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Thursday, May 23rd, 2024
the Week of Proper 2 / Ordinary 7
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Bible Commentaries
Job 6

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-30



Job 6:1-30; Job 7:1-21


WORST to endure of all things is the grief that preys on a man’s own heart because no channel outside self is provided for the hot stream of thought. Now that Eliphaz has spoken, Job has something to arouse him, at least to resentment. The strength of his mind revives as he finds himself called to a battle of words. And how energetic he is! The long address of Eliphaz we saw to be incoherent, without the backbone of any clear conviction, turning hither and thither in the hope of making some way or other a happy hit. But as soon as Job begins to speak there is coherency, strong thought running through the variety of expression, the anxiety for instruction, the sense of bewilderment and trouble. We feel at once that we are in contact with a mind no half-truths can satisfy, that will go with whatever difficulty to the very bottom of the matter.

Supreme mark of a healthy nature, this. People are apt to praise a mind at peace, moving composedly from thought to thought, content "to enjoy the things which others understand," not distressed by moral questions. But minds enjoying such peace are only to be praised if the philosophy of life has been searched out and tried, and the great trust in God which resolves all doubt has been found. While life and providence, one’s own history and the history of the world present what appear to be contradictions, problems that baffle and disturb the soul, how can a healthy mind be at rest? Our intellectual powers are not given simply that we may enjoy; they are given that we may understand. A mind hungers for knowledge, as a body for food, and cannot be satisfied unless the reason and the truth of things are seen. You may object that some are not capable of understanding, that indeed Divine providence, the great purposes of God, lie so far and so high beyond the ordinary human range as to be incomprehensible to most of us. Of what use, then, is revelation? Is it given merely to bewilder us, to lead us on in a quest which at the last must leave many of the searchers unsatisfied, without light or hope? If so, the Bible mocks us, the prophets were deceivers, even Christ Himself is found no Light of the world, but a dreamer who spoke of that which can never be realised. Not thus do I begin in doubt, and end in doubt. There are things beyond me; but exact or final knowledge of these is not necessary. Within my range and reach through nature and religion, through the Bible and the Son of God, are the principles I need to satisfy my soul’s hunger. And in every healthy mind there will be desire for truth which, often baffled, will continue till understanding comes.

And here we join issue with the agnostic, who denies this vital demand of the soul. Our thought dwelling on life and all its varied experience-sorrow and fear, misery and hope, love threatened by death yet unquenchable, the exultation of duty, the baffling of ambition, unforeseen peril and unexpected deliverance-our thought, I say, "dealing with these elements of life, will not rest in the notion that all is due to chance or to blind forces, that evolution can never be intelligently followed." The modern atheist or agnostic falls into the very error for which he used to reprove faith when he contemptuously bids us get rid of the hope of understanding the world and the Power directing it, when he invites us to remember our limitations and occupy ourselves with things within our range. Religion used to be taunted with crippling man’s faculties and denying full play to his mental activity. Scientific unbelief does so now. It restricts us to the seen and temporal, and, if consistent, ought to refuse all ideals and all desires for a "perfect" state. The modern sage, intent on the study of material things and their changes, confining himself to what can be seen, heard, touched, or by instruments analysed, may have nothing but scorn or, say, pity for one who cries out of trouble-

"Have I sinned? Yet, what have I done unto Thee, O Thou Watcher of men?

Why hast Thou set me as Thy stumbling block,

So that I am a burden to myself?

And why wilt Thou not pardon my transgression,

And cause my sin to pass away?"

But the man whose soul is eager in the search for reality must endeavour to wrest from Heaven itself the secret of his dissatisfaction with the real, his conflict with the real, and why he must so often suffer from the very forces that sustain his life. Yes, the passion of the soul continues. It protests against darkness, and therefore against materialism. Conscious mind presses toward an origin of thought. Soul must find a Divine Eternal Soul. Where nature opens ascending ways to the reason in its quest; where prophets and sages have cut paths here and there through the forest of mystery; where the brave and true testify of a light they have seen and invite us to follow; where One stands high and radiant above the cross on which He suffered and declares Himself the Resurrection and the Life, -there men will advance, feeling themselves inspired to maintain the search for that Eternal Truth without the hope of which all our life here is a wearisome pageant, a troubled dream, a bitter slavery.

