THE DIVINE PREROGATIVE
Job 35:1-16; Job 36:1-33; Job 37:1-24
AFTER a long digression Elihu returns to consider the statement ascribed to Job, "It profiteth a man nothing that he should delight himself with God." [Job 34:9] This he laid hold of as meaning that the Almighty is unjust, and the accusation has been dealt with. Now he resumes the question of the profitableness of religion.
"Thinkest thou this to be in thy right, And callest thou it ‘My just cause before God,’ That thou dost ask what advantage it is to thee, And ‘What profit have I more than if I had sinned’?"
In one of his replies Job, speaking of the wicked, represented them as saying, "What is the Almighty that we should serve Him? and what profit should we have if we pray unto him?". [Job 21:15] He added then, "The counsel of the wicked be far from me." Job is now declared to be of the same opinion as the wicked whom he condemned. The man who again and again appealed to God from the judgment of his friends, who found consolation in the thought that his witness was in heaven, who, when be was scorned, sought God in tears and hoped against hope for His redemption, is charged with holding, faith and religion of no advantage. Is it in misapprehension or with design the charge is made? Job did indeed occasionally seem to deny the profit of religion, but only when the false theology of his friends drove him to false judgment. His real conviction was right. Once Eliphaz pressed the same accusation and lost his way in trying to prove it. Elihu has no fresh evidence, and he too falls into error. He confounds the original charge against Job with another, and makes an offence of that which the whole scope of the poem and our sense of right completely justify.
"Look unto the heavens and see,
And regard the clouds which are higher than thou.
If thou sinnest, what doest thou against Him?
Or if thy transgressions be multiplied, what doest thou unto Him?
If thou be righteous, what givest thou Him?
Or what receiveth He at thy hands?"
Elihu is actually proving, not that Job expects too little from religion and finds no profit in it, but that he expects too much. Anxious to convict, he will show that man has no right to make his faith depend on God’s care for his integrity. The prologue showed the Almighty pleased with His servant’s faithfulness. That, says Elihu, is a mistake.
Consider the clouds and the heavens which are far above the world. Thou canst not touch them, affect them. The sun and moon and stars shine with undiminished brightness, however vile men may be. The clouds come and go quite independently of the crimes of men. God is above those clouds, above that firmament. Neither can the evil hands of men reach His throne, nor the righteousness of men enhance His glory. It is precisely what we heard from the lips of Eliphaz, [Job 22:2-4] an argument which abuses man for the sake of exalting God. Elihu has no thought of the spiritual relationship between man and his Creator. He advances with perfect composure as a hard dogma what Job said in the bitterness of his soul.
If, however, the question must still be answered, What good end is served by human virtue? the reply is, -
"Thy wickedness may hurt a man as thou art;
And thy righteousness may profit a son of man."
God sustains the righteous and punishes the wicked, not for the sake of righteousness itself but purely for the sake of men. The law is that of expediency. Let not man dream of witnessing for God, or upholding any eternal principle dear to God. Let him confine religious fidelity and aspiration to their true sphere, the service of mankind. Regarding which doctrine we may simply say that, if religion is profitable in this way only, it may as well be frankly given up and the cult of happiness adopted for it everywhere. But Elihu is not true to his own dogma.
The next passage, beginning with Job 35:9, seems to be an indictment of those who in grievous trouble do not see and acknowledge the Divine blessings which are the compensations of their lot. Many in the world are sorely oppressed. Elihu has heard their piteous cries. But he has this charge against them, that they do not realise what it is to be subjects of the heavenly King.
By reason of the multitude of oppressions men cry out,
They cry for help by reason of the arm of the mighty;
But none saith, Where is God my Maker,
Who giveth songs in the night,
Who teacheth us more than the beasts of the earth,
And maketh us wiser than the fowls of heaven?
There they cry because of the pride of evil men;
But none giveth answer.
These cries of the oppressed are complaints against pain, natural outbursts of feeling, like the moans of wounded animals. But those who are cruelly wronged may turn to God and endeavour to realise their position as intelligent creatures of His who should feel after Him and find Him. If they do so, then hope will mingle with their sorrow and light arise on their darkness. For in the deepest midnight God’s presence cheers the soul and tunes the voice to songs of praise. The intention is to show that when prayer seems of no avail and religion does not help, it is because there is no real faith, no right apprehension by men of their relation to God. Elihu, however, fails to see that if the righteousness of men is not important to God as righteousness, much less will He be interested in their grievances. The bond of union between the heavenly and the earthly is broken; and it cannot be restored by showing that the grief of men touches God more than their sin. Job’s distinction is that he clings to the ethical fellowship between a sincere man and his Maker and to the claim and the hope involved in that relationship. There we have the jewel in the lotus flower of this book, as in all true and noble literature. Elihu, like the rest, is far beneath Job. If he can be said to have a glimmering of the idea it is only that he may oppose it. This moral affinity with God as the principle of human life remains the secret of the inspired author; it lifts him above the finest minds of the Gentile world. The compiler of the Elihu portion, although he has the admirable sentiment that God giveth songs in the night, has missed the great and elevating truth which fills with prophetic force the original poem.
