The Old Testament Periods of Canonization
Circumstances surrounding the canonizations in the time of Moses and of David and Solomon were entirely different from the three periods to follow — those in the times of Hezekiah, Josiah, and Ezra. In the first instance, Moses had “leisure time” during the forty years in the wilderness (no external wars were being fought for most of the period) to authorize the first five books as divine literature and to present them as the basic Law to Israel. Near the end of his life, Moses simply put finishing touches to the Law and delivered it for safekeeping to the official priesthood. He told the Israelites which books were divine and then charged them to obey them. No one argued with him about the matter.
In the reigns of David and Solomon, the only reason for adding certain literature to the already existing documents of the Law was the establishment of the permanent Temple, with its elaborate services, and the expanded type of religious society that accompanied it.
There were also no national emergencies of impending war facing either Moses or David and Solomon, and the establishment of the Tabernacle and later Temple services was accomplished in times of relative peace and security for the nation. But all the other canonizations were produced under entirely different circumstances. When Hezekiah ruled, for example, canonization was forced upon the authorities because a time of great external stress was besetting the nation.
At the beginning of Hezekiah’s reign the national existence of Judah was in jeopardy of being destroyed. An Assyrian invasion and captivity were threatening utter ruin to the nation and to the Mosaic religion. This emergency prompted Hezekiah and Isaiah to move swiftly to place their seal of authority upon certain sacred documents that were in Israel. They sought to preserve all Temple documents because it appeared as though the Temple services and all physical components of Judah’s religion might soon be extinguished. They later came to realize that their fears were unfounded (because Isaiah said God would step in to preserve Judah from ruin), but we can be assured that the expectations of Isaiah and Hezekiah at first produced a further set of authorized books for use by the Temple authorities.
Let us consider the period from Solomon to Hezekiah. After the time of Solomon, the religious purity of the Temple services gradually deteriorated. Such corruption ultimately became so widespread that idols and images of foreign gods began to be set up all over Judah (2 Chronicles 31:1). The twenty-four specific divisions of the priests, Levites, singers and others, established by David for the purpose of organizing Temple services, fell into confusion and practically passed out of existence. Things got so bad by the time of Ahaz, the father of Hezekiah, that many Jews, particularly Ahaz himself, thoroughly abandoned their religious duties to the God of their fathers.
Ahaz, we are told, actually stripped the Temple of its decorations, giving them to the Assyrian king as a present (2 Chronicles 28:21–24). The Temple furniture was destroyed because Ahaz “cut them in pieces,” then he “shut up the doors of the house of the Lord” (v. 24) and instituted Syrian paganism as the official religion of Judah. Ahaz,
“made him altars in every corner of Jerusalem, and in every several city of Judah he made high places to burn incense unto other gods, and provoked to anger the Lord God of his fathers.”
2 Chronicles 24–25
For all practical purposes Judah had reverted to a heathen state.
It was in this paganized society that Hezekiah ascended the throne. Right from the beginning of his reign, he made a concerted effort to reform Judaic society. He desired to purify and rebuild the ruined Temple and to re-establish the Temple services with the priests and singers performing their prescribed duties.
“He in the first year of his reign, in the first month, opened the doors of the house of the Lord, and repaired them. [They had been defaced and nailed up. Also the Temple had to be cleansed of accumulated filth after its sixteen years of disuse.] And he brought in the priests and the Levites.”
2 Chronicles 29:3–4
“Hezekiah appointed the courses of the priests and the Levites after their courses, every man according to his services, the priests and the Levites for burnt offerings and for peace offerings, to minister, and to give thanks, and to praise in the gates of the tents of the Lord.”
2 Chronicles 31:2
“He set the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, with psaltries, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, and of Gad the king’s seer, and Nathan the prophet: for so was the commandment of the Lord by his prophets.”
2 Chronicles 29:35
“Moreover Hezekiah the king and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praise unto the Lord with the words of David, and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness.”
