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Bible Commentaries
Job 23

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-17



Job 23:1-17; Job 24:1-25


THE obscure couplet with which Job begins appears to involve some reference to his whole condition alike of body and mind.

"Again today, my plaint, my rebellion!

The hand upon me is heavier than my groanings."

I must speak of my trouble and you will count it rebellion. Yet, if I moan and sigh, my pain and weariness are more than excuse. The crisis of faith is with him, a protracted misery, and hope hangs trembling in the balance. The false accusations of Eliphaz are in his mind; but they provoke only a feeling of weary discontent. What men say does not trouble him much. He is troubled because of that which God refuses to do or say. Many indeed are the afflictions of the righteous. But every case like his own obscures the providence of God. Job does not entirely deny the contention of his friends that unless suffering comes as a punishment of sin there is no reason for it. Hence, even though he maintains with strong conviction that the good are often poor and afflicted while the wicked prosper, yet he does not thereby clear up the matter. He must admit to himself that he is condemned by the events of life. And against the testimony of outward circumstance he makes appeal in the audience chamber of the King.

Has the Most High forgotten to be righteous for a time? When the generous and true are brought into sore straits, is the great Friend of truth neglecting His task as Governor of the world? That would indeed plunge life into profound darkness. And it seems to be even so. Job seeks deliverance from this mystery which has emerged in his own experience. He would lay his cause before Him who alone can explain.

"Oh that I knew where I might find Him,

That I might come even to His seat!

I would order my cause before Him,

And fill my mouth with arguments.

I would know the words which He would answer me

And understand what He would say unto me."

Present to Job’s mind here is the thought that he is under condemnation, and along with this the conviction that his trial is not over. It is natural that his mind should hover between these ideas, holding strongly to the hope that judgment, if already passed, will be revised whet the facts are fully known. Now this course of thought is altogether in the darkness. But what are the principles unknown to Job, through ignorance of which he has to languish in doubt? Partly, as we long ago saw the explanation lies in the use of trial and affliction as the means of deepening spiritual life. They give gravity and therewith the possibility of power to our existence. Even yet Job had not realised that one always kept in the primrose path, untouched by the keen air of "misfortune" although he had, to begin, a pious disposition and a blameless record, would be worth little: the end to God or to mankind. And the necessity for the discipline of affliction and disappointment, even as it explains the smaller troubles, explains also the greatest. Let ill be heaped on ill, disaster on disaster, disease on bereavement, misery on sorrow, while stage by stage the life goes down into deeper circles of gloom and pain, it may acquire, it will acquire, if faith and faithfulness towards God remain, massiveness, strength, and dignity for the highest spiritual service. But there is another principle, not yet considered, which enters into the problem and still more lightens up the valley of experience which to Job appeared so dark. The poem touches the fringe of this principle again and again, but never states it. The author says that men were born to trouble. He made Job suffer more because he had his integrity to maintain than if he had been guilty of transgressions by acknowledging which he might have pacified his friends: The burden lay heavily upon Job because he was a conscientious man, a true man, and could not accept any make believe in religion. But just where another step would have carried him into the light of blessed acquiescence in the will of God the power failed, he could not advance. Perhaps the genuineness and simplicity of his character would have been impaired if he had thought of it. and we like him better because he did not. The truth, however, is that Job was suffering for others, that he was, by the grace of God, a martyr, and so far forth in the spirit and position of that suffering Servant of Jehovah of whom we read in the prophecies of Isaiah.

The righteous sufferers, the martyrs, what are they? Always the vanguard of humanity. Where they go and the prints of their bleeding feet are left, there is the way of improvement, of civilisation, of religion. The most successful man, preacher or journalist or statesman, is popularly supposed to be leading the world in the right path. Where the crowd goes shouting after him, is that not the way to advance? Do not believe it. Look for a teacher, a journalist, a statesman who is not so successful as he might be, because he will, at all hazards, be true. The Christian world does not yet know the best in life, thought, and morality for the best. He who sacrifices position and esteem to righteousness, he who will not bow down to the great idol at the sound of sackbut and psaltery, observe where that man is going, try to understand what he has in his mind. Those who under defeat or neglect remain steadfast in faith have the secrets we need to know. To the ranks even of the afflicted and broken the author of Job turned for an example of witness bearing to high ideas and the faith in God which brings salvation. But he wrought in the shadow, and his hero is unconscious of his high calling. Had Job seen the principles of Divine providence which made him a helper of human faith, we should not now hear him cry for an opportunity of pleading his cause before God.

"Would He contend with me in His mighty power?

Nay, but He would give heed to me.

Then an upright man would reason with Him;

So should I get free forever from my Judge."

It is in a sense startling to hear this confident expectation of acquittal at the bar of God. The common notion is that the only part possible to man in his natural state is to fear the judgment to come and dread the hour that shall bring him to the Divine tribunal. From the ordinary point of view the language of Job here is dangerous, if not profane. He longs to meet the Judge; he believes that he could so state his case that the Judge would listen and be convinced. The Almighty would not contend with him any longer as his powerful antagonist, but would pronounce him innocent and set him at liberty forever. Can mortal man vindicate himself before the bar of the Most High? Is not every one condemned by the law of nature and of conscience, much more by Him who knoweth all things? And yet this man who believes he would be acquitted by the great King has already been declared "perfect and upright, one that feareth God and escheweth evil." Take the declaration of the Almighty Himself in the opening scenes of the book, and Job is found what he claims to be. Under the influence of that Divine grace which the sincere and upright may enjoy he has been a faithful servant and has earned the approbation of his Judge. It is by faith he is made righteous. Religion and love of the Divine law have been his guides; he has followed them; and what one has done may not others do? Our book is concerned not so much with the corruption of human nature, as with the vindication of the grace of God given to human nature. Corrupt and vile as humanity often is, imperfect and spiritually ignorant as it always is, the writer of this book is not engaged with that view. He directs attention to the virtuous and honourable elements and shows God’s new creation in which He may take delight.

We shall indeed find that after the Almighty has spoken out of the storm, Job says, "I repudiate my words and repent in dust and ashes." So he appears to come at last to the confession which, from one point of view, he ought to have made at the first. But those words of penitence imply no acknowledgment of iniquity after all. They are confession of ignorant judgment. Job admits with sorrow that he has ventured too far in his attempt to understand the ways of the Almighty, that he has spoken without knowledge of the universal providence he had vainly sought to fathom.

The author’s intention plainly is to justify Job in his desire for the opportunity of pleading his cause, that is, to justify the claim of the human reason to comprehend. It is not an offence to him that much of the Divine working is profoundly difficult to interpret. He acknowledges in humility that God is greater than man, that there are secrets with the Almighty which the human mind cannot penetrate. But so far as suffering and sorrow are appointed to a man and enter into his life, he is considered to have the right of inquiry regarding them, an inherent claim on God to explain them. This may be held the error of the author which he himself has to confess when he comes to the Divine interlocution. There he seems to allow the majesty of the Omnipotent to silence the questions of human reason. But this is really a confession that his own knowledge does not suffice, that he shares the ignorance of Job as well as his cry for light. The universe is vaster than he or any of the Old Testament age could even imagine. The destinies of man form part of a Divine order extending through the immeasurable spaces and the developments of eternal ages.

Once more Job perceives or seems to perceive that access to the presence of the Judge is denied. The sense of condemnation shuts him in like prison walls and he finds no way to the audience chamber. The bright sun moves calmly from east to west; the gleaming stars, the cold moon in their turn glide silently over the vault of heaven. Is not God on high? Yet man sees no form, hears no sound.

"Speak to Him thou, for He hears, and spirit with spirit can meet;

Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet."

But Job is not able to conceive a spiritual presence without shape or voice.

"Behold, I go forward, but He is not there;

And backward, but I cannot perceive Him:

On the left hand where He doth work, but I behold Him not:

He hideth Himself on the right hand that I cannot see Him."

Nature, thou hast taught this man by thy light and thy darkness, thy glorious sun and thy storms, the clear shining after rain, the sprouting corn and the clusters of the vine, by the power of man’s will and the daring love and justice of man’s heart. In all thou hast been a revealer. But thou hidest whom thou dost reveal. To cover in thought the multiplicity of, thy energies in earth and sky and sea, in fowl and brute and man, in storm and sunshine, in reason, in imagination, in will and love and hope; -to attach these one by one to the idea of a Being almighty, infinite, eternal, and so to conceive this God of the universe-it is, we may say, a superhuman task. Job breaks down in the effort to realise the great God. I took behind me, into the past. There are the footprints of Eloah when He passed by. In the silence an echo of His step may be heard; but God is not there. On the right hand, away beyond the hills that shut in the horizon, on the left hand where the ways leads to Damascus and the distant north-not there can I see His form; nor out yonder where day breaks in the east. And when I travel forward in imagination, I who said that my Redeemer shall stand upon the earth, when I strive to conceive His form, still, in utter human incapacity, I fail. "Verily, Thou art a God that hidest Thyself."

And yet, Job’s conviction of his own uprightness, is it not God’s witness to his spirit? Can he not be content with that? To have such a testimony is to have the very verdict he desire. Well does Boethius, a writer of the old world though he belonged to the Christian age, press beyond Job where he writes:

"He is always Almighty, because He always wills good and never any evil. He is always equally gracious. By His Divine power He is everywhere present. The Eternal and Almighty always sits on the throne of His power. Thence He is able to see all, and renders to every one with justice, according to his works. Therefore it is. not in vain that we have hope in God; for He changes not as we do. But pray ye to Him humbly, for He is very bountiful and very merciful. Hate and fly from evil as ye best may. Love virtues and follow them. Ye have great need that ye always do well, for ye always in the presence of the Eternal and Almighty God do all that ye do. He beholds it all, and He will recompense it all."

Amiel, on the other hand, would fain apply to Job a reflection which has occurred to himself in one of the moods that come to a man disappointed, impatient of his own limitations. In his journal, under date January 29th, 1866, he writes:

"It is but our secret self-love which is set upon this favour from on high; such may be our desire, but such is not the will of God. We are to be exercised, humbled, tried and tormented to the end. It is our patience which is the touchstone of our virtue. To bear with life even when illusion and hope are gone; to accept this position of perpetual war, while at the same time loving only peace; to stay patiently in the world, even when it repels us as a place of low company and seems to us a mere arena of bad passions; to remain faithful to one’s own faith without breaking with the followers of false gods; to make no attempt to escape from the human hospital, long-suffering and patient as Job upon his dunghill; -this is duty."

An evil mood prompts Amiel to write thus. A thousand times rather would one hear him crying like Job on the great Judge and Redeemer and complaining that the Goal hides Himself. It is not in bare self-love or self-pity Job seeks acquittal at the bar of God; but in the defence of conscience, the spiritual treasure of mankind and our very life. No doubt his own personal justification bulks largely with Job, for he has strong individuality. He will not be overborne. He stands at bay against his three friends and the unseen adversary. But he loves integrity, the virtue, first; and for himself he cares as the representative of that which the Spirit of God gives to faithful men. He may cry, therefore, he may defend himself, he may complain; and God will not cast him off.

"For He knoweth the way that I take;

If He tried me, I should come forth as gold.

My foot hath held fast to His steps,

His way have I kept, and not turned aside.

I have not gone back from the commandments of His lips;

I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my needful food."

Bravely, not in mere vaunt he speaks, and it is good to hear him still able to make such a claim. Why do we not also hold fast to the garment of our Divine Friend? Why do we not realise and exhibit the resolute godliness that anticipates judgment: "If He tried me, I should come forth as gold"? The psalmists of Israel stood thus on their faith; and not in vain, surely, has Christ called us to be like our Father who is in heaven.

But again from brave affirmation Job falls back exhausted.

Oh thou Hereafter! on whose shore I stand-

Waiting each toppling moment to engulf me.

What am I? Say thou Present! say thou Past!

Ye three wise children of Eternity-

A life?-A death?-and an immortal?-All?

Is this the threefold mystery of man?

The lower, darker Trinity of earth?

It is vain to ask.

Nought answers me-not God.

The air grows thick and dark.

The sky comes down.

The sun draws round him streaky clouds-like God

Gleaning up wrath.

Hope hath leapt off my heart,

Like a false sibyl, fear-smote, from her seat,

And overturned it.

So, as Bailey makes his Festus speak, might Job have spoken here. For now it seems to him that to call on God is fruitless. Eloah is of one mind. His will is steadfast, immovable. Death is in the cup and death will come. On this God has determined. Nor is it in Job’s case alone so sore a doom is performed by the Almighty. Many such things are with Him. The waves of trouble roll up from the deep dark sea and go over the head of the sufferer. He lies faint and desolate once more. The light fades, and with a deep sigh because he ever came to life he shuts his lips.

Natural religion ends always with a sigh. The sense of God found in the order of the universe, the dim vision of God which comes in conscience, moral life and duty, in fear and hope and love, in the longing for justice and truth-these avail much; but they leave us at the end desiring something they cannot give. The Unknown God whom men ignorantly worshipped had to be revealed by the life and truth and power of the Man Christ Jesus. Not without this revelation, which is above and beyond nature, can our eager quest end in satisfying knowledge. In Christ alone the righteousness that justifies, the love that compassionates, the wisdom that enlightens are brought into the range of our experience and communicated through reason to faith.

In chapter 24 there is a development of the reasoning contained in Job’s reply to Zophar in the second colloquy, and there is also a closer examination of the nature and results of evildoing than has yet been attempted. In the course of his acute and careful discrimination Job allows something to his friends’ side of the argument, but all the more emphasises the series of vivid touches by which the prosperous tyrant is represented. He modifies to some extent his opinion previously expressed that all goes well with the wicked. He finds that certain classes of miscreants do come to confusion, and he separates these from the others, at the same time separating himself beyond question from the oppressor on this side and the murderer and adulterer on that. Accepting the limits of discussion chosen by the friends he exhausts the matter between himself and them. By the distinctions now made and the choice offered, Job arrests personal accusation, and of that we hear no more.

Continuing the idea of a Divine assize which has governed his thought throughout this reply, Job asks why it should not be held openly from time to time in the world’s history.

"Why are times not set by the Almighty?

And why do not they who know Him see His days?"

Emerson says the world is full of judgment days; Job thinks it is not, but ought to be. Passing from his own desire to have access to the bar of God and plead there, he now thinks of an open court, a public vindication of God’s rule. The Great Assize is never proclaimed. Ages go by; the Righteous One never appears. All things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation. Men struggling, sinning, suffering, doubt or deny the existence of a moral Ruler. They ask, Who ever saw this God? If He exists, He is so separate from the world by His own choice that there is no need to consider Him. In pride or in sorrow men raise the question. But no God means no justice, no truth, no penetration of the real by the ideal; and thought cannot rest there.

With great vigour and large knowledge of the world the writer makes Job point out the facts of human violence and crime, of human condonation and punishment. Look at the oppressors and those who cringe under them, the despots never brought to justice, but on the contrary growing in power through the fear and misery of their serfs. Already we have seen how perilous it is to speak falsely for God. Now we see, on the other hand, that whoever speaks truly of the facts of human experience prepares the way for a true knowledge of God. Those who have been looking in vain for indications of Divine justice and grace are to learn that not in deliverance from the poverty and trouble of this world but in some other way they must realise God’s redemption. The writer of the book is seeking after that kingdom which is not meat and drink nor long life and happiness, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.

Observe first, says Job, the base and cruel men who remove landmarks and claim as their own a neighbour’s heritage, who drive into their pastures flocks that are not theirs, who even take away the one ass of the fatherless and the one ox the widow has for ploughing her scanty fields, who thus with a high hand overbear all the defenceless people within their reach. Zophar had charged Job with similar crimes, and no direct reply was given to the accusation. Now, speaking strongly of the iniquity of such deeds, Job makes his accusers feel their injustice towards him. There are men who do such things. I have seen them, wondered at them, been amazed that they were not struck down by the hand of God. My distress is that I cannot understand how to reconcile their immunity from punishment with my faith in Him whom I have served and trusted as my Friend.

The next picture, from the fifth to the eighth verse (Job 24:5-8) , shows in contrast to the tyrant’s pride and cruelty the lot of those who suffer at his hands. Deprived of their land and their flocks, herding together in common danger and misery like wild asses, they have to seek for their food such roots and wild fruits as can be found here and there in the wilderness. Half enslaved now by the man who took away their land they are driven to the task of harvesting his fodder and gathering the gleanings of his grapes. Naked they lie in the field, huddling together for warmth, and out among the hills they are wet with the impetuous rams, crouching in vain under the ledges of the rock for shelter.

Worse things too are done, greater sufferings than these have to be endured. Men there are who pluck the fatherless child from the mother’s breast, claiming the poor little life as a pledge. Miserable debtors, faint with hunger, have to carry the oppressor’s sheaves of corn. They have to grind at the oil presses, and with never a cluster to slake their thirst tread the grapes in the hot sun. Nor is it only in the country cruelties are practised. Perhaps in Egypt the writer has seen what he makes Job describe, the misery of city life. In the city the dying groan uncared for, and the soul of the wounded crieth out. Universal are the scenes of social iniquity. The world is full of injustice. And to Job the sting of it all is that "God regardeth not the wrong."

Men talk nowadays as if the penury and distress prevalent in our large towns proved the churches to be unworthy of their name and place. It may be so. If this can be proved, let it be proved; and if the institution called The Church cannot justify its existence and its Christianity where it should do so by freeing the poor from oppression and securing their rights to the weak, then let it go to the wall. But here is Job carrying the accusation a stage farther, carrying it, with what may appear blasphemous audacity, to the throne of God. He has no church to blame, for there is no church. Or, he himself represents what church there is. And as a witness for God, what does he find to be his portion? Behold him, where many a servant of Divine righteousness has been in past times and is now, down in the depths, poorest of the poor, bereaved, diseased, scorned, misunderstood, hopeless. Why is there suffering? Why are there many in our cities outcasts of society, such as society is? Job’s case is a partial explanation; and here the church is not to blame. Pariahs of society, we say. If society consists to any great extent of oppressors who are enjoying wealth unjustly gained, one is not so sure that there is any need to pity those who are excluded from society. Am I trying to make out that it may be well there are oppressors, because oppression is not the worst thing for a brave soul? No: I am only using the logic of the Book of Job in justifying Divine providence. The church is criticised and by many in these days condemned as worthless because it is not banishing poverty. Perhaps it might be more in the way of duty and more likely to succeed if it sought to banish excessive wealth. Are we of the twentieth Christian century to hold still by the error of Eliphaz and the rest of Job’s friends? Are we to imagine that those whom the gospel blesses it must of necessity enrich, so that in their turn they may be tempted to act the Pharisee? Let us be sure God knows how to govern His world. Let us not doubt His justice because many are very poor who have been guilty of no crimes and many very rich who have been distinguished by no virtues. It is our mistake to think that all would be well if no bitter cries were heard in the midnight streets and every one were secured against penury. While the church is partly to blame for the state of things, the salvation of society will not be found in any earthly socialism. On that side lies a slough as deep as the other from which it professes to save. The large Divine justice and humanity which the world needs are those which Christ alone has taught, Christ to whom property was only something to deal with on the way to spiritual good, -humility, holiness, love, and faith.

The emphatic "These" with which Job 24:13 begins must be taken as referring to the murderer and adulterer immediately to be described. Quite distinct from the strong oppressors who maintain themselves in high position are these cowardly miscreants who "rebel against the light" (Job 24:13), who "in the dark dig through houses" and "know not the light" (Job 24:16), to whom "the morning is as the shadow of death," whose "portion is cursed in the earth." The passage contains Job’s admission that there are vile transgressors of human and Divine law whose unrighteousness is broken as a tree (Job 24:20). Without giving up his main contention as to high-handed wickedness prospering in the world he can admit this; nay, asserting it, he strengthens his position against the arguments of his friends. The murderer who rising towards daybreak waylays and kills the poor and needy for the sake of their scanty belongings, the adulterer who waits for the twilight, disguising his face, and the thief who in the dark digs through the clay wall of a house these do find the punishment of their treacherous and disgusting crimes in this life. The coward who is guilty of such sin is loathed even by the mother who bore him and has to skulk in by ways, familiar with the terrors of the shadow of death, daring, not to turn in the way of the vineyards to enjoy their fruit. The description of these reprobates ends with the twenty-first verse, and then there is a return to the "mighty" and the Divine support they appear to enjoy.

The interpretation of Job 24:18-21 which makes them "either actually in part the work of a popular hand, or a parody after the popular manner by Job himself," has no sufficient ground. To affirm that the passage is introduced ironically and that Job 24:22 resumes the real history of the murderer, the adulterer, and the thief is to neglect the distinction between those "who rebel against the light" and the mighty who live in the eye of God. The natural interpretation is that which makes the whole a serious argument against the creed of the friends. In their eagerness to convict Job they have failed to distinguish between men whose base crimes bring them under social reprobation and the proud oppressors who prosper through very arrogance. Regarding these the fact still holds that apparently they are under the protection of Heaven.

Yet He sustaineth the mighty by His power,

They rise up though they despaired of life.

He giveth them to be safe, and they are unheld,

And His eyes are upon their ways.

They rise high: in a moment they are not;

They are brought low, like all others gathered in.

And cut off as the tops of corn.

If not-who then will make me a liar,

And to nothing bring my speech?

Is the daring right-defying evildoer wasted by disease, preyed upon by terror? Not so. When he appears to have been crushed, suddenly he starts up again in new vigour, and when he dies, it is not prematurely but in the ripeness of full age. With this reaffirmation of the mystery of God’s dealings Job challenges his friends. They have his final judgment. The victory he gains is that of one who will be true at all hazards. Perhaps in the background of his thought is the vision of a redemption not only of his own life but of all those broken by the injustice and cruelty of this earth.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Job 23". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/job-23.html.
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