From Job 35:14 onward to the close of the chapter the argument is turned directly against Job, but is so obscure that the meaning can only be conjectured.
"Surely God will not hear vanity,
Neither will the Almighty regard it."
If any one cries out against suffering as an animal in pain might cry, that is vanity, not merely emptiness but impiety, and God will not hear nor regard such a cry. Elihu means that Job’s complaints were essentially of this nature. True, he had called on God; that cannot be denied. He had laid his case before the Judge and professed to expect vindication. But he was at fault in that very appeal, for it was still of suffering he complained, and he was still impious.
"Even when thou sayest that thou seest Him not,
That thy cause is before Him and thou waitest for Him;
Even then because His anger visiteth not,
And He doth not strictly regard transgression,
Therefore doth Job open his mouth in vanity,
He muitiplieth words without knowledge."
The argument seems to be: God rules in absolute supremacy, and His will is not to be questioned; it may not be demanded of Him that He do this or that. What is a man that he, should dare to state any "righteous cause" of his before God and claim justification? Let Job understand that the Almighty has been showing leniency, holding back His hand. He might kill any man outright and there would be no appeal nor ground of complaint. It is because He does not strictly regard iniquity that Job is still alive. Therefore appeals and hopes are offensive to God.
The insistence of this part of the book reaches a climax here and becomes repulsive. Elihu’s opinions oscillate we may say between Deism and Positivism, and on either side he is a special pleader. It is by the mercy of the Almighty all men live; yet the reasoning of Elihu makes mercy so remote and arbitrary that prayer becomes an impertinence. No doubt there are some cries out of trouble which cannot find response. But he ought to maintain, on the other hand, that if sincere prayer is addressed to God by one in sore affliction desiring to know wherein he has sinned and imploring deliverance, that appeal shall be heard. This, however, is denied. For the purpose of convicting Job Elihu takes the singular position that though there is mercy with God man is neither to expect nor ask it, that to make any claim upon Divine grace is impious. And there is no promise that suffering will bring spiritual gain. God has a right to afflict His creatures, and what He does is to be endured without a murmur because it is less than He has the right to appoint. The doctrine is adamantine and at the same time rent asunder by the error which is common to all Job’s opponents. The soul of a man resolutely faithful like Job would turn away from it with righteous contempt and indignation. The light which Elihu professes to enjoy is a midnight of dogmatic darkness.
Passing to chapter 36, we are still among vague surmisings which appear the more inconsequent that the speaker makes a large claim of knowledge.
"Suffer me a little and I will show thee,
For I have somewhat yet to say on God’s behalf.
I will fetch my knowledge from afar,
And will ascribe righteousness to my Maker.
For truly my words are not false:
One that is perfect in knowledge is with thee."
Elihu is zealous for the honour of that great Being whom he adores because from Him he has received life and light and power. He is sure of what he says, and proceeds with a firm step. Preparation thus made, the vindication of God follows-a series of sayings which draw to something useful only when the doctrine becomes hopelessly inconsistent with what has already been laid down.
Behold God is mighty and despiseth not any;
He is mighty in strength of understanding.
He preserveth not the life of the wicked,
But giveth right to the poor.
He withdraweth not His eyes from the righteous,
But, with kings on the throne,
He setteth them up forever, and they are exalted.
And if they be bound in fetters,
If they be held in cords of affliction,
Then He showeth them their work
And their transgressions, that they have acted proudly,
He openeth their ear to discipline
And commandeth that they return from iniquity.