2 Chronicles 29:30
Hezekiah even exceeded David in assigning certain psalms to be sung in regular Temple services. He included not only the performing of David’s psalms (i.e., the first seventy-two psalms), but he also ordained certain ones to be assigned to the Asaph division of the Levites. These eleven psalms followed immediately after David’s first seventy-two psalms.
Because of Hezekiah’s actions in re-vitalizing proper Temple worship, he was classified as a righteous king who followed in the footsteps of his father David. In some ways he was reckoned to be better than David: “After him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any that were before him” (2 Kings 18:5).
Doubtless, when Hezekiah first commenced to reign he followed the admonitions of Moses (Deuteronomy 17:18), and copied with his hand a personal copy of the Law. Taking office at the age of twenty-five, and supported by the prophet Isaiah, he continued to do his utmost to reform the people and to restructure the religion of the nation.
“[Hezekiah] wrought that which was good and right and truth before the Lord his God. And in every work that he began in the service of the house of God, and in the law, and in the commandments, to seek his God, he did it with all his heart, and prospered.”
2 Chronicles 31:20-21
Hezekiah and Isaiah saw the need to assign more authoritative literature to Israel’s divine library. Proverbs 25 reveals some of the canonical activity of Hezekiah and his helpers. A new section of the Book of Proverbs begins with these words: “These are also the proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out” (Proverbs 25:1).
Of the 3000 known proverbs composed by Solomon (1 Kings 4:32), Hezekiah ordained that a new group of them were to be selected for his own use. Thus, chapters 25 to 29 in our present Book of Proverbs were added to the Temple collection which had already been “set in order” by Solomon himself. The source from which the men of Hezekiah obtained these Solomonic proverbs was probably the historical document called the “Book of Acts of Solomon,” a noncanonical work which contained “the rest of the acts [words] of Solomon, and all he did, and his wisdom” (1 Kings 11:41).
Significantly, most of the proverbs selected by Hezekiah’s men were designed to help a king or a ruler guide his people towards righteous ends. Take, for example, the theme of the first proverb in the new collection of Hezekiah: “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, but the honor of kings is to search out a matter” (Proverbs 25:2). This proverb no doubt reveals Hezekiah’s own character. What was foremost in his mind was his service to God. Notice, too, that in the next proverb in Hezekiah’s collection, the subject is again “kings.” Two following proverbs are also about a “king,” another about a “prince,” and so on.
These five chapters of proverbs (Proverbs 25 to 29), copied by Hezekiah’s men, clearly represented an addition to the canonical literature. In fact, the early Jews maintained that the “Men of Hezekiah” were a group of authorized men just like the “Great Assembly” of priests convened by Ezra and Nehemiah for the exact purpose of canonization. 1 In addition to some of the proverbs, the Talmud says that the books of Isaiah, some of the Minor Prophets, the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes were canonized by the “Men of Hezekiah.” 2
Hezekiah brought up-to-date the canonical literature for use in the restored Temple services. One of the most striking evidences of Hezekiah’s own activity in this canonization is a sign-manual found in the Bible that is attributed to him. This sign-manual (a signet of three Hebrew alphabetic letters) is a combination of three Hebrew letters which occur in the Hebrew manuscripts at the end of every Old Testament book — except the five books of the Megillot. Curiously, the sign-manual has not been translated in any of the English versions.
The sign-manual consisted of three Hebrew letters brought together to form the basic root name of Hezekiah. The letters are: he, zain and koph, and together they spell the name Hezekiah without the terminal yab.
This tri-grammaton, located at the end of seventeen Old Testament books, served a dual purpose. Not only did it indicate the person of Hezekiah, but its meaning in translation is most interesting and instructive. Brown, Driver & Briggs’ Hebrew Lexicon shows it means, “to bind firmly together,” “to be made firm,” “to be confirmed,” or “to be bound fast.” 3 In simple terms, HZK denoted “bound” or “confirmed.” This represented the sign-manual of Hezekiah and it could well have been his imprimatur. It signified that any book terminated by it was bound by the authority of Hezekiah, or the Men of Hezekiah.
