Book Overview - Job
by William Nicoll
THE AUTHOR AND HIS WORK
THE Book of Job is the first great poem of the soul in its mundane conflict, facing the inexorable of sorrow, change, pain, and death, and feeling within itself at one and the same time weakness and energy, the hero and the serf, brilliant hopes, terrible fears. With entire veracity and amazing force this book represents the never-ending drama renewed in every generation and every genuine life. It breaks upon us out of the old world and dim muffled centuries with all the vigour of the modern soul and that religious impetuosity which none but Hebrews seem fully to have known. Looking for precursors of Job we find a seeming spiritual burden and intensity in the Accadian psalms, their confessions and prayers; but if they prepared the way for Hebrew psalmists and for the author of Job, it was not by awaking the cardinal thoughts that make this book what it is, nor by supplying an example of the dramatic order, the fine sincerity and abounding art we find here welling up out of the desert. The Accadian psalms are fragments of a polytheistic and ceremonial world; they spring from the soil which Abraham abandoned that he might found a race of strong men and strike out a new clear way of life. Exhibiting the fear, superstition, and ignorance of our race, they fall away from comparison with the marvellous later work and leave it unique among the legacies of man’s genius to man’s need. Before it a few notes of the awakening heart, a thirst for God, were struck in those Chaldaean entreaties, and more finely in Hebrew psalm and oracle: but after it have come in rich multiplying succession the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes, the Apocalypse, the Confessions of Augustine, the Divina Commedia, Hamlet, Paradise Regained, the Grace Abounding of Bunyan, the Faust of Goethe and its progeny, Shelley’s poems of revolt and freedom, Sartor Resartus, Browning’s Easter Day and Rabbi Ben Ezra, Amiel’s Journal, with many other writings, down to "Mark Rutherford" and the "Story of an African Farm." The old tree has sent forth a hundred shoots, and is still full of sap to our most modern sense. It is a chief source of the world’s penetrating and poignant literature.
But there is another view of the book. It may well be the despair of those who desire above all things to separate letters from theology. The surpassing genius of the writer is seen not in his fine calm of assurance and self-possession, nor in the deft gathering and arranging of beautiful images, but in his sense of elemental realities and the daring with which he launches on a painful conflict. He is convinced of Divine sovereignty, and yet has to seek room for faith in a world shadowed and confused. He is a prophet in quest of an oracle, a poet, a maker, striving to find where and how the man for whom he is concerned shall sustain himself. And yet, with this paradox wrought into its very substance, his work is richly fashioned, a type of the highest literature, drawing upon every region natural and supernatural, descending into the depths of human woe, rising to the heights of the glory of God, never for one moment insensible to the beauty and sublimity of the universe. It is literature with which theology is so blended that none can say, Here is one, there the other. The passion of that race which gave the world the idea of the soul, which clung with growing zeal to the faith of the One Eternal God as the fountain of life and equally of justice, this passion in one of its rarest modes pours through the Book of Job like a torrent, forcing its way towards the freedom of faith, the harmony of intuition with the truth of things. The book is all theology, one may say, and all humanity no less. Singularly liberal in spirit and awake to the various elements of our life, it is moulded, notwithstanding its passion, by the artist’s pleasure in perfecting form, adding wealth of allusion and ornament to strength of thought. The mind of the writer has not hastened. He has taken long time to brood over his torment and seek deliverance. The fire burns through the sculpture and carved framework and painted windows of his art with no loss of heat. Yet, as becomes a sacred book, all is sobered and restrained to the rhythmic flow of dramatic evolution, and it is as if the eager soul had been chastened, even in its fieriest endeavour, by the regular procession of nature, sunrise and sunset, spring and harvest, and by the sense of the Eternal One, Lord of light and darkness, life and death. Built where, before it, building had never been reared in such firmness of structure and glow of orderly art, with such design to shelter the soul, the work is a fresh beginning in theology as well as literature, and those who would separate the two must show us how to separate them here, must explain why their union in this poem is to the present moment so richly fruitful. An origin it stands by reason of its subject no less than its power, sincerity, and freedom.
A phenomenon in Hebrew thought and faith-to what age does it belong? No record or reminiscence of the author is left from which the least hint of time may be gathered. He, who by his marvellous poem struck a chord of thought deep and powerful enough to vibrate still and stir the modern heart, is uncelebrated, nameless. A traveller, a master of his country’s language, and versed no less in foreign learning, foremost of the men of his day whensoever it was, he passed away as a shadow, though he left an imperishable monument. "Like a star of the first magnitude," says Dr. Samuel Davidson, "the brilliant genius of the writer of Job attracts the admiration of men as it points to the Almighty Ruler chastening yet loving His people. Of one whose sublime conceptions (mounting the height where Jehovah is enthroned in light, inaccessible to mortal eye) lift him far above his time and people-who climbs the ladder of the Eternal, as if to open heaven-of this giant philosopher and poet we long to know something, his habitation, name, appearance. The very spot where his ashes rest we desire to gaze upon. But in vain." Strange, do we say? And yet how much of her great poet, Shakespeare, does England know? It is not seldom the fate of those whose genius lifts them highest to be unrecognised by their own time. As English history tells us more of Leicester than of Shakespeare, so Hebrew history records by preference the deeds of its great King Solomon. A greater than Solomon was in Israel, and history knows him not. No prophet who followed him and wrought sentences of his poem into lamentation or oracle, no chronicler of the exile or the return, preserving the names and lineage of the nobles of Israel, has mentioned him. Literary distinction, the praise of service to his country’s faith could not have been in his mind. They did not exist. He was content to do his work, and leave it to the world and to God.
And yet the man lives in his poem. We begin to hope that some indication of the period and circumstances in which he wrote may be found when we realise that here and there beneath the heat and eloquence of his words may be heard those undertones of personal desire and trust which once were the solemn music of a life. His own, not his hero’s, are the philosophy of the book, the earnest search for God, the sublime despondency, the bitter anguish, and the prophetic cry that breaks through the darkness. We can see that it is vain to go back to Mosaic or pre-Mosaic times for life and thought and words like his; at whatever time Job lived, the poet-biographer deals with the perplexities of a more anxious world. In the imaginative light with which he invests the past no distinct landmarks of time are to be seen. The treatment is large, general, as if the burden of his subject carried the writer not only into the great spaces of humanity, but into a region where the temporal faded into insignificance as compared with the spiritual. And yet, as through openings in a forest, we have glimpses here and there, vaguely and momentarily showing what age it was the author knew. The picture is mainly of timeless patriarchal life; but, in the foreground or the background, objects and events are sketched that help our inquiry. "His troops come together and cast up their way against me." "From out of the populous city men groan, and the soul of the wounded crieth out." "He looseth the bond of kings, and bindeth their loins with a girdle; He leadeth priests away spoiled, and over-throweth the mighty He increaseth the nations and destroyeth them; He spreadeth the nations abroad and bringeth them in." No quiet patriarchal life in a region sparsely peopled, where the years went slow and placid, could have supplied these elements of the picture. The writer has seen the woes of the great city in which the tide of prosperity flows over the crushed and dying. He has seen, and, indeed, we are almost sure has suffered in, some national disaster like those to which he refers. A Hebrew, not of the age after the return from exile, -for the style of his writing, partly through the use of Arabic and Aramaic forms, has more of rude vigour and spontaneity on the whole than fits so late a date, -he appears to have felt all the sorrows of his people when the conquering armies of Assyria or of Babylon overran their land.
The scheme of the book helps to fix the time of the composition. A drama so elaborate could not have been produced until literature had become an art. Such complexity of structure as we find in Psalms 119:1-176 shows that by the time of its composition much attention was paid to form. It is no longer the pure lyric cry of the unlearned singer, but the ode, extremely artificial notwithstanding its sincerity. The comparatively late date of the Book of Job appears in the orderly balanced plan, not indeed so laboured as the psalm referred to, but certainly belonging to a literary age.
Again, a note of time has been found by comparing the contents of Job with Proverbs, Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, and other books. Proverbs, chapters 3 and 8, for example, may be contrasted with chapter 28 of the Book of Job. Placing them together we can hardly escape the conclusion that the one writer had been acquainted with the work of the other. Now, in Proverbs it is taken for granted that wisdom may easily be found: "Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. Keep sound wisdom and discretion; so shall they be life unto thy soul and grace to thy neck." The author of the panegyric has no difficulty about the Divine rules of life. Again, Proverbs 8:15-16 : "By me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth." In Job 28:1-28, however, we find a different strain. There it is: "Where shall wisdom be found? It is hid from the eyes of all living, and kept close from the fowls of the air"; and the conclusion is that wisdom is with God, not with man. Of the two it seems clear that the Book of Job is later.
It is occupied with questions which make wisdom, the interpretation of providence and the ordering of life, exceedingly hard. The writer of Job, with the passages in Proverbs before him, appears to have said to himself: Ah! it is easy to praise wisdom and advise men to choose wisdom and walk in her ways. But to me the secrets of existence are deep, the purposes of God unfathomable. He is fain, therefore, to put into the mouth of Job the sorrowful cry, "Where shall wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding? Man knoweth not the price thereof . . . It cannot be gotten for gold." Both in Proverbs and Job, indeed, the source of Hokhma or wisdom is ascribed to the fear of Jehovah; but the whole contention in Job is that man fails in the intellectual apprehension of the ways of God. Referring the earlier portions of Proverbs to the post-Solomonic age we should place the Book of Job at a later date.
It is not within our scope to consider here all the questions raised by parallel passages and discuss the priority and originality in each case. Some resemblances in Isaiah may, however, be briefly noticed, because we seem on the whole to be led to the conclusion that the Book of Job was written between the periods of the first and second series of Isaiah oracles. They are such as these. In Isaiah 19:5, "The waters shall fail from the sea, and the river shall be wasted and become dry,"-referring to the Nile: parallel in Job 14:11, "As the waters fail from the sea, and the river decayeth and drieth up,"-referring to the passing of human life. In Isaiah 19:13, "The princes of Zoan are become fools, the princes of Noph are deceived; they have caused Egypt to go astray,"-an oracle of specific application: parallel in Job 12:24, "He taketh away the heart of the chiefs of the people of the earth, and causeth them to wander in a wilderness where there is no way,"-a description at large. In Isaiah 28:29, "This also cometh forth from Jehovah of Hosts, which is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom": parallel in Job 11:5-6, "Oh that God would speak, and open His lips against thee; and that He would show thee the secrets of wisdom, that it is manifold in effectual working!" The resemblance between various parts of Job and "the writing of Hezekiah when he had been sick and was recovered of his sickness," are sufficiently obvious, but cannot be used in any argument of time. And on the whole, so far, the generality and, in the last case, somewhat stiff elaboration of the ideas in Job as compared with Isaiah are almost positive proof that Isaiah went first. Passing now to the fortieth and subsequent chapters of Isaiah we find many parallels and much general similarity to the contents of our poem. In Job 26:12, "He stirreth up the sea with His power, and by His understanding He smiteth through Rahab": parallel in Isaiah 51:9-10, "Art thou not it that cut Rahab in pieces, that pierced the dragon? Art thou not it which dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep?" In Job 9:8, "Which alone stretcheth out the heavens, and treadeth upon the waves of the sea": parallel in Isaiah 40:22, "That stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in." In these and other cases the resemblance is clear, and on the whole the simplicity and apparent originality lie with the Book of Job. Professor Davidson claims that Job, called by God "My servant," resembles in many points the servant of Jehovah in Isaiah 53:1-12, and the claim must be admitted. But on what ground Kuenen can affirm that the writer of Job had the second portion of Isaiah before him and painted his hero from it one fails to see. There are many obvious differences.
It has now become almost clear that the book belongs either to the period (favoured by Ewald, Renan, and others) immediately following the captivity of the northern tribes, or to the time of the captivity of Judah (fixed upon by Dr. A.B. Davidson, Professor Cheyne, and others). We must still, however, seek further light by glancing at the main problem of the book, which is to reconcile the justice of Divine providence with the sufferings of the good, so that man may believe in God even in sorest affliction. We must also consider the hint of time to be found in the importance attached to personality, the feelings and destiny of the individual and his claim on God.
Taking first the problem, -while it is stated in some of the psalms and, indeed, is sure to have occurred to many a sufferer, for most think themselves undeserving of great pain and affliction, -the attempt to grapple with it is first made in Job. The Proverbs, Deuteronomy, and the historical books take for granted that prosperity follows religion and obedience to God, and that suffering is the punishment of disobedience. The prophets also, though they have their own view of national success, do not dispense with it as an evidence of Divine favour. Cases no doubt were before the mind of inspired writers which made any form of the theory difficult to hold but these were regarded as temporary and exceptional, if indeed they could not be explained by the rule that God sends earthly prosperity to the good, and suffering to the bad in the long run. To deny this and to seek another rule was the distinction of the author of Job, his bold and original adventure in theology. And the attempt was natural, one may say necessary, at time when the Hebrew states were suffering from those shocks of foreign invasion which threw their society, commerce, and politics into the direst confusion. The old ideas of religion no longer sufficed. Overcome in war, driven out of their own land, they needed a faith which could sustain and cheer them in poverty and dispersion. A generation having no outlook beyond captivity was under a curse from which penitence and renewed fidelity could not secure deliverance. The assurance of God’s friendship in affliction had to be sought.
The importance attached to personality and the destiny of the individual is on two sides guide to the date of the book. In some of the psalms, undoubtedly belonging to an earlier period, the personal cry is heard. No longer content to be part and parcel of the class or nation, the soul in these psalms asserts its direct claim on God for light and comfort and help. And some of them, the thirteenth for example (Psalms 13:1-6) insist passionately on the right of a believing man to a portion in Jehovah. Now in the dispersion of the northern tribes or the capture of Jerusalem this personal question would be keenly accentuated. Amidst the disasters of such a time those who are faithful and pious suffer along with the rebellious and idolatrous. Because they are faithful to God, virtuous and patriotic beyond the rest, they may indeed have more affliction and loss to endure. The psalmist among his own people, oppressed and cruelly wronged has the need of a personal hope forced upon him and feels that he must be able to say, "The Lord is my shepherd." Yet he cannot entirely separate himself from his people. When those of his own house and kindred rise against him still they too may claim Jehovah as their God. But the homeless exile, deprived of all, a solitary wanderer on the face of the earth, has need to seek more earnestly for the reason of his state. The nation is broken up; and if he is to find refuge in God, he must look for other hopes than hinge on national recovery. It is the God of the whole earth he must now seek as his portion. A unit not of Israel but of humanity, he must find a bridge over the deep chasm that seems to separate his feeble life from the Almighty, a chasm all the deeper that he has been plunged into sore trouble. He must find assurance that the unit is not lost to God among the multitudes, that the life broken and prostrate neither forgotten nor rejected by the Eternal King. And this precisely corresponds with the temper of our book and the conception of God we find in it. A man who has known Jehovah as the God of Israel seeks his justification, cries for his individual right to Eloah, the Most High, the God of universal nature and humanity and providence.
Now, it has been alleged that through the Book of Job there runs a constant but covert reference to the troubles of the Jewish Church in the Captivity, and especially that Job himself represents the suffering flock of God. It is not proposed to give up entirely the individual problem, but along with that, superseding that, the main question of the poem is held to be why Judah should suffer so keenly and lie on the mezbele or ash heap of exile. With all respect to those who hold this theory one must say that it has no substantial support; and, on the other hand, it seems incredible that a member of the Southern Kingdom (if the writer belonged to it), expending so much care and genius on the problem of his people’s defeat and misery, should have passed beyond his own kin for a hero, should have set aside almost entirely the distinctive name Jehovah, should have forgotten the ruined temple and the desolate city to which every Jew looked back across the desert with brimming eyes, should have let himself appear, even while he sought to reassure his compatriots in their faith, as one who set no store by their cherished traditions, their great names, their religious institutions, but as one whose faith was purely natural like that of Edom. Among the good and true men who, at the taking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, were left in penury, childless and desolate, a poet of Judah would have found a Jewish hero. To his drama what embellishment and pathos could have been added by genius like our author’s, if he had gone back on the terrible siege and painted the Babylonian victors in their cruelty and pride, the misery of the exiles in the land of idolatry. One cannot help believing that to this writer Jerusalem was nothing, that he had no interest in its temple, no love for its ornate religious services and growing exclusiveness. The suggestion of Ewald may be accepted, that he was a member of the Northern Kingdom driven from his home by the overthrow of Samaria. Undeniable is the fact that his religion has more sympathy with Teman than with Jerusalem as it was. If he belonged to the north this seems to be explained. To seek help from the priesthood and worship of the temple did not occur to him. Israel broken up, he has to begin afresh. For it is with his own religious trouble he is occupied; and the problem is universal.
Against the identification of Job with the servant of Jehovah in Isaiah 53:1-12 there is one objection, and it is fatal. The author of Job has no thought of the central idea in that passage-vicarious suffering. New light would have been thrown on the whole subject if one of the friends had been made to suggest the possibility that Job was suffering for others, that the "chastisement of their peace" was laid on him. Had the author lived after the return from captivity and heard of this oracle, he would surely have wrought into his poem the latest revelation of the Divine method in helping and redeeming men.
The distinction of the Book of Job we have seen to be that it offers a new beginning in theology. And it does so not only because it shifts faith in the Divine justice to a fresh basis, but also because it ventures on a universalism for which indeed the Proverbs had made way, which however stood in sharp contrast to the narrowness of the old state religion. Already it was admitted that others than Hebrews might love the truth, follow righteousness, and share the blessings of the heavenly King. To that broader faith, enjoyed by the thinkers and prophets of Israel, if not by the priests and people, the author of the Book of Job added the boldness of a more liberal inspiration. He went beyond the Hebrew family for his hero to make it clear that man, as man, is in direct relation to God. The Psalms and the Book of Proverbs might be read by Israelites and the belief still retained that God would prosper Israel alone, at any rate in the end. Now, the man of Uz, the Arabian sheikh, outside the sacred fraternity of the tribes, is presented as a fearer of the true God-His trusted witness and servant. With the freedom of a prophet bringing a new message of the brotherhood of men our author points us beyond Israel to the desert oasis.
Yes: the creed of Hebraism had ceased to guide thought and lead the soul to strength. The Hokhma literature of Proverbs, which had become fashionable in Solomon’s time, possessed no dogmatic vigour, fell often to the level of moral platitude, as the same kind of literature does with us, and had little help for the soul. The state religion, on the other hand, both in the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, was ritualistic, again like ours, clung to the old tribal notion, and busied itself about the outward more than the inward, the sacrifices rather than the heart, as Amos and Isaiah clearly indicate. Hokhma of various kinds, plus energetic ritualism, was falling into practical uselessness. Those who held the religion as a venerable inheritance and national talisman did not base their action and hope on it out in the world. They were beginning to say, "Who knoweth what is good for man in this life-all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? For who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?" A new theology was certainly needed for the crisis of the time.
The author of the Book of Job found no school possessed of the secret of strength. But he sought to God, and inspiration came to him. He found himself in the desert like Elijah, like others long afterwards, John the Baptist, and especially Saul of Tarsus, whose words we remember, Neither went I up to Jerusalem, but I went into Arabia. There he met with a religion not confined by rigid ceremony as that of the southern tribes, not idolatrous like that of the north, a religion elementary indeed, but capable of development. And he became its prophet. He would take the wide world into council. He would hear Teman and Shuach and Naamah; he would also hear the voice from the whirlwind, and the swelling sea, and the troubled nations, and the eager soul. It was a daring dash beyond the ramparts. Orthodoxy might stand aghast within its fortress. He might appear a renegade in seeking tidings of God from the heathen, as one might now who went from a Christian land to learn from the Brahman and the Buddhist. But he would go nevertheless; and it was his wisdom. He opened his mind to the sight of fact, and reported what he found, so that theology might be corrected and made again a handmaid of faith. He is one of those Scripture writers who vindicate the universality of the Bible, who show it to be a unique foundation, and forbid the theory of a closed record or dried-up spring, which is the error of Bibliolatry. He is a man of his age and of the world, yet in fellowship with the Eternal Mind.
An exile, let us suppose, of the Northern Kingdom, escaping with his life from the sword of the Assyrian, the author of our book has taken his way into the Arabian wilderness and there found the friendship of some chief and a safe retreat among his people. The desert has become familiar to him, the sandy wastes and vivid oases, the fierce storms and affluent sunshine, the animal and vegetable life, the patriarchal customs and legends of old times. He has travelled through Idumaea, and seen the desert tombs, on to Midian and its lonely peaks. He has heard the roll of the Great Sea on the sands of the Shefelah, and seen the vast tide of the Nile flowing through the verdure of the Delta and past the pyramids of Memphis. He has wandered through the cities of Egypt and viewed their teeming life, turning to the use of imagination and religion all he beheld. With a relish for his own language, yet enriching it by the words and ideas of other lands, he has practised himself in the writer’s art, and at length, in some hour of burning memory and revived experience, he has caught at the history of one who, yonder in a valley of the eastern wilderness, knew the shocks of time and pain though his heart was right with God; and in the heat of his spirit the poet-exile makes the story of that life into a drama of the trial of human faith, -his own endurance and vindication, his own sorrow and hope.
the Third Week after Epiphany