The 39th chapter of the Book of Job details how God is sovereign over the different temperaments of men by speaking of animals by allegory.
God continues his speech to Job, speaking of His control over the animal kingdom and how this reflects upon His righteousness.
Most interpreters read this chapter with the view that God is aweing Job with His wisdom in taking care of the fine details of beasts that man cannot control. For this reason, many of the animals discussed in this chapter are not domesticated. This may be true and it would be sufficient to note that God’s care and design of these creatures make His wisdom greater than man who cannot do these things.
In this commentary, we think the Scripture is conveying something a little more. We will try to explore one other possible set of meanings that God may have been trying to convey. Just as God is sovereign and works all in these beasts, the different attitudes and attributes they have can also be seen in men. Hence, there is a spiritual import to what is being said that we can apply from what is said about the animals to us.
As Silas Durand said, “Each one [of the descriptions of the animals] no doubt has a special spiritual significance, but what this may be I cannot hope fully to understand. In some cases I may suggest an interpretation of the figure which will be sustained by the Scriptures, and then we may feel a degree of certainty in regard to its correctness” (The Trial of Job, Chapter XIX).
If God is sovereign over the differing attitudes and attributes in men that can be gleaned from the beasts, then it speaks to His high purposes is shaping all of us in accordance with His will. How could one question God’s justice when we conform to instincts for reasons that God knows and controls?
Some men may question, “Then why does God allow men to do evil?” God, not wanting to leave us wondering in regards to this, will answer what the role of evil is in the final two chapters of His discourse. With such an interpretation, we can see that God’s overarching argument is that He has righteous and high purposes behind creation (Chapter 38), the nature of the world’s creatures (Chapter 39), and the moral element of evil that exists therein (Chapters 40 and 41). When we view God’s discourses as one, consistent stream of thought substantiating His righteousness, they can all make sense. Interpreting the chapters as a bunch of random ideas about “look how big God is, He made Behemoth and a bunch of animals, they’re all big and stuff,” does not answer why there is evil.
The first observation God makes is of animals giving birth (Job 39:1-4). Whether it is the goat in an inaccessible cliff or the deer hiding itself well in an otherwise easily transversable forest, man does not get to witness these events regularly. In fact, without the aid of cameras or captivity, it is something man would never witness. God put in them an instinct where they can outsmart a man and hide from him in this fragile moment. Likewise, both of these animals are resilient in their birthing (Job 39:3) and in the plain sight of all God sustains their young (Job 39:4). In time, the process repeats without any deliberate action on part of the animals. God brings it all to pass.
The birthing may be a picture of how we are given spiritual life. Just as the birthing of these animals’ physical life, is invisible to us, the work of the Spirit is invisible like the wind but its fruit such as “love, joy, peace, [and] patience” are readily apparent (Gal 5:22).
Further, the birthing of the deer may hold special significance. The Scripture compares Naphtali, among the redeemed people of God, to deer (Gen 49:21). Further, the Scripture also says, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God” (Ps 42:1). True water, in which we will never thirst, is supplied to us by Jesus Christ: “[W]hoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 6:14). So, like the deer, we want to thirst for the things of God.
The Scripture elsewhere comments on the birth of deer: “The voice of the Lord makes the deer to calve” (Ps 29:9). Why is this relevant? This is the picture of the regeneration of the elect which are “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). Just as the salvation of man is monergistically brought about and initiated by God, so does the voice of the Lord bring about the birthing of deer.
Yet another Scripture conflates the new birth of spiritual regeneration with deer of the animal kingdom. Isaiah says, “[T]he lame will leap like a deer…For waters will break forth in the wilderness” (Is 35:6). These waters are the outpouring of the Holy Spirit from the hearts of believers (John 7:38-39). God takes those that are lame, those who cannot will their own salvation, and makes them new creations. He gives birth to them by the Spirit and just as waters will break forth from a desert place, pouring out from where there used to be hearts of deeds of the Spirit from brand new hearts of flesh.
Concerning the goat, as Durand observes it is “used to represent those who shall not inherit life (Matthew 25:33)” (The Trial of Job, Chapter XIX). The goat has demonic undertones in Daniel 8 and Lev 17:7. God says that He will punish the goats (Zech 10:3). Though goats do not universally have a negative connotation is Scripture , it appears that God is showing us a dichotomy between the goat and the deer. So, God “sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (Matt 5:45). He sustains all of us, good and bad.
Indeed, He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), but the goat is self-righteous and will ultimately reject God. Even though God knows this, He sustains the life of the goat for a season, and more importantly, for a specific reason. As Christ says in the parable of the tares:
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ And he said to them, ‘An enemy has done this!’ The slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn’ (Matt 13:24-30).
So, who knows if one of the goat’s children’s children will give birth to another lame goat. God, for His name’s sake, may take pity on this lame goat and remove its bonds enslaving it to sin. He will make it a new creation, no longer a goat that lives according to a goat’s nature and instincts, but turn it into a whole new creature: the deer. To uproot the wicked universally in the present is to cut off the wheat before it gets a chance to grow, thwarting God’s redemptive purposes. Man can never see that far ahead. God’s mercy is so much beyond that of man and His justice, who can question it?
God then speaks of the wild donkey in Job 39:5-8. A donkey is generally a domesticated animal, so when we happen upon one in the “wilderness” we may believe it to be an abandoned domesticated animal that we can put to use (Job 39:5-6). Yet, God “loosed its bonds” and the donkey refuses to be put to work (Job 39:5). What a surprise it must be to find out the hard way that it’s wild!
So, when rebellious men of the lineage of Jacob are compared to “[a] wild donkey accustomed to the wilderness” (Jer 2:24, see also Hosea 8:9), we must remind ourselves who loosed their bonds! “He hardens whom He desires” (Rom 9:18).
This donkey in its hardness of heart “searches after every green thing” (Job 39:8). As Durand puts it, “The wild ass may fitly represent the natural state and inclination of man…The range of the mountains is his pasture, and he searcheth after every green thing — after all earthly pleasures” (The Trial of Job, Chapter XIX).
Why does God loosen the bonds of these donkeys so that they live like this? Just as God’s permitting of the birthing of evil goats reflect His redemptive purposes in showing grace to some of their physical descendants, God’s loosening of the bonds of donkeys speaks to the same point. He is sovereign over their rebellion. In fact, He even provides for them as they continue in it. As the Psalm says, “Your righteousness is like the mountains of God, Your judgments are like a great deep. O Lord, You preserve man and beast” (Ps 36:6).
He preserves both the wicked living according to the old nature and those He has redeemed. That is gracious in of itself. Yet, like a great deep we cannot explore and understand, His loosening of the donkey’s bonds and preserving of it fulfills a righteous purpose. Man simply does not have the capacity to understand God’s role for evil.
The next beast God speaks of appears to be absolutely useless (Job 39:9-12). Whether it is an ox or a rhinoceros (in Hebrew “ראם” or “rame,” a term that occurs only nine times in Scripture), the picture is clear: this beast cannot be tamed! Though He has great strength that if tapped would be of much use, no man can take advantage of it (Job 39:11).
God’s point is simple: man cannot control it, but isn’t it clear the He can? Unlike man, God puts the beast to good use in Deut 33:17. We can pray for our loved ones to change but we cannot counter the “ungovernable strength of the wild passions of men” (Durand, The Trial of Job, XIX). Yet, God can humble the great and give new hearts to the lost. Man cannot tame the worst of the wild beasts any more than he can make the blind see. But, God can do both. Who is man to question God’s justice when he cannot even control his own passions which are the author of many evils? Only God can tame such a man and change his heart.
Next, God speaks of the ostrich (Job 39:13-18). The bird is a picture of cruelty in the way it neglects its young: “Even jackals offer the breast, they nurse their young; but the daughter of my people has become cruel like ostriches in the wilderness” (Lam 4:3). In Is 34:13 the ostrich has demonic undertones, haunting the land after God has laid it waste as a punishment (see also Jer 50:39).
In the description offered in Job, the bird’s lack of care for her young is attributed to God having not “given her a share of understanding” (Job 39:17). She stupidly abandons her eggs at times, even crushing them under foot (this is a scientifically verifiable fact with ostriches, Job 39:14-16).
What is God’s purpose in withdrawing from her the capacity for empathy and intelligence? The answer to the question may lay in the passage that speaks of how the ostrich struts her stuff and flaps her wings, not reflecting upon that they are of no use for flying (Job 39:13). The reference to wings flapping joyously “with the pinion and plumage of love” is a reference to God’s making the wings unsuitable for flight. For there is a gracefulness to the feathers, but they do not assist in flight as they would on other birds.
Much like the ostrich is restrained from flying, so is the hand of man sealed and his will restrained. Man’s hand is graceful in what it can accomplish, but not infinite in its capacity. The natural man wrongly views himself as capable of evaluating things of the Spirit. He hand waves and exercises his own mind in the pursuit of such lofty knowledge. Man exalts himself as great, thinking that he can understand the origins of the universe by science and derive an ethics based upon logic. Yet, they do not avail him in achieving his purpose.
Man, much like the ostrich, views his “wings” as useful when from the proper vantage point (that not of the creature himself) they are found wanting. God has set a seal on the hand of man, lovingly pinioning his wings so they cannot give him flight. Therefore, God does not inhibit a man’s free will, but gives a man limitations on what he can will. Much like an ostrich, we both may want to fly but we cannot will it to take place. Being that God does this with “love,” it speaks to His righteous and kind purposes in giving man his limitations.
The stunted wings, which we may compare to man’s view of his own contemplative faculties, cannot allow the ostrich to soar any more than the mind allows for a true understanding of lofty matters. Exercising the will ultimately is an exercise in futility, for “man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end” (Ecc 3:11). While the human soul by God’s grace understands things of the Spirit, apart from Him it is locked in a chain of being between the animals and “a little lower than the angels” (Ps 8:5).
The natural man cannot understand things of the Spirit. They are too great and man is not designed with the capacity to do so. Just as the natural man cannot understand what he cannot observe, the unregenerate soul cannot walk according to the Spirit having not experienced the Holy Spirit’s changing work.
Yet, this flawed man like the ostrich can accomplish great feats. The ostrich is so mighty in her ability, she can outrun the horse (Job 39:18). Likewise man by use of his attributes, which are made in God’s image, allow him to excel above any of the world’s creatures. He can move, lift, see, and devise greater than any of the beasts by use of his reason. Though his wings are not as grand as he may view them, they are still something to be flapped joyously. Man is greater than all the beasts and He has designed his reason, his beautiful plumage, with love.
When man acts ignorantly and callously like the ostrich, God ultimately is responsible. God has designed man and while “plans of the heart belong to man…the answer of the tongue is from the Lord” (Prov 16:1).
Yet, God brings about His righteous purpose in designing the ostrich the way He did. God has ordained all things in accordance with His will, so the sinfulness of man has a point to it. Indeed, as we mentioned before, “The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Prov 16:4). If God has not pinioned man appropriately, then His own high purposes have not been fulfilled. To not act according to His purpose is unjust and far be it from God to act wickedly. Even our own pinioned wills, essential to our design, are purposeful and good. They require us to rely upon Him and thereby bring greater glory to Him.
We have reason to believe that the warhorse in Job 39:19-25 represents the Church empowered by the Spirit. Why? The Scripture says that God will make His people “like His majestic horse in battle” (Zech 10:3). This is why God asks Job, “Do you give the horse his might” (Job 39:19)? For God is the one who empowers the warhorse, just as he empowers the Church to preach the name of Jesus Christ. This is why we do not boast in the strength of horses, but instead the name of our God (Ps 20:7), for God is the one who gives the horse its strength. The one who gives is superior to the one who receives.
The Church runs into the snares of Satan, his spears, javelins, and fiery darts (Job 39:23, Eph 6:16). Even in persecution, pictured here by the horse charging headlong into battle, the believer can be confident. As Christ says, “When they arrest you and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11).
While the ostrich often outruns the horse in this world (Job 39:18), he does so to his own ruin. Unbelievers run from what is good and do not confront evil. They chase after the wrong things, outrunning us in the rat race of life. However, the Church is not called to outrun them but to oppose the forces of darkness, to take part with God in the divine battle between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light.
Indeed, we work out our salvation in fear and trembling against the principalities and forces of darkness. But, by His Spirit, God prepares us for victory. Not because we have won it with our own strength, because “the victory belongs to the Lord” (Prov 21:31). It is He who prepares us for the day of battle, which is why we must always pray, “Lord, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one!”
It is wrong to believe we can deliver ourselves by our own ability. We may be able to appear like the warhorse, swift with our decisions and strong with our resolve. However, when God’s judgment comes “the swift of foot will not escape, nor will he who rides the horse save his life” (Amos 2:15). Therefore, we must always look to God who gives the horse strength for His own purposes–not to ourselves and our own abilities.
Finally, God speaks of the birds of prey (Job 39:26-30). By God’s understanding they soar (Job 39:26), which is contrary to the ostrich which has been purposely inhibited by God. The ostrich has been deprived of flight. The eagle with wisdom from God builds a nest where no can access it (Job 39:27-28). The ostrich callously lays its eggs in a hole in the sand, where they can easily be trampled. To the birds, they do this all based upon instinct, not knowing where it came. The instinct is implanted by God and to some He gives more liberally than others.
From the preceding, we can see how God gives to each a “measure of faith” (Rom 12:3). Some have more, others have less, and just as the pot cannot question the potter why this is so, neither can we. “[D]oes not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use” (Rom 9:21)?
Indeed, God has the right to do this. If He maintains the right, then He is righteous in executing His judgment, because it is His right to do so. We have a clue, however, what purpose God has in mind for the birds of prey:
From there [in the nest] he spies out food;
His eyes see it from afar.
His young ones also suck up blood;
And where the slain are, there is he (Job 39:29-30).
The eagle has superior vision and can see his prey from impossible distances. Even when a youth, he can literally smell blood. Why has God designed them this way? To execute His justice. The senses spoken about in Job appear to come into use when the birds of prey are called upon to “assemble for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings [that rebelled against God]” (Rev 19:17-18).
However, just as God has designed the eagle to bring people into judgment (Hab 1:8, Lam 4:19) He also uses the bird as a picture of His grace (Ex 19:4, Ezek 17:1-6). For when God sees a wicked man and as a righteous judge declares Him guilty, God is right in executing judgment. Meanwhile, though God is just He is also merciful. He may take pity on the wicked man and He reserves the right to show His mercy and swoop up the sinner from destroying himself.
So, we may surmise that the birds of prey are those God has empowered with wisdom and superior senses. However, as we can see God reserves the right to take men with such abilities and direct them to fulfill His righteous purposes. If God empowers even the most superior attributes in man, how can man see himself as independent from God? Isn’t he in God’s debt? It is the potter’s right to do as He pleases.
Therefore, all the animals here reflect the different kinds of men and His righteous purposes for them. God sustains both the reprobates (goats) and the elect (deer). When men are rebellious like the donkey, they are so not strictly because of their own free will, but because He loosed their bonds and has removed the hedge from around their hearts. Just as God can loose the bonds of rebellious men, He can take the strongest and most stubborn of them, typified in the ox, and master them.
Man glories in his intellect and free will, but it is the Lord who gives understanding to him. “For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov 2:6). Some men have been made to be stunted as the ostrich. Like brute beasts they are cruel and stupid. Other men have superior abilities like the birds of prey, in which God directs their wisdom and senses accordingly. Lastly, the horse is the man who is sustained by the Holy Spirit, equipped to confront evil in the spiritual war.
Is it not obvious that no man can call God unfair, because he conforms to the beast he is similar to by his own free will? Though God is merciful to each beast and provides for them, He is not compelled to give an equal measure of mercy to all. Some are sustained in this world, but not the next and rightfully so. Yet, God is gracious and accords greater mercy to some to confront evil in this world and attain eternal life in the next. And so, God is fair to all men, He sustains all men, and apart from God’s sustenance man cannot survive in this world nor proceed to the next one.
God is right in His ordering of creation (Job 38) and His dealings with men (Job 39). Man is powerless in creation, sustaining the world, and even sustaining his own soul.
How can he then be the focal point of the universe and its measure? Man is completely insignificant. With this being the case, how can Job continue to question God just because he happens to be suffering?
One final note concerning suffering. Suffering does not always come to a resolution or have an easily discernible purpose. Look at the ostrich: “Though her labor be in vain…” (Job 39:16).
God withdrew her wisdom so that she is cruel to her eggs so that she crushes them without giving them a thought. So it is the same with us who by our own sin that has arisen out of our own hearts cause our own suffering. Though God has loosed our bonds, He has done so knowing that the fruit of our sin or that of others causes great pain.
It would seem that just as the ostrich’s pain in labor be in vain, so it is the same with our pain. Pain does not always have an obvious purpose. For example, when a couple loses a child, they do not always become a comfort to another couple that has experienced the same. It is indeed possible that they might, but one cannot avoid the conclusion that much of the evil we witness and experience appears to be in vain.
For our intents and purposes, it often is. We have to have a peace about what we do not know and be certain in this: God has brought it about. Indeed, He has brought it about, but He is righteous and so the true purposes behind evil are consistent with His nature. How then does the existence of evil coincide with that of God’s righteousness, being that He is in full control of it? We by God’s grace will explore this subject adequately in the next two chapters.