This sign-manual occurs on every Old Testament book, with the exception of the five Festival Scrolls — called in Hebrew the Megillot. These five are: Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther. It is interesting that these five books have been the ones that a number of Old Testament critics, even from ancient times, have tried to eliminate from the biblical canon. Remarkably, these are the very books without the sign-manual.
Take, for example, the Song of Songs. Some over-zealous religious leaders have tried to diminish its authority because of its obvious theme of eroticism and human romance. It has been described as “too erotic” and “lustful.” The name of God, or its derivatives, is not found once in its text in an overt manner (though it is found covertly in the phrase “the flame of Yah” found in Song 8:6).
Consider also Ecclesiastes. Many theologians have found fault with the pessimistic nature of this book and its “worldly” approach to theological matters. It even teaches there is no immortality of the soul, which has roiled some mainline Christian theologians who believe in the Platonic (non-biblical) teaching of the immortality of the soul. The truth is, however, the biblical key to understand the state of the soul until the resurrection from the dead at the end of the age are the basic statements found in the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Psalms, plus the fact that the apostle Paul taught that only God and Christ have immortality at the present time (1 Timothy 6:16).
Then there is Esther. The name of God is not found overtly in this book and the only indication of any religious activity is the single mention of fasting. The book appears almost as if it were a secular composition.
And there is Ruth and Lamentations. These books have been considered mere appendages to important books of the canon. They are usually, in modern English versions, taken out of the Megillot arrangement and attached to Judges and Jeremiah, with little attention given to them.
These five books of the Megillot are the only ones in the Old Testament which lack the imprimatur or sign-manual of Hezekiah. But do they belong in the canon of the Old Testament? They assuredly do. Ezra positioned them in one special section among the Temple liturgy and called them the Megillot (the scrolls of female attributes).
Each of these books was to be successively read and expounded to the people at the annual holy days. They were especially designed to be read and studied by the women of Jerusalem so that they could in turn teach their contents to other women and children within the society of Israel. Since the official priests were ordered to read these books to (and about) women each year, no one suspected that they were anything but canonical.
Indeed, most criticism concerning the canonicity of these five books came after the Temple services ceased in 70 C.E. when the books were no longer being read at regular intervals. Yet they formed a part of the original twenty-two books of the Old Testament. The importance of reading these five Megillot books in order is discussed in Appendix One.
Following the canonization affected by Hezekiah, the sign-manual seems to be a seal for the reading of divine writings outside the regular Temple services. When later writers, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel had their prophecies placed among the sacred writings of the Old Testament, this same sign-manual was also affixed to the end of their books. And Ezra, at the final canonization, carefully placed the sign-manual on all books which he and the Great Assembly recognized, omitting it only from the five Festival Scrolls which had no need for the sign-manual because they were being regularly read by the priests in the Temple. They were sanctified as being canonized by the fact that Ezra associated each book to be read with a particular festival (from Passover to Purim). This secured their sacredness without the sign-manual being applied to them.
It is interesting that at the end of certain books, the sign-manual is positioned inside an extended comment and the tri-grammaton became part of the comment. Dr. E.W. Bullinger mentions the practice of using the sign-manual after the time of Hezekiah:
“The use of this tri-grammaton is uniform and continuous at the end of each book, until we come to the death of Hezekiah. Not until after that, at the end of the Book of Kings, do we meet with any departure from the addition of these three letters. There, for the first time, we find a different formula. Instead of the simple sign (HZK), we find two words, making a sentence — instead of forming the initials.
