In Job 9, we extrapolate a doctrine on Job and delve into the issues of self-righteousness and God’s imposition of justice.
It is very difficult to interpret certain passages of Job, because in some ways there needs to be a doctrine on Job. Is Job mostly right in his complaints or are they mostly wrong? Should we take what he says with a grain of salt, or are we missing out on some great truth if we ignore his points? Is Job the good guy who is always right and his friends the bad guys who are always wrong?
Commentaries have generally taken the approach that Job is pretty much always right, as if he was the voice of Jesus Christ throughout the book. This is pretty much Gregory the Great’s interpretation of the book.
Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on the book does not quite exalt Job to such heights, but it likewise defends Job and rationalizes what he says in such a way so there is nothing negative about it. For example, in Chapter 33 in his commentary he writes that, “Job however wished to dispute with God to learn as a student does with a master.” Hence, when we read some pretty harsh accusations against God, Aquinas’ view is that Job’s questions are asked in an inquisitive fashion, but not in anguish and perhaps, grave disappointment with the God he thought he knew. This means, when Job is clearly laying his case to God to show Him where He is not right in the book, Aquinas’ interpretation would not allow for this. Job and God are always on the same side. Matthew Henry is another interpreter who also takes this position.
Since the Reformation, there has been a reevaluation of Gregory the Great’s caricature of Job. Silas Durand’s commentary, though given to the allegorical heights of Gregory the Great, sums it up quite succinctly: “Job has been murmuring under the mighty hand of God, thus contending with him, and reproving him for laying his hand so heavily upon one so feeble and insignificant, exhibiting the rebellious disposition of our poor fallen nature” (The Trial of Job, XIX). Joseph Caryl, who we are very much indebted to, has notably taken the approach that many things that Job had said required correction from both Elihu and God. More recent conservative interpreters, such as John Piper, have taken the approach that Job is grappling with the nature of God, which leaves the door open for falsehoods to leave his mouth.
However, modern liberal commentators, such as J. Gerald Janzen and James L. Crenshaw take more of the traditionalist approach towards the character of Job. They interpret the words out of Job’s mouth as a critique against the traditional Jewish view of God and of course, the critical commentators like a character critical of God. Regardless why liberal commentators feel the way they do, we don’t want to dismiss the traditional interpretations of Job out of hand, because they are even to this day the majority viewpoint.
For the sake of this commentary, we will interpret Job through the lens of how he is literally portrayed in the story. It is our hope that this avoids interpretive and heremeneutical difficulties. If we do this, the soundest approach is to not presume that everything Job says is correct and merely judge what he says by their own merits when judged by the rest of the Scripture. However, we must keep in mind that this can theoretically lend us the wrong interpretation if the medieval, allegorical views of Job are correct.
How does the book actually portray the man? He is a blameless man and did not do anything obvious to deserve suffering, but he does speak things he must later recant. A doctrine of a less than perfect Job allows to to square the facts that his three friends are wrong, yet at the same time both Elihu’s and God’s responses correcting Job are appropriate. After all, when God says to Job, “Who is this that darkens counsel, by words without knowledge?,” (Job 38:2) we don’t want to turn God into a liar by saying that Job was not “darkening” God’s counsel in his speeches.*
*For a further discussion of the inadequacy of the majority doctrine of Job’s theological perfection, see chapter 38.
In response to Job 5:27 and Job 8:10, where Eliphaz and Bildad assert that they have certainty in what they say, Job appears to respond sarcastically to their view of the truth in the first verse. He does not disagree with them, but then via an argumentum ad absurdum shows what the logical extreme of such arguments would force us to defend. And so, Job starts:
In truth I know that this is so; (likely sarcasm is intended here)
But how can a man be in the right before God? (see Job 4:17)
If one wished to dispute with Him,
He could not answer Him once in a thousand times.
Wise in heart and mighty in strength,
Who has defied Him without harm?
It is God who removes the mountains, they know not how,
When He overturns them in His anger (Job 9:1-5).
Job does not agree that man is incapable of being just before God. Being that Job knew of the importance of repentance, sacrifice, and faith in God (see chapter 1), we have reason to believe that he understood his right standing before God was a gift of sustaining grace. However, Eliphaz purely sees God anthropocentrically, being manipulated by the good and bad actions of men to bless or curse them. When hearing the voice of Satan, Eliphaz apparently added to this theology that because man is always unjust, God can simply crush man with impunity.
Understanding that this is where Eliphaz, and essentially Bildad, is coming from, Job essentially says, “Yes, I will concede a man cannot be right before God, but why?” The next few verses cover why. If not for a specific sin, as Job knows is not the case for him, then such a god that Eliphaz and Bildad paint simply makes man in the wrong by imposing its view of justice by overwhelming force.
Hence, such a god is just not because its nature is flawless, but rather he cannot be reasoned with or opposed due to its power to decide things unilaterally. This is why, by verse five, God’s justice is seen even in His seemingly arbitrary desire to cause earthquakes because of an unquenched anger. If God wants it so, even for the wrong reasons, it is so and we have to say that it is right because no one is in the position to question Him. Obviously, Job is assaulting God’s justice here.
The next few verses essentially communicate the idea of “might makes right” that Thrasymachus asserts in Plato’s Republic. God has power over the Earth, the heavens, and the sea: both making them and controlling them. In fact, the way He controls the ocean parallels verse five in the way it portrays God acting out of unquenchable anger:
Who alone stretches out the heavens and tramples down the waves of the sea…God will not turn back His anger; beneath Him crouch the helpers of Rahab (Job 9:8,13).
The chaotic primordial sea, personified by the great sea monster Leviathan/Rahab, is not merely held in place but mercilessly crushed. Job in some ways appears wrongly sympathetic to Leviathan and his demonic “helpers”, and has already wished that it would swallow up the day of his birth. Nonetheless, the picture we see here is clear. God is not gentle in exacting His justice, but rather harsh, and Job in later verses minces no meat about it. He is terrified by such a god and prefers to be left alone.
However, there is a major error in this line of thinking: Job is being anthropocentric in his own thinking. He rightly assumes the universe is not anthropocentric and points to God’s great power, as God does Himself later, to prove it. However, who is a man to accuse God of being harsh or unjust? What is man’s measure?
This is what we believe is at the heart of Elihu’s complaint that Job “justifies himself rather than God,” because even when Job concedes God’s greatness and justice, he does so begrudgingly, not fully understanding God’s nature and instead misattributing to God a gravely harsh character. For example, Job says that if “He [were] to pass by me, I would not see Him; were He to move past me, I would not perceive Him” (Job 9:11). Granted, this does reflect God’s greatness, but it makes God unapproachable and altogether terrifying. Job opines, “Were He to snatch away, who could restrain Him? Who could say to Him, ‘What are You doing’” (Job 9:12)? Job is not portraying God as just because of His awesome character, but rather due to His irresistible strength and position in which because of His superiority, there is no greater source of justice that may be appealed to (see Job 9:19).
Apparent in Job’s response is that he believes God to be unjust, even while he begrudgingly exalts God’s inimitability. “How then can I answer Him and choose my words before Him? For though I were right, I could not answer; I would have to implore the mercy of my judge” (Job 9:14-15). So, God is the just judge because there is no one higher to appeal to, not because He is actually right.
However, Job here is patently incorrect. The Scripture states, “The Lord is righteous in all His ways and kind in all His deeds” (Psalm 145:17). Hence, it is not possible for Job to be right in this situation and God to be wrong.
Now, let’s keep Job’s suffering in mind. He does not make such accusations completely without any reason whatsoever. Job is exasperated because of his pain and suffering to the point where he is seeing stars and cannot tell left from right. “If I called and He answered me, I could not believe that He was listening to my voice,” says Job incredulously in verse 16. Why is he so dazzled? “For He bruises me with a tempest and multiplies my wounds without cause. He will not allow me to get my breath, but saturates me with bitterness” (Job 9:17-18).
We may forgive Job for his bad theology, he appears to be aware of this and therefore reminds us of his suffering. However, he then makes some very wrong claims about himself, which we know do not square with the Scripture.
For example, Job essentially accuses God of being unjust while viewing himself as in the right: “Though I am righteous, my mouth will condemn me;
Though I am guiltless, He will declare me guilty” (Job 9:20).
This statement should put to rest any doctrines of Job in which his theology is perfect, given that the above translation above is correct. However, translation of the terms here affects how we may go about interpreting it.
Aquinas, who ascribes to the perfect Job doctrine, gives the following commentary based upon a slightly differing translation of verse 20: “He says clearly, ‘Even if I were somewhat just,’ to show the uncertainty of human justice by using the words, ‘even if I were.’”
However, other translators, and the context of both verses 20 and 21, would make it appear that Job is making an affirmation of his own righteousness, instead of voicing uncertainty in it as Aquinas maintains.
If I be righteous, Mine mouth doth declare me wicked, Perfect I am! — it declareth me perverse. Perfect I am! — I know not my soul, I despise my life (Job 9:20-21, YLT).
Though I am righteous [tsâdaq צדק (righteous), compare to Gen 15:6 where Abraham is declared tse dâqâh צדקה (righteous)], my mouth will condemn me; though I am guiltless [tâm (perfect)], He will declare me guilty. I am guiltless [tâm (perfect)]; I do not take notice of myself; I despise my life (Job 9:20-21, NASB).
Without expertise in Hebrew a firm conclusion cannot be drawn, because better scholarship on this issue can make a more conclusive point. Nonetheless, it appears that the words “though,” “if” or “even” are a matter of the translator’s interpretation of what belongs before the words “righteous” and “guiltless.”. So, in the original Hebrew, these statements are “I am” statements. “I am righteous…I am guiltless…I am guiltless…”
To follow Aquinas’ prefered translation, we would be putting the word “even if” in front of all those “I am” statements in order to retain translational consistency.
Even if I am righteous, my mouth will condemn me; even if I am guiltless, He will declare me guilty. Even if I am guiltless; I do not take notice of myself; I despise my life (Job 9:20-21, “even if” version).
The “even if” approach turns what Job says into nonsense. How can Job not take notice of himself “even if I were guiltless?” It does not make sense. Obviously, the choice of words is because of a preconceived notion about Job that the translator approaches the text with.
If we just stick the word “though” in place of “if” before the “I am” statements, what Job is saying is pretty straight forward. Even though he is righteous, he stands condemned. Even though he is without guilt, God will declare him guilty. Even though he is without guilt, he does not want to even think about it, he despises his life.
Job’s assertion of his righteousness is something that deserves discussion. The Hebrew word for “righteous” that Job uses is nearly identical to the term in which the Scripture describes Abraham’s righteous standing before God as consequence of his faith. Hence, Job’s assertion is of a serious nature: He asserts that he legally has a right standing before God.
Now, we already know Job is a faithful man, so his right standing is a consequence of his faith. Further, God smiles upon Job, so we know he has His approval. So, Job’s confusion is how can he be right before God when by all appearances he is being cursed by God with terrible pains.
This returns to the “moral fabric of existence” idea we spoke of earlier. How can a righteous man, be treated by a righteous God as if he were unrighteous (see Job 9:29)? On first glance, it appears as a logical contradiction that throws Job into despair and his friends into doubt as to Job’s righteousness. The above is underlined, because it is the very meat of Job’s whole complaint. Therefore, when God addresses Job’s complaint, we get an answer to this very important question!
The moral fabric of existence is a serious concern to Job. In his confusion over the moral chaos that results from God not being retributive in nature when He deals with man’s righteousness and wickedness, Job presses the matter:
He destroys the guiltless and the wicked. If the scourge kills suddenly, He mocks the despair of the innocent. The earth is given into the hand of the wicked; He covers the faces of its judges. If it is not He, then who is it (Job 9:22-24)?
It is apparent to Job that God indiscriminately destroys the righteous, such as himself, and the wicked. There is no benefit in this life of being one over the other, at least in this life.
Thus, God is ultimately responsible for not stopping the wicked, and in Job’s eyes, therefore smiles upon them to at least some degree. We will see later that Job and his friends believe that the wicked are punished in Sheol.
We must remind ourselves, God’s permitting of evil is not equivalent to approving of it. God’s dealings with Satan, where God disagrees yet allows Satan a degree of freedom in the first chapter, preclude such a simplistic conclusion. Job, like many others, is not aware of this and begins suspecting there is some truth to Epicurus’ argument from evil.
Job ends the chapter reiterating some of the same points he has already made. He wishes for death to come quickly (Job 9:25-26) and he asserts that though he is right God can make him wrong by His sheer power to decide matters of justice (Job 9:30-32).
Concerning justice, Job pursues this point in a fanciful sort of way. He wishes there was an arbiter between him and God (Job 9:33). At this point, we know that Job is daydreaming of this because, simply put, he thinks God is wrong. If there were a higher authority than God, the “umpire” would be able to show God what the right thing to do would be.
Obviously, there is no higher authority nor more righteous being to decide such matters than God. But oftentimes when suffering, people doubt this. We shall see later in chapter 19 just exactly how Jesus Christ fits into the picture.