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Bible Commentaries
Job 4

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-21



Job 4:1-21; Job 5:1-27


THE ideas of sin and suffering against which the poem of Job was written come now dramatically into view. The belief of the three friends had always been that God, as righteous Governor of human life, gives felicity in proportion to obedience and appoints trouble in exact measure of disobedience. Job himself, indeed, must have held the same creed. We may imagine that while he was prosperous his friends had often spoken with him on this very point. They had congratulated him often on the wealth and happiness he enjoyed as an evidence of the great favour of the Almighty. In conversation they had remarked on case after case which seemed to prove, beyond the shadow of doubt, that if men reject God affliction and disaster invariably follow. Their idea of the scheme of things was very simple, and, on the whole, it had never come into serious questioning. Of course human justice, even when rudely administered, and the practice of private revenge helped to fulfil their theory of Divine government. If any serious crime was committed, those friendly to the injured person took up his cause and pursued the wrong doer to inflict retribution upon him. His dwelling was perhaps burned and his flocks dispersed, he himself driven into a kind of exile. The administration of law was rude, yet the unwritten code of the desert made the evildoer suffer and allowed the man of good character to enjoy life if he could. These facts went to sustain the belief that God was always regulating a man’s happiness by his deserts. And beyond this, apart altogether from what was done by men, not a few accidents and calamities appeared to show Divine judgment against wrong. Then, as now, it might be said that avenging forces lurk in the lightning, the storm, the pestilence, forces which are directed against transgressors and cannot be evaded. Men would say, Yes, though one hide his crimes, though he escape for long the condemnation and punishment of his fellows, yet the hand of God will find him: and the prediction seemed always to be verified. Perhaps the stroke did not fall at once. Months might pass; years might pass; but the time came when they could affirm, Now righteousness has overtaken the offender; his crime is rewarded; his pride is brought low. And if, as happened occasionally, the flocks of a man who was in good reputation died of murrain, and his crops were blighted by the terrible hot wind of the desert, they could always say, Ah! we did not know all about him. No doubt if we could look into his private life we should see why this has befallen. So the barbarians of the island of Melita, when Paul had been shipwrecked there, seeing a viper fasten on his hand, said, "No doubt this is a murderer whom, though he hath escaped from the sea, yet justice suffereth not to live."

Thoughts like these were in the minds of the three friends of Job, very confounding indeed, for they had never expected to shake their heads over him. They accordingly deserve credit for true sympathy, inasmuch as they refrained from saying anything that might hurt him. His grief was great, and it might be due to remorse. His unparalleled afflictions put him, as it were, in sanctuary from taunts or even questionings. He has done wrong, he has not been what we thought him, they said to themselves, but he is drinking to the bitter dregs a cup of retribution.

But when Job opened his mouth and spoke, their sympathy was dashed with pious horror. They had never in all their lives heard such words. He seemed to prove himself far worse than they could have imagined. He ought to have been meek and submissive. Some flaw there must have been: what was it? He should have confessed his sin instead of cursing life and reflecting on God. Their own silent suspicion, indeed, is the chief cause of his despair; but this they do not understand. Amazed they hear him; outraged, they take up the challenge he offers. One after another the three men reason with Job, from almost the same point of view, suggesting first and then insisting that he should acknowledge his fault and humble himself under the hand of a just and holy God.

Now, here is the motive of the long controversy which is the main subject of the poem. And, in tracing it, we are to see Job, although racked by pain and distraught by grief-sadly at disadvantage because he seems to be a living example of the truth of their ideas-rousing himself to the defence of his integrity and contending for that as the only grip he has of God. Advance after advance is made by the three, who gradually become more dogmatic as the controversy proceeds. Defence after defence is made by Job, who is driven to think himself challenged not only by his friends, but sometimes also by God Himself through them.

