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Bible Commentaries
Job 39

Coke's Commentary on the Holy BibleCoke's Commentary

Verse 1


Of the wild goats and hinds; of the wild ass; the unicorn, the peacock, stork, and ostrich; the horse, the hawk, and the eagle.

Before Christ 1645.

Verse 2

Job 39:2. Canst thou number the months, &c.— The meaning of these questions is, "Knowest thou the time and circumstances of their bringing forth?" For, to know the time only was easy, and had nothing in it extraordinary; but the circumstances had something peculiarly expressive of God's providence, which makes the question proper in this place. Pliny observes, that the hind with young is by instinct directed to a certain herb called seselis, which facilitates the birth. Thunder also, which looks like the more immediate hand of Providence, has the same effect. Dr. Young.

Verse 3

Job 39:3. They bow themselves The manuscripts mark the two last verbs with a circle. Houbigant's version runs thus: They bow themselves; they burst with their pains; they cast forth their young. But I cannot help disagreeing with the learned father of the Oratory; as the passage, according to our version, appears to me much more emphatical. Every reader of taste must discern peculiar strength and beauty in the expression, They cast out their sorrows. Houbigant renders the 4th verse, [Knowest thou] how their young ones grow up, increase in the fields, and, once departing, return to them no more?—Whose house, in the 6th verse, would more properly be rendered whose habitation; and the barren land might be better rendered the thicket. The word מלחה melechah, signifies a kind of shrub; the covert, probably, in which these animals delight. See Parkhurst on the word מלח melach, 4.

Verse 7

Job 39:7. The multitude of the city Or, The thronged city.

Verse 9

Job 39:9. Will the unicorn, &c.— See Numbers 24:8. Schultens is of opinion, that the animal here mentioned is the Arabian buffaloe, of the bull species, but absolutely untameable, and which the Arabians frequently hunt. See the authorities which this learned writer has produced, in his note on the place.

