Friday, September 26
Job 33: Like the other components in the complex discussions of the Book of Job, Elihu’s contribution is a critique, not a final answer. For him the overriding discussion is not reducible to an either/or. Elihu disagrees with, and criticizes, both Job and the three comforters.
The present chapter is directed to Job. The latter, says Elihu, has gone too far in his demands for a trial between himself and God. Elihu confronts him on the point (verse 5).
Job’s three friends remained aloof from him, assuming a morally superior attitude. Elihu will do no such thing. He confesses himself at one with Job in their human solidarity, their descent from Adam (verses 4, 6). He will not talk down to Job as the comforters have.
That matter established, Elihu begins by summarizing Job’s protestations of innocence (verses 9–11), a claim advanced repeatedly throughout the book (cf. 9:21; 10:7; 13:18, 24, 27; 23:10; 27:5–6; 31 passim). This claim is pretentious, says Elihu, because “God is greater than man” (verse 12). That is to say, God owes man no explanations at all (verses 13–14), nor will Elihu attempt to act as God’s defender.
Then, like Eliphaz near the beginning (4:12–15), Elihu refers to dreams (verse 15), presumably the nightmares of Job himself (7:14). Such dreams, Elihu asserts, are providential. God employs them to draw men back from rash, dangerous, and unwarranted decisions (verses 16–17).
Elihu, displaying a compassion absent in the comments of Job’s three comforters, suggests that Job may have failed to recognize the true significance of his nightmares. Perhaps God intended them to pull him back from a reckless path.
The parallel between the dream of Eliphaz, Job’s first interlocutor, and the dreams mentioned by Elihu is not accidental. There is a deliberate correspondence between them and a contrast. Both men, in answering Job, start with dreams, but we are struck by a great difference of tone between the two. Eliphaz appealed to his own dream as the point of departure for establishing a moral judgment on Job. Elihu does not. He suggests to Job, rather, that his dream may have been the voice of God speaking to him in concern and warning. That is to say, Job’s nightmare, far from indicating God’s absence from his life, may have indicated the very opposite.
This approach will be operative in all of Elihu’s discourse. The three friends have understood Job’s sufferings to be simply punishments. Is there no other rational explanation? asks Elihu. Why presume that all suffering is by way of punishment?
Before putting that question to the three friends, Elihu first puts it to Job. Why not consider that these terrible sufferings, of which Job has so bitterly complained, represent God’s effort to preserve Job from the powers of death and darkness (verses 22–30)? Why not regard them, in fact, as a “chastening” (verse 19)? That is to say, is it really so obvious that suffering is always a punishment?
We readers, of course, instructed by the first two chapters of the book, are aware that Elihu is much closer to the correct answer than anyone who has spoken hitherto.
Saturday, September 27
After addressing Job, Elihu turns to the other three characters in the story. These have not, Elihu believes, answered Job’s challenges to God in a proper way. That is to say, they have made an inadequate presentation of the traditional wisdom itself.
Elihu’s chief objection to Job’s friends concerns their exclusive attribution of divine punishment to human suffering. Punishment and reward, Elihu argues, do not comprise between them the whole of God’s dealing with man. There is another and important aspect to the “negative side of God,” namely, divine correction and exhortation. God, says Elihu, is correcting and exhorting Job by permitting his sufferings.
We now meet explicitly for the first time (except in the introductory chapters in this book) a new thesis: God sends afflictions not only to punish, but also to admonish. If a man accepts these sufferings as God’s loving correction and invitation, rather than as a punishment, he will avoid the pride and self-satisfaction that may sometimes be the peril of a godly life. Such God-sent afflictions will serve, therefore, as a restorative. Neither Job nor any of his friends, Elihu believes, has sufficiently considered this perspective.
In order to advance this argument, however, Elihu must put to rest any notion of injustice in God. Such an idea involves an internal contradiction, Elihu contends (verses 10, 12); the very existence of the world depends on the thesis of God’s righteousness (verses 13–15).
There is no justice higher than God (verse 17), nor is the Almighty likely to be influenced by the more powerful of His creatures (verse 19). Truly, nothing in man’s experience is hidden from the gaze of God (verses 21–22). The font and source of justice, God holds all human activity to the same standard and the same sanctions (verses 24–28).
