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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Job 19

Job Speaks (19:1-29)

To read chapter 19 of Job is clearly to come to a kind of climax. Although commentators on the book differ quite widely among themselves concerning the nature of the climax and on practically all the details of the chapter, there is almost entire agreement that the thought rises to a great height here.

Verses 1-6

You Torment Rather than Comfort Me (19:1-6)

The critical nature of this speech by Job is indicated by the abrupt way it begins. Without any preliminaries he charges the friends with incredible cruelty toward him, "How long," he asks — in imitation of Bildad’s querulous beginning (Job 18:1; see also 8:1) — "will you torment me?" All the verbs in verses 2 and 3 are dramatic, suggesting the exercise of harsh force. "Ten times" (vs. 3) means "often." Verse 4, addressed to the friends, is not to be understood as a confession of specific sin. As Job plainly indicates, he raises the possibility of error as a hypothesis only (for a similar expression see Job 7:20). Even granting the truth of the friends’ charge, it still would prove nothing. The last line of verse 4 seems to mean that even if he had sinned (which he does not admit), it still would affect only himself and be his own affair, not the business of his friends. The following verse charges the friends with meddling for personal reasons — a remarkable insight into the unconscious motivation for much "comfort" — as they actually reveal their own insecurity and lack of strength.

Although it does not appear in the English translation of verse 6, Job here refers to a prior question of Bildad in 8:3. There Bildad had asked, in effect, "Does God do wrong?" As Bildad knows, it is fundamental to faith to answer "No." But absolute depth of despair cries "Yes!" In his case. Job charges, God has done wrong. The extreme to which Job has come is not merely that God is the author of his suffering; he now faces what the implication of that fact must be when taken together with his conviction of innocence, and he draws the terrible conclusion. Obviously this view would be totally destructive of all faith if it were allowed to stand. Chapter 19 shows how it is not allowed to stand, but it is not on the basis of rational argument that it is contra verted; rather, it is on the basis of Job’s own experience of the nature of God.

Verses 7-22

God Has Estranged Me from All Help (19:7-22)

Before that point is reached, however. Job must go a great deal further in exploration of the awful consequences of the apparent hostility on the part of God. The reader ought not to minimize the character of Job’s dilemma here as he recounts the effects of his tragedy on him personally (vss. 7-12) and its results in his total alienation from God and, indeed, from all humanity (vss. 13-19). Here is a classic statement of the total isolation to which an individual may be brought. It is also the darkness within which true light may begin to appear.

In his distress Job charges God with direct maliciousness, for Job’s just cry of "Violence!" goes unanswered (vs. 7) and all way of escape is cut off by the tormentor (vs. 8). In verse 9 there is a reference to the happy prosperity which Job had once enjoyed but which is now gone, or it could be a reference to a corresponding state of spiritual exaltation from which Job is now degraded.

In verse 10 there is a clear allusion to Bildad’s warning that hope does not apply in his case (Job 18:16), a warning which was evoked by Job’s previous reference to the "hope for a tree" (Job 14:7). Here even that faint hope seems to be removed violently by God. The section ends with a dark picture of God as a relentless adversary preparing war against Job, a picture which recalls earlier imagery (see, for example, Job 16:14).

To this catalogue of hopeless effects Job now adds a recital of his complete alienation from all human means of help. The background for his thinking is furnished by his longing for someone who would take the part of an advocate or witness and who would cany on his case when he is dead. Hence he calls for one after the other of the possible witnesses, only to find them all not only indifferent but hostile. God’s antagonism is painfully mirrored in human relationships, so that one of the most tragic elements of Job’s situation is this estrangement of all men from him.

The "brethren" of verse 13 are, as the parallel to "acquaintances" shows, those who are related to him in the bond of the Covenant nation. In verses 14-16 he moves closer home, to kinsfolk, friends, and guests in his own circle, and to those who formerly had been his servants.

In verse 17 he obviously refers to members of his own family — wife and (literally) "the sons of my womb." The latter expression might be interpreted as Job’s own children, although such a complete contradiction to the Prologue is hardly likely. It more probably means, as in the Revised Standard Version, the children of his own mother, that is, his literal brothers. These would be especially useful as witnesses were he not "loathsome" to them.

In view of the fact that the roll call of possible witnesses seems to be arranged in climactic order, rising to the culminating appeal to the friends, it is strange that verse 18 refers to "young children." These are children who mock Job ("talk against") as he tries to get up. It may be that these are children of the brethren of verse 17. At any rate, the last names on the list are those of his "intimate friends" themselves: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, whom Job has loved and whose heartless turning against him is his final crushing blow. His alienation is thus complete, a fact that he vividly states in verse 20, although the exact sense of the imagery is by no means clear. The first line must refer to his physical condition and probably implies extreme emaciation (clearly the meaning of the bones’ cleaving to the "skin," but not so clearly of the bones’ cleaving to the "flesh"). The second fine is more difficult. The words have become a proverbial expression for a narrow escape of any kind, and such is apparently the meaning here. But it is impossible to say with certainty what "the skin of my teeth" means. Neither "gums" nor "lips" is entirely satisfactory, and none of the many changes suggested by commentators is much better. The most we can safely say is that Job by this expression means that he is left with virtually nothing. So it is that he comes in a final pathetic cry to his friends for pity, or for some token of sympathy, or even for simple recognition of his state — that he is forsaken by God and man.