Verses 13-18

Job 39:13-18. Goodly wings unto the peacocks Bochart seems to have proved, beyond all dispute, that the word rendered peacocks signifies ostriches; and the following description entirely agrees with that opinion. Mr. Heath renders the verse, The wing of the ostrich is triumphantly expanded, though the strong pinion be the portion of the stork and the falcon; Job 39:14 though she leaves her eggs, &c. Dr. Shaw renders the verse The wing of the ostrich is quivering or expanded, the very feathers and plumage of the stork; and he observes, that the warming of the eggs in the dust or sand, is by incubation; and that the beginning of the 14th verse might be more properly rendered, When she raiseth herself up to run away, namely, from her pursuers. In commenting on these verses, it may be observed, says the Doctor, that when the ostrich is full grown, the neck, particularly of the male, which before was almost naked, is now very beautifully covered with red feathers. The plumage likewise upon the shoulders, the back, and some parts of the wings, from being hitherto of a dark greyish colour, becomes now as black as jet, while the rest of the feathers retain an exquisite whiteness: They are, described at Job 39:13 the very feathers and plumage of the stork; i.e. they consist of such black and white feathers as the stork, called from thence πελαργος, is known to have. But the belly, the thighs, and the breast, do not partake of this covering, being usually naked, and when touched are found to be of the same warmth as the flesh of quadrupeds. Under the joint of the great pinion, and sometimes upon the lesser, there is a strong pointed excrescence like a cock's spur, with which it is said to prick and stimulate itself, and thereby acquire fresh strength and vigour when it is pursued. When these birds are surprized, by coming upon them while feeding in some valley, or behind some rocky or sandy eminence in the desarts, they will not stay to be curiously viewed and examined. Neither are the Arabs ever dexterous enough to overtake them, even when they are mounted upon their jinse, or horses. They, when they raise themselves up for flight, Job 39:18 laugh at the horse and his rider. They afford him an opportunity only of admiring at a distance their extraordinary agility, and the stateliness likewise of their motions, the richness of their plumage, and the great propriety there was of ascribing to them, Job 39:13 an expanded quivering wing. Nothing certainly can be more beautiful and entertaining than such a sight! the wings, by their repeated, though unwearied vibrations, equally serving them for sails and oars; while their feet, no less assisting in conveying them out of sight, are no less insensible of fatigue. The ostrich lays from thirty to fifty eggs. AElian mentions more than eighty; but I never heard of so large a number. The first egg is deposited in the centre; the rest are placed as conveniently as possible round about it. In this manner she is said to lay, deposit, or trust her eggs in the earth, and to warm them in the sand; Job 39:14 and forget (as they are not placed, like those of some other birds, upon trees, or in the clefts of rocks, &c.) that the foot of the traveller may crush them, or that the wild beast may break them. Yet, notwithstanding the ample provision which is hereby made for a numerous offspring, scarcely one quarter of these eggs are ever supposed to be hatched; and of those which are, no small share of the young ones may perish with hunger, from being left too early by their dams to shift for themselves; for in these, the most barren and desolate recesses of the Sahara, where the ostrich chooses to make her nest, it would not be enough to lay eggs and hatch them, unless some proper food was near at hand, and already prepared for their nourishment; and accordingly we are not to consider this large collection of eggs as if they were all intended for a brood: they are the greatest part of them reserved for food, which the dam breaks and disposes of, according to the number and the cravings of her young ones. But for all this, a very little share of that στοργη, or natural affection, which so strongly exerts itself in most other creatures, is observable in the ostrich: for, upon the least distant noise or trivial occasion, she forsakes her eggs or her young ones; to which, perhaps, she never returns; or if she does, it may be too late, either to restore life to the one, or preserve the lives of the others. Agreeably to this account, the Arabs meet sometimes with whole nests of these eggs undisturbed: some of which are sweet and good; others are addle and corrupted; others, again, have their young ones of different growths, according to the time that it may be presumed they have been forsaken by the dam. They oftener meet a few of the little ones, no bigger than well-grown pullets, half-starved, straggling and moaning about, like so many distressed orphans for their mother. And in this manner the ostrich may be said, Job 39:16 to be hardened against her young ones, as though they were not hers: her labour, in hatching and attending them so far, being in vain, without fear, or the least concern of what becomes of them afterwards. This want of affection is also recorded, Lamentations 4:3. The daughter of my people, says the prophet, is cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness. Nor is this the only reproach that may be due to the ostrich; she is likewise inconsiderate and foolish in her private capacity; particularly in her choice of food, which is frequently highly detrimental and pernicious to her; for she swallows every thing greedily and indiscriminately, whether it be pieces of rags, leather, wood, stone, or iron. When I was at Oran, I saw one of these birds swallow, without any seeming uneasiness or inconveniency, several leaden bullets, as they were thrown upon the floor, scorching hot from the mold: the divine providence in these, as well as in other respects, having deprived them of wisdom, neither hath it imparted to them understanding. Those parts of the Sahara which these birds chiefly frequent are destitute of all manner of food and herbage, except it be some few turfs of coarse grass, or a few solitary plants of the laureola, apocynum, and some other kinds; each of which is equally destitute of nourishment, and in the Psalmist's phrase, (cxxix. 6.) even withereth before it is plucked up. Yet these herbs, notwithstanding this want of moisture in their temperature, will sometimes have both their leaves and stalks studded all over with land-snails, which may afford them some little refreshment. It is very probable likewise that they may sometimes seize upon lizards and serpents, together with insects and reptiles of various kinds. Yet still, considering the great voracity and size of this camel-bird, it is wonderful, not only how the little ones, after they are weaned from the provisions before mentioned, should be brought up, but even how those of fuller growth, and much better qualified to look out for themselves, are able to subsist. Their organs of digestion, and particularly the gizzards, which by their strong friction will wear away even iron itself, shew them indeed to be granivorous; but yet they have scarcely ever an opportunity to exercise them in this way, unless when they chance to stray towards those parts of the country that are sown and cultivated, which is very seldom. For these, as they are much frequented by the Arabs at the several seasons of grazing, plowing, and gathering in the harvest, are little visited by, as indeed they would be an improper abode for, this shy timorous bird, a (φιλερημος ) lover of the desarts. This last circumstance in the behaviour of the ostrich is frequently alluded to in the Holy Scriptures: particularly Isaiah 13:21; Isaiah 34:13; Isa 43:20 and Jeremiah 50:39. Where the word יענה iaanah, instead of being rendered the ostrich, as it is rightly put in the margin, is called the owl, a word used likewise instead of יענה iaanah, or the ostrich, Lev 11:16 and Deuteronomy 14:15. While I was abroad I had several opportunities of amusing myself with the actions of the ostrich. It was very diverting to observe with what dexterity and equipoise of body it would play and frisk about on all occasions. In the heat of the day particularly, it would strut along the sunny side of the house with great majesty, perpetually fanning and priding itself with its quivering expanded wings, and seeming, at every turn, to admire and be in love with its shadow. Even at other times, whether walking about or resting upon the ground, the wings would continue these fanning vibratory motions, as if designed to mitigate and assuage the extraordinary heat wherewith their bodies seem to be naturally affected. They are often very rude and fierce to strangers; and are apt to be very mischievous, by striking violently with their feet; for the inward claw, or rather the hoof as we should call it, of this avis bisulca, being exceedingly strong-pointed and angular, I once saw an unfortunate person who had his belly ripped up by one of these strokes. While they are engaged in such assaults, they sometimes make a fierce, angry, and hissing noise, with their throats inflated and their mouths open: at other times, when less resistance is made, they have a chucking or cackling voice, as in the poultry kind, and thereby seem to rejoice and laugh as it were at the timorousness of their adversary. But during the lonesome part of the night, (as if their organs of voice had then attained a quite different tone,) they often make a very doleful and hideous noise, which would sometimes be like the roaring of a lion; at other times it would bear a nearer resemblance to the hoarser voices of other quadrupeds, particularly the bull and the ox. I have often heard them groan as if they were in the greatest agonies; an action beautifully alluded to by the prophet Mic 1:8 where it is said, I will make a mourning like the יעמה iaanah, or ostrich. יענה iaanah therefore, and רננים renanim, the names by which the ostrich is known in the Holy Scriptures, may very properly be deduced from ענה anah, and רנן renen; words which the lexicographers explain by exclamare, or clamare fortiter, to cry out, or to cry strongly: for the noise made by the ostrich being loud and sonorous, exclamare, or clamare fortiter, may with propriety enough be attributed to it; especially as those words do not seem to denote any certain or determined mode of voice or sound peculiar to any particular species of animals, but such as may be applicable to them all; to birds as well as quadrupeds and other creatures. See Travels, p. 430, &c.

