corner graphic

Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Job 17

 

 

Verses 1-16

XIV.

"MY WITNESS IN HEAVEN"

Job 16:1-22; Job 17:1-16

Job SPEAKS

IF it were comforting to be told of misery and misfortune, to hear the doom of insolent evildoers described again and again in varying terms, then Job should have been comforted. But his friends had lost sight of their errand, and he had to recall them to it.

"I have heard many such things:

Afflictive comforters are ye all.

Shall vain words have an end?"

He would have them consider that perpetual harping on one string is but a sober accomplishment! Returning one after another to the wicked man, the godless sinner, crafty, froward, sensual, overbearing, and his certain fate of disaster and extinction, they are at once obstinately ungracious and to Job’s mind pitifully inept. He is indisposed to argue afresh with them, but he cannot refrain from expressing his sorrow and indeed his indignation that they have offered him a stone for bread. Excusing themselves, they had blamed him for his indifference to the "consolations of God." All he had been aware of was their "joining words together" against him with much shaking of the head. Was that Divine consolation? Anything, it seemed, was good enough for him, a man under the stroke of God. Perhaps he is a little unfair to his comforters. They cannot drop their creed in order to assuage his grief. In a sense it would have been easy to murmur soothing inanities.

"One writes that ‘Other friends remain,’

That ‘Loss is common to the race’-

And common is the commonplace,

And vacant chaff well meant for grain."

"That loss is common would not make

My own less bitter, rather more:

Too common! Never morning wore

To evening, but some heart did break."

Even so: the courteous superficial talk of men who said, Friend, you are only accidentally afflicted; there is no stroke of God in this: wait a little till the shadows pass, and meanwhile let us cheer you by stories of old times: - such talk would have served Job even less than the serious attempt of the friends to settle the problem. It is therefore with somewhat inconsiderate irony he blames them for not giving what, if they had offered it, he would have rejected with scorn.

"I also could speak like you;

If your soul were in my soul’s stead,

I could join words together against you,

And shake my head at you;

I could strengthen you with my mouth,

And the solace of my lips should assuage your grief."

The passage is throughout ironical. No change of tone occurs in Job 16:5, as the opening word but in the English version is intended to imply. Job means, of course, that such consolation as they were offering he never would have offered them. It would be easy, but abhorrent.

So far in sad sarcasm; and then, the sense of desolation falling too heavily on his mind for banter or remonstrance, he returns to his complaint. What is he among men? What is he in himself? What is he before God? Alone, stricken, the object of fierce assault and galling reproach. After a pause of sorrowful thought he resumes the attempt to express his woes, a final protest before his lips are silent in death. He cannot hope that speaking will relieve his sorrow or mitigate his pain. He would prefer to bear on

"In all the silent manliness of grief."

But as yet the appeal he has made to God remains unanswered, for aught he knows unheard. It appears therefore his duty to his own reputation and his faith that he endeavour yet again to break the obstinate doubts of his integrity which still estrange from him those who were his friends. He uses indeed language that will not commend his case but tend to confirm every suspicion. Were he wise in the world’s way he would refrain from repeating his complaint against God. Rather would he speak of his misery as a simple fact of experience and strive to argue himself into submission. This line he has not taken and never takes. It is present to his own mind that the hand of God is against him. Whether men will join him by and by in an appeal from God to God he cannot tell. But once more all that he sees or seems to see he will declare. Every step may bring him into more painful isolation, yet he will proclaim his wrong.

"Certainly, now, He hath wearied me out.

Thou hast made desolate my company;

Thou hast taken hold of me,

And it is a witness against me;

And my leanness riseth up against me

Bearing witness to my face."

He is exhausted; he has come to the last stage. The circle of his family and friends in which he once stood enjoying the love and esteem of all-where is it now? That hold of life is gone. Then, as if in sheer malice, God has plucked health from him, and doing so, left a charge of unworthiness. By the sore disease the Divine hand grasps him, keeps him down. The emaciation of his body bears witness against him as an object of wrath. Yes; God is his enemy, and how terrible an enemy! He is like a savage lion that tears with his teeth and glares as if in act to devour. With God, men also, in their degree, persecute and assail him. People from the city have come out to gaze upon him. Word has gone round that he is being crushed by the Almighty for proud defiance and blasphemy. Men who once trembled before him have smitten him upon the cheek reproachfully. They gather in groups to jeer at him. He is delivered into their hands.

But it is God, not men, of whose strange work he has most bitterly to speak. Words almost fail him to express what his Almighty Foe has done.

