Job 5:8-11 II
Bill Long 5/25/05
What this God Does
The purpose of this mini-essay is to review the language of Job 5:9-11, focusing especially on the "wondrous" things Eliphaz says God does in 5:9. The thoughts in 5:10-11--that God gives rain to the earth and that God lifts the lowly, are standard attributes of God elsewhere spoken of in the Scripture (see, for example, Ps. 113:7-8). But when we scratch below the surface of Job 5:9, we find a verse teeming with life.
For once, we have a verse which scholars can easily translate:
"He does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number."
What a strong and powerful affirmation! Well, let's look at it. The first thing to note is that it this verse is quoted almost verbatim by Job in 9:10. On the one hand, this direct quotation shows that Job is, contrary to what many scholars think, listening to Eliphaz. I believe that Eliphaz's words sink deeply into Job's consciouness, and he spends the rest of the book "responding" to them. Job 9:10 is Job's most explicit repetition of one of his friends in the entire book. On the other hand, however, Job seems to "twist" Eliphaz's meaning. We have already seen in 3:4 that Job's words "let there be darkenss," are meant to "twist" or reverse the good language of God in Gen 1:3 ("Let there be light"). We will see another clear example of this in Job 7:17-18, where Job "twists" the langauge of Ps. 8.
But in Job 9, Job quotes Eliphaz precisely but puts it in a different thought context. When Job is limning and hymning the greatness of God in ch.9, he is doing it out of frustration. God is all powerful. God is controlled by anger (9:5,13). God's greatness and marvelous works, therefore, are an expression of God's whimsicality. For Eliphaz they are a sign that all is well with the world, and that a just God is controlling all things for his just ends. Not for Job.
The second thing to noice is the use of "unsearchable" (Hebrew h-k-r). Behind this one word are two Hebrew words (lit. "and there is not a search," meaning that the ways of God cannot be searched out). Two other occasions, other than 9:10, where this word is used in Job emphasize, in contrast, the positive fruits of a search with respect to divine things. God's actions might be unsearchable, but Eliphaz solemnly announces to Job at the end of this speech that "we" have "searched out" all these things (using the verb h-k-r) and found them to be true (5:27). Second, when God established wisdom in the world, Job emphasizes that God not only knew the way to it but that God "searched it out" (28:27). Eliphaz may say that God's ways are ultimately unsearchable, but he, and God himself, have searched out some pretty basic principles in the universe and can report on the "truth" of them.
For me, however, the most powerful term in 5:9 is translated "marvelous things" in English (nephlaot). Job repeats the term in 9:10, and Elihu uses it twice in his speeches (37:5,14), but the most arresting use of it is in 42:3 by Job, when he is recounting his feelings about the vision of God that he has experienced.*
[*Ironically, Job's "vision" of God consists of hearing God speak in 38-41.]
Job is penitent in 42:3 because he was ignorant of the marvelous things (nephlaot) God had done. As a result, he despises and then repents in dust and ashes. The transformation of Job occurred because he was able to see God's "marvelous" works not as something that increased his frustration (arguably its use in 9:10), but as something contributing to his vision of God. Finally Job will come to realize God's wonderful works not at third-person distance but at first-person intimacy.
"Wonderful Works" and Ps. 139
In this connection, I would argue that Job not only let's Eliphaz's words in 5:9 sink deep into his consciousness, but he also is playing in his mind with Ps.139 as he mulls his distress. Ps. 139 uses nephlaot three times to express the Psalmist's wonder at the inscrutable and unsearchable ways of God. God observes and watches over the creatures. Before a word is on our lips, God knows it altogther. God besets us behind and before and lays his hand upon us. "Such knowledge is too wonderful (peliayah, from the same root as nephlaot) for me; it is high, I cannot attain it" (Ps. 139:6)." Again, a few verses later, the Psalmist twice celebrates the wonderful works of God (139:14). My thesis is that Job, while he is bursting out against God with all kinds of vituperation is really struggling with the concept of "wonder." What is the pablum of Eliphaz's theology becomes the solid meat (apologies to the vegans) of Job's diet.
The music ringing in my mind now as I conclude this essay is from Handel's Messiah: "The Lord gave the word.....Great was the company of the preachers, great was the company of the preachers!" Eliphaz gave the word, and great was the effect on Job. Job would take Eliphaz's words, however, and put them to use in his own way. And, Eliphaz will speak wrong of God (cf. 42:7,8). But his words will lodge in Job's heart, and they will become the means by which he struggles to regain his center.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long