In his reply to Eliphaz, Job first takes hold of the charge of impatience and hasty indignation made in the opening of the fifth chapter. He is quite aware that his words were rash when he cursed his day and cried impatiently for death. In accusing him of rebellious passion, Eliphaz had shot the only arrow that went home; and now Job, conscientious here, pulls out the arrow to show it and the wound. "Oh," he cries, "that my hasty passion were duly weighed, and my misery were laid in the balance against it! For then would it, my misery, be found heavier than the sand of the seas: therefore have my words been rash." He is almost deprecatory. Yes: he will admit the impatience and vehemence with which he spoke. But then, had Eliphaz duly considered his state, the weight of his trouble causing a physical sense of indescribable oppression? Let his friends look at him again, a man prostrated with sore disease and grief, dying slowly in the leper’s exile.

"The arrows of the Almighty are within me,

The poison whereof my spirit drinketh up.

The terrors of God beleaguer me."

We need not fall into the mistake of supposing that it is only the pain of his disease which makes Job’s misery so heavy. Rather is it that his troubles have come from God; they are "the arrows of the Almighty." Mere suffering and loss, even to the extremity of death, he could have borne without a murmur. But he had thought God to be his friend. Why on a sudden have those darts been launched against him by the hand he trusted? What does the Almighty mean? The evildoer who suffers knows why he is afflicted. The martyr enduring for conscience’ sake has his support in the truth to which he bears witness, the holy cause for which he dies. Job has no explanation, no support, he cannot understand providence. The God with whom he supposed himself to be at peace suddenly becomes an angry incomprehensible Power, blighting and destroying His servant’s life. Existence poisoned, the couch of ashes encompassed with terrors, is it any wonder that passionate words break from his lips? A cry is the last power left to him.

So it is with many. The seeming needlessness of their sufferings, the impossibility of tracing these to any cause in their past history, in a word, the mystery of the pain confounds the mind, and adds to anguish and desolation an unspeakable horror of darkness. Sometimes the very thing guarded against is that which happens; a man’s best intelligence appears confuted by destiny or chance. Why has he amongst the many been chosen for this? Do all things come alike to all, righteous and wicked? The problem becomes terribly acute in the case of earnest God-fearing men and women who have not yet found the real theory of suffering. Endurance for others does not always explain. All cannot be rested on that. Nor unless we speak falsely for God will it avail to say, These afflictions have fallen on us for our sins. For even if the conscience does not give the lie to that assertion, as Job’s conscience did, the question demands a clear answer why the penitent should suffer, those who believe, to whom God imputes no iniquity. If it is for our transgressions we suffer, either our own faith and religion are vain, or God does not forgive excepting in form, and the law of punishment retains its force. We have here the serious difficulty that legal fictions seem to hold their ground even in the dealings of the Most High with those who trust Him. Many are in the direst trouble still for the same reason as Job, and might use his very words. Taught to believe that: suffering is invariably connected with wrong doing and is always in proportion to it, they cannot find in their past life any great transgressions for which they should be racked with constant pain or kept in grinding penury and disappointment. Moreover, they had imagined that through the mediation of Christ their sins were expiated and their guilt blotted out. What strange error is there in the creed or in the world? Have they never believed? Has God turned against them? So they inquire in the darkness.

The truth, however, as shown in a previous chapter, is that suffering has no proportion to the guilt of sin, but is related in the scheme of Divine providence to life in this world, its movement, discipline, and perfecting in the individual and the race. Afflictions, pains, and griefs are appointed to the best as well as the worst, because all need to be tried and urged on from imperfect faith and spirituality to vigour, constancy, and courage of soul. The principle is not dearly stated in the Book of Job, but underlies it, as truth must underlie all genuine criticism and every faithful picture of human life. The inspiration of the poem is so to present the facts of human experience that the real answer alone can satisfy. And in the speech we are now considering some imperfect and mistaken views are swept so completely aside that their survival is almost unaccountable.