"God despiseth not any"-this appears to have something of the humane breath hitherto wanting in the discourses of Elihu. He does not mean, however, that the Almighty estimates every life without contempt, counting the feeblest and most sinful as His creatures; but that He passes over none in the administration of His justice. Illustrations of the doctrine as Elihu intends it to be received are supplied in the couplet, "He preserveth not the life of the wicked, but giveth right to the poor." The poor are helped, the wicked are given up to death. As for the righteous, two very different methods of dealing with them are described. For Elihu himself, and others favoured with prosperity, the law of the Divine order has been, "With kings on the throne God setteth them up forever." A personal consciousness of merit leading to honourable rank in the state seems at variance with the hard dogma of the evil desert of all men. But the rabbi has his own position to fortify. The alternative, however, could, not be kept out of sight, since the misery of exile was a vivid recollection, if not an actual experience, with many reputable men who were bound in fetters and held by cords of affliction. It is implied that, though of good character, these are not equal in righteousness to the favourites of kings. Some errors require correction; and these men are cast into trouble, that they may learn to renounce pride and turn from iniquity. Elihu preaches the benefits of chastening, and in touching on pride he comes near the case of Job. But the argument is rude and indiscriminative. To admit that a man is righteous and then speak of his transgressions and iniquity, must mean that he is really far beneath his reputation or the estimate he has formed of himself.
It is difficult to see precisely what Elihu considers the proper frame of mind which God will reward. There must be humility, obedience, submission to discipline, renunciation of past errors. But we remember the doctrine that a man’s righteousness cannot profit God, can only profit his fellow men. Does Elihu, then, make submission to the powers that be almost the same thing as religion? His reference to high position beside the throne is to a certain extent suggestive of this.
"If they obey and serve God,
They shall spend their days in prosperity
And their years in pleasures.
But if they obey not
They shall perish by the sword,
And they shall die without knowledge."
Elihu thinks over much of kings and exaltation beside them and of years of prosperity and pleasure, and his own view of human character and merit follows the judgment of those who have honours to bestow and love the servile pliant mind.
In the dark hours of sorrow and pain, says Elihu, men have the choice to begin life anew in lowly obedience or else to harden their hearts against the providence of God. Instruction has been offered, and they must either embrace it or trample it under foot. And passing to the case of Job, who, it is plain, is afflicted because he needs chastisement, not having attained to Elihu’s perfectness in the art of life, the speaker cautiously offers a promise and gives an emphatic warning.
He delivereth the afflicted by his affliction
And openeth their ear in oppression.
Yea, He would allure thee out of the mouth of thy distress
Into a broad place where is no straitness;
And that which is set on thy table shall be full of fatness.
But if thou art full of the judgment of the wicked,
Judgment and justice shall keep hold on thee.
For beware lest wrath lead thee away to mockery,
And let not the greatness of the ransom turn thee aside.
Will thy riches suffice that are without stint?
Or all the forces of thy strength?
Choose not that night,
When the peoples are cut off in their place:
Take heed thou turn not to iniquity,
For this thou hast chosen rather than affliction.
A side reference here shows that the original writer dealing with his hero has been replaced by another who does not realise the circumstances of Job with the same dramatic skill. His appeal is forcible, however, in its place. There was danger that one long and grievously afflicted might be led away by wrath and turn to mockery or scornfulness, so forfeiting the possibility of redemption. Job might also say in bitterness of soul that he had paid a great price to God in losing all his riches. The warning has point, although Job never betrayed the least disposition to think the loss of property a ransom exacted of him by God. Elihu’s suggestion to this effect is by no means evangelical; it springs from a worldly conception of what is valuable to man and of great account with the Almighty. Observe, however, the reminiscences of national disaster. The picture of the night of a people’s calamity had force for Elihu’s generation, but here it is singularly inappropriate. Job’s night had come to himself alone. If his afflictions had been shared by others, a different complexion would have been given to them. The final thrust, that the sufferer had chosen iniquity rather than profitable chastisement, has no point whatsoever.
The section closes with a strophe (Job 36:22-25) which, calling for submission to the Divine ordinance and praise of the doings of the Almighty, forms a transition to the final theme of the address.
Job 36:1-33; Job 37:1-24
Job 36:26-33; Job 37:1-24
There need be little hesitation in regarding this passage as an ode supplied to the second writer or simply quoted by him for the purpose of giving strength to his argument. Scarcely a single note in the portion of Elihu’s address already considered approaches the poetical art of this. The glory of God in His creation and His unsearchable wisdom are illustrated from the phenomena of the heavens without reference to the previous sections of the address. One who was more a poet than a reasoner might indeed halt and stumble as the speaker has done up to this point and find liberty when he reached a theme congenial to his mind. But there are points at which we seem to hear the voice of Elihu interrupting the flow of the ode as no poet would check his muse. At Job 37:14 the sentence is interjected, like an aside of the writer drawing attention to the words he is quoting, -"Hearken unto this, O Job; stand still and consider the wondrous works of God." Again (Job 37:19-20), between the description of the burnished mirror of the sky and that of the clearness after the sweeping wind, without any reference to the train of thought, the ejaculation is introduced, -"Teach us what we shall say unto Him, for we cannot order our speech by reason of darkness. Shall it be told Him that I speak? If a man speak surely he shall be swallowed up." The final verses also seem to be in the manner of Elihu.
But the ode as a whole, though it has the fault of endeavouring to forestall what is put into the mouth of the Almighty speaking from the storm, is one of the fine passages of the book. We pass from "cold, heavy, and pretentious" dogmatic discussions to free and striking pictures of nature, with the feeling that one is guiding us who can present in eloquent language the fruits of his study of the works of God. The descriptions have been noted for their felicity and power by such observers as Baron Humboldt and Mr. Ruskin. While the point of view is that invariably taken by Hebrew writers, the originality of the ode lies in fresh observation and record of atmospheric phenomena, especially of the rain and snow, rolling clouds, thunderstorms and winds. The pictures do not seem to belong to the Arabian desert but to a fertile peopled region like Aram or the Chaldaean plain. Upon the fields and dwellings of men, not on wide expanses of barren sand, the rains and snows fall, and they seal up the hand of man. The lightning clouds cover the face of the "habitable world"; by them God judgeth the peoples.
In the opening verses the theme of the ode is set forth-the greatness of God, the vast duration of His being, transcending human knowledge.
"Behold God is great and we know Him not,
The number of His years is unsearchable."
To estimate His majesty or fathom the depths of His eternal will is far beyond us who are creatures of a day. Yet we may have some vision of His power. Look up when rain is falling, mark how the clouds that float above distil the drops of water and pour down great floods upon the earth. Mark also how the dark cloud spreading from the horizon obscures the blue expanse of the sky. We cannot understand; but we can realise to some extent the majesty of Him whose is the light and the darkness, who is heard in the thunder peal and seen in the forked lightning.
"Can any understand the spreadings of the clouds,
The crashings of His pavilion?
Behold He spreadeth His light about Him;
And covereth it with the depths of the sea.
For by these judgeth He the peoples;
He giveth meat in abundance."
Translating from the Vulgate the two following verses, Mr. Ruskin gives the meaning, "He hath hidden the light in His hands and commanded it that it should return. He speaks of it to His friend; that it is His possession, and that he may ascend thereto." The rendering cannot be received, yet the comment may be cited. "These rain clouds are the robes of love of the Angel of the Sea. To these that name is chiefly given, the ‘spreadings of the clouds,’ from their extent, their gentleness, their fulness of rain." And this is "the meaning of those strange golden lights and purple flushes before the morning rain. The rain is sent to judge and feed us; but the light is the possession of the friends of God, that they may ascend thereto.-where the tabernacle veil will cross and part its rays no more."
The real import does not reach this spiritual height. It is simply that the tremendous thunder brings to transgressors the terror of judgment, and the copious showers that follow water the parched earth for the sake of man. Of the justice and grace of God we are made aware when His angel spreads his wings over the world. In the darkened sky there is a crash as if the vast canopy of the firmament were torn asunder. And now a keen flash lights the gloom for a moment; anon it is swallowed up as if the inverted sea, poured in cataracts upon the flame, extinguished it. Men recognise the Divine indignation, and even the lower animals seem to be aware.
"He covereth His hands with the lightning,
He giveth it a charge against the adversary.
Its thunder telleth concerning Him,
Even the cattle concerning that which cometh up."
Continued in the thirty-seventh chapter, the description appears to be from what is actually going on, a tremendous thunderstorm that shakes the earth.
The sound comes, as it were, out of the mouth of God, reverberating from sky to earth and from earth to sky, and rolling away under the whole heaven. Again there are lightnings, and "He stayeth them not when His voice is heard." Swift ministers of judgment and death they are darted upon the world.
We are asked to consider a fresh wonder, that of the snow which at certain times replaces the gentle or copious rain. The cold fierce showers of winter arrest the labour of man, and even the wild beasts seek their dens and abide in their lurking places. "The Angel of the Sea," says Mr. Ruskin, "has also another message, -in the ‘great rain of His strength,’ rain of trial, sweeping away ill-set foundations. Then his robe is not spread softly over the whole heaven as a veil, but sweeps back from his shoulders, ponderous, oblique, terrible-leaving his sword arm free." God is still directly at work. "Out of His chamber cometh the storm and cold out of the north." His breath gives the frost and straitens the breadth of waters. Towards Armenia, perhaps, the poet has seen the rivers and lakes frozen from bank to bank. Our science explains the result of diminished temperature; we know under what conditions hoar frost is deposited and how hail is formed. Yet all we can say is that thus and thus the forces act. Beyond that we remain like this writer, awed in presence of a heavenly will which determines the course and appoints the marvels of nature.