Verses 19-25

Job 39:19-25. Hast thou given the horse strength, &c.— It is difficult to express violent motions, which are fleeting and transitory, either in colours or words. In poetry, it requires great spirit in thought, and energy in style, of which we find more in the eastern poetry than in either the Greek or Roman. The great Creator, who accommodated himself to those to whom he vouchsafed to speak, has put into the mouths of his prophets such sublime sentiments and exalted language as must abash the pride and wit of man. In this book of Job, the most ancient poem in the world, we have great variety of such paintings and descriptions. The description before us, of the horse, is one of these. Homer has a fine similitude of a horse, which Virgil has copied from him, and which is thus admirably translated:

The fiery courser, when he hears from far, The sprightly trumpets, and the shouts of war,
Pricks up his ears; and, trembling with delight, Shifts pace, and paws; and hopes the promis'd fight.
On his right shoulder his thick mane reclin'd, Ruffles at speed, and dances in the wind.
His horny hoofs are jetty black, and round; His chine is double; starting, with a bound He turns the turf, and shakes the solid ground.
Fire from his eyes, clouds from his nostrils flow; He bears his rider headlong on the foe.
Now compare this with the present passage, which, under all the disadvantages of having been written in a language little understood; of being expressed in phrases peculiar to a part of the world whose manner of thinking and speaking seems strange to us; and, above all, of appearing in a prose translation, is nevertheless so transcendantly above the heathen description, that hereby we may perceive how faint and languid are the images which are formed by mortal authors, when compared with that which is figured as it were just as it appears in the eye of the Creator. All the great and sprightly images which thought can form of this generous beast, are here expressed in such force and vigour of style, as would have given the great wits of antiquity new laws for the sublime, had they been acquainted with these writings. I cannot but particularly observe, that whereas the classic poets chiefly endeavour to paint the outward figure, lineaments, and motions, the sacred poet makes all the beauties to flow from an inward principle in the creature he describes, and thereby gives great spirit and vivacity to his description. Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder? Homer and Virgil mention nothing about the neck of the horse but his mane; the sacred author, by the bold figure of thunder, not only expresses the shaking of that remarkable beauty in the horse, and the flakes of hair which naturally suggest the idea of lightning; but likewise the violent agitation and force of the neck, which in the oriental tongues had been flatly expressed by a metaphor no less bold than this. Canst thou make him afraid as a grasshopper? Job 39:20 an expression which contains a twofold beauty, as it not only marks the courage of the beast, by asking him if he can be affrighted; but likewise raises a noble image of his swiftness, insinuating, that if that were possible, he would bound away with the nimbleness of the grasshopper. The glory of his nostrils is terrible. This is more strong and concise than that of Virgil, which is one at least of the noblest lines that was ever written without inspiration.