Beginning with the fifth verse we have a series of questions somewhat difficult to interpret:-

"Doth the wild ass bray when he hath grass?

Or loweth the ox over his fodder?

Can that be eaten which is unsavoury, without salt?

Or is there any taste in the white of an egg?

My soul refuseth to touch them;

They are to me as mouldy bread."

By some these questions are supposed to describe sarcastically the savourless words of Eliphaz, his "solemn and impertinent prosing." This, however, would break the continuity of the thought. Another view makes the reference to be to Job’s afflictions, which he is supposed to compare to insipid and loathsome food. But it seems quite unnatural to take this as the meaning. Such pain and grief and loss as he had undergone were certainly not like the white of an egg. But he has already spoken wildly, unreasonably, and he now feels himself to be on the point of breaking out afresh in similar impatient language. Now, the wild ass does not complain when it has grass, nor the ox when it has fodder; so, if his mind were supplied with necessary explanations of the sore troubles he is enduring, he would not be impatient, he would not complain. His soul hungers to know the reason of the calamities that darken his life. Nothing that has been said helps him. Every suggestion presented to his mind is either trifling and vain, without the salt of wisdom, like the white of an egg, or offensive, disagreeable. Ruthlessly sincere, he will not pretend to be satisfied when he is not. His soul refuses to touch the offered explanations and reasons. Verily, they are like mouldy bread to him. It is his own impatience, his loud cries and inquiries, he desires to account for; he does not attack Eliphaz with sarcasm, but defends himself.

At this point there is a brief halt in the speech. As if after a pause, due to a sharp sting of pain, Job exclaims: "Oh that God would please to destroy me!" He had felt the paroxysm approaching; he had endeavoured to restrain himself, but the torture drives him, as before, to cry for death. Again and again in the course of his speeches sudden turns of this kind occur, points at which the dramatic feeling of the writer comes out. He will have us remember the terrible disease and keep continually in mind the setting of the thoughts. Job had roused himself in beginning his reply, and, for a little, eagerness had overcome pain. But now he falls back, mastered by cruel sickness which appears to be unto death. Then he speaks:-

"Oh that I might have my request, That God would give me the thing I long for, Even that God would be pleased to crush me, That He would loose His hand and tear me off; And I should yet have comfort, I should even exult amidst unsparing pain, For I have not denied the words of the Holy One."

The longing for death which now returns on Job is not so passionate as before; but his cry is quite as urgent and unqualified. As we have already seen, no motion towards suicide is at any point of the drama attributed to him. He does not, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, whose position is in some respects very similar, question with himself,

"Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?"

Nor may we say that Job is deterred from the act of self-destruction by Hamlet’s thought,

"The dread of something after death

that makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of."

Job has the fear and faith of God still, and not even the pressure of "unsparing pain" can move him to take into his own hands the ending of that torment God bids him bear. He is too pious even to dream of it. A true Oriental, with strong belief that the will of God must be done, he could die without a murmur, in more than stoical courage; but a suicide he cannot be. And indeed the Bible, telling us for the most part of men of healthy mind, has few suicides to record. Saul, Zimri, Ahithophel, Judas, break away thus from dishonour and doom; but these are all who, in impatience and cowardice, turn against God’s decree of life.

Here, then, the strong religious feeling of the writer obliges him to reject that which the poets of the world have used to give the strongest effect to their work. From the Greek dramatists, through Shakespeare to Browning, the drama is full of that quarrel with life which flies to suicide. In this great play, as we may well call it, of Semitic faith and genius, the ideas are masterly, the hold of universal truth is sublime. Perhaps the author was not fully aware of all he suggests, but he feels that suicide serves no end: it settles nothing; and his problem must be settled. Suicide is an attempt at evasion in a sphere where evasion is impossible. God and the soul have a controversy together, and the controversy must be worked out to an issue.

Job has not cursed God nor denied his words. With this clear conscience he is not afraid to die; yet, to keep it, he must wait on the decision of the Almighty-that it would please God to crush him, or tear him off like a branch from the tree of life. The prospect of death, if it were granted by God, would revive him for the last moment of endurance. He would leap up to meet the stroke, God’s stroke, the pledge that God was kind to him after all.

Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,

Yet the strong man must go:

For the journey is done and the summit attained,

And the barriers fall,

Though a battle’s to fight ere the guerdon be gained,

The reward of it all

I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forbore,

And bade me creep past.

According to Eliphaz there was but one way for a sufferer. If Job would bow humbly in acknowledgment of guilt, and seek God in penitence, then recovery would come; the hand that smote would heal and set him on high; all the joy and vigour of life would be renewed, and after another long course of prosperity, he should come to his grave at last as a shock of corn is carried home in its season. Recalling this glib promise, Job puts it from him as altogether incongruous with his state. He is a leper; he is dying.

"What is my strength that I should wait,

And what my term that I should be patient?

Is my strength the strength of stones?

Is my flesh brass?

Is not my help within me gone,

And energy quite driven from me?"

Why, his condition is hopeless. What can he look for but death? Speak to him of a new term; it was adding mockery to despair. But he would die still true to God, and therefore he seeks the end of conflict. If he were to live on he could not be sure of himself, especially when, with failing strength, he had to endure the nausea and stings of disease. As yet he can face death as a chief should.

The second part of the address begins at the fourteenth verse of chapter 6. (Job 14:6) Here Job rouses himself anew, and this time to assail his friends. The language of their spokesman had been addressed to him from a height of assumed moral superiority, and this had stirred in Job a resentment quite natural. No doubt the three friends showed friendliness. He could not forget the long journey they had made to bring him comfort. But when he bethought him how in his prosperity he had often entertained these men, held high discourse with them on the ways of God, opened his heart and showed them all his life, he marvelled that now they could fail of the thing he most wanted-understanding. The knowledge they had of him should have made suspicion impossible, for they had the testimony of his whole life. The author is not unfair to his champions of orthodoxy. They fail where all such have a way of failing. If their victim in the poem presses on to stinging sarcasm and at last oversteps the bounds of fair criticism, one need not wonder. He is not intended as a type of the meek, self-depreciating person who lets slander pass without a protest. If they have treated him badly, he will tell them to their faces what he thinks. Their want of justice might cause a weak man to slip and lose himself.

Pity from his friend is due to the despairing,

Lest he forsake the fear of the Almighty:

But my brethren have deceived as a torrent,

Like the streams of the ravine, that pass away,

That become blackish with ice,

In which the snow is dissolved.

What time they wax warm they vanish,

When it is hot they are dried up out of their place.

The caravans turn aside,

They go up into the desert and are perishing.

The caravans of Tema look out,

The merchants of Sheba hope for them.

They were ashamed because they had trusted,

They came up to them and blushed.

Even so, now are ye nought.

The poetical genius of the writer overflows here. The allegory is beautiful, the wit keen, the knowledge abundant; yet, in a sense, we have to pardon the interposition. Job is not quite in the mood to represent his disappointment by such an elaborate picture. He would naturally seek a sharper mode of expression. Still, the passage must not be judged by our modern dramatic rules. This is the earliest example of the philosophic story, and elaborate word pictures are part of the literature of the piece.

We accept the pleasure of following a description which Job must be supposed to have painted in melancholy humour.

The scene is in the desert, several days’ journey from the Jauf, that valley already identified as the region in which Job lived. Beyond the Nefood to the west towers the Jebel Tobeyk, a high ridge covered in winter with deep snow, the melting of which fills the ravines with roaring streams. Caravans are coming across the desert from Tema, which lies seven days’ journey to the south of the Jauf, and from Sheba still farther in the same direction. They are on the march in early summer and, falling short of water, turn aside westward to one of the ravines where a stream is expected to be still flowing. But, alas for the vain hope! In the wadi is nothing but stones and dry sand, mocking the thirst of man and beast. Even so, says Job to his friends, ye are treacherous; ye are nothing. I looked for the refreshing waters of sympathy, but ye are empty ravines, dry sand. In my days of prosperity you gushed with friendliness. Now, when I thirst, ye have not even pity. "Ye see a terror, and are afraid." I am terribly stricken. You fear that if you sympathised with me, you might provoke the anger of God.