What Job’s comforters should have asserted is that God, through the sufferings that He has sent to Job, had only the latter’s proper correction in mind (verses 31–32). The insistence of his friends, however, that Job was being justly punished for his crimes simply provoked him to an improper assertion of his innocence. It was the responsibility of these men, says Elihu, to provide Job with proper instruction. The ineptitude of their arguments has served only to incite the sufferer into open rebellion against the Almighty (verses 35–37).
Moreover, Job’s call for a trial, in which he might argue his case against God, distorts the proper relationship between God and man. God is not man’s enemy or opponent. God needs opponents no more than He needs powerful friends, nor does He ever act from a sense of need.
Sunday, September 28
Job 35: Elihu turns again to Job himself and gives a fair paraphrase of Job’s position. Do not some of Job’s comments suggest that he thinks himself more righteous than God (verse 2)? Job may not have made so outlandish a claim in so many words, but what he has said amounts to the same thing (verse 3; cf. 4:17; 13:18; 15:3; 19:6–7; 21:15; 27:2–6). Now, asks Elihu, is this at all likely?
He turns Job’s gaze upwards, then, to the physical symbols of God’s transcendence, the clouds above his head (verse 5). God is not, in Himself, altered by either man’s virtue or his vice (verses 6–9). God does what He does, simply because He is free and righteous. He is not more or less righteous or free because of anything man does. How, after all, can human behavior touch God?
Is Elihu’s own presentation of the question entirely adequate, nonetheless? While there is a sense in which God is not, in Himself, affected by either man’s virtue or his vice, this is hardly a sufficient statement of the case. It is certainly not true that God is indifferent to man’s state, and the full context of Elihu’s comments shows that he knows this very well.
Rather, the point Elihu has in mind to make in this chapter is that no one has a forensic claim on God; indeed, even to voice such a claim is, in some measure, to attempt to put oneself on God’s level. This, says Elihu, is what Job has done.
Is God indifferent to human suffering, or does He reject the cries of those in pain? No, but this does not mean that such cries are, in every case, really worthy of a hearing. Sometimes such pleadings are accompanied by the beating of a sinful heart (verses 12–13). Elihu’s point here is that not once has Job pleaded for forgiveness. His prayer has lacked humility. God hears man’s prayer because He is merciful, not because man deserves to be heard. If God seems to disregard Job’s prayer at the present, then, may it not be the case that there is still something wrong with Job’s prayer?
Job’s real trial, in fact, his true “temptation,” does not come from God. “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (James 1:13–14). The trial endured by Job has demonstrated, not that Job has deserved to suffer what he has been obliged to suffer, but that, in spite of this fact, all is not well with Job. This painful trial has shown that Job himself is not beyond improvement. His prayer has made it evident that Job does not yet love God for God’s own sake.
Job’s pain has prompted him to argue that God both ignores the wickedness of evil men and neglects to reward just men (21:7–21). These are foolish words, retorts Elihu (verse 16). God has His own way of taking care of such matters, and things are not always as they appear, either with respect to God or with respect to ourselves.
God has not in anger punished Job for his words, nonetheless, and He has overlooked the foolishness of Job’s rebellious comments (verse 15). Job must now show the same patience that God has demonstrated. Job has complained that he does not see God, but Elihu insists that he must wait for God (verse 14).
Monday, September 29
Job 36: Elihu finished the previous chapter by accusing Job of hebel, variously translated as “vanity” (cf. KJV “in vain”) and “emptiness” (cf. RSV “empty talk”). This word, so important to the Book of Ecclesiastes (where it appears 38 times, most famously in “vanity of vanities, and all is vanity”), puts a compelling finger on the problem.
In the Book of Job (unlike the Book of Ecclesiastes), the problem of hebel is not an alleged emptiness in the universe (though Job in 7:16 does momentarily wonder about this); indeed, almost all the speakers in Job explicitly refute this notion of a chaotic world.
What is at issue in Job is, rather, whether or not man’s moral life will be hebel. Will Job himself prove to be only vanity and emptiness by his choices? There is irony in Elihu’s comment here, because hebel is the very word Job earlier used to describe the alleged “comfort” his friends were providing (21:34).
In the Book of Job, God’s universe is in no danger. Job is the one in danger. Very serious danger. He must exercise caution, says Elihu, lest his mind be lured into total rebellion (verses 17–18).
