Testament Church was established on the Day of Pentecost, one of the seven annual festivals.

Notice the significance of the five books of the Festival Scrolls.

Song of Solomon (also known as the Song of Songs or Canticles) was read during the Passover season. Passover occurs in the spring in the northern hemisphere, and the book has a springtime setting (2:11-13). The love drama illustrates the beauty of the marital relationship, which the New Testament uses as a picture of the relationship of the Church with Christ (Revelation 19:7-9; Ephesians 5:27, 32).

Ruth is traditionally read in Jewish synagogues at the time of Pentecost, as it has a late springtime theme to it (1:22; 2:23). Pentecost celebrates the barley and wheat harvests, and was also known as the “Feast of Weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest” (Exodus 34:22).

The story tells of a gentile, Ruth, who forsakes her pagan religion, leaves her homeland and later marries a man of the tribe of Judah, Boaz. This shows that both gentiles and Israelites can be united and become part of the firstfruits of God (James 1:18; Revelation 14:1, 4).

Lamentations is the third book; and even though the author is not named, it is traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. In deep sorrow over the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Jeremiah weeps bitter tears of grief over the death of its people and humiliation of the exiles. He writes this pitiful refrain in chapter 1:1: “How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow is she, who was great among the nations! The princess among the provinces has become a slave!”

The people of the land had “sinned gravely” and departed from their God (1:8), resulting in God withdrawing His blessings and protection from them. The consequences were an absolute disaster for the nation. It behooves us in the modern world to ask ourselves if we have in like manner departed from God and His laws. If we have, then we need to consider that we may experience dire consequences similar to those faced by the people in ancient Judah.

The custom among Orthodox Jews is for Lamentations to be read aloud on the fast of the 9th day of the Hebrew month Ab, when they mourn the destruction of Solomon’s temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. and the destruction of the second temple by the Roman armies under Titus in A.D. 70. It is interesting that both occurred on the same date!

Ecclesiastes is read at the Feast of Tabernacles. David’s son (1:1), Solomon, was the author. During the time of Solomon, Israel was at peace and was likely the most prosperous nation of the time. The period has been referred to as Israel’s Golden Age.

The words vanity or vanities occur 37 times in the King James Version of the book and come from a Hebrew word that means “breath” or “vapor.” Despite all the physical abundance, affluence and plenty, mankind without God and His ways is all vanity. Solomon was in an excellent position to understand and explain this principle, since he personally experienced the emptiness (2:9-11, 17).

He concluded the book by stating: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all” (12:13). Ecclesiastes shows that physical blessings without God are worthless. The apostle Paul understood this concept when he stated in 1 Corinthians 15:19: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.”

Despite Solomon’s depth of understanding and wisdom, he went astray. We read that when he was old, “Solomon did evil in the sight of the LORD, and did not fully follow the LORD, as did his father David” (1 Kings 11:6). His many foreign wives “turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the LORD his God” (verse 4). This angered God (verse 9).

Esther is the fifth book of the Festival Scrolls and is the subject of much speculation. One reason is that the word God is never used. Some fail to understand one vital lesson that unfolds as the Jewish people under Persian domination are miraculously saved from destruction. Within the events, there are fingerprints of God’s hands at work. Just because God is unseen does not mean that He is unconcerned about the plight and circumstances of the nations of the world.

God will ensure that in the long term the peoples of the entire world will find hope, happiness, joy and peace. The book of Esther is a clear illustration of how God works behind the scenes to intervene in the history of a nation and in the lives of individual people.

In Esther 9:20-23 the Jews are told to celebrate their deliverance annually on the 14th and 15th of Adar. Today the book is read by the Jews at the Feast of Purim, which the Jews continue to observe as they vowed they would. In a way, Purim can be likened to a national holiday like Thanksgiving Day in the United States.

Historical books

Let’s notice the order of the last three parts of the Writings section. These three are listed as five books in most English Bibles.

Daniel is a book of hope. The “70 weeks” prophecy (9:24-27) points to the first and second comings of Christ. There is also a clear reference to the second coming in order to set up His Kingdom on the earth (2:44; 7:9, 13-14). The resurrection, the hope of Christians, is mentioned in chapter 12:2-3.

Ezra-Nehemiah sketch two distinct periods in the history of Israel’s return to their land after the exile.

  1. The return of the exiles under Zerubbabel and Joshua to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1-6). After much difficulty the temple was reconstructed and eventually completed in 516 B.C.
  2. The overall theme of Nehemiah is the reconstruction of the wall of Jerusalem and the reestablishment of the Jewish community (458-420 B.C.).

These events began with Cyrus the Great, conqueror of Babylon. Cyrus decreed that the Jews should return to their homeland and reestablish their religious practices as God had prophesied long in advance (Isaiah 44:28).

Ezra was a priest and a “skilled scribe in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6). Halley’s Bible Handbook refers to “the Great Synagog” established by Ezra and Nehemiah, and makes this statement: “It is said to have had an important part in gathering, grouping, and restoring the Canonical books of the Old Testament” (p. 410).

The two books of Chronicles are, to a large extent, a retelling of events covered in the books of Samuel and Kings. The focus is on the reigns of David and Solomon. Kings concentrates on both the northern and southern kingdoms, while Chronicles confines itself mainly to the southern kingdom of Judah. God had promised David that he would always have a descendant on the throne, and Chronicles follows the Davidic line, showing God’s faithfulness to His promise.

Why the repetition? Repetition of the events in earlier books is important so that the lessons, good and bad, can be stressed and underscored. In addition, a careful reading of Chronicles adds many details missing in Kings.

Lessons we can learn

The Bible is the inspired record of God’s revelation to man. It contains essential and crucial knowledge that man needs in order to live a full and abundant life, and to understand the meaning and purpose of life—why he exists in the first place. We should read the Bible with a heartfelt desire to learn and, above all, to put into practice what God teaches us. James 1:22 states: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”

Do we really want to make changes in our lives in order to please God? We read in 2 Chronicles 15:2, “The LORD is with you while you are with Him. If you seek Him, He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you.”

The choice is up to each of us.

For further study on the Old Testament, read the articles “Old Testament” and “Is the Old Testament Relevant?

About the Author

André van Belkum

Andre van Belkum

Andre van Belkum currently serves as the pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in New Zealand and the Pacific region. Previously he pastored congregations in southern Africa, including South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

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