Friday, September 23

Job 30: The motif of the present chapter, which is an extended and detailed contrast with Job’s earlier state as described in the previous chapter, is indicated by the repeated expression, “but now” (verses 1, 9, 16). This “but now” stands in contrast to Job’s “months of old” (29:2).

The thematic development of this chapter is the opposite of that in the chapter preceding. Whereas in chapter 29 Job began with his relationship to God (29:1–6) and then went on to speak of his relationship to his fellow men (29:7–25), in the present chapter he reverses the order, commencing with his alienation from his fellow men (verses 1–10) and then going to his sense of alienation from God (verses 11–31).

Formerly revered by elders, princes, and nobles (29:8–10), Job now finds himself contemned and reviled by utter nobodies. These have mocked him (verse 1) and treated him with obloquy (verses 9–10).

Never before in this book has Job been so harsh against his critics, even throwing back in their faces their low social standing. As we have seen, these three critics were men of the desert. Eliphaz came from Teman in the Negev, Zophar from Arabia, and Bildad from the far side of the Fertile Crescent. Now Job, in no little bitterness of soul, ridicules them as outlanders from the stark wilderness, “desolate and waste. . . . They had to live in the clefts of the valleys, / In caves of the earth and the rocks. / Among the bushes they brayed, / Under the nettles they nested” (verses 3, 6, 7). These are rough comments but hardly unique in the history of religious and critical thought.

For example, Thomas Aquinas later described the people in that part of the world as “bestial men dwelling in deserts,” homines bestiales in desertis morantes (Summa Contra Gentiles 1.6). If Job permits himself to be carried away somewhat at this point, we recall that he has, after all, been sorely tried by his critics.

All such treatment might be bearable from others, claims Job, but not from God (verses 16–19). In his supposed rejection by God, Job feels that his soul has been “poured out” (verse 16; cf. 10:1), an expression reminiscent of the Psalmist when he speaks of the Lord’s Passion (Psalms 22[21]:15–16).

Then, abruptly, Job stops speaking about God and turns to address the Lord directly (verse 20), for the first time since 17:3. In sentiments that form a counterpart to the previous chapter (29:2–4), Job accuses God of cruelty and persecution (verse 21), but most especially of remaining silent (verse 20).

We must note here that Job does not ask to be restored to his former state. He simply wants to know why he is being so treated, since he has never treated anyone as badly as both God and man are currently treating him (verses 24–25). He does not deserve this, Job avows, and he wonders why.

Saturday, September 24

Job 31: We readers have known, since the beginning of the book, that Job is on trial. Indeed, this is the indispensable key to understanding the story. (For this reason, those modern critics who regard the first two chapters of Job as a later addition to the text find themselves interpreting a completely different book from the Book of Job.) The trial of Job is the major premise of this work.

This trial of Job has a clear parallel in Zechariah 3:2–6, where Satan brings accusation against the High Priest Joshua. We observe there, as here, that God is on the side of the one accused. In that passage the Lord rebukes Satan and, as a sign of Joshua’s acquittal, commands that the High Priest be clothed with clean garments. Moreover, in Zechariah 6:11–14 “crowns” (yes, plural, ‘ataroth) are prepared for Joshua, to indicate his innocence. Curiously, in the present chapter Job also speaks of “crowns” (again plural, ‘ataroth) with which he will be adorned (verse 36).

Job does not seem to know, at first, that he is being tried in accord with God’s own will. We even sense that Job’s mind would be greatly relieved if he knew that he was being tested. Indeed, how reassured Job would be if he were aware of God’s own assessment of him to Satan!

The notion of a trial has been imposed on Job’s mind, not by the misfortunes that he has suffered, but by the steady flow of accusations brought against him by these three friends of his. They had originally arrived to be his “comforters,” but they very quickly became his accusers. Over and over, without a shred of empirical evidence against Job, they have accused him of dreadful crimes.

If Job feels himself to be on trial, therefore, it is hard to blame him for it. Now that his three witnesses have already borne their testimony against him (more as “character witnesses” than as “eyewitnesses,” to be sure), it appears now that “the prosecution rests its case” in Job’s regard.

But this is all absurd, thinks Job. Even before the trial started, he had already been sentenced. In fact, the sentence is even now being executed! Everything is proceeding backwards. This is chaos! (For a strikingly similar sensation of a legal trial as an outright nightmare, an outlandish exercise in anarchy, one may profitably read Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess or The Trial.)

No matter, says Job, his defense will be made, no matter what. So he “swears himself in” and proceeds with a detailed testimony to his own innocence. Job runs through a fairly high code of ethics (not unlike that of Ezekiel 18:5–9) and rings the changes on his “not guilty” plea, giving specific rebuttal to the slanderous testimony of his accusers (notably Eliphaz in chapter 22).

In this defense Job repeatedly employs the normal Hebrew formula for a legal oath or imprecation: “If I have done such-and-such, may the Lord do this-and-that to me.” Often, in this formula, only the antecedent, not the consequent, is actually spoken, implying that the person swears that the accusation against him is untrue. Job employs both the complete and the truncated form of this oath rather frequently in this chapter (verses 5, 7, 9, 13, 16, 19, 20, 21, 24, 25, 26, 29, 31, 33, 38, 39). Thus, this entire chapter is just a series of imprecations, at the end of which “the words of Job are ended” (verse 40).

Is Job correct and proper in all these affirmations and denials? Does his defense actually prove Job to be innocent? In the sight of men arguably so, but not in the eyes of God. Man cannot litigate against God. In this chapter, then, Job has clearly gone too far in his claims, and the book’s next speaker, Elihu the Buzite, is going to call him on it. In the book’s final chapter, moreover, Job will very explicitly retract this defense.

Sunday, September 25

Job 32: Job has now answered all of the objections and arguments made by his three friends, thereby reducing them to silence. The final verse of chapter 31 suggests that “the defense rests”: “The words of Job are ended.” In the trial of Job, it would now seem time for a verdict.

But then, out of nowhere, an entirely new speaker suddenly bursts on the scene, an amicus curiae as it were, “Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram,” who rushes forth with all the impetuosity of youth. Elihu has been so silent hitherto that not even the narrator seems to have known he was present! Now, however, the young man insists on adding his own comments. Maintaining silence hitherto, he says, and thereby showing proper deference to the four older men (verse 4), this Elihu has been listening to the give-and-take of their lengthy discussion, a seemingly interminable debate that has lasted through twenty-nine chapters.

Outwardly patient during that prolonged discussion, Elihu has been inwardly seething with rancor at both Job and the other three gentlemen (verses 2–3). Hardly able to contain himself any longer, he disagrees with nearly everything said so far. Now, therefore, with a great display of indignation Elihu begins his discourse, which will run on for the next seven chapters, easily the longest single speech in the book.

Elihu begins by informing these four older men how patient he has remained during their pointless and frustrating arguments. Nonetheless, even as he boasts about his heroic longsuffering, we note the irony that Elihu mentions his own anger four times in five consecutive verses! Maybe he is not as patient as he thinks.

Job’s three comforters, having exhausted their case against him, seem content now to leave the suffering Job to God, having nothing more to say. Not so Elihu. In a torrent he will vent the pressure that has been building up within him (verses 18–20).

However, even as he answers his elders, Elihu not surprisingly demonstrates the self-consciousness of youth and inexperience. He must justify himself by explaining that he is a plainspoken man, a fellow both candid and proud of it (verses 21–22).

The amusement that young, impetuous Elihu’s appearance provokes in us readers should not cause us to overlook the importance of his specific contribution to the Book of Job. After all, Job has now reduced his three critics to silence. Especially in the previous three chapters, he has abundantly answered their accusations with an able defense. In some sense it would appear that Job has won his case. “Here is my mark,” he proclaimed (31:35).

Repeatedly in the previous chapter he has sworn to his innocence.
But has Job really demonstrated his right to hurl down a gauntlet to the Almighty? Can anyone, in fact, rightly establish such a claim? From a theological perspective it is imperative that Job now be challenged on this point, and it will be the responsibility of Elihu to do it. Elihu’s contribution to the discussion, therefore, is of the essence. Without the words of Elihu, the Book of Job would be a different book. Elihu’s “summing up” prepares for the divine verdict on which the book will end.

Monday, September 26

Job 33: Like the other components in he 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.

Tuesday, September 27

Job 34: Elihu, have addressed Job, turns now 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, Job’s friends have made an inadequate presentation of the traditional wisdom itself.

Elihu’s remarks to Job’s critics are among the book’s best parts, variations of which will appear in God’s own account near the end. Elihu’s comments are heavily didactic, nonetheless, and seldom rise to the high poetic levels of the other speakers, especially Job himself.

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.

Wednesday, September 28

Job 35: Having addressed Job’s companions, 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).

Thursday, 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 “comfort” his friends were providing for him (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.

Friday, 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.