God, says Elihu, does not hate (verse 5). Nor is He capricious; He renders judgment for the poor (verses 6, 15). When God does chastise, it is ever with a view to man’s correction and repentance (verses 8–10, 22). The time of trial, therefore, is the proper occasion of taking stock of one’s conscience. However, not to receive the judgment of God with repentance is most serious (verses 11–14). It is Job who may be failing in this regard, not God, and Job’s present path is parlous. Let not God’s chastisement lead him into rebellion.
At the end Elihu waxes poetic, and the chapter closes with his praise of God in creation (verses 26–33), praise that continues into the following chapter (37:1–13). Virtually all the lines of this paean of praise have parallels in the Book of Psalms and elsewhere in Holy Scripture.
Elihu’s point is that God is always to be praised, regardless of how suffering man feels on the subject. No matter what the lesson to be learned, God is ever the Teacher (verse 22). It is not man’s place to correct his Teacher (verse 23). Job is invited, therefore, to join all rational voices in the praise of God (verses 24–25).
Even from a purely psychological perspective, there is much wisdom in Elihu’s admonition here. God’s richest praise has ever been raised to heaven in times of suffering. Indeed, it is not a rare moment in human existence when a man’s only two real choices are either to praise God or to feel sorry for himself. Elihu invites Job to learn this lesson.
The end of this chapter (along with the first verses of the next) describes a storm. To the present writer it does not seem far-fetched to think of Elihu’s discourse at this point being accompanied by a real storm that he is describing while it happens.
Tuesday, September 30
Job 37: The first half of this chapter continues Elihu’s praise of God. This is Elihu’s way of exhorting Job, similar to the way that St. James exhorts all of us: “Is any among you suffering? Let him pray” (James 5:13). The deliberate praise of God is the proper and godly response of a faithful soul to the experience of suffering.
For example, the longsuffering Martin Rinckart in 1630 composed his well-known hymn, Nun danket Alle Gott (“Now thank we all our God”), as his response to the horrible trials of his native Eilenburg, which suffered from the devastating plague of 1619, several failed harvests, and the three different times the city was sacked during the Thirty Years’ War. In addition, Rinckart himself suffered that year from profound domestic grief.
Moreover, the popular choice of Rinckart’s stirring hymn to be sung in celebration of Thanksgiving Day reflects the attitude of those original pilgrims who first celebrated that holiday in our country. They too knew how to praise God for His mercy in the midst of adversity.
The section of Elihu’s hymn of praise in this chapter dwells especially on the imagery of the storm. He finally closes his discourse by exhorting Job to dwell more on what he knows of God and to assess his own suffering in the light of that knowledge. Elihu addresses Job directly, exhorting him to weigh God’s wondrous works. He puts to Job a list of parallel questions bearing on Job’s own ignorance of God’s ways (verses 15–18). To each of these questions, Job’s only possible answer is “no.” He cannot explain anything about God. Elihu then challenges Job himself to be the teacher (verses 19–20).
Most striking of Elihu’s comments is that respecting the sun (verse 21). Man’s inability to gaze directly at the light of heaven does not lessen the reality of that light. The inability is in man’s own limited faculty, not in the truth of what he is unable to gaze upon. Yet, the real light of God is brighter than the sun. Elihu means here that primeval light, the luminosity of the created universe, called forth by God’s voice on the first day of Creation, days before the sun was made (Genesis 1:3, 16). If man is unable to look directly at the sun, how does he dare to attempt to look directly at that stronger light at the heart of created reality? His inability to do so in no way calls the light itself into question.
What, finally, is to be said of Elihu’s contribution to this discussion about suffering and justice? It is worth remarking that his lengthy discourse prepares the way for God’s revelation to Job in the book’s closing chapters. It should also be noted that God does not reprimand Elihu as He does Job and the three comforters.
In the Book of Job, Elihu never arrives on the scene, nor does he leave it; he has neither beginning of days, nor end of life. Like Melchizedek, Elihu remains one of the more mysterious characters of Holy Scripture.
Wednesday, October 1
Now the Lord will speak, for the first time since the second chapter. After all, Job has been asking for God to speak (cf. 13:22; 23:5; 30:20; 31:35), and now he will get a great deal more than he anticipated. With a mere gesture, as it were, God proceeds to brush aside all the theories and pseudoproblems of the preceding chapters.
God speaks “from the whirlwind,” min sa‘arah, an expression sometimes associated in the Bible with theophanic experience. For example, the word famously appears twice in association with Elijah’s ascent in the fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:1, 11). In other examples the word emphasizes the divine judgment, particularly in the Book of Psalms (107:25, 29; 148:8) and in the prophets (Isaiah 29:6; 40:24; 41:16; Jeremiah 23:19; 30:23; Zechariah 9:14).
More especially, however, one is struck by the word in the theophanies recorded in Ezekiel, the only other Old Testament book in which the character of Job appears. Thus, the Lord manifests Himself in this way to Ezekiel in the book’s inaugural vision by the banks of the Kabari Canal: “Then I looked, and behold, a whirlwind”—sa‘arah (1:4), which the prophet then describes at some length. In the other two places where the word appears in Ezekiel, the emphasis is once again on the divine judgment (13:11, 13).
This same emphasis marks the whirlwind in Job. He has asked for a judgment from on high. Now he will hear it.
We should observe that the One who speaks from the whirlwind is “the LORD.” Except when Job uses this divine name in 12:9, this is the first time it has appeared in the Book of Job since chapter 2. It is significant that the God who speaks in these closing chapters is identified with Israel’s LORD. Job’s critics, including Elihu, have their various theories about “God,” but the only God who will address them definitively is the LORD, Israel’s transcendent and living God of judgment and mercy. This is the God who lives and speaks beyond all philosophical and religious theory.
In this respect, the Lord’s words to Job out of the whirlwind may be considered in the light of His words to Moses on the mountain, especially His auto-identification: “I am the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:2). This Lord speaks to Moses, if not in a whirlwind, at least just as impressively. There were, we are told, “thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain.” Moreover, “Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly” (Exodus 19:16, 18). Now the Lord, the God who spoke to Moses, addresses Job.
At this point, all philosophical discussion comes to an end. There are questions, to be sure, but the questions now come from the Lord. Indeed, we observe in this chapter that God does not answer Job’s earlier questions. The Lord does not so much as even notice those questions; He renders them hopelessly irrelevant. He has His own questions to put to Job.
The purpose of these questions is not merely to bewilder Job. These questions have to do, rather, with God’s providence over all things. The Lord is suggesting to Job that His providence over Job’s own life is even more subtle and majestic than these easier questions God proposes and which Job cannot begin to answer would suggest, questions about the construction of the world (verses 4–15), the courses of the heavenly bodies (verses 31–38), the marvels of earth and sea (verses 16–30), and animal life (38:39—39:30). Utterly surrounded by things that he cannot under-stand, will Job still demand to know mysteries even more mysterious?
If the world itself contains creatures that seem improbable and bewildering to the human mind, should not man anticipate that there are even more improbable and bewildering aspects to the subtler forms of the divine providence? God will not be reduced simply to an answer to Job’s shallow questions. Indeed, the divine voice from the whirlwind never once deigns even to notice Job’s questions. They are implicitly subsumed into a mercy vaster and far richer.
Implicit in these questions to Job is the quiet reminder of the Lord’s affectionate provision for all His creatures. If God so cares for the birds of the air and the plants of the fields, how much more for Job!
Thursday, October 2
Job 39: The Lord, having surveyed for Job’s benefit some manifestations of divine wisdom and power in the realms of astronomy, physics, and botany, now (beginning in 38:39) starts to examine the world of zoology.
Several animals are considered in varying degrees of detail: the lion and the raven, both of which, powerful hunters though they be, depend on God’s provision (38:39–41); the mountain goat (or ibex), the deer, and the wild ass, all characterized by the freedom of their migrations (verses 1–8); therîmu, a now-extinct species of ox that man never managed to tame (verses 9–12; the Vulgate has “rhinoceros”); the ostrich, renowned for both its stupidity and its speed, and evidently placed here (verses 13–18) to be in proximity to the next animal; the mighty war charger, whose neck, larger than its head, is “clothed with thunder,” and who revels in being once again in the excitement of battle (verses 19–25); and finally the hawk and the eagle, accomplished hunters who see from afar (verses 26–30).
The greatest detail is devoted to the only domesticated animal in the list, the destrier, or warhorse. The horse in antiquity was reserved for combat. It was not used for plowing (the work of the ox), nor for carrying burdens (the work of donkeys), nor for ordinary riding (the work of mules and donkeys). The horse, this most noble and impressive of all the animals that man has tamed, was employed exclusively for battle. Originally, equestrian warfare was by chariots, but fighting from horseback was introduced by at least the seventh century B.C. This latter case is what the Book of Job seems to have in mind, since the text does not mention chariots.
In the case of the ostrich there are special ironies relished for their sheer humor. This proud, strutting bird (verse 13) shows that she is not really very bright (verse 17). Indeed, she does not have enough sense even to protect her eggs adequately (verses 14–16). Here the Book of Job shares the common ancient view that the ostrich was lacking in elementary intelligence. Seneca testified that calling someone an ostrich was the most severe of insults, and Diodorus of Sicily humorously suggested that the ostrich hid its head in the sand to protect its weakest part. Yet, when it comes to speed, says the Lord to Job, this otherwise unimpressive ostrich has no equal (verse 18).
Such a listing of animals and their habits, described for the purpose of praising God, is found likewise in Psalm 104 (103), the common introductory psalm of Vespers. It speaks of donkeys, birds, cattle, storks, wild goats, rock badgers, and lions. Similarly, Psalm 147 portrays the raven and the horse. When animals are described in the Book of Proverbs, on the other hand, it is normally for the purpose of drawing some moral lesson.
The point driven home in the illustrations in this chapter of Job is that all these animals, even the warhorse, have an existence quite independent of man. God made them the way they are, and they tend not to answer to human expectations. Does this not show that man is bewildered even by things that are beneath him? How much more, therefore, must he humble his mind before mysteries above him!
Friday, October 3
Job 40: This chapter permits Job to put in a word of his own. He uses the occasion simply to confess his vileness and to state his resolve to remain silent before the Lord (verses 3–5), sentiments that will be expanded in the book’s final chapter.
Job has no plans to debate God. He will say nothing further. His earlier aspirations have really been answered, after all, because God has now spoken, and this is essentially what Job had sought. God continues, then. As the two preceding chapters dealt with the mysteries of God’s activity in the realm of nature, the first part of this chapter turns to God’s presence in the order of conscience (verses 8–14). If Job understood next to nothing about the first, he knows even less about the second.
This revelation, too, comes min sa‘arah, “from the whirlwind” (verse 6; 38:1). Once again, as well, Job is commanded to gird up his loins like a man (verse 7; 38:3). Job is queried about who, on the evidence, is more righteous, himself or God (verse 8)? Does Job really desire a forensic setting to determine this question? Is Job capable of dealing with the myriad moral dilemmas involved in every man’s life, as God must do (verses 9–14)? In short, Job is trapped in his own subjectivity, unable to see the world from God’s perspective. There is no place where he may stand to indict the Lord.
Then, dramatically, the divine discourse goes from the realm of ethics and conscience to a consideration of two symbols of apparent chaos, both of them fearsome and incomprehensible: Behemoth and Leviathan.
Although “behemoth” is simply the plural of the Hebrew word for “beast” or “animal,” its description here seems largely to be drawn from the hippopotamus (hippos = “horse” and potamos = “river”—so “river horse”), huge, strong, invincible, even unchallenged, rightly afraid of nothing (verses 15–24). Other commentators have variously argued that the behemoth is really the crocodile, or a wild ox-buffalo, or some other kind of wild bull.
This is one of those questions that it is important not to decide. The reason for this has to do with the symbolic value of the description. The behemoth, though portrayed with features recognized in animals already well known, represents simply “the beast.” This is the general sense that the Hebrew plural form behemoth has in several places in Holy Scripture (cf. Psalms 8:7; 49:10; 73:22; Joel 1:20; 2:22; Habakkuk 2:17).
That is to say, this behemoth is a great deal more than any particular beast. It represents, rather, the wildness of untamed animal existence. It conveys in symbolism the truth that the world is not made according to man’s own measure. This Beast is irrational in the sense that it does not make rational choices. Yet, its behavior is not irrational, not chaotic, because it obeys the integral instincts placed in it by its Creator. It is not tame, but it is not really chaotic. In its own way, it declares the glory of God.