From this point he turns upon them with reproach. Had he asked them for anything, gifts out of their herds or treasure, aid in recovering his property? They knew he had requested no such service. But again and again Eliphaz had made the suggestion that he was suffering as a wrong doer. Would they tell him then, straightforwardly, how and when he had transgressed? "How forcible are words of uprightness," words that go right to a point; but as for their reproving, what did it come to? They had caught at his complaint. Men of experience should know that the talk of a desperate man is for the wind, to be blown away and forgotten, not to be laid hold of captiously. And here from sarcasm he passes to invective. Their temper, he tells them, is so hard and unfeeling that they are fit to cast lots over the orphan and bargain over a friend. They would be guilty even of selling for a slave a poor fatherless child cast on their charity. "Be pleased to look on me," he cries; "I surely will not lie to your face. Return, let not wrong be done. Go back over my life. Let there be no unfairness. Still is my cause just." They were bound to admit that he was as able to distinguish right from wrong as they were. If that were not granted, then his whole life went for nothing, and their friendship also.

In this vivid eager expostulation there is at least much of human nature. It abounds in natural touches common to all time and in shrewd ironic perception. The sarcasms of Job bear not only upon his friends, but also upon our lives. The words of men who are sorely tossed with trouble, aye even their deeds, are to be judged with full allowance for circumstances. A man driven back inch by inch in a fight with the world, irritated by defeat, thwarted in his plans, missing his calculations, how easy is it to criticise him from the standpoint of a successful career, high repute, a good balance at the banker’s! The hasty words of one who is in sore distress, due possibly to his own ignorance and carelessness, how easy to reckon them against him, find in them abundant proof that he is an unbeliever and a knave, and so pass on to offer in the temple the Pharisee’s prayer! But, easy and natural, it is base. The author of our poem does well to lay the lash of his inspired scorn upon such a temper. He who stores in memory the quick words of a sufferer and brings them up by and by to prove him deserving of all his troubles, such a man would cast lots over the orphan. It is no unfair charge. Oh for humane feeling, gentle truth, self-searching fear of falsehood! It is so easy to be hard and pious.

Beginning another strophe Job turns from his friends, from would be wise assertions and innuendoes, to find, if he can, a philosophy of human life, then to reflect once more in sorrow on his state, and finally to wrestle in urgent entreaty with the Most High. The seventh chapter, in which we trace this line of thought, increases in pathos as it proceeds and rises to the climax of a most daring demand which is not blasphemous because it is entirely frank, profoundly earnest.

The friends of Job have wondered at his sufferings. He himself has tried to find the reason of them. Now he seeks it again in a survey of man’s life:-

"Hath not man war service on earth?

And as the days of a hireling are not his?"

The thought of necessity is coming over Job, that man is not his own master; that a Power he cannot resist appoints his task, whether of action or endurance, to fight in the hot battle or to suffer wearily. And there is truth in the conception; only it is a truth which is inspiring or depressing as the ultimate Power is found in noble character or mindless force. In the time of prosperity this thought of an inexorable decree would have caused no perplexity to Job, and his judgment would have been that the Irresistible is wise and kind. But now, because the shadow has fallen, all appears in gloomy colour, and man’s life a bitter servitude. As a slave, panting for the shade, longing to have his work over, Job considers man. During months of vanity and nights of weariness he waits, long nights made dreary with pain, through the slow hours of which he tosses to and fro in misery. His flesh is clothed with worms and an earthy crust, his skin hardens and breaks out. His days are flimsier than a web (Job 7:6), and draw to a close without hope. The wretchedness masters him, and he cries to God.

"O remember, a breath is my life

Never again will mine eye see good."

Does the Almighty consider how little time is left to him? Surely a gleam might break before all grows dark! Out of sight he will be soon, yea, out of the sight of God Himself, like a cloud that melts away. His place will be down in Sheol, the region of mere existence, not of life, where a man’s being dissolves in shadows and dreams. God must know this is coming to Job. Yet in anguish, ere he die, he will remonstrate with his Maker: "I will not curb my mouth, I will make my complaint in the bitterness of my soul."

Striking indeed is the remonstrance that follows. A struggle against that belief in grim fate which has so injured Oriental character gives vehemence to his appeal; for God must not be lost. His mind is represented as going abroad to find in nature what is most ungovernable and may be supposed to require most surveillance and restraint. By change after change, stroke after stroke, his power has been curbed; till at last, in abject impotence, he lies, a wreck upon the wayside. Nor is he allowed the last solace of nature in extremis; he is not unconscious; he cannot sleep away his misery. By night tormenting dreams haunt him, and visions make as it were a terrible wall against him. He exists on sufferance, perpetually chafed. With all this in his consciousness, he asks, -

"Am I a sea, or a sea monster,

That thou keepest watch over me?"

In a daring figure he imagines the Most High who sets a bound to the sea exercising the same restraint over him, or barring his way as if he were some huge monster of the deep. A certain grim humour characterises the picture. His friends have denounced his impetuosity. Is it as fierce in God’s sight? Can his rage be so wild? Strange indeed is the restraint put on one conscious of having sought to serve God and his age. In self-pity, with an inward sense of the absurdity of the notion, he fancies the Almighty fencing his squalid couch with the horrible dreams and spectres of delirium, barring his way as if he were a raging flood. "I loathe life," he cries; "I would not live always. Let me alone, for my days are a vapour." Do not pain me and hem me in with Thy terrors that allow no freedom, no hope, nothing but a weary sense of impotence. And then his expostulation becomes even bolder.

"What is man," asks a psalmist, "that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man, that Thou visitest him?" With amazement God’s thought of so puny and insignificant a being is observed. But Job, marking in like manner the littleness of man, turns the question in another way:- "What is man that Thou magnifiest him, And settest Thine heart upon him? That Thou visitest him every morning, And triest him every moment?"

Has the Almighty no greater thing to engage Him that He presses hard on the slight personality of man? Might he not be let alone for a little? Might the watchful eye not be turned away from him even for a moment? And finally, coming to the supposition that he may have transgressed and brought himself under the judgment of the Most High, he even dares to ask why that should be:-

"Have I sinned? Yet what have I done unto Thee,

O Thou Watcher of men?

Why hast Thou set me as Thy butt,

So that I am a burden to myself?

And why will Thou not pardon my transgression,

And cause my sin to pass away?"

How can his sin have injured God? Far above man the Almighty dwells and reigns. No shock of human revolt can affect His throne. Strange is it that a man, even if he has committed some fault or neglected some duty, should be like a block of wood or stone before the feet of the Most High, till bruised and broken he cares no more for existence. If iniquity has been done, cannot the Great God forgive it, pass it by? That would be more like the Great God. Yes; soon Job would be down in the dust of death. The Almighty would find then that he had gone too far. "Thou shalt seek me, but I shall not be."

More daring words were never put by a pious man into the mouth of one represented as pious; and the whole passage shows how daring piety may be. The inspired writer of this book knows God too well, honours Him too profoundly to be afraid. The Eternal Father does not watch keenly for the offences of the creatures He has made. May a man not be frank with God and say out what is in his heart? Surely he may. But he must be entirely earnest. No one playing with life, with duty, with truth, or with doubt may expostulate thus with his Maker.

There is indeed an aspect of our little life in which sin may appear too pitiful, too impotent for God to search out. "As for man, his days are as grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth." Only when we see that infinite Justice is involved in the minute infractions of justice, that it must redress the iniquity done by feeble hands and vindicate the ideal we crave for yet so often infringe; only when we see this and realise therewith the greatness of our being, made for justice and the ideal, for moral conflict and victory; only, in short, when we know responsibility, do we stand aghast at sin and comprehend the meaning of judgment. Job is learning here the wisdom and holiness of God which stand correlative to His grace and our responsibility. By way of trial and pain and these sore battles with doubt he is entering into the fulness of the heritage of spiritual knowledge and power.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Job 6". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/job-6.html.
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