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar agree in the opinion that Job has done evil and is suffering for it. The language they use and the arguments they bring forward are much alike. Yet a difference will be found in their way of speaking, and a vaguely suggested difference of character. Eliphaz gives us an impression of age and authority. When Job has ended his complaint, Eliphaz regards him with a disturbed and offended look. "How pitiful!" he seems to say; but also, "How dreadful, how unaccountable!" He desires to win Job to a right view of things by kindly counsel; but he talks pompously, and preaches too much from the high moral bench. Bildad, again, is a dry and composed person. He is less the man of experience than of tradition. He does not speak of discoveries made in the course of his own observation; but he has stored the sayings of the wise and reflected upon them. When a thing is cleverly said he is satisfied, and he cannot understand why his impressive statements should fail to convince and convert. He is a gentleman, like Eliphaz, and uses courtesy. At first he refrains from wounding Job’s feelings. Yet behind his politeness is the sense of superior wisdom-the wisdom of ages, and his own. He is certainly a harder man than Eliphaz. Lastly, Zophar is a blunt man with a decidedly rough, dictatorial style. He is impatient of the waste of words on a matter so plain, and prides himself on coming to the point. It is he who ventures to say definitely: "Know therefore that God exacteth of thee less than thine iniquity deserveth,"-a cruel speech from any point of view. He is not so eloquent as Eliphaz, he has no air of a prophet. Compared with Bildad he is less argumentative. With all his sympathy-and he, too, is a friend-he shows an exasperation which he justifies by his zeal for the honour of God. The differences are delicate, but real, and evident even to our late criticism. In the author’s day the characters would probably seem more distinctly contrasted than they appear to us. Still, it must be owned, each holds virtually the same position. One prevailing school of thought is represented and in each figure attacked.

It is not difficult to imagine three speakers differing far more from each other. For example, instead of Bildad we might have had a Persian full of the Zoroastrian ideas of two great powers, the Good Spirit, Ahuramazda, and the Evil Spirit, Ahriman. Such a one might have maintained that Job had given himself to the Evil Spirit, or that his revolt against providence would bring him under that destructive power and work his ruin. And then, instead of Zophar, one might have been set forward who maintained that good and evil make no difference, that all things come alike to all, that there is no God who cares for righteousness among men; assailing Job’s faith in a more dangerous way. But the writer has no such view of making a striking drama. His circle of vision is deliberately chosen. It is only what might appear to be true he allows his characters to advance. One hears the breathings of the same dogmatism in the three voices. All is said for the ordinary belief that can be said. And three different men reason with Job that it may be understood how popular, how deeply rooted is the notion which the whole book is meant to criticise and disprove. The dramatising is vague, not at all of our sharp, modern kind like that of Ibsen, throwing each figure into vivid contrast with every other. All the author’s concern is to give full play to the theory which holds the ground and to show its incompatibility with the facts of human life, so that it may perish of its own hollowness.

Nevertheless the first address to Job is eloquent and poetically beautiful. No rude arguer is Eliphaz, but one of the golden-mouthed, mistaken in creed but not in heart, a man whom Job might well cherish as a friend.


The first part of his speech extends to the eleventh verse. With the respect due to sorrow, putting aside the dismay caused by Job’s wild language, he asks, "If one essay to commune with thee, wilt thou be grieved?" It seems unpardonable to add to the sufferer’s misery by saying what he has in his mind; and yet he cannot refrain. "Who can withhold himself from speaking?" The state of Job is such that there must be thorough and very serious communication. Eliphaz reminds him of what he had been-an instructor of the ignorant, one who strengthened the weak, upheld the falling, confirmed the feeble. Was he not once so confident of himself, so resolute and helpful that fainting men found him a bulwark against despair? Should he have changed so completely? Should one like him take to fruitless wailings and complaints? "Now it cometh upon thee, and thou faintest; it toucheth thee, and thou art confounded." Eliphaz does not mean to taunt. It is in sorrow that he speaks, pointing out the contrast between what was and is. Where is the strong faith of former days? There is need for it, and Job ought to have it as his stay. "Is not thy piety thy confidence? Thy hope, is it not the integrity of thy ways?" Why does he not look back and take courage? Pious fear of God, if he allows himself to be guided by it, will not fail to lead him again into the light.

It is a friendly and sincere effort to make the champion of God serve himself of his own faith. The undercurrent of doubt is not allowed to appear. Eliphaz makes it a wonder that Job had dropped his claim on the Most High; and he proceeds in a tone of expostulation, amazed that a man who knew the way of the Almighty should fall into the miserable weakness of the worst evildoer. Poetically, yet firmly, the idea is introduced:-

Bethink thee now, whoever, being innocent, perished,

And where have the upright been destroyed

As I have seen, they who plough iniquity

And sow disaster reap the same.

By the wrath of God they perish,

By the storm of His wrath they are undone.

Roaring of the lion, voice of the growling lion,

Teeth of the young lions are broken;

The old lion perisheth for lack of prey,

The whelps of the lioness are scattered.

First among the things Eliphaz has seen is the fate of those violent evildoers who plough iniquity and sow disaster. But Job has not been like them and therefore has no need to fear the harvest of perdition. He is among those who are not finally cut off. In the tenth and eleventh verses (Job 4:10-11) the dispersion of a den of lions is the symbol of the fate of those who are hot in wickedness. As in some cave of the mountains an old lion and lioness with their whelps dwell securely, issuing forth at their will to seize the prey and make night dreadful with their growling, so those evildoers flourish for a time in hateful and malignant strength. But as on a sudden the hunters, finding the lions’ retreat, kill and scatter them, young and old, so the coalition of wicked men is broken up. The rapacity of wild desert tribes appears to be reflected in the figure here used. Eliphaz may be referring to some incident which had actually occurred.


In the second division of his address he endeavours to bring home to Job a needed moral lesson by detailing a vision he once had and the oracle which came with it. The account of the apparition is couched in stately and impressive language. That chilling sense of fear which sometimes mingles with our dreams in the dead of night, the sensation of a presence that cannot be realised, something awful breathing over the face and making the flesh creep, an imagined voice falling solemnly on the ear, -all are vividly described. In the recollection of Eliphaz the circumstances of the vision are very clear, and the finest poetic skill is used in giving the whole solemn dream full justice and effect.

Now a word was secretly brought me,

Mine ear caught the whisper thereof;

In thoughts from visions of the night,

When deep sleep falls upon men,

A terror came on me, and trembling

Which thrilled my bones to the marrow.

Then a breath passed before my face,

The hairs of my body rose erect.

It stood still-its appearance I trace not.

An image is before mine eyes.

There was silence, and I heard a voice-

Shall man beside Eloah be righteous?

Or beside his Maker shall man be clean?

We are made to feel here how extraordinary the vision appeared to Eliphaz, and, at the same time, how far short he comes of the seer’s gift. For what is this apparition? Nothing but a vague creation of the dreaming mind. And what is the message? No new revelation, no discovery of an inspired soul. After all, only a fact quite familiar to pious thought. The dream oracle has been generally supposed to continue to the end of the chapter. But the question as to the righteousness of man and his cleanness beside God seems to be the whole of it, and the rest is Eliphaz’s comment or meditation upon it, his "thoughts from visions of the night."

As to the oracle itself: while the words may certainly bear translating so as to imply a direct comparison between the righteousness of man and the righteousness of God, this is not required by the purpose of the writer, as Dr. A.B. Davidson has shown. In the form of a question it is impressively announced that with or beside the High God no weak man is righteous, no strong man pure; and this is sufficient, for the aim of Eliphaz is to show that troubles may justly come on Job, as on others, because all are by nature imperfect. No doubt the oracle might transcend the scope of the argument. Still the question has not been raised by Job’s criticism of providence, whether he reckons himself more just than God; and apart from that any comparison seems unnecessary, meeting no mood of human revolt of which Eliphaz has ever heard. The oracle, then, is practically of the nature of a truism, and, as such, agrees with the dream vision and the impalpable ghost, a dim presentation by the mind to itself of what a visitor from the higher world might be.

Shall any created being, inheritor of human defects, stand beside Eloah, clean in His sight? Impossible. For, however sincere and earnest any one may be toward God and in the service of men, he cannot pass the fallibility and imperfection of the creature. The thought thus solemnly announced, Eliphaz proceeds to amplify in a prophetic strain, which, however, does not rise above the level of good poetry.

"Behold, He putteth no trust in His servants." Nothing that the best of them have to do is committed entirely to them; the supervision of Eloah is always maintained that their defects may not mar His purpose. "His angels He chargeth with error." Even the heavenly spirits, if we are to trust Eliphaz, go astray; they are under a law of discipline and holy correction. In the Supreme Light they are judged and often found wanting. To credit this to a Divine oracle would be somewhat disconcerting to ordinary theological ideas. But the argument is clear enough, -If even the angelic servants of God require the constant supervision of His wisdom and their faults need His correction, much more do men whose bodies are "houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed before the moth"-that is, the moth which breeds corrupting worms. "From morning to evening they are destroyed"-in a single day their vigour and beauty pass into decay.

"Without observance they perish forever," says Eliphaz. Clearly this is not a word of Divine prophecy. It would place man beneath the level of moral judgment, as a mere earth creature whose life and death are of no account even to God. Men go their way when a comrade falls, and soon forget. True enough. But "One higher than the highest regardeth." The stupidity or insensibility of most men to spiritual things is in contrast to the attention and judgment of God.

The description of man’s life on earth, its brevity and dissolution, on account of which he can never exalt himself as just and clean beside God, ends with words that may be translated thus:-

"Is not their cord torn asunder in them? They shall die, and not in wisdom."

Here the tearing up of the tent cord or the breaking of the bow string is an image of the snapping of that chain of vital functions, the "silver cord," on which the bodily life depends.

The argument of Eliphaz, so far, has been, first, that Job, as a pious man, should have kept his confidence in God, because he was not like those who plough iniquity and sow disaster and have no hope in Divine mercy; next, that before the Most High all are more or less unrighteous and impure, so that if Job suffers for defect, he is no exception, his afflictions are not to be wondered at. And this carries the further thought that he ought to be conscious of fault and humble himself under the Divine hand. Just at this point Eliphaz comes at last within sight of the right way to find Job’s heart and conscience. The corrective discipline which all need was safe ground to take with one who could not have denied in the last resort that he, too, had

"Sins of will, Defects of doubt and taints of blood."

This strain of argument, however, closes, Eliphaz having much in his mind which has not found expression and is of serious import.


The speaker sees that Job is impatient of the sufferings which make life appear useless to him. But suppose he appealed to the saints-holy ones, or angels-to take his part, would that be of any use? In his cry from the depth he had shown resentment and hasty passion. These do not insure, they do not deserve help. The "holy ones" would not respond to a man so unreasonable and indignant. On the contrary, "resentment slayeth the foolish man, passion killeth the silly." What Job had said in his outcry only tended to bring on him the fatal stroke of God. Having caught at this idea, Eliphaz proceeds in a manner rather surprising. He has been shocked by Job’s bitter words. The horror he felt returns upon him, and he falls into a very singular and inconsiderate strain of remark. He does not, indeed, identify his old friend with the foolish man whose destruction he proceeds to paint. But an instance has occurred to him-a bit of his large experience-of one who behaved in a godless, irrational way and suffered for it; and for Job’s warning, because he needs to take home the lesson of the catastrophe, Eliphaz details the story. Forgetting the circumstances of his friend, utterly forgetting that the man lying before him has lost all his children and that robbers have swallowed his substance, absorbed in his own reminiscence to the exclusion of every other thought, Eliphaz goes deliberately through a whole roll of disasters so like Job’s that every word is a poisoned arrow:-

Plead then: will any one answer thee;

And to which of the holy ones wilt thou turn?

Nay, resentment killeth the fool,

And hasty indignation slayeth the silly,

I myself have seen a godless fool take root;

Yet straightway I cursed his habitation:-

His children are far from succour,

They are crushed in the gate without deliverer

While the hungry eats up his harvest

And snatches it even out of the thorns,

And the snare gapes for their substance.

The desolation he saw come suddenly, even when the impious man had just taken root as founder of a family, Eliphaz declares to be a curse from the Most High; and he describes it with much force. Upon the children of the household disaster falls at the gate or place of judgment; there is no one to plead for them, because the father is marked for the vengeance of God. Predatory tribes from the desert devour first the crops in the remoter fields, and then those protected by the thorn hedge near the homestead. The man had been an oppressor; now those he had oppressed are under no restraint and all he has is swallowed up without redress.

So much for the third attempt to convict Job and bring him to confession: It is a bolt shot apparently at a venture, yet it strikes where it must wound to the quick. Here, however, made aware, perhaps by a look of anguish or a sudden gesture, that he has gone too far, Eliphaz draws back. To the general dogma that affliction is the lot of every human being he returns, that the sting may be taken out of his words:-

"For disaster cometh not forth from the dust,

And out of the ground trouble springeth not;

But man is born unto trouble

As the sparks fly upward."

By this vague piece of moralising, which sheds no light on anything, Eliphaz betrays himself. He shows that he is not anxious to get at the root of the matter. The whole subject of pain and calamity is external to him, not a part of his own experience. He would speak very differently if he were himself deprived of all his possessions and laid low in trouble. As it is he can turn glibly from one thought to another, as if it mattered not which fits the case. In fact, as he advances and retreats we discover that he is feeling his way, aiming first at one thing, then at another, in the hope that this or that random arrow may hit the mark. No man is just beside God. Job is like the rest, crushed before the moth. Job has spoken passionately, in wild resentment. Is he then among the foolish whose habitation is cursed? But again, lest that should not be true, the speaker falls back on the common lot of men born to trouble-why, God alone can tell. Afterwards he makes another suggestion. Is not God He who frustrates the devices of the crafty and confounds the cunning, so that they grope in the blaze of noon as if it were night? If the other explanations did not apply to Job’s condition, perhaps this would. At all events something might be said by way of answer that would give an inkling of the truth. At last the comparatively kind and vague explanation is offered, that Job suffers from the chastening of the Lord, who, though He afflicts, is also ready to heal. Glancing at all possibilities which occur to him, Eliphaz leaves the afflicted man to accept that which happens to come home.


Eloquence, literary skill, sincerity, mark the close of this address. It is the argument of a man who is anxious to bring his friend to a right frame of mind so that his latter days may be peace. "As for me," he says, hinting what Job should do, "I would turn to God, and set my expectation upon the Highest." Then he proceeds to give his thoughts on Divine providence. Unsearchable, wonderful are the doings of God. He is the Rain-giver for the thirsty fields and desert pastures. Among men, too, He makes manifest His power, exalting those who are lowly, and restoring the joy of the mourners. Crafty men, who plot to make their own way, oppose His sovereign power in vain. They are stricken as if with blindness. Out of their hand the helpless are delivered, and hope is restored to the feeble. Has Job been crafty? Has he been in secret a plotter against the peace of men? Is it for this reason God has cast him down? Let him repent, and he shall yet be saved. For

Happy is the man whom Eloah correcteth,

Therefore spurn not thou the chastening of Shaddai.

For He maketh sore and bindeth up;

He smiteth, but His hands make whole.

In six straits He will deliver thee;

In seven also shall not evil touch thee.

In famine He will rescue thee from death,

And in war from the power of the sword.

When the tongue smiteth thou shalt be hid;

Nor shalt thou fear when desolation cometh.

At destruction and famine thou shalt laugh;

And of the beasts of the earth shalt not be afraid.

For with the stones of the field shall be thy covenant;

With thee shall the beasts of the field be at peace.

So shalt thou find that thy tent is secure,

And surveying thy homestead thou shalt miss nothing

Thou shalt find that thy seed are many,

And thy offspring like the grass of the earth;

Thou shalt come to thy grave with white hair,

As a ripe shock of corn is carried home in its season.

Behold! This we have searched out: thus it is.

Hear it, and, thou, consider it for thyself!

Fine, indeed, as dramatic poetry; but is it not, as reasoning, incoherent? The author does not mean it to be convincing. He who is chastened and receives the chastening may not be saved in those six troubles, yea seven. There is more of dream than fact. Eliphaz is apparently right in everything, as Dillmann says; but right only on the surface. He has seen that they who plough iniquity and sow disaster reap the same. He has seen a vision of the night, and received a message; a sign of God’s favour that almost made him a prophet. He has seen a fool or impious man taking root, but was not deceived; he knew what would be the end, and took upon him to curse judicially the doomed homestead. He has seen the crafty confounded. He has seen the man whom God corrected, who received his chastisement with submission, rescued and restored to honour. "Lo, this we have searched out," he says; "it is even thus." But the piety and orthodoxy of the good Eliphaz do not save him from blunders at every turn. And to the clearing of Job’s position he offers no suggestion of value. What does he say to throw light on the condition of a believing, earnest servant of the Almighty who is always poor, always afflicted, who meets disappointment after disappointment, and is pursued by sorrow and disaster even to the grave? The religion of Eliphaz is made for well-to-do people like himself, and such only. If it were true that, because all are sinful before God, affliction and pain are punishments of sin and a man is happy in receiving this Divine correction, why is Eliphaz himself not lying like Job upon a heap of ashes, racked with the torment of disease? Good orthodox prosperous man, he thinks himself a prophet, but he is none. Were he tried like Job he would be as unreasonable and passionate, as wild in his declamation against life, as eager for death.

Useless in religion is all mere talk that only skims the surface, however often the terms of it may be repeated, however widely they find acceptance. The creed that breaks down at any point is no creed for a rational being. Infidelity in our day is very much the consequence of crude notions about God that contradict each other, notions of the atonement, of the meaning of suffering, of the future life, that are incoherent, childish, of no practical weight. People think they have a firm grasp of the truth; but when circumstances occur which are at variance with their preconceived ideas, they turn away from religion, or their religion makes the facts of life appear worse for them. It is the result of insufficient thought. Research must go deeper, must return with new zeal to the study of Scripture and the life of Christ. God’s revelation in providence and Christianity is one. It has a profound coherency, the stamp and evidence of its truth. The rigidity of natural law has its meaning for us in our study of the spiritual life.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Job 4". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/job-4.html.
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