“At the end of Kings, we have ‘Be bound, and we will bind.’ This looks as though the subsequent editors whether Josiah, Ezra, or others, understood the trigrammaton as a solemn injunction transmitted to them, and they took up the work and carried it out in the same spirit in which it had come down to them, and said, ‘Be bound,’ and they responded. ‘We will bind.’ The same form [of two words] is used after Ezekiel, at the end of the Minor Prophets, the Psalms, Proverbs and Job.
“We do not find it after the Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, or Esther. We meet with it again after Daniel, and after Ezra-Nehemiah [always as one book].”
Bullinger, “The Songs of Degrees” 4
Interestingly, after the Book of Chronicles (the last book of the Hebrew Old Testament) we encounter the final, and longer form of the sign-manual. Being translated, it reads: “Be bound. So we will bind. The Lawgiver is not straitened (or powerless).”
This comment is most instructive. Here Ezra and the Great Assembly probably added the final sign-manual to Chronicles, the last book of the Old Testament. In their comment, they not only wrote, “Be bound,” which was the customary usage, but they added for extra emphasis: “We will bind.” This showed that the Great Lawgiver [God] had given the whole and complete Old Testament revelation to the world. Thus Ezra and the Great Assembly of priests, having concluded the writing of the Book of Chronicles, finalized their responsibility of canonizing the Old Testament for all future time. Only a few editorial remarks were added later.
We are informed in the Book of Isaiah that Hezekiah actually wrote new psalms that were included in the singing services of the Temple. These psalms were written at the time when he recovered from his sickness — when the prophet Isaiah “took a lump of figs, and laid it for a plaster upon the boil” (Isaiah 38:21).
Because Hezekiah placed his complete trust in God to deliver him from his severe sickness, the Bible says he was granted another fifteen years of life. In commemoration of this deliverance, Hezekiah composed a particular set of psalms. Notice Isaiah 38:9. This begins a song occupying the next twelve verses. It says: “The writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, when he had been sick, and was recovered of his sickness.”
After this introductory superscription, there then begins the regular song — a beautiful psalm of thanksgiving to God for his protection and deliverance. And at the very end, Hezekiah finally records:
“The Lord was ready to save me: therefore [i.e., because of God’s salvation] we will sing my songs [plural] to the stringed instruments all the days of our life [Hebrew: lives] in the house of the Lord.”
Note several factors concerning the writing of these psalms by Hezekiah. He said he composed several “songs,” not only the one song recorded in Isaiah. He directed that “we” sing his new “songs” all the days of “our lives.” This indicates that the nation of Judah (in the persons of the official Temple singers) would continue the singing of these psalms of Hezekiah in future times. And importantly, notice that Hezekiah left directions that all the singing of his songs should be done on “stringed instruments in the house of the Lord.” This indicates that the special psalms of Hezekiah were to be performed in an official capacity in the regular Temple services. They were to take their place alongside the psalms of David, Asaph, and the other psalmists of Israel.
The reason Hezekiah wrote these particular psalms is given in verses 19 and 20:
“The living, he shall praise you, as I [Hezekiah] do this day: the father to the children shall make known your truth ... therefore, we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our lives in the house of the Lord.”
Hezekiah wrote some particular psalms so that fathers could tell their children, from generation to generation, of the glorious salvation of God, if only God’s people would trust him. Hezekiah intended his psalms to be of permanent value to the people of God. This is why he had them canonized, making them a part of the regular Temple services.
A good number of untitled psalms are found within our present Book of Psalms. Which of them are Hezekiah’s? James W. Thirtle (an Englishman at the end of the 19th century) and others think they have discovered the true psalms of Hezekiah. These are the enigmatic fifteen “Degree Psalms” which now comprise Psalms 120–134.
Biblical commentators have long speculated as to the authorship of these untitled “Degree Psalms.” Why are they called psalms of “Degrees,” and when were they used in the Temple services? These questions may be answered in the solution presented by Dr. Bullinger.
“The Songs of the Degrees are 15 in number. They correspond in number with the 15 years added to Hezekiah’s life. Ten are by Hezekiah (corresponding to the number of ‘the Degrees’ by which the shadow of the sun went backward on the sun-dial of Ahaz, 2 Kings 20:8–11). Five are by others (four by David and one by Solomon).”
Bullinger, Notes to the Structure, Page 826” 5
Some commentators maintain that these psalms were sung on the fifteen steps (assumed by combining Ezekiel 40:22 with 40:31) leading up to the priestly compartment of the Temple:
the first degree psalm was sung as the priest stood on the first step; the second psalm on the second step, and so forth. Thus the fifteenth psalm would have placed the priest at the threshold of the priest’s court. This may well be the reason for having these fifteen-degree psalms in the divine collection of Psalms (and that these fifteen psalms represent the group written by Hezekiah).
Jewish scholars believe the degree psalms were read in the autumn near the Festival of Tabernacles, some suggesting that their reading started on the first day of the seventh month (the Day of Trumpets) and continued for fourteen more days until the 15th of Tishri (i.e., the first day of Tabernacles) was reached. Thus, the readings would have symbolically directed Israelites towards recognition of the future time of the Kingdom of God (that the Feast of Tabernacles depicted and what Christians call the Millennial Age) when all on earth would prepare to approach the “Holy Place of the Priests” as did the priests in the former Temple services.
Before concluding our discussion on the canonization in Hezekiah’s time, let us notice something about Isaiah. In the middle of the last century an Englishman, Ferrar Fenton was translating the Bible into English. He gave an interesting observation concerning the role of Isaiah the prophet in matters involving the canonization of certain biblical books. Here is what he wrote:
“In my study of the Historical Books of the Bible I had frequently wished for some clue to their writer, or writers. One day while reading the Second Book of Chronicles in the Hebrew, I met that solution in its 32nd chapter and the 32nd verse like a sudden flash of electric light, in the following words: ‘The remainder of the actions of Hezekiah and his beneficent rule, are recorded in the Visions of Isaiah-ben-Amoz, the Prophet, upon the History of the Kings of Judah and Israel.’ The flood of mental light from those three lines dispelled my perplexities, and enabled me to see the great object of the six-sectioned History [Fenton followed the arrangement by Jerome], by discovering its writer. Wondering that none had previously seen this, I took down the Authorized Version, and found that its translators had entirely, by inserting the little word ‘and’ after the name ‘Isaiah the son of Amoz,’ altered the structure and purport of the sentence as it stands in the original Hebrew, and thus destroyed the key it gave to the moral object and lessons of the historian, and to the identity of the writer of the Six Books [Joshua/Judges and the Book of Kingdoms]. A renewed study of those six books confirmed in my mind the accuracy of my conclusion by enabling me more clearly to see the unity of style and aim of their writer, Isaiah, which undoubtedly was for them to serve as an introduction to Isaiah’s prophecies.”
Fenton, Holy Bible in Modern English 6
Fenton may be right in his evaluation. However, to be exact, the statement in 2 Chronicles 32:32 does not say the Book of Joshua/Judges was among these writings of Isaiah. It merely says Isaiah wrote “the history of the Kings of Judah and Israel.” If this is a reference to our canonical book, then it can mean that Isaiah wrote the Book of Kingdoms (our present Samuel and Kings) and not the Book of Joshua/Judges which describes a time when Israel had no kings.
Another reason that Joshua/Judges should not be included among Isaiah’s writings is the reference given by the apostle Peter, which indicates that the Prophets Division of the Old Testament (the one that had as its composers “the prophets”) specifically commenced with the writings of Samuel:
“Yea, and all the prophets from Samuel and those that follow after, as many as have spoken, have likewise foretold of these days.”
