What if Job had more to say about right relating to God than it did about right theology?
I first read the Biblical book of Job in my final year of High School, sitting in my living room, covered head-to-toe with chicken pox. My take-away was simple. I didn’t have it as hard as him; and no, I wasn’t going to scrape away my open sores with broken pottery.
Fast forward twenty five years to just a few days ago. One of my teenage boys told me that he’d been reading Job for the first time in his ‘Time Alone With God’ on a recent youth camp. It was profound. He loved it. He’d been through more than I could protect him from. He had to carry his big-brother’s coffin through an arch of school friends who had all hoped and prayed that their friend would not die.
Kids with mild cases of chicken pox, brothers and friends who have suffered excruciating loss, couples who find themselves despondent and childless, men who have lost jobs and can’t afford to repair their cars, women who are despairing of decades of mistreatment by family members, and pastors dealing with the avalanches of pain pouring down all at once on their people, often turn to the book of Job.
But the academic loves Job too. There’s so much to discover and explore. The book is an exquisite literary masterpiece.
This essay will just explore one thread, perhaps a loose thread (although you might judge it to be an unattached thread), that of prayer, which may be of some intellectual concern, but perhaps even more solace, as practical help to those suffering.
1. APPROACHING JOB, ESPECIALLY 42:7-8
Job opens and closes with a heavenly perspective that affects the earth (Job 1-2; 38-42). Satan thinks Job trusts the Lord just because he has it so easy. Spoiler alert! With God’s full permission, Satan casts down the richly-blessed godly man, turning him into a wreck of human being, covered in sores, loosing all of his property, livestock, and most of his workers. Not only this, he buries every one of his children (Job 1-2). At the end of the book, the Lord speaks, gives instructions, restores Job’s riches, standing, and blesses him with new children.
In the middle chapters, Job and his friends speak. One after another, back and forth, the friends start out conciliatory, but soon end up as the kind of ‘comforters’ found in many Christian churches who like to tell you exactly why you are suffering at the moment. What moral lessons can they draw from this untypical riches-to-rags story?
One of the challenges for the reader is who gets theology right. Who speaks correctly of God? Does Job? Does Eliphaz, Bildad or Zophar? What about the younger Elihu who only speaks at the end?
One way of reading the core of the book, works through the dialogue and weighs what they say against the rest of the Old Testament, the New Testament, Calvin’s Institutes, the Heidelberg Catechism, or the perhaps even the AFES doctrinal statement. Who gets God right?
Part of my problem with this approach is that the friends seem to say some right things. They often speak with “right theology”, but in ignorance and applied without wisdom. The biggest problem with this approach is that Job also gets things wrong. One example is clear. He thinks God is against him. But the opening heavenly scenes makes clear that God is completely for Job.
God’s final verdict informs this way of reading Job. Having spoken to Job, the LORD addresses the friends …
“My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7-8; ESV)
But what if these two verses could be translated:
… for you have not spoken to me what is right, as my servant Job has. (Job 42:7-8; my modified translation of the ESV)
What if this was the most literal translation and the one that makes the most sense of the context? What if God was commending Job’s words to God, or at least his final words?
We’ll look first at Job 42:7-8 and then more broadly on Job’s prayers. One thing is certain. Job initially speaks to God in his suffering, longs to speak to God more directly, and when he gets the chance, even repents of his speech.
On the other hand, Job’s friends just speak about God; and not once speak to him. Isn’t this the case far too often for Christians, preachers and academics?
2. REASONS TO TRANSLATE JOB 42:7-8: “FOR YOU HAVE NOT SPOKEN *TO ME* WHAT IS RIGHT, AS MY SERVANT JOB HAS”
This translation suggestion is not my attempt to twist the meaning of the text. This is not my intention. It’s the most common general translation of these words, and as far as I can see the only way this particular Hebrew construction is ever translated elsewhere in the ESV.
There is always a danger in proposing a translation not followed in any English Bible. For those who don’t know Hebrew, bear with me. Hopefully what I write will still make sense. For those who do know Hebrew, please show me where I am wrong.
1. The key word in 42:7 and 8, אֵלַי (‘elay), is nowhere else in the ESV translated “of me”, and is usually translated “to me”.
Those learning Hebrew learn that the normal gloss of (‘el) is “to”, usually involving movement or direction towards someone, unlike (‘al) which is translated very broadly, including “on”, “concerning” and “on account of”. If you add a personal ending (-ay) to (‘el), the gloss becomes “to me”. Of course, context always shapes meaning and the more samples we can examine the better. What about the verbs of speaking followed by (‘el) with any personal ending.
2. Only in a tiny percentage of occasions ( ‘el) without a personal suffix following the word for speaking דבר (dbr) is translated by “of” or “concerning”: only in 13 out of 270 verses.
The verb form (dbr) followed by ( ‘el) without any suffix occurs in about 270 verses. In every verse the ESV translates the phrase with a word of speech (say, tell, command ) followed by a “to” or an implied “to”, except for 13 verses: “concerning” (7x) – (1 Sam. 3:12; Is. 16:13; 32:6; Jer. 30:4; 50:1; 51:12, 62); “of” (2x) – (2 Sam 7:19; 2 Chr. 32:19);”against” (4x) – (1 Ki. 16:12; Jer. 28:16; 36:7, 31). Some of these are also arguable. For instance, it is entirely possible that God’s prophetic word against or concerning a person or nation is actually also his word to them. This would account for 10 of the 13 verses.
But in the key phrases we are looking at, Job 42:7-8, ( ‘el) has a personal suffix.
3. Out of 147 other verses, on every occasion, ( ‘el) with a personal suffix following the word for speaking דבר (dbr) is translated by a word of speech (told, command, said) and a “to” or an implied “to”.
There is one verse where the preposition was untranslated for smoother flow, but this does not change the argument (Ruth 1:18).
But perhaps 147 verses is not a broad enough sample, what about embarking on the same search with an even more common word for speaking?
4. אמר (‘amr) followed by (‘el) with a personal ending occurs in 550 verses. In all verses the ESV translates with a word of speaking (spoke, cried, command, tell ) followed by a “to” or an implied “to” (told him, spoke to her, spoke with us).
There are a handful of cases where the pronoun is left out or substituted with the noun for clarity, but the result still stands.
But what about the verse itself?
5. It seems odd that the ESV and other English translations would translate the three occurrences of the same (dbr) + (‘el) two different ways in the same verse. Why is it fine to say that God had spoken to Job, is speaking to Eliphaz, but that Job was speaking about God?
After the LORD had spoken (verb form of dbr) these words (noun form of dbr) to (‘el) Job, the LORD said to (‘el) Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken (verb form of dbr) of me (‘el + personal suffix) what is right, as my servant Job has. (Job 42:7; ESV; brackets added)
With all this weight of evidence, we would need some pretty strong contextual evidence to translate the verse, “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has”.
6. However, surely the context implies that speaking *to* God is on view.
Remember that before God’s word to the friends in 42:7-8, God had just twice spoken to Job, and Job twice to God (G-J: 38:1-40:2; J-G: 40:3-5; G-J 40:6-41:34; J-G 42:1-6). In his first reply to God, Job is very self conscious about speaking to God. “I have spoken (dbr) once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” (Job 40:5)
7. Most importantly, Job’s final words to God are words of confession and repentance about his speech. Why would God say that Job has spoken rightly about him, when Job had just said he himself didn’t.
At the end of the book, Job admits that he spoke too much about things he didn’t know. “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 42:3)
It would be weird to think that God was giving Job a top mark for his theology, when Job had just acknowledged his own ignorance.
Wouldn’t it make more sense that, in the following verses, God was commending Job to his friends for his humility and repentance in what he had just said to God? The friends were not ready or prepared to speak the truth to God , unlike Job.
What if part of God’s condemnation of the friends is that they were like the Pharisee in Luke 18, looking down on Job sitting in misery with them. They were standing and speaking about God to themselves, whereas at the end Job when confronted by almighty God, was like the tax-collector, calling out, have mercy on me the sinner.
Who went home justified before God? That’s right, the one who humbled himself.
Who is the one the Lord will listen to? He who humble and contrite in spirit.
The book finishes with God instructing the friends to turn to Job for intercessory prayers.
“My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken to me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken to me what is right, as my servant Job has.” So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the LORD had told them, and the LORD accepted Job’s prayer. (Job 42:7-9; ESV with my translation change of these two words: “of” –> “to”; emphasis added)
Earlier, Job desperately sought a mediator in heaven to argue his case against God and his “comforters”. And now in the denouement, Job himself becomes a mediator on earth to plead with God on behalf of his friends.
3. SPEAKING TO GOD IN THE REST OF THE BOOK
If you agree with what I have written, then perhaps a new thread is opened up for us in this deep and profound book. Search through the book and see how Job, unlike his friends has a first impulse to speak to God; he wants to speak to God, and many of his speeches to his friends leak into speaking to God.
In the first cycle of speeches there is an amazing pattern. The friends talk to Job, but Job ends up talking to God.
- Eliphaz speak to Job (4:1-5:27)
- Job speaks to Eliphaz about God (6:1-7:6)
- Job transitions and says that he wants to speak to God (7:7-11)
eg. “Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” (7:11)
- Job speaks to God and addresses himself directly to God in the second person (7:12-21)
eg. “Why have you made me your mark? Why have I become a burden to you Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?” (7:20-21)
- Bildad speaks to Job (8:1-22)
- Job speaks to Bildad about God (9:1-31)
- Job transitions and says that he wants to speak to God (9:32-10:1)
eg. “Let him take his rod away from me, and let not dread of him terrify me. Then I would speak without fear of him, for I am not so in myself.” (9:34-35)
- Job speaks to God and addresses himself directly to God in the second person (10:2-22)
- eg. “Remember that you have made me like clay; and will you return me to the dust?” (10:9)
- Zophar speaks to Job (11:1-20)
- Job speaks to Zophar about God (12:1-13:2)
- Job transitions and says that he wants to speak to God (13:3-18)
eg. “I am not inferior to you.But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God.” (13:2-3)
- Job speaks to God and addresses himself directly to God in the second person (13:19-14:22)
- eg. “Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath be past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!” (14:13)
At first his friends tell Job to speak to God, but they themselves never do so (Job 5:8). If prayer is faith breathing, Job breathes, even with a panting, gasping expiration. His friends just talk.
In every conversation there is the conversation we thought we had, the one we wished we had, and the one we actually had. Job’s final face-to-face words with God is not the one he had planned to say, it was what he actually had and God was pleased.
At first, Job is cast down in pain by earthly events, but his words to God at the end show internal remorse and a contrite heart. They were in a sense the deepest re-echoes of his first prayer when he suffered so much, albeit amplified. At the beginning, Job was humbled externally and praised God.
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1:20-21)
But at the end, Job was humbled internally and feared God more than ever before. Losing absolutely everything made him sit in the ashes, but seeing almighty God made him repent in those same ashes.
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:6)
Remember, the disciples were terrified of the storm, but even more petrified of standing before the one who could calm that storm (Mk 4:38-41). There is something scarier than losing everything in life, and that is to be confronted by our creator.
We will never grasp it completely this side of heaven, but may we speak to God as Job did at the end. Humble indebtedness and repentance is a good beginning.
But we have a mediator, and Jesus is an even better advocate than Job could have dreamed of. For a young man with chicken pox, a brother suffering loss, a man unable to pay for a car repair, or a woman re-living age-old family pain, Christ and his shed blood makes all the difference. The external cannot harm us, and even the terrifying thought of facing our creator turns to expectation because we have one greater than Job who prays for us.
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Romans 8:33-34)
If that’s the conversation on our behalf in heaven, how much more should we engage with God on earth in humble repentance, prayer and thanksgiving! We know more, so more is to be expected of us.
I placed a false choice before you at the beginning of this essay, when I asked, “what if Job had more to say about right relating to God than it did about right theology?” For Job, right knowledge of God led to right relating to him. Knowing God properly meant desperate humility.
The most dangerous profession for “Christians” and comforters alike is one where we talk about God, but never to him.