Here is the book’s sharpest picture of total alienation and aloneness. It is the kind of tragedy which even the Greek literary tragedies cannot match, for they lack the brighter background of former godliness against which to picture this blackness. For a parallel we must turn to the New Testament and to the one Righteous Sufferer who experienced forsakenness, of whose experience in Gethsemane and on the cross Job’s tragedy is a faint foregleam. The differences are, of course, more marked than the similarities, especially in the fact that whereas Job is alienated from mankind, Jesus is forsaken by men but his very forsakenness is for mankind. Moreover, because our Lord thus endured the depths of the human condition, no one has again to stand entirely alone.

Verses 23-29

But God Himself Is My Help (19:23-29)

In these seven verses which bring Job’s second speech to an end it is plain that (1) we have an important part of the discussion, (2) some climax of faith or religious experience is reached, and (3) we cannot be certain of the exact rendering of many expressions (see the differences between the Revised Standard Version and the older translations and the variations within the Revised Standard Version itself as indicated by the margin).

Verses 23 and 24 are the clearest of the seven and plainly show Job’s longing for some kind of permanent record of his experience and of his defense. His "words" may be either the ones he has already spoken or the ones he will now speak, more probably the former. He pleads for a record that will outlast him, from which succeeding generations may read the justification of his innocence — that innocence which he is so far unable to establish. For a similar idea see 16:18, where he appeals to the "earth" to witness to his cause. In verse 23 he imagines that his defense could be "written" or "inscribed" (literally, "engraved") in a book or possibly a metal scroll (as, for example, the copper scrolls found recently at Qumran). In the following verse he longs for an even more enduring testimony, an inscription cut into rock by a tool of iron and lead. Thus his cry of "Innocent!" would stand through the centuries.

No such possibility is real. Consequently, bereft of all chance of defense or vindication in himself (Job 19:1-12), in his fellow human beings (Job 19:13-22), or in an objective record (Job 19:23-24), he turns once again to God. We must remember that it is still the same God who, to Job, is the Author of his difficulties, the same God from whom he must necessarily feel himself estranged. This makes all the more remarkable Job’s affirmation, as in a mighty statement of conviction he declares that God himself is his "Redeemer" or "Vindicator" (margin). The word is the one that is used in the Old Testament for the near kinsman who undertakes responsibility for a relative who has been wronged, one who acts on behalf of another. It is used also of God’s redemptive activity on behalf of Israel. In his frantic roll call of acquaintances and relatives (vss. 13-22) Job has made a last desperate effort to find a "Vindicator" within the natural circle of human relationships; when that has failed he is thrown back on God. God himself is his security. Whatever future there is, is dependent on God. When Job has reached this state he has made a great advance, for he has literally been forced to the faith that God is the only One who can ultimately "justify" man. (That he is speaking of God seems to be clear from the application of the term "lives" and from the assertion of the following verse: "I shall see God.")

In the second line of verse 25 there is the indication that God who is Vindicator as well as Adversary (may we say more Vindicator than Adversary?) will witness for Job at the last. The reference to "dust" (margin) is obscure. It is hardly a term for "the earth"; nor can it be the dust of Job’s destroyed body. Similarly it is difficult to see why a reference to the dust of original creation would be inserted here.

In verse 26 the Hebrew is extremely difficult to translate. It is not certain whether Job means he will see God from within his flesh or from without it. The former is more probable; it points, then, not to a vision of God before death but to a meeting with God beyond death, a meeting which would not be for Job a disembodied, "spiritual" experience (hence not in Sheol) but a real, fully personal encounter (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-57).

Verse 27 confirms the fact that Job expects this meeting with the Vindicator God to be his own, and not that of someone else for him. It is to be his own joy and not that of a stranger. The phrases are repetitious, emphasizing strongly the personal quality of the statements.

If we are to take the translation of the last line of verse 27 (the original is very difficult) as in the Revised Standard Version, it must be understood as a reference to Job’s physical and emotional exhaustion after the spiritual climax he has just reached. Verses 28 and 29 are obviously a parting warning to the friends that, in the light of his present conviction, he knows that terrible judgment awaits them for their pursuit of him with false assumptions about his guilt.

Such an interpretation of this section is not without difficulties, and it leaves unexplained some of the obscurities of the passage. But in spite of these, and in spite of the difficult state of the Hebrew text here, we must not miss the fact that a great insight is set forth in these verses. It comes, as is often the case in the Book of Job, precisely when a depth of despair is plumbed. Moreover, this height is not maintained hereafter in unwavering and continuous faith. But this makes it more real and more directed toward us. When earthly security is completely removed, and when there is no future at all, then God becomes our true Security and pledges himself for the future. In this sense there is great justification in seeing this as an anticipation of the New Testament good news.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Job 19". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/job-19.html.