Collectumque premens volvit sub naribus ignem. Georg. iii. ver. 85.
And in his nostrils rolls collected fire.

He rejoiceth in his strength—He mocketh at fear.—Neither believeth he that it is the sound of the trumpet.—He saith among the trumpets, ha! ha!—are signs of courage, as I said before, flowing from an inward principle. There is a peculiar beauty in his not believing that it is the sound of the trumpet; i.e. he cannot believe it for joy. But when he is sure of it, and is among the trumpets, he saith ha! ha! he neighs; he rejoices [of which the Hebrew word האח heach, is strongly expressive]. His docility is elegantly painted, in his being unmoved at the rattling quiver, the glittering spear, and the shield. He swalloweth the ground, is an expression for prodigious swiftness, in use among the Arabians, Job's countrymen, at this day: it is the boldest and noblest of all images for swiftness. The Latins have something like it: but I have not met with any thing which comes so near it as Mr. Pope's lines in his Windsor Forest:

Th' impatient courser pants in every vein, And, pawing, seems to beat the distant plain; Hills, vales, and floods, appear already crost, And ere he starts, a thousand steps are lost.

He smelleth the battle afar off—and what follows, is a circumstance expressed with great spirit by Lucan:

So when this ring with joyful shouts resounds, With rage and pride th' imprison'd courser bounds; He frets, he foams, he rends his idle rein, Springs o'er the fence, and headlong seeks the plain. See Guardian, No. 86 and Lowth's Prel. 34.
It is but justice to our translators to observe, that their version appears greatly superior to all others, both in accuracy and elegance.

Verse 26

Job 39:26. Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom? &c.— Thuanus, De Re Accip. mentions a hawk which flew from London to Paris in a night; and it was on account of its remarkable swiftness that the Egyptians made it their hieroglyphic for the wind.

Verse 29

Job 39:29. Her eyes behold afar off Dr. Young paraphrases this well:

Thence [from the rock] wide o'er nature takes her dread survey, And, with a glance predestinates her prey.
And he observes, that the eagle is said to be of so acute a sight, that when she is so high in the air that man cannot see her, she can discern the smallest fish under water. The author of this book accurately understood the nature of the creatures which he describes, and seems to have been as great a naturalist as a poet. The classical reader will have a fine comment on this passage in the 4th book of Horace, Ode 4.

REFLECTIONS.—1st, How little Job's knowledge was, and how infinite that of God, is here most beautifully manifested; and while his tender mercies are seen over all his works, how unreasonable were Job's complaints against God, as cruel or unkind?

1. Who knows, but God alone, when the wild goats and hinds bring forth, how long they bear their burden, and the hour and moment in which they shall be delivered? Though their travailing pangs are sharp, they are safely preserved. Their young ones grow up by their sides, till able to seek their own sustenance; and then they quit their dam, forgetting and forgotten.
2. Who gave the wild ass liberty, and that untameable spirit which rejects restraint? God gives each beast its peculiar qualities, and provides for each a suitable provision and abode. The wilderness and barren mountain are his dwelling: far from the haunts of men, preferring liberty, though with poverty, to slavery with plenty; he despises the multitude that would seize him, and no driver urges him on with his cries. From place to place he roams in search of food, and finds pasture even in the wilderness. Note; (1.) Liberty is a precious jewel; and they who are free should, with noble spirit, maintain their happy independence. (2.) Shall man, who cannot give law to the wild ass's colt, presume to direct his Maker?