"By the breath of God ice is given,
And the breadth of the waters is straitened.
Also He ladeth the thick cloud with moisture,
He spreadeth His lightning cloud abroad;
And it is turned about by His guidance,
That it may do whatsoever He commandeth
Upon the face of the whole earth."
Here, again, moral purpose is found. The poet attributes to others his own susceptibility. Men see and learn and tremble. It is for correction, that the careless may be brought to think of God’s greatness, and the evildoers of His power, that sinners being made afraid may turn from their rebellion. Or, it is for His earth, that rain may beautify it and fill the rivers and springs at which the beasts of the valley drink. Or, yet again, the purpose is mercy. Even the tremendous thunderstorm may be fraught with mercy to men. From the burning heat, oppressive, intolerable, the rains that follow bring deliverance. Men are fainting for thirst, the fields are languishing. In compassion God sends His great cloud on its mission of life.
More delicate, needing finer observation, are the next objects of study.
"Dost thou know how God layeth His charge on them,
And causeth the light of His cloud to shine?
Dost thou know the balancings of the clouds,
The wondrous works of Him who is perfect in known edge?"
It is not clear whether the light of the cloud means the lightning again or the varied hues which make an Oriental sunset glorious in purple and gold. But the balancings of the clouds must be that singular power which the atmosphere has of sustaining vast quantities of watery vapour-either miles above the earth’s surface where the filmy cirrhus floats, dazzling white against the blue sky, or lower down where the rain cloud trails along the hill tops. Marvellous it is that, suspended thus in the air, immense volumes of water should be carried from the surface of the ocean to be discharged in fructifying rain.
"How are thy garments warm
When the earth is still because of the south wind?"
The sensation of dry hot clothing is said to be very notable in the season of the siroccos or south winds, also the extraordinary stillness of nature under the same oppressive influence. "There is no living thing abroad to make a noise. The air is too weak and languid to stir the pendant leaves even of the tall poplars."
Finally the vast expanse of the sky, like a looking glass of burnished metal stretched far over sea and land, symbolises the immensity of Divine power.
"Canst thou with Him spread out the sky
Which is strong as a molten mirror?
And now men see not the light which is bright in the skies:
Yet the wind passeth and cleanseth them."
It is always bright beyond. Clouds only hide the splendid sunshine for a time. A wind rises and sweeps away the vapours from the glorious dome of heaven. "Out of the north cometh golden splendour"-for it is the north wind that drives on the clouds which, as they fly southward, are gilded by the rays of the sun. But with God is a splendour greater far, that of terrible majesty.
So the ode finishes abruptly, and Elihu states his own conclusion:-
"The Almighty! we cannot find Him out;
He is excellent in power.
And in judgment and plenteous justice; He will not afflict.
Men do therefore fear Him;
He regardeth not any that are wise of heart."
Is Job wise in his own conceit? Does he think he can challenge the Divine government and show how the affairs of the world might have been better ordered? Does he think that he is himself treated unjustly because loss and disease have been appointed to him? Right thoughts of God will check all such ignorant notions and bring him a penitent back to the throne of the Eternal. It is a good and wise deduction; but Elihu has not vindicated God by showing in harmony with the noblest and finest ideas of righteousness men have, God supremely righteous, and beyond the best and noblest mercy men love, God transcendently merciful and gracious. In effect his argument has been-The Almighty must be all righteous, and any one is impious who criticises life. The whole question between Job and the friends remains unsettled still.
Elihu’s failure is significant. It is the failure of an attempt made, as we have seen, centuries after the Book of Job was written, to bring it into the line of current religious opinion. Our examination of the whole reveals the narrow foundation on which Hebrew orthodoxy was reared and explains the developments of a later time. Job may be said to have left no disciples in Israel. His brave personal hope and passionate desire for union with God seem to have been lost in the fervid national bigotry of post-exilic ages; and while they faded, the Pharisee and Sadducee of after days began to exist. They are both here in germ. Springing from one seed, they are alike in their ignorance of Divine justice; and we do not wonder that Christ, coming to fulfil and more than fulfil the hope of humanity, appeared to both the Pharisee and Sadducee of His time as an enemy of religion, of the country, and of God.
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Job 37". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany