Friday, September 4

Job 11:1-20: Here we have the first speech of Zophar, Job’s most strident critic, a man who can appeal to neither personal religious experience (as did Eliphaz) nor inherited moral tradition (as did Bildad). Possessed of neither resource, Zophar’s contribution is what we may call “third-hand.” He bases his criticism on his own theory of wisdom. Although he treats his theory as self-evidently true, we recognize it as only a personal bias.

Moreover, Zophar seems to identify his own personal perception of wisdom as the wisdom of God Himself. Whereas Bildad had endeavored to defend the divine justice, Zophar tries to glorify “divine” wisdom in Job’s case. If it is difficult to see justice verified in Job’s sufferings, however, it is even harder to see wisdom verified by those sufferings.

Like the two earlier speakers, Zophar calls on Job to repent in order to regain the divine favor. (This is a rather common misunderstanding that claims, “If things aren’t going well for you, you should go figure out how you have offended God, because He is obviously displeased with you.”)

Zophar also resorts to sarcasm. Although this particular rhetorical form is perfectly legitimate in some circumstances (and the prophets, beginning with Elijah, use it often), sarcasm becomes merely an instrument of cruelty when directed at someone who is suffering incomprehensible pain. In the present case, Job suffers in an extreme way, pushed to the very limits of his endurance. It is such a one that Zophar has the vile temerity to call a “man full of talk” (11:2), a liar (11:3), a vain man (11:11–12), and wicked (11:14, 20).

The final two verses (19–20) contain an implied warning against the “death wish” to which Job has several times given voice. This very sentiment, Zophar says, stands as evidence of Job’s wickedness.

The author of the Book of Job surely understands this extended criticism by Zophar as an exercise in irony. Though the context of his speech proves the speaker himself insensitive and nearly irrational in his personal cruelty, there is an undeniable eloquence in his description of the divine wisdom (11:7–9) and his assertion of the moral quality of human existence (11:10–12). Moreover, those very rewards that Zophar promises to Job in the event of his repentance (11:13–18) do, in fact, fall into Job’s life at the end of the book.

In this story of Job, men are not divided into those who have wisdom and those who don’t. In the Book of Job no one is really wise. There is no real wise man, as there is in, say, the Book of Proverbs. While wisdom is ever present in the plot of the story, no character in the story has a clear grasp of it. True wisdom will not stand manifest until God, near the end of the narrative, speaks for Himself. Even then God will not disclose to Job the particulars of His dealings with him throughout the story.

Saturday, September 5

Second Kings 19: Emperor Sennacherib of Assyria (704-681) seems to have attacked Jerusalem twice, once in 701 and again in 688. The details of these two invasions, it appears, have become somewhat entangled in the three biblical accounts (Second Kings 18—19; Second Chronicles 32; Isaiah 36—37), Josephus (Antiquities 9—10), and Sennacherib’s own record. Historians speak cautiously on this matter, however, and the hypothesis of a double invasion is far from certain. (Indeed, the biblical dating of Hezekiah’s accession to the throne is troublesome [18:1]; few historical difficulties in the biblical text have proved so intractable.)

Certainly there was at least one siege set around Jerusalem—it was impossible to take this elevated city without the effort of a siege. In addition to the biblical testimony on this point, we have the inscription of Sennacherib on the “Taylor Prism” in the British Museum: “But as for Hezekiah the Jew, who did not bow down in submission . . . I shut him up like a bird in a cage in Jerusalem, his capital city. I put guards around it and turned back to his ruin anyone who exited the city gate.”

The besieging general, Rabshakeh (if this was a personal name and not a rank), taunted Hezekiah (18:28-35), who responded by praying in the Temple (verses 1, 14). In this respect, it is instructive to contrast Hezekiah to Saul at an earlier period; faced with a nearly impossible military crisis, Saul panicked, Hezekiah prayed. The words of his prayer are preserved (verses 5-19).

The Prophet Isaiah knows, apparently from the Lord, that the king has been praying, and he responds with a prophecy that encourages Hezekiah to hold fast and continue to trust in divine guidance and help (verses 20-34). This prophecy makes explicit reference to the Lord’s covenant with David. That is to say, the present chapter ties the outcome of this siege to an abiding concern of the biblical author, the inviolability of the Lord’s covenant with the Davidic house. As in those dire days when, for six years, Athaliah usurped the Davidic throne, so in the present threatening situation God remains faithful to His oath to David. Trust in God is not an abstract sense that “things will turn out all right.” It is related to the Lord’s specific promises contained in a covenant form.

The reference to “the angel of the Lord,” who slew the besieging Assyrian army, is theological. Exactly how the angel accomplished this is not specified.

The context of the besiegers’ withdrawal, furthermore, is the recent insurrection of Tirhakah back in Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. Sennacherib is slain in the insurrection and succeeded by his son Esarhaddon (680-669).

Sunday, September 6

Second Kings 20: This chapter includes three parts: Hezekiah’s sickness and recovery (verses 1-11), the delegation from Babylon (verses 12-19), and the final assessment of his reign (verses 20-21). It is difficult to date the first two of these components, notwithstanding the specific reference to “fifteen years” in verse 6. Since that same verse seems to presuppose an Assyrian threat, the reader wonders how Hezekiah’s sickness is chronologically related to the events of the previous chapter. None of this is clear.

Isaiah, consulted about the king’s sickness, apodictically foretells his death (verse 1). Isaiah’s prophecy to Hezekiah, like Jonah’s to Nineveh, is unconditional: “you shall die, you shall not recover.” Yet, as the event shows, this prophecy of Isaiah, like that of Jonah, is reversed. Apparently bothered by this paradox, Josephus (Antiquities 10.2.1) omits Isaiah’s first prophecy and narrates only the second, that in verses 5-7).

With respect to Hezekiah’s prayer (verse 3), we observe four things about the king: First, he has walked in God’s presence, like such men as Enoch (Genesis 5:21), Noah (6:9), Abraham and Isaac (48:15), and, of course, David (First Kings 3:6). Second, Hezekiah has walked in “fidelity”—’emeth; that is to say, he has imitated the Lord’s own fidelity. Third, he has walked with his “whole heart”—leb shalem; his internal thought and resolve has had both integrity and proper direction. Fourth, he has done that which is “good”; he has endeavored to follow what God Himself considers to be “good.”

With respect to the medical remedy prescribed by Isaiah, the application of a fig poultice to drain ulcers is mentioned by Pliny (Natural History 22.7) and by two much earlier (second millennium before Christ) Ugaritic texts about veterinary practice.

Since Isaiah has now contradicted his earlier prophecy about Hezekiah’s death, we should probably not be too hard on the king for asking for an ’oth, a confirmatory sign (verses 8-11). We recall identical requests from Gideon and Joshua.

The movement of the sun’s shadow has to do with its progression on a set of stairs adjacent to the royal palace; a person could tell the time by the position of the sun’s shadow moving up the stairs. In the execution of the “sign,” the shadow moves backwards. The king, understandably, finds the phenomenon convincing.

In the eastern half of the Fertile Crescent, during this period, the little kingdom of Babylon, still a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire, is beginning to test the latter’s strength—finding it increasingly less impressive! Within a century, Babylon will make its move, finally vanquishing Nineveh in 609. In the present text, Hezekiah receives a “friendly” delegation from Babylon, not suspecting its full political significance. Unwisely, he displays signs of his kingdom’s prosperity to the delegation. The Prophet Isaiah, who sees reality far into the future, mentions—“Hear the Word of the Lord!”—the danger incurred by the king’s imprudence (verses 16-18). When sixth century editors put the finishing touches on the Book of Isaiah, they were much impressed with his ability to discern events so far in the future, convinced that they were witnessing, in their own times, the historical developments foretold by him.

Monday, September 7

Second Kings 21: Manasseh (687-642) and Amon (642-640), the two kings of Judah separating Hezekiah and Josiah, make no positive contribution to the spiritual health of the realm. Their careers are contained in this single and uninspiring chapter.

The infidelities of Manasseh stand in vivid contrast with the religious reforms of his father. In addition to reintroducing Phoenician Baalism—including child sacrifice (verse 6)—Manasseh brings in Assyrian astral worship (verse 5). In addition, fortune telling becomes prevalent.

There was a great deal of violence; Manasseh “shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another” (verse 16). Josephus must have had this text in mind when he wrote that Manasseh “barbarously slew all the righteous men that were among the Hebrews; nor would he spare the prophets, for he every day slew some of them, till Jerusalem overflowed with blood” (Antiquities. 10.3.1).

The most notable of the prophets murdered by Manasseh was the great Isaiah. According to an account recorded in the apocryphal story, The Martyrdom of Isaiah, Manasseh caused the prophet to be sawn in two. A passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews, because it mentions this detail, is often thought to refer to the era of Manasseh: “Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword” (11:36–37).

The Bible-reader is stunned by this massive apostasy within a single generation. What can account for so thorough and swift a fall from grace? It is likely that it should be ascribed to several causes, but I suggest that among those causes should be counted a certain erroneous and unwarranted sense of security, nearly tantamount to superstition and magic. When Manasseh was but a child, Jerusalem had been miraculously delivered from Sennacherib’s siege. That deliverance, which had arrived as though out of nowhere, gave rise in many minds to the persuasion that Jerusalem was invincible and would never fall to the enemy. Once saved, Jerusalem would always be saved.

The Chronicler gives more qualified account of Manasseh. According to this source, the king had a conversion in his later years, after the Assyrians took him captive and imprisoned him for a while (Second Chronicles 33:11-17). This account is strengthened by an Assyrian source called The Prism of Esarhaddon. According to this archival document, the new emperor, Esarhaddon (680–669), compelled the kings in the western part of the Assyrian Empire to come to the capital of Assyria to render their obeisance. The Prism names all these kings, among whom was Me-na-si-i Ia-ú-di, Manasseh of Judah.

In 640 Manasseh’s son, Amon, is slain in revolt after a very brief reign.

Tuesday, September 8

Job 15:1-35: With this chapter we start the second cycle of speeches. Once again, Eliphaz speaks first. (He seems to be the eldest; cf. verse 10).

In his former discourse (chapters 4—5) Eliphaz showed respect and even a measure of sympathy for the suffering Job, treating him as a basically righteous man who had somehow incurred the divine wrath by some unknown offense. He exhorted Job, then, to examine his conscience more carefully, to discern what that hidden offense against God might be, and to repent of it.

That simple attitude of sympathy and concern for Job, however, is no longer possible; Eliphaz has listened to Job repeatedly profess his innocence of any such offense. Since that first speech of Eliphaz, Job has altered the very suppositions of their discourse by separating his sufferings from any simple concepts of either justice or wisdom.

It now seems to Eliphaz that Job, by emphatically denying a causal relationship between his sins and his afflictions, menaces the moral structure of the world itself, and Eliphaz responds with both aggression and, in the closing verses of the chapter, even a tone of threat.

Is Job older than Adam, he asks, or as old as wisdom itself (verse 7; cf. Proverbs 8:25), that he should be engaged in such dangerous speculations about the hidden purposes of God?

The irony here, of course, is that Job is the only one whose discourse manifests even a shred of intellectual humility. Job has never, like Eliphaz (4:12–21), claimed to discern the divine mind.

Yet it is true that Job, driven by his distress, has probed the matter of suffering more deeply. Job has sensed that something mysterious is at play in the sad fortunes of his recent life, something hinted at in Eliphaz’s own expression, “the [secret] counsel of God” (verse 8). Job himself will later use this identical expression, sod Eloah, to describe his friendship with God in the earlier part of his life (29:4).

In the first two chapters of this book, we readers were given a glimpse into that secret counsel of God. God’s “secret counsel” is the essence of His mysterious intervention in human history (Ephesians 3:9), including the individual lives of His loyal servants (Romans 8:28).

Job’s sustained probing after that secret counsel is what offends Eliphaz, the older man who considers such probing investigation a symptom of arrogance (verses 9, 12–13). There is nothing “hidden” going on, Eliphaz declares (verse 18); the moral structure of human existence, including the principle of inevitable retribution, has long been plain to human understanding (verses 20–35). Thus, the suffering Job is getting only what he deserves.

Wednesday, September 9

Second Kings 23: Although repentance is profitable to the soul, Holy Scripture does not regard it as sufficient to undo the historical effects of sin. That is to say, by repentance I can change the course of my life—and my eternal destiny—but the bad things I have done, and the good things left undone, will still continue to run on their own. My repentance will not undo them as actions in history. Such is the practical meaning, I take it, of the adage, factum non fit non factum—”a thing done cannot become a thing not done.” It can be repented of, it can be forgiven, but it cannot be undone.

This truth about repentance was made clear at the discovery of the Deuteronomic Scroll in 622. When this document caused Josiah and his friends to realize how far Judah had wandered into sin, they immediately repented. The prophetess Huldah, consulted on this matter, assured them that the Lord accepted their repentance, but she also warned that their repentance would not avert the historical effects of so much sin. The accumulated transgressions of numerous generations would still bring about the destruction of the nation. Part of Josiah’s repentance was an acceptance of the divine judgment on the nation.

An integral component of repentance is the grace to leave in God’s provident hands the historical judgment of the manifold evil effects of our sins. We repentant sinners make such amends as we can (cf. Luke 19:8), but none of us can even know—much less avert—all the evil consequences our sins have unleashed in history. These things, once done, have already taken on a dynamism of their own, and God will deal with them according to His own wise judgment.

This truth about repentance pertains, not only to the bad things we have done, but also to the required good things we have failed to do. Only in our later years—long after we made the major decisions that governed our lives—do some of us come to realize how many possibilities we have squandered and how few duties we have fulfilled. But now it is too late: our education is long over, our children have already been raised, further opportunities are few, and our neglected friends lie cold in the tomb.

We find ourselves unable to undo any of it. We weep, with Joel, for “the years the locust hath consumed, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm.” We are obliged simply to accept the judgment of God, following the insight of the Psalmist: iudicia Domini vera, iustificata in semetipsa—“the judgments of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.”

Repentance, then, as a turning from sin to God, involves more than a release from personal guilt. It means, also, handing over to the Lord’s judgment and providential care the countless historical effects of our myriad failures. That is to say, repentance places not only our individual lives but also our larger destiny—the myriad links that join us to the rest of mankind—under God’s sovereign governance of history. Repentance makes us participes rei, sharers of a thing vastly larger than ourselves.

Josiah’s death at Megiddo in 609—a bare thirteen years after the discovery of the Deuteronomic Scroll—was the beginning of all the punishments Judah would undergo as the binding historical legacy of its many infidelities. Jeremiah saw it and wept.

Thursday, September 10

Job 17:1-16: Job 17: Our mortality is the substance of the Fall that we sinners inherit from Adam. In other words, “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12). We have it on this same authority that “by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one” (5:17). In short, “sin reigned in death” (5:21).

It is the teaching of the Christian Church that by reason of Adam’s Fall, man without Christ is under the reign of death and corruption, because “the reign of death operates only in the corruption of the flesh” (Tertullian, On the Resurrection 47).

As the physical expression of sin, death chiefly represents man’s final and definitive separation from God. That is to say, apart from Christ, death is simply sin in its final stage. It embodies everything that sin means. It is the ultimate alienation from God. Consequently, if there is one sure general characteristic of death in the Old Testament, it is death’s utter separation of a man from the knowledge, remembrance, and praise of God.

Thus, King Hezekiah, after his own very close encounter with the grave, commented that what he most feared about death was its concomitant exclusion from the praise of God: “For Sheol cannot thank You, / Death cannot praise You; / Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your truth” (Isaiah 38:18). “For in death there is no remembrance of You,” lamented David; “In the grave who will give You thanks?” (Psalm 6:5). And the sons of Korah mourned, “Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave? / Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction? / Shall Your wonders be known in the dark? / And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” (Psalm 88[87]:11–12).

Always there is that same rhetorical question: “Who shall praise the Most High in the grave?” (Sirach 17:27)—“What profit is there in my blood, / When I go down to the pit? / Will the dust praise You? / Will it declare Your truth?” (Psalm 30[29]:9). It was the common doctrine of the Old Testament that “the dead who are in the graves, whose souls are taken from their bodies, will give unto the Lord neither praise nor righteousness” (Baruch 2:17). It is in the Book of Job, as we shall see in due course, that this perspective of death’s finality is most forcefully challenged in the Old Testament.

Still, the notion of an “afterlife with God,” following death, is entirely alien to the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed, it is also alien to the New Testament, unless a person has died in the redemptive faith of Christ. It is Christ alone who delivers man from death, including the saints of the Old Testament. Nowhere in the Bible is there an afterlife apart from Christ. Whatever after-existence there may be apart from Christ, it is certainly no real lifei.

This hopeless Old Testament view of death, then, is what Job is facing in the present chapter. He is staring at death’s approach, his entrance into “the land of forgetfulness,” his final separation from the One whom he has loved and trusted all his life, and he is doing so with no sense of God’s presence or His favor. The dark words of this chapter, nonetheless, will not be Job’s last comment on the subject of death and corruption.

Friday, September 11

Job 18: 1-21: Job 18: Bildad contends that he and his two companions have been sharing with Job the rock-solid truth on which the moral life is founded. Job, however, has insisted on moving this rock (18:4). Does Job believe that the eternal principles of the moral order should be adjusted to suit his own case?

Bildad goes on to elaborate the punishments that wicked men, such as Job, must expect (18:5–11). His references to darkness (18:5–6, 18) appear especially severe when we bear in mind how desperately Job has sought enlightenment in his plight.

Bildad’s second speech is particularly cruel in its judgment of Job, listing each of his afflictions in turn as evidence of his guilt. For example, Job has just spoken of the approaching darkness of the grave (17:12–14). Now Bildad takes up that very theme against him (18:5–6, 18). Job has just mentioned his failing strength (17:7, 18), and Bildad turns it into sarcastic obloquy (18:7, 12–13). Job lamented that onlookers were shocked at his condition (17:6, 8), and Bildad makes the point a matter of further reproach (18:20). The grave that Job described as his future home (17:13–16) is evidence to Bildad that he is “a man who does not know God” (18:21). In short, Job shows every symptom of a man whom God has rightly abandoned, and Bildad makes even his sufferings a reproach to him.

Bildad, in this second speech, thus abandons even the scant sympathy expressed in his first. He further rehearses, rather, his simplistic and illogical claim that all human suffering can be reduced to the inevitable consequence of the sins of the man who suffers. This impersonal, even mechanical theory of moral retribution more closely resembles the Hindu “law of karma” and the Buddhist “chain of causation” than it does anything taught in Holy Scripture.
Moreover, in its emphatic denial of this mechanical and impersonal theory of sin and retribution, the teaching of the Book of Job on the mystery (sod) of human suffering, especially the suffering of the innocent and the just, prepares the believing mind for the ampler doctrine of the Cross, whereon an innocent and just Man suffered and died for the sake of the guilty and the unjust. The trial of Job was preparatory to the trial of Jesus. It is ultimately the Cross that vindicates Job’s cause.

This vindication by the Cross especially pertains to Job’s preoccupation with death and corruption. The Just Man who died on the Cross, tormented by the bystanders as a person rejected by God (Matthew 27:39–43), is identical with the Holy One who was not suffered to see corruption (Acts 2:27).