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Job 29:1-33:33

Roger Hahn

Job 28 marks a major turning point in the development of the book. The three comforters, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, do not speak again. They are alluded to in chapter 32 and God speaks against them in chapter 42 but they have passed from the stage in the drama of the book of Job. Only Job, a new speaker, Elihu, and God will speak in the rest of the book. Job speaks in chapters 29-31.

In one sense these chapters mark the final response of Job to the friends and so some scholars see these chapters concluding the dialogue that began in Job 3. However, he is no longer speaking to his friends and so some scholars try to link the speeches of Job and Elihu who will speak in chapters 32-37. But Elihu’s speech is as much a response to the three friends as it is to Job 29-31. It is best to simply identify Job’s speech in chapters 29-31 and Elihu’s speech in Job 32-37 as separate parts of the whole structure of the book. Job 38 will then mark the final portion of the poetic section as God speaks to Job.

Job’s Summing Up of the Argument - Job 29:1-31:40

Job’s final argument has three main sections, each represented by a chapter. In chapter 29 Job remembers his life before the tragedies struck. Chapter 30 is constructed as a Hebrew lament, and chapter 31 is an extended oath of innocence.

It is possible to describe the entire sections of chapters 29-31 as a lament psalm (see Lament Psalms). Laments characteristically begin by identifying the distress that troubles the author. Chapter 29 sets up and highlights the distress of Job’s loss (mentioned in chapter 30) by reminding us at length of how much Job had going for him. The oath of innocence that is expanded into chapter 31 was sometimes found in psalms of lament. Hartley (p. 385) describes the whole speech of chapters 29-31 as "an avowal of innocence." The author of Job was drawing on the legal customs of the Old Testament era. A person of that culture who was being accused by another could take steps to force his accuser to present the evidence. The "defendant" would swear an oath of innocence which was designed to force the accuser’s hand. Exodus 22:10-11, 1 Kings 8:31-32, and 2 Chronicles 6:22-23 describe the procedure. The oath of innocence would place a curse on the one making the oath if he was not innocent. In Hebrew culture this amounted to placing oneself in God’s hands to show guilt by fulfilling the curse or to show innocence by not performing it.

Thus the original Hebrew readers of the book of Job would have recognized that in chapters 29-31 Job was calling for God to either destroy him or declare his innocence by dropping the attack (which we know to have been a test). The speeches of Elihu then intervene and build suspense as the readers wait for God’s response.

Chapter 29 begins with Job remembering the good days when God had blessed him and been attentive to his every need. The Hebrew word in verse 2 often translated "watched" is the same word used in the Aaronic benediction of Numbers 6:24-26 where it describes God’s keeping. Job’s memory of God watching over him recalled the days when he experienced God’s kindly care protecting him from an array of troubles. Verse 3 describes this blessing as a time when God’s light shone on his path. Verse 3 sounds much like Psalm 119:104. Darkness was a symbol of danger, death, and evil in the Bible. But darkness holding to God’s hand is safer than broad daylight when we are walking in our own strength and wisdom. Verse 3 is ironic for Job is remembering God’s light for having dispelled the darkness. Yet his life since tragedy had struck was the darkest of all and though Job often seems unaware of it, God’s light was still guiding him.

Both the NIV and NRSV use the word "prime" in verse 4 as Job remembering his "prime." The Hebrew word literally speaks of harvest. Job believed that he had been living in a time when he was harvesting the rewards for a lifetime invested in obedience to God. Again this is ironic for Job sees the harvest as past but in reality it is the harvest of his previous devotion to God that is sustaining him in these darkest hours. Verse 4 also speaks of a time of friendship with God (though some versions speak of the protection of God). This is a beautiful expression to describe the closeness that Job felt with God. One of the tragedies of modern life is that friendship as a lifetime of growing sharing and openness has almost become a lost blessing. Job reflects the reassurance that long fellowship with God brings. Verse 6 concludes the opening reflection on God’s blessings by recounting the material blessing of wealth in typical ancient terms.

Verses 7-10 describe the respect that Job had previously received in his community. Andersen (pp. 231-232) points out that rich people are often not well liked. "They are more likely to be feared, envied, or even hated." The gate of the city mentioned in verse 7 was the place of meeting where business was transacted. The older men sat at the city gate to give advice and counsel. Job had not only enjoyed such respect he received the greatest deference shown to anyone in the area. These verses reflect Job’s memory of being the most respected man in his community.

Verses 11-17 describe the way in which Job sought justice for others. These verses follow naturally after verses 7-10 since it was in his capacity as the respected elder at the city gate that he would have made decisions that aided the poor and oppressed. The poor, orphans, widows, the destitute, blind, and lame were regularly mentioned in the Old Testament to be protected. God seems to have taken special interest in caring for those of whom he knew people tend to take advantage.

Verse 14 uses typical biblical language. Job describes himself as putting on righteousness and being clothed in righteousness. The language of putting on a virtue or life characteristic is used in the Old and New Testaments. The robe was used for dress occasions and the turban symbolized Job’s status as the highest ranking elder at the city gate. This language of being clothed in righteousness implies that the desire for justice completely enveloped Job and controlled his actions and desires.

Verse 17 shows Job going beyond individual expressions of mercy for the helpless. He also tried to break the power of wicked people who perpetrated injustice against the poor. It is easy in our culture to occasionally do deeds of mercy for the poor without exerting any effort against the structures and habits of our society that produce problems for the needy. Job did not make that mistake.

Verses 18-20 describe Job’s expectation for a long life. These verses reflect the fact that before tragedy had struck him Job shared the doctrine of retribution with his friends. Because he had pursued righteousness so energetically and experienced the blessing of God he assumed that God would grant him a long and prosperous life. Most translations speak of "honor" or "glory" in verse 20 but the Hebrew consonants can be supplied with vowels to mean "liver." To speak of a fresh liver means a sense of well-being filling Job’s consciousness. He sensed God’s blessing in his life and he had expected that it would continue without interruptions or surprises. That is the reason the tragedies that befell him were so difficult for him to handle. Verses 21-25 return to the theme of Job’s respected position in the community.

Chapter 30 begins the lament proper with the words, "But now they mock me." Verses 1-15 describe the disgrace that Job is experiencing. There are two sections to this part of the chapter. Verses 1-8 describe those who mock Job and verses 9-15 describe their mockery. Verses 16-23 form the second section of the lament and are an accusation against God for his role in Job’s troubles. The final section, verses 24-31, can be understood as summing up his pain in what might be called a self-lament.

Job 30:1-8 describe those mocking Job in his present troubles. Young men were supposed to respect their elders in Hebrew culture. That these young men would make fun of Job is a sign of how far he has fallen more than an indication of their bad manners. However, these mockers are not upstanding citizens. In the former days Job says, he would have hesitated giving their fathers a job taking care of the dogs. In Jewish culture dogs were very much despised and taking care of the dogs was one of the lowest jobs that could be imagined. People who lived on the margin of society so despised that they were not welcome to live in any village or town regarded themselves as better than Job in his present condition.

In verse 8 Job literally calls them "sons of a fool and also sons without a name." The NIV translates as "a base and foolish brood" while the NRSV has "a senseless, disreputable brood." In biblical culture a person’s name was the chief vehicle for that person’s identity. To have no name was to have no honor, no value, no sense of belonging, and no place to belong to. Job had fallen so low that the lowest scum of society laughed at him and considered themselves lucky compared to him.

Verses 9-15 describe the mockery Job had to endure. The low class rabble mentioned in verses 1-8 make up little ditties to sing as taunt songs making fun of him. He was spit on, knocked around, and tripped. In addition to such abusive behavior Job declares that God has also joined in making sport of him. Verse 11 declares that God has loosened his string. Most modern versions interpret this to mean that God had unstrung his bowstring and thus disarmed him. Hartley (p. 400) argues that the string or cord should be understood as a tent cord. God has loosened the cord that keeps the tent taut and upright. Thus the tent sags – an interesting metaphor for Job’s feelings of being let down by God. It is interesting that in the midst of detailing the mistreatment he receives from others Job mentions his feelings of being attacked by God. When all of life crashes in upon us, it is usually God we blame rather than ourselves, others, or just the circumstances of life.

The single accusation against God in verses 9-15 gives way to a whole section accusing God in verses 16-23. Verses 16-19 speak about God using the third person singular. God painfully pierces Job’s bones, leaving him sleepless. After such physical affliction God tosses Job aside like litter in road ditch. Emotionally Job feels flung around by someone infinitely more powerful than he. This rough treatment from God causes Job to shift to the second person singular in verses 20-23 and address God directly. Hartley (p. 402) points out that these verses form the structural center to Job’s whole speech found in chapters 29-31. More than anything else the author wants us to get the message of these verses. "I cry to you and you do not answer me. I stand and you only stare at me."

One of the deepest human needs is the need to make sense out of life. To be able to cope with life’s darkest hours a person must hear other human beings expressing the horror of such circumstances. To live in terror of life while other people act as if nothing bad is happening is a powerful way of invalidating one’s existence. Most of all a person – at least a person of faith – needs acknowledgment from God that his or her suffering is real and has meaning. Job’s greatest pain was not in his body but in his heart. The silence of God was condemning Job to meaninglessness – the most painful torment a human can endure. Whatever the form of grief and pain people endure they prefer to talk about it rather than to have others ignore it. We often excuse ourselves saying we don’t want to remind the sufferer of their loss. In fact, sufferers do not forget their pain. What they need most is someone to acknowledge that their sense of loss and pain is valid. Our avoiding people who suffer only adds to their pain and reveals our own shallowness of understanding.

Job sums up the matter in verses 24-31. Surely God would help a person who cries out to him. If even a human being helps another human in distress certainly God would intervene to help. But God has increased Job’s pain. "Job can hardly believe God’s abusive behavior," writes Hartley (p. 405). So with poetic language he catalogs again the pain of his life.

Chapter 31 is an avowal or oath of innocence. The structure of this oath is, "May God do such and such if I do (or don’t do) so and so." Frequently these oath formulas were abbreviated to just one of the clauses. This happens in English when we use expressions like, "God is my witness" (short for "God is my witness that if I am lying he may strike me dead.") or "cross my heart and hope to die" (short for "I cross my heart and hope to die at God’s hand if I am not telling the truth"). In Hebrew the abbreviation simply consisted of the "if" clause (vv. 5, 7, etc.) with the actual curse of what God should do omitted. The pattern is clear in chapter 31 if one notices all the time "if" appears introducing some behavior.

Various scholars have discovered between 10 and 16 specific sins mentioned in chapter 31. Hartley (pp. 408-409) lists the following 14 sins:

1. Lust (vv. 1-4)

2. Falsehood (vv. 5-6)

3. Covetousness (vv. 7-8)

4. Adultery (vv. 9-12)

5. Mistreatment of one’s servants (vv. 13-15)

6. Lack of concern for the poor (vv. 16-18)

7. Failure to cloth the poor (vv. 19-20)

8. Perverting justice for the weak (vv. 21-23)

9. Trust in wealth (vv. 24-25)

10. Worship of heavenly bodies (vv. 26-28)

11. Rejoicing at a foe’s misfortune (vv. 29-30)

12. Failure to show hospitality (vv. 31-32)

13. Concealing an unconfessed sin (vv. 33-34)

14. Abuse of the land (vv. 38-40)

This is an amazing list of sins that Job denies having ever done. Some of them are observable sins while others would be secrets of the heart. Only two (adultery and covetousness) are part of the ten commandments but all are part of the torah of God’s guidelines for living as part of the covenant community. This is not the list of a legalist like the lawyer of Luke 10:25-29 who would reduce the definitions of God’s commandments until he was guiltless. One must go to the Sermon on the Mount to find such a concentrated acknowledgment of the heart as the source of sin. Perhaps more than anything else in the dialogues and monologues this chapter reveals the integrity and blamelessness of Job.

Job’s insight into relationship with God is revealed in verse 1, "I have made a covenant with my eyes." Even Old Testament leaders understood that relationship with God was much more than obeying rules and regulations. To accuse them of being legalistic is a serious misunderstanding. Job shows that they understood the covenant quality of faith. Commitment to the right motives of the heart to produce the right actions in relationships was the foundation of Job’s spirituality. We would do well to study the role of heart attitudes in chapter 31 and seek to emulate Job at that very point.

The Speeches of Elihu - Job 32:1-37:24

The final line of Job 31:40 reads, "The words of Job are ended." This is probably an editorial comment added by a later scribe. Though Job will briefly speak again in chapters 40 and 42 the message that he wanted to convey has been spoken with finality in chapters 29-31. Job 32:1 then comments that Job’s friends are also silenced though for a different reason. Job’s confidence of his own righteousness was so audacious to them that they decide no sense can be talked into him. However, not everyone is silenced by Job’s daring challenge to God. In typical Hebrew fashion Elihu takes center stage with no introduction. For six chapters he will hold forth with four speeches before God is finally allowed to speak and bring the whole issue to resolution.

Many scholars do not believe that these speeches of Elihu belong to the original form of Job. They point to the poorer quality of poetry, the generally repetitious content of the speeches, and the claim to new insight as evidence of the hand of a later editor "adjusting" the message of Job to be more compatible to later readers. John Gibson (pp. 219-220) declares that the speeches of God found in chapters 38-41 dramatically and theologically belong after Job’s oath of innocence. However, Gibson’s final comment reveals his point of frustration, "Our patience has been stretched to the breaking point and cannot be asked to endure another intrusion of human words."

However, Andersen (pp. 49-52) makes a solid case for including the speeches of Elihu as the work of the original author of Job. While many readers would sympathize with Gibson’s protest at another round of arguments the speeches of Job 3-31 should remind us that Hebrew writers valued (rather than rejecting) repetition. Brevity and conciseness is our concern but it is not the problem of elders who sit at the city gate all day to ponder and debate the meaning of suffering and evil.

Andersen points out that the book of Job as it now stands has two commentaries on the speeches of chapters 3-31. Elihu voices the human response to Job and his three comforters in chapters 32-37. God will then speak his response in chapters 38-41. Though modern readers grow weary of the subtle developments, the author of Job has several more variations on the arguments that he wants to present before allowing God to set the whole matter in ultimate perspective. Hartley (p. 428) points out that Elihu delivers four speeches – one more than any of Job’s three comforters. This single fact is testimony to the importance the author of Job placed on the speeches of Elihu.

Elihu is introduced in Job 32:2-5 with two major points of emphasis. Elihu is young and Elihu is angry. Verse 4 points to Elihu’s youth as the reason he had waited so long before speaking. As long as his elders spoke biblical culture required him to be silent. But when they quit talking Elihu spoke. The description of Elihu in verse 2 as being the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram also suggests his youth. Age and personal accomplishments would have allowed a simple reference to Elihu by his name. The emphasis on Elihu’s youth up front would tend to prejudice ancient readers against what he said. The fact that young Elihu repeats much of what the three friends have said is a powerful but subtle way in which the author of Job reduces the force of those arguments. It also leaves the ancient readers ready for a strong reply to Elihu which prepares the way for Yahweh’s speeches that follow.

The opening paragraph of chapter 32 also emphasizes Elihu’s anger. He is angry at Job because he felt Job made himself more righteous than God. Elihu is angry also at Job’s three friends because they found no answer to Job. He became angrier yet at the three friends when they gave up arguing with Job. This emphasis on anger is not designed to justify anger. Rather it is designed to draw the reader into the story. If the original readers were put off by Elihu’s youth they would be drawn in by his anger for several reasons. His anger would reflect their own frustration – with either Job or his friends or both. There is a sense of identification with Elihu’s anger. The other function of Elihu’s anger is that this emphasis on it raises one’s curiosity. If Elihu is so angry what is he going to do about it? By means of emphasizing Elihu’s anger and youth the author has skillfully pulled his readers into another set of speeches and yet warned them ot not take those speeches too seriously.

Elihu’s first speech appears in Job 32:6-33:33. He defends his right to speak in verses 6-22 of chapter 32. Chapter 33 continues this defense in verses 1-7 before turning to the main point of this first speech in verses 8-30.

Elihu’s main reason for speaking is that the friends have stopped. He mentions his youth and that he gladly deferred to age but none of them had succeeded in answering Job. Thus with the brashness of youth Elihu volunteers to solve the problem his elders could not handle.

Verse 8 attempts to justify his words by claiming the "breath of the Almighty" as the source of his inspiration. In this Elihu echoes Eliphaz’s claim to special revelation from God via a dream. While "the breath of the Almighty" is a poetic way to speak of inspiration the creation account attributes the breath of God to every human being as that which makes us living beings. Elihu fails to explain how the breath of God inspires him to wisdom when that same breath only keeps other human beings alive. Like a stammering young preacher Elihu flails around seeking the right words while repeating himself in ever increasing emotion. Rowly (p. 209) responds to Elihu’s self important claim in verse 18, "I am full of words," with the dry observation, "none would dispute this."

But regardless of his verbal fits and starts Elihu is claiming the right to speak. Chapter 32 addresses the silence of the comforters as the reason he must speak. Chapter 33 addresses Job and the first 7 verses defend Elihu’s right to challenge Job. Verse 4 again claims the inspiration of "the breath of the Almighty" as the authority empowering him to speak. Unlike the friends Elihu attempts to identify with Job in verses 6-7. Despite his youth and staggering style Elihu has some important insight. He acknowledges that he and Job are both clay formed by God’s creative hands. This creates the possibility of real discussion though Elihu will quickly declare his conviction that Job is wrong.

Verses 8-30 form the heart of Elihu’s first speech. Here he gives a summary of Job’s main statements and attempts to refute them. In verses 8-12 he paraphrases Job’s claim to integrity and rejects it in verse 12 with the observation that God is greater than any human being. This reveals Elihu’s problem. No one – and especially not Job – would deny that God is greater than man but that truth does not address Job’s claim to virtue.

Verses 13-18 introduce Elihu’s second argument against Job. Job had claimed that God was silent to his cries. Elihu points out that God speaks in different ways to different people. Verses 15-18 describe a dream or a vision of the night as a means by which God can speak. Verses 19-22 suggest that pain and the difficulties of life are another avenue by which God speaks to people. Verses 23-24 mention an angel as a vehicle by which God can speak to translate his will into human understanding. None of this is new insight or especially profound but Elihu has a purpose in mentioning these ways that God can communicate. Verses 25-30 describe the renewal that can come when a person acknowledges that God has spoken and confesses his or her sin. God’s purpose in speaking is to bring people to repentance.

All of this sets the stage for verses 31-33 where Elihu invites Job to answer. The flow of his argument suggests that he really wants Job to confess his sin and repent, but he graciously avoids calling for that directly. On the positive side Elihu is telling Job that God has not been silent but has been speaking to him even by means of suffering. This is a message of hope that calls for Job to stop accusing God foolishly and to begin thanking God for what he has revealed by means of pain. While we may conclude that Elihu is right the speeches of God will show that there is more to it than that for a person of faith.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you study each day ask the Lord to speak to you through his word. Ask the Holy Spirit to make the word come alive to you for that day.

First Day: Read the notes on Job 29:1-33:33. Look up the Scripture references given.

1. Identify one or two new insights from this lesson that seemed important to you. Describe why these concepts are important.

2. Select a spiritual truth from this lesson that especially applies to your life. How does it apply to you?

3. Right a brief prayer expressing your desire to live with the spiritual balance and breadth revealed in chapter 31.

Second Day: Read Job 34:1-35:16. Focus in on Job 34:1-37.

1. What claim does Elihu make for God in verses 10-15? How does he support his argument in verses 16-30? Is Elihu right in what he argues? Why or why not?

2. What is Elihu’s opinion of Job according to verses 1-9 and 31-37? Is Elihu right in his judgment of Job? Why or why not?

3. In verse 37 Elihu charges that Job adds rebellion to his sin. What do you understand to be the meaning of sin? How is sin related to rebellion? What is the basis upon which you build your answers?

Third Day: Read Job 34:1-35:16. Focus your attention on Job 35:1-16.

1. In verses 5-8 Elihu asks what difference it makes to God if a person sins or does right. How would you answer Elihu’s question?

2. What point does Elihu try to make in verses 9-13? Do you think he is right? Why or why not?

3. Chapter 35 is Elihu’s challenge to his perception of Job’s self-righteousness. Study Philippians 3:9-11 and describe the righteousness that God wants us to have. How may we obtain that righteousness and what will it produce in us?

Fourth Day: Read Job 36:1-37:24. Now focus in on Job 36:1-33.

1. What characteristics of God does Elihu exalt in Job 36:5-10? Which of these characteristics of God seems most important to you? Why?

2. What human responses to God does Elihu describe in verses 11-23? Are any of those responses appropriate? How does Elihu see God responding to those human responses? What truth about God does he fail to mention?

3. Verses 24-26 contain an important command and explanation. Write a brief paragraph praising God for his work in the world, in the church, and in your life. Extol him for his majesty.

Fifth Day: Read Job 36:1-37:24. Focus in on Job 36:24-37:24.

1. What point does Elihu make in Job 36:25-33? How would you summarize his point in your own words? What response does it call forth from you?

2. What response foes Elihu have to God’s majestic power over creation? What response does it want from Job? What difference would it make in your life if you would listen closely to God?

3. Verses 23-24 bring Elihu’s speeches to a conclusion. Summarize verses 23-24 in your own words. Why does Elihu include verse 24? What application of verse 24 can you make to your own life?

Sixth Day: Read Job 37:1-38:41. Now focus your attention on Job 38:1-41.

1. What differences do you see between the message of chapter 37 and chapter 38? Are those differences significant? Why or why not?

2. If God were to ask you the questions of chapter 38 how would you respond to him? What response do you think he wanted from Job?

3. Read Isaiah 40:12-31. What similarities are there between Job 38 and Isaiah 40? What additional dimension do the promises of Isaiah 40:29-31 add that are not in Job 38? Why would these promises be important to you?

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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