This indication agrees with Jewish tradition which makes Joshua/Judges a work of Samuel, not that of Isaiah. In 1 Samuel 9:9 we read: “He that is now called a prophet was before-time called a seer.” Samuel was the first to be called a prophet in an official capacity since the time of Moses. Thus, with Joshua/Judges located within the Prophets’ Division (and at the very start of it), it is highly probable that Samuel was the author of the single Book of Joshua/Judges (the Pre-Kingdom book for Israel). Recall that it was Samuel who first established the schools of the prophets throughout Israel — at Ramah, Bethel, Jericho, and Gilgal (1 Samuel 10:5, 10; 19:20; 2 Kings 2:3, 5; 4:38). This means that there were no men called “prophets” before Samuel.
On the other hand, Isaiah could very well have been the author of the book which followed Joshua/Judges (i.e., the Book of Kingdoms) as Fenton suggests. 7 Several commentators, and among them the early Old Testament scholar Moses Stuart (the great American scholar of the early 19th century), feel that this reference to Isaiah in 2 Chronicles 32:32 certainly relates to the writing of our present Book of Kingdoms. 8 Observe also that in the Book of Chronicles Ezra speaks of the fact that Isaiah had written “the rest of the acts of Uzziah” (2 Chronicles 26:22). The only place, apart from Chronicles, in which the events of Uzziah’s life are recorded, is in the Book of Kingdoms. This implies that Isaiah was the author of that book. Also note that 2 Kings 18–20 is identical with Isaiah 36–39, which again shows common authorship.
But what about the part of the Book of Kingdoms that records events after the time of Isaiah? This should give little problem. It was perfectly possible for later canonizers to bring the book up to date. The Talmud says that Jeremiah wrote the Book of Kings, 9 but this could mean that Jeremiah was the one who finished the book. The composition of the main body of the work, however, as stated in the Bible itself, seems to be Isaiah’s.
Why did Isaiah write the Book of Kingdoms? There was a good reason for it. As Fenton said, the historical books preceding Isaiah are a perfectly good introduction to Isaiah’s prophecies. In the original order of the Old Testament, the Book of Kingdoms immediately precedes that of the prophet Isaiah. Would it not be natural for Isaiah to present a continuous history of Israel’s obedience and their later rebellions and punishments before relating his prophecies of what would happen to them should they continue following in the footsteps of their forefathers?
If this solution by Ferrar Fenton is the true one, as seems most likely, the position of the Book of Isaiah following the Book of Kingdoms, as in the canonical order of the Old Testament, makes good sense and gives a reason for Isaiah writing the Book of Kingdoms. This would help confirm Isaiah, along with Hezekiah, as one of the great canonizers of Scripture.
1 Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, vol. VI (Philadelphia, 1908–38), p. 368.
2 Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra, 15a. See the website at www.come-and-hear.com/bababathra/bababathra_15.html.
3 Brown, Driver & Briggs, Hebrew Lexicon, p. 305.
4 E.W. Bullinger, “The Songs of Degrees,” in Things to Come, XIII (1907), p. 112.
5 E.W. Bullinger, “Notes to the Structure, Page 826,” in the Companion Bible, p. 827. These notes refer to the outline on the Fifth or Deuteronomy Book from Psalm 107 to 150 from the previous page. The quote relates specifically to the degree psalms 120 to 134. See also Bullinger, “The Song of the Degrees,” Appendix 67, Companion Bible, pp. 97–99, and James William Thirtle, Old Testament Problems (London: Henry Frowde, 1907).
6 Ferrar Fenton, The Holy Bible in Modern English: Translated Direct from the Original Hebrew, Chaldee and Greek Languages ... With introductions and critical notes (London: S. W. Partridge & co. 1903), p. 217.
7 Recall that the Book of Kingdoms is now divided into our two books of Samuel and two books of Kings.
8 Moses Stuart, Critical History and Defence of the Old Testament Canon (London: G. Routledge, 1849), p. 170.
9 Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra, 15a. See the text at www.come-and-hear.com/bababathra/bababathra_15.html.
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