I was at ease, and He brake me asunder;

Yea he hath taken me by the neck

And dashed me to pieces:

He hath also set me as His butt,

His arrows compass me round about,

He cleaveth my reins asunder and spareth not,

He poureth my gall on the ground;

He breaketh me with breach upon breach,

He runneth upon me like a giant.

Figure after figure expresses the sense of persecution by one full of resource who cannot be resisted. Job declares himself to be physically bruised and broken. The stings and sores of his disease are like arrows shot from every side that rankle in his flesh. He is like a fortress beleaguered and stormed by some irresistible enemy. His strength humbled to the dust, his eyes foul with weeping, the eyelids swollen so that he cannot see, he lies abased and helpless, stricken to the very heart. But not in the chastened mood of one who has done evil and is now brought to contrite submission. That is as far from him as ever. The whole account is of persecution, undeserved. He suffers, but protests still that there is no violence in his hands, also his prayer is pure. Let neither God nor man think he is concealing sin and making appeal craftily. Sincere he is in every word.

At this point, where Job’s impassioned language might be expected to lead to a fresh outburst against heaven and earth, one of the most dramatic turns in the thought of the sufferer brings it suddenly to a minor harmony with the creation and the Creator. His excitement is intense. Spiritual eagerness approaches the highest point. He invokes the earth to help him and the mountain echoes. He protests that his claim of integrity has its witness and must be acknowledged.

For this new and most pathetic effort to reach a benignant fidelity in God which all his cries have not yet stirred, the former speeches have made preparation. Rising from the thought that it was all one to God whether he lived or died since the perfect and the wicked are alike destroyed, bewailing the want of a daysman between him and the Most High, Job in the tenth chapter touched the thought that his Maker could not despise the work of His own hands. Again, in chapter 14, the possibility of redemption from Sheol gladdened him for a little. Now, under the shadow of imminent death, he abandons the hope of deliverance from the underworld. Immediately, if at all, his vindication must come. And it exists, written on the breast of earth, open to the heavens, somewhere in clear words before the Highest. Not vainly did the speaker in his days of past felicity serve God with all his heart. The God he then worshipped heard his prayers, accepted his offerings, made him glad with a friendship that was. no empty dream. Somewhere his Divine Friend lives still, observes still his tears and agonies and cries. Those enemies about him taunting him with sins he never committed, this horrible malady bearing him down into death; -God knows of these, knows them to be cruel and undeserved. He cries to that God, Eloah of the Elohim, Higher than the highest.

O Earth, cover not my blood,

And let my cry have no resting place!

Even now, lo! my witness is in heaven,

And He that voucheth for me is on high.

My friends scorn me:

Mine eye sheds tears unto God-

That he would right a man against God,

And a son of man against his friend.

Now, in the present stage of being, before those years expire that lead him to the grave, Job entreats the vindication which exists in the records of heaven. As a son of man he pleads, not as one who has any peculiar claim, but simply as a creature of the Almighty; and he pleads for the first time with tears. The fact that earth, too, is besought to help him must not be overlooked. There is a touch of wide and wistful emotion, a sense that Eloah must regard the witness of His world. The thought has its colour from a very old feeling; it takes us back to primeval faith, and the dumb longing before faith.

Is there in any sense a deeper depth in the faithfulness of God, a higher heaven, more difficult to penetrate, of Divine benignity? Job is making a bold effort to break that barrier we have already found to exist in Hebrew thought between God as revealed by nature and providence and God as vindicator of the individual life. The man has that in his own heart which vouches for his life, though calamity and disease impeach him. And in the heart of God also there must be a witness to His faithful servant, although, meanwhile, something interferes with the testimony God could bear. Job’s appeal is to the sun beyond the rolling clouds to shine. It is there; God is faithful and true. It will shine. But let it shine now! Human life is brief and delay will be disastrous. Pathetic cry-a struggle against what in ordinary life is the inexorable. How many have gone the way whence they shall not return, unheard apparently, unvindicated, hidden in calumny and shame! And yet Job was right. The Maker has regard to the work of His hands.

The philosophy of Job’s appeal is this, that beneath all seeming discord there is one clear note. The universe is one and belongs to One, from the highest heaven to the deepest pit. Nature, providence, -what are they but the veil behind which the One Supreme is hidden, the veil God’s own hands have wrought? We see the Divine in the folds, of the veil, the marvellous pictures of the arras. Yet behind is He who weaves the changing forms, iridescent with colours of heaven, dark with unutterable mystery. Man is now in the shadow of the veil, now in the light of it, self-pitying, exultant, in despair, in ecstasy. He would pass the barrier. It will not yield at his will. It is no veil now, but a wall of adamant. Yet faith on this side answers to truth beyond; of this the soul is assured. The cry is for God to unravel the enigmas of His own providence, to unfold the principle of His discipline, to make clear what is perplexing to the mind and conscience of His thinking, suffering creature. None but He who weaves the web can withdraw it, and let the light of eternity shine on the tangles of time. From God the Concealer to God the Revealer, from God who hides Himself to God who is Light, in whom is no darkness at all, we appeal. To pray on-that is man’s high privilege, man’s spiritual life.

So the passage we have read is a splendid utterance of the wayworn travelling soul conscious of sublime possibilities, -shall we not say, certainties? Job is God-inspired in his cry, not profane, not mad, but prophetic. For God is a bold dealer with men, and He likes bold sons. The impeachment we almost shuddered to hear is not abominable to Him because it is the truth of a soul. The claim that God is man’s witness is the true courage of faith: it is sincere, and it is justified.

The demand for immediate vindication still urged is inseparable from the circumstances.

For when a few years are come

I shall go the way whence I shall not return.

My spirit is consumed, my days extinct;

The grave is ready for me.

Surely there are mockeries with me

And mine eye lodgeth in their provocation.

Provide a pledge now; be surety for me with Thyself.

Who is there that will strike hands with me?

Moving towards the underworld, the fire of his spirit burning low because of his disease, his body preparing its own grave, the bystanders flouting him with mockeries under a sense of which his eyes remain closed in weary endurance, he has need for one to undertake for him, to give him a pledge of redemption. But who is there excepting God to whom he can appeal? What other friend is left? Who else would be surety for one so forlorn? Against disease and fate, against the seeming wreck of hope and life, will not God Himself stand up for His servant? As for the men his friends, his enemies, the Divine suretyship for Job will recoil upon them and their cruel taunts. Their hearts are "hid from understanding," unable to grasp the truth of the case; "Therefore Thou shalt not exalt them"-that is, Thou shalt bring them low. Yes, when God redeems His pledge, declares openly that He has undertaken for His servant, the proverb shall be fulfilled-"He that giveth his fellows for a prey, even the eyes of his children shall fail." It is a proverb of the old way of thinking and carries a kind of imprecation. Job forgets himself in using it. Yet how, otherwise, is the justice of God to be invoked against those who pervert judgment and will not receive the sincere defence of a dying man?

"I am even made a byeword of the populace;

I am become one in whose face they spit:

Mine eye also fails by reason of sorrow."

This is apparently parenthetical-and then Job returns to the result of the intervention of his Divine Friend. One reason why God should become his surety is the pitiable state he is in. But another reason is the new impetus that will be given to religion, the awakening of good men out of their despondency, the reassurance of those who are pure in heart, the growth of spiritual strength in the faithful and true. A fresh light thrown on providence shall indeed startle and revive the world.

"Upright men shall be amazed at this,

And the innocent shall rouse himself against the godless.

And the righteous shall keep his way,

And he that hath clean hands wax stronger and stronger."

With this hope, that his life is to be rescued from darkness and the faith of the good re-established by the fulfilment of God’s suretyship, Job comforts himself for a little-but only for a little, a moment of strength, during which he has courage to dismiss his friends:-

"But as for you all, turn ye, and go;

For I shall not find a wise man among you."

They have forfeited all claim to his attention. Their continued discussion of the ways of God will only aggravate his pain. Let them take their departure then and leave him in peace.

The final passage of the speech referring to a hope present to Job’s mind has been variously interpreted. It is generally supposed that the reference is to the promise held out by the friends that repentance will bring him relief from trouble and new prosperity. But this is long ago dismissed. It seems clear that my hope, an expression twice used, cannot refer to one pressed upon Job but never accepted. It must denote either the hope that God would after Job’s death lay aside His anger and forgive, or the hope that God would strike hands with him and undertake his case against all adverse forces and circumstances. If this be the meaning, the course of thought in the last strophe, from Job 17:11 onward, is the following, -Life is running to a low ebb with me, all I had once in my heart to do is arrested, brought to an end; so gloomy are my thoughts that they set night for day, the light is near unto darkness. If I wait till death come and Sheol be my habitation and my body is given to corruption, where then shall my hope of vindication be? As for the fulfilment of my trust in God, who shall see it?

The effort once made to maintain hope even in the face of death is not forgotten. But he questions now whether it has the least ground in fact. The sense of bodily decay masters his brave prevision of a deliverance from Sheol. His mind needs yet another strain put upon it before it shall rise to the magnificent assertion-Without my flesh I shall see God. The tides of trust ebb and flow. There is here a low ebb. The next advance will mark the springtide of resolute belief.

If I wait till Sheol is my house;

Till I have spread my couch in darkness:

If I shall have said to corruption, My father art thou,

To the worm, My mother and my sister-

Where then were my hope?