3. God bids him try to bind the רים riim, which we translate unicorn; though it is much doubted whether there be any such creature as we represent him. It is therefore frequently rendered the wild bull, which comes in appositely after what had been spoken of the wild ass. The tame ox might be brought to the yoke and crib; but who could make the wild bull serviceable, or break him to the plough or harrow? Great as his strength is, he is too unruly to be trusted with any labour of the field, and can neither be led nor driven. If Job then was not able to govern one creature, much more unfit was he to preside over the world, and direct the ways of Providence. Note; It is not ability, but the willingness to do good, which makes a man truly valuable.

2nd, The ostrich is next produced, as among the wondrous works of God. Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks, or rather ostriches, as others translate the word, to which alone the following verses relate, and whose wings are beautiful, while the peacocks have nothing singular. She layeth her eggs on the earth; not that, as some have suggested, they are dropped at random, and left to be hatched by the sun; for she has a nest where her eggs are deposited, yet on the earth, where every foot may crush them; and so forgetful is she, that when she lights on another nest, she will sit and hatch there, leaving her eggs, and hardened against her real young, as though they were not her own. Thus her labour is frequently for another, without fear of what will happen to her own; and this because God, from whom alone the different instincts of beasts, as well as reason in man, are derived, hath deprived her of wisdom. But, though so stupid and unnatural in danger, her speed is most rapid: raising herself (though unable to fly) by the assistance of her wings, she leaves the fleetest horse and its rider far behind. Note; (1.) How many ungodly parents, like the cruel ostrich, insensible to the fruit of their womb, expose their children to want by their extravagancies, or their souls to ruin by their neglect! (2.) Thus careless ministers desert their flocks, indifferent as to what becomes of them: if deceivers seduce them, or they perish for lack of knowledge, they are hardened against the loss. One thing, however, they forget not; though they refuse to feed their young, they are abundantly careful to feed themselves, and will have the fleece, though the devil seize the fold.

3rdly, How inimitably beautiful is the description of the Horse! Behold the horse trained for war; strength is in every motion; his rising neck is clothed with thunder; from his wide nostrils issues the copious stream; pawing in the valley, he seems to glory in his might; the armed host and glittering spear cannot intimidate him: eager to engage, he scarce can bear restraint, and, prancing fierce, seems as if he would swallow the ground under his feet; his ears erect, catch with delight the martial trumpet's sound; he snuffs the smell of battle from afar, and, animated by the shout or signal for engagement, fearless of death or danger, on he rushes, defies the sharp sword and rattling quiver, and tramples with resistless fury on whatever opposes him in his course: Note; such is the sinner: Jer 8:6 hurried on by inordinate appetite, he rushes to the gratification of his lusts; no danger, loss, or suffering can restrain him; yea, the very terrors of God's wrath he scorns, and runs on the thick bosses of his buckler; till, smitten through with the sword of death, he falls, and plunges into that gulph of perdition which he would not be warned to avoid.

4thly, The hawk and eagle are produced, among birds, in proof of the power and providence of God: the hawk, which with such sagacity pursues her prey, swift and strong, and from the colder climes at winter's approach, follows the southern sun: the eagle, which mounts to such a towering height, fixes her nest on the craggy rock, and makes it her abode; thence darting on her prey, descried from afar, she feeds her young with the raw flesh of slaughtered beasts; or, at the battle, waits for the carcases of the slain. Who taught such wisdom to the feathered fowl, or who directs their flight? not Job: and if he pretended not to challenge these, much less ought he to claim a right to direct the providence of God. Note; (1.) Though the sinner, like the eagle, builds his nest on the rock, Jeremiah 44:16, he that set him up on high can also cast him down. (2.) The greedy eye, sharp as the eagle's, ever attentive on gain, little cares how it be obtained, whether by sucking the blood of the oppressed, or by practices corrupt as the corpses of the dead.

Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Job 39". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tcc/job-39.html. 1801-1803.
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