Lecture 23: Job’s Final Retort to the three
Course: The Book of Job
Lecture: Job’s Final Retort to the three
The speech of Bildad was the very last thing we hear from the three friends. Job will give them a final answer and then the debate with the friends is over. After that we will have the poem on “wisdom.”
Let’s look at chapter 26 where Job begins his speech against the friends. It begins in chapter 26:2-4 with a sarcastic introduction, then a statement on the power of God in 26:5-14. Then Job will declare that he refuses to make a hollow confession of sin, 27:1-6. Job declares that God will oppose his enemies, 27:7-12; and a statement on the fate of the wicked, 27:13-23.
I. Sarcastic Introduction
The sarcastic introduction: “How you have helped the powerless! How you have saved the arm that is feeble! What advice you have offered to one without
wisdom! And what great insight you have displayed! Who has helped you utter these words? And whose spirit spoke from your mouth?” For the most part, this is, as I’ve said, pure sarcasm. He hasn’t gotten any help from them at all. They have done nothing but abuse him and give him advice he did not need. So when he speaks of how great their advice was, obviously he is not serious. But as part of his sarcasm, in verse 4 he asks, “Who helped you utter these words?” So the point would be, “Your words were so wise, they were so powerful, you must have gotten them from somewhere else.” Then he adds: “And whose spirit spoke from your mouth?” Which takes us back to what? It takes us back to the night spirit and Eliphaz’s very first speech in chapter 4. Whether Job meant it that way or not, we as the readers can make the connection that the spirit that has inspired their words and has in fact twisted their words, is the night spirit, the satanic figure who has a gospel of nihilism.
II. The Power of God
Job then speaks of the power of God, 26:5-14: “The dead are in deep anguish, those beneath the waters and all that live in them. The realm of the dead is naked before God. Destruction lies uncovered. He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing. He wraps up the water in his clouds, yet the clouds do not burst under their weight. He covers the full face of the moon, spreading his clouds over it. He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters for a boundary between the light and the darkness. The pillars of the heavens quake at his rebuke. By his power he churns up the sea; by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces. By his breath the skies became fair; his hand pierced the gliding serpent. And these are but the outer fringe of his works. How faint the whispers we hear of him! Who then can understand the thunder of his power?”
This is kind of surprising, that Job would suddenly just make this declaration that God is powerful, that God is great, that God rules over the living and the dead, that God rules over all of nature. A number of interpreters are so confused and almost offended by this that they say, “These cannot possibly be the words of Job. These have to be the words of the friends because they are the ones who talk this way so much, about how great and powerful God is.” For example, a number of scholars will say, “These verses, verses 5-14, have been misplaced and they are actually part of say, Bildad’s speech.”
We will come back to this in a moment, but let’s first of all just see what he says. In verse 5 and 6: “God rules over the dead.” Notice the dead are conceived of as in two places. They are in the sea and they are in what is translated as “the abode of the dead” or “Sheol.” Sheol is the equivalent to Hades. It is sort of the underworld where the dead abide. Of course the sea is the sea, but it is also conceived of as a place that holds the dead. We even see this in the book of Revelation. When we come to the great judgment at the end of Revelation, it says “The sea gave up its dead.” So both the underworld of Sheol, or Hades, and the sea are conceived of as places where the dead are. The idea is, no one can escape from the power of God. One would think that at least the dead have somehow avoided God or escaped God; but God’s power is so great that he rules over even them.
It then speaks of how God functioned as the Creator, verse 7: “He spreads out the northern skies over empty space.” The northern skies is kind of a poetic way of speaking of what we would call outer space, the visible heavens when you look up at the sky at night and you see all the stars. And of course if you are in the northern hemisphere, you see all the stars that seem to revolve around the northern star. The metaphor is the spreading out of a tent. It says God spread out a great canvas tent and on this tent were all the stars; and you look up in the sky and you see the stars all up there. Then God puts the earth out in the middle of nothing.
So God is the creator of heaven and earth. In addition, God controls the earthly heavens, that is, what we would call the sky, and enables it to hold vast amounts of water. Verse 8: “He wraps up the waters in his clouds, yet the clouds do not burst under their weight.” It is an astonishing thing even to us when we look up at the sky and we can see a massive thunderhead and it will rain and rain and rain often for days on end. I think, how did the sky hold that much water? He is just using this as an illustration of how powerful God is, that he can take enormous volumes of water and suspend them in the air, to rain down upon us. He talks about how God can obscure the moon with his clouds. He talks about how the horizon is the limit of how much one can see, this is in verse 10: “He spreads out the horizon on the face of the waters for a boundary between light and darkness.” If you are out at sea, for example, or if you are on a large lake, something like that, the limit of what you can see of the earth is the water; above that you will see the sky. You will see the starry sky and then the black waters at night. He says that God is responsible for all of this. He is responsible for the light above, he is responsible for the horizon below. God in his power can make storms and he can calm storms, verses 11-13 again: “He churns up the sea and he can (verse 13) make the skies fair.”
We should also note he speaks of “by his wisdom he cuts Rahab to pieces.” Rahab
in this passage is to be understood again as kind of a chaos_____?(8:38.5),sea
dragon type figure, but really metaphorical for the storms and the powers of the
sea. God can control all of these things.
He basically is making a sudden and I guess we would say, unexpected statement about the power of God. We will have to come back and try to ask, why does he do this? Or to deal with the view of some scholars, is this actually a section that has been misplaced and should be put in the mouth of Bildad?
III. Job Refuses to Make a Hollow Confession of Sin
Job refuses to make a hollow confession of sin, 27:1-6: “Job continued his discourse: As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice, the Almighty, who
has made my life bitter, as long as I have life within me, the breath of God in my nostrils, my lips will not say anything wicked and my tongue will not utter lies. I will never admit you are in the right; till I die, I will not deny my integrity. I will maintain my innocence and never let go of it. My conscience will not reproach me as long as I live.”
Once again, we read this and we think, “Wow! What an arrogant man!” But that is not the point in this book. We have to keep going back to the premise of the book, the very first verse of Job: “There was a man who was righteous, who feared God, who turned away from evil.” This is who he really is. For Job to
pretend that he had committed some sin that was the reason he had all of these terrible things happen to him, some sin that caused God to punish him; if Job were to pretend that was the case, he would be lying. So Job says flat out, “It would be a lie. My tongue will not utter lies by making a hollow, meaningless confession of sin.”
When you read these verses, do not read it thinking in terms of how we normally understand people, and rightly understand people. If I were to stand before you and say, “I am a righteous man, I never sin, I have achieved complete perfection before God” you would rightly say, “He is full of himself and he is a liar.” That is not true with Job. We need to see that that is of the essence of the book.
IV. Job Declares that God Will Oppose His Enemies
In verses 7-12 he says that God will oppose his enemies. “May my enemy be like the wicked, my adversary like the unjust! For what hope have the godless when they are cut off, when God takes away their life? Does God listen to their cries when distress comes upon them? Will they find delight in the Almighty when they call on God at all times? I will teach you about the power of God; the ways of the almighty I will not conceal. You have all seen this yourselves. Why then the meaningless talk?”
Job says that God will ultimately vindicate him and will reprove his enemies. He could be speaking just very generally about his enemies. You see this in the
psalter all the time. When the psalmist is speaking about his life before God and he is praying for God to help him, or he is assured of how God is with him, he will say something about his enemies. We even see this, for example, in Psalm 23. Psalm 23 of course, a beautiful psalm that speaks of God as our shepherd. He leads us beside the still waters. He watches over us. He takes us through the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Then he says, “You’ve set a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” It is a very common thing in the Old Testament when someone is speaking of how they believe God will deliver them and how God will vindicate them, that they also speak of the enemies. More specifically, however, in this case he is probably thinking of the three, the three friends – Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar – who have become so hostile to Job and are certain that Job is in the wrong. Job says that God will confront them and deal with them. In fact, Job is right. That is what God does. He does rebuke the three friends at the end of the book.
V. Fate of the Wicked
He then speaks of the fate of the wicked in verses 13-23: “Here is the fate God allots to the wicked, the heritage a ruthless man receives from the Almighty:
However many his children, their fate is the sword; his offspring will never have enough to eat. The plague will bury those who survive him, and their widows will not weep for them. Though he heaps up silver like dust and clothes like piles of clay, what he lays up the righteous will wear, and the innocent will divide his silver. The house he builds is like a moth’s cocoon, like a hut made by a watchman. He lies down wealthy, but will do so no more; when he opens his eyes, all is gone. Terrors overtake him like a flood; and a tempest snatches him in the night. The east wind carries him off, and is gone; it sweeps him out of his place. It hurls itself against him without mercy as he flees headlong from its power. It claps its hands in derision; it hisses him out of his place.”
I think anybody can read that and get the main point. God punishes the wicked. It is very clear. They may be rich, they may be powerful, but their big houses that they had turned out to be no stronger than a cocoon or a spider’s web. God sweeps them all away. God punishes the wicked. When you read this, you can kind of get a sense of how the critical scholars think about this passage, why they argue the way they do.
First of all, remember Bildad’s speech was very short, only six verses long; very unusual for one of these three friends to say anything succinctly. And then Job says things that sound exactly like what the three friends say. He gives this big discourse on the power of God, how God made heaven and earth and how God makes the storms and how God rules over the dead. Then he talks about how God judges the wicked. It sounds exactly like something Eliphaz, Bildad or Zophar would say. So a lot of scholars will say, Well, probably part of this is Bildad’s speech; and probably part of it belongs to Zophar because of course, Zophar is just gone. He doesn’t give a third speech at all. So scholars believe part of these passages should be re-arranged so that some of it belongs to Bildad, some of it belongs to Zophar, but it has been accidentally all attributed to Job. Some scribe somewhere along the way miscopied a text. Is that the case?
In my opinion, it is not. In my opinion, the text as it stands is correct. Job uttered all of these words; and we need to simply come to terms with what Job is saying here and what it relates to. Against changing the text, against the idea that we should move these words around and attribute some to Bildad and some to Zophar, we need to think of what a satisfying conclusion to the three friends we actually have in Eliphaz’s and Bildad’s speeches.
Eliphaz concludes with this furious accusation of Job in which he accuses him basically of every sin a man can commit. He declares that Job is absolutely wicked. Eliphaz gives as his final speech that Job is wicked, that Job is in every sense one of the sinful men whom God naturally would punish and whom God would destroy. Bildad ends with the theology of nihilism, the theology of the night spirit, saying that man is a worm, man is a maggot. You really couldn’t have a better ending to the theology and the message of the friends. That is where they end up. Anything after that put in their mouths would be anticlimactic. So I don’t think we can say that these words actually belong to Bildad or to Zophar.
Some people will take a look at this passage and say, “Job is being sarcastic. The words actually belong to Job, but he is just continuing his sarcasm. After all, he begins with sarcasm.” Job 26:2. “How you have helped the powerless! How you have saved the arm that is feeble!” So they say that everything he says is sarcasm. Everything where he talks about the power of God and how God made the heavens and the earth and how God rules over everything, that is all pure sarcasm on Job’s part. When Job is going on and talking about how God punishes the wicked, that too is more sarcasm on Job’s part.
In fact, when you read it, there is nothing in those words that sounds sarcastic. It sounds very much like Job really means what he says: God is great, God is the Creator, God is the Maker of heaven and earth and God judges the wicked. So I don’t think we can do it that way. His recitation reiterates core traditional teachings about divine justice. Job believes everything he is saying.
VI. Unexpected Nature of This Passage
We need to go back to a starting point. Job is not different from his three friends in his basic theology. They believe God is great, Job believes God is great. They believe God punishes the wicked, Job believes God punishes the wicked. They believe God repays the righteous, and Job believes the same thing. Job is not really that different; and when he makes this great confession of faith, he is holding to the traditional wisdom and this is still part of his problem. He cannot reconcile it with his condition. He doesn’t know how to bring the two together. If Job did not hold to their theology, he wouldn’t have a problem. If Job believed God was not all-powerful, or if Job believed God did not judge the wicked, then he would look at his condition and just say, “Okay, this is just what happens, this is how life is.” There would be no theological crisis.
I think that when Job expresses what he does in these chapters, he is expressing a core conviction of his with a core conviction that is really troubled at this time. He wants to believe, but he is also experiencing things that contradict everything he believes. It is precisely Job’s confidence in God expressed in chapter 27 that gives meaning to his bewilderment and his desire to lay out his case before God.
VII. Arguments For Attributing This Dialogue to Job
To summarize, I believe that the words of Job in chapters 26 and 27 should be all attributed to Job. I believe they are not sarcastic. I believe he is confessing things he has always believed; but I believe it is precisely this confession of faith that gives him his troubles. Again, if he believed in a God who didn’t care, then he could just curse God and die, as his wife recommended.
VIII. The Three Cycles of Debate Describe Two Different Spiritual Journeys
The three cycles of debate are thus ended and they describe two different spiritual journeys.
A. The Friends
The friends begin with compassion, but end up hurling lies and insults at Job and end up holding to the nihilistic doctrine of the night spirit.
Job begins in bleak despair, cursing the day of his birth, but fearlessly expresses the significance of his suffering. He sees the injustice of the world with new eyes, for he now has experienced it firsthand.
We have not explored this much, but it is worth taking note of. When Job gives those beautiful, poignant and yet painful presentations of how people suffer; how the orphan and the widow have their livestock taken away from them; how the poor lie out in night with no roof over their heads in the cold and the rain; how they starve; how they do all the hard work, but nothing good comes to them, he is more aware than ever before of the reality of human suffering and what an offensive thing it is. Before his suffering, like the three friends, he probably could have said, “I guess God is just punishing them for something.” Now he can’t do that. So Job has learned how to empathize and sympathize with people; and again, he sees the evil and the suffering of the world for what it is as a true offense. He cannot look upon the wretched of the earth without compassion, knowing that the claim that their ills are entirely their own fault is a lie. So Job has learned compassion from everything he has seen.
Job has groped about for the possibility of an eschatological solution. He realizes that people need a heavenly mediator between themselves and God.
He ends his discourses by confessing his faith in the power and the justice of God; but it is a hope against hope, a confession that he can declare, but that he cannot fully defend because of the crisis of his own faith. He believes, but he does not understand. So Job in his pilgrimage has become incredibly honest. He has not given in to the pressure that was put upon him by the three friends to confess to sins he did not commit. He has recognized how much injustice there is in the world. And out of it all, he has come to recognize his need for some kind of heavenly salvation, a heavenly eschatological redeemer.
This is where the debate between Job and the three end. Before we get to the second half of the book, we have a remarkable passage on the wisdom of God in Job 28, and that is what we will do next time.