As for my hope, who shall see it?

It shall go down to the bars of Sheol,

When once there is rest in the dust.

How strenuous is the thought that has to fight with the grave and corruption! The body in its emaciation and decay, doomed to be the prey of worms, appears to drag with it into the nether darkness the eager life of the spirit. Those who have the Christian outlook to another life may measure by the oppression Job has to endure the value of that revelation of immortality which is the gift of Christ.

Not in error, not in unbelief, did a man like Job fight with grim death, strive to keep it at bay till his character was cleared. There was no acknowledged doctrine of the future to found upon. Of sheer necessity each burdened soul had to seek its own Apocalypse. He who had suffered with bleeding heart a lifelong sacrifice, he who had striven to free his fellow slaves and sank at last overborne by tyrannous power, the brave defeated, the good betrayed, those who sought through heathen beliefs and those who found in revealed religion the promises of God-all alike stood in sorrowful ignorance before inexorable death, beheld the shadows of the underworld and singly battled for hope amidst the deepening gloom. The sense of the overwhelming disaster of death to one whose life and religion are scornfully condemned is not ascribed to Job as a peculiar trial, rarely mingling with human experience. The writer of the book has himself felt it and has seen the shadow of it on many a face. "Where," as one asks, "were the tears of God as He thrust back into eternal stillness the hands stretched out to Him in dying faith?"

There was a religion which gave large and elaborate answer to the questions of mortality. The wide intelligence of the author of Job can hardly have missed the creed and ceremonial of Egypt; he cannot have failed to remember its "Book of the Dead." His own work, throughout, is at once a parallel and a contrast to that old vision of future life and Divine judgment. It has been affirmed that some of the forms of expression, especially in the nineteenth chapter, have their source in the Egyptian scripture, and that the "Book of the Dead" is full of spiritual aspirations which give it a striking resemblance to the Book of Job. Now, undoubtedly, the correspondence is remarkable and will bear examination. The soul comes before Osiris, who holds the shepherd’s crook and the penal scourge. Thoth (or Logos) breathes new spirit into the embalmed body, and the dead pleads for himself before the assessors-"Hail to thee, great Lord of Justice. I arrive near thee. I am one of those consecrated to thee on the earth. I reach the land of eternity. I rejoin the eternal country. Living is he who dwelleth in darkness; all his grandeurs live." The dead is in fact not dead, he is recreated; the mouth of no worm shall devour him. At the close of the "Book of the Dead" it is written, the departed "shall be among the gods; his flesh and bones shall be healthy as one who is not dead. He shall shine as a star forever and ever. He seeth God with his flesh." The defence of the soul in claiming beatitude is this: "I have committed no revenge in act or in heart, no excesses in love. I have injured no one with lies. I have driven away no beggars, committed no treacheries, caused no tears. I have not taken another’s property, nor ruined another, nor destroyed the laws of righteousness. I have not aroused contests, nor neglected the Creator of my soul. I have not disturbed the joy of others. I have not passed by the oppressed, sinning against my Creator, or the Lord, or the heavenly powers I am pure, pure."

There are many evident resemblances which have been already studied and would repay further attention; but the questions occur, how far the author of the Book of Job refused Egyptian influences, and why, in the face of a solution of his problem apparently thrust upon him with the authority of ages, he yet exerted himself to find a solution of his own, meanwhile throwing his hero into the hopelessness of one to whom death as a physical fact is final, compelled to forego the expectation of a daysman who should affirm his righteousness before the Lord of all. The "Book of the Dead" was, for one thing, identified with polytheism, with idolatry and a priestly system; and a thinker whose belief was entirely monotheistic, whose mind turned decisively from ritual, whose interests were widely humane, was not likely to accept as a revelation the promises of Egyptian priests to their aristocratic patrons, or to seek light from the mysteries of Isis and Osiris. Throughout his book our author is advancing to a conclusion altogether apart from the ideas of Egyptian faith regarding the trust of the soul. But chiefly his mind seems to have been repelled by the excessive care given to the dead body, with the consequent materialising of religion. Life to him meant so much that he needed a far more spiritual basis for its continuance than could be found in the preservation of the worn out frame; With rare and unsurpassed endeavour he was straining beyond time and sense after a vision of life in the union of man’s spirit with its Maker, and that Divine constancy in which alone faith could have acceptance and repose. No thought of maintaining himself in existence by having his body embalmed is ever expressed by Job. The author seems to scorn that childish dream of continuance. Death means decay, corruption. This doom passed on the body the stricken life must endure, and the soul must stay itself upon the righteousness and grace of God.

 


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Job 17:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/job-17.html.

Commentary Navigator
Search This Commentary
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology