THE OUTSKIRTS OF HIS WAYS
Job 26:1-14; Job 27:1-23
BEGINNING his reply Job is full of scorn and sarcasm.
"How hast thou helped one without power!
How hast thou saved the strengthless arm!
How hast thou counselled one void of knowledge,
And plentifully declared the thing that is known!"
Well indeed hast thou spoken, O man of singular intelligence. I am very weak, my arm is powerless. What reassurance, what generous help thou hast provided! I, doubtless, know nothing, and thou hast showered illumination on my darkness.-His irony is bitter. Bildad appears almost contemptible. "To whom hast thou uttered words?" Is it thy mission to instruct me? "And whose spirit came forth from thee?" Dost thou claim Divine inspiration? Job is rancorous; and we are scarcely intended by the writer to justify him. Yet it is galling indeed to hear that calm repetition of the most ordinary ideas when the controversy has been carried into the deep waters of thought. Job desired bread and is offered a stone.
But since Bildad has chosen to descant upon the greatness and imperial power of God, the subject shall be continued. He shall be taken into the abyss beneath, where faith recognises the Divine presence, and to the heights above that he may learn how little of the dominion of God lies within the range of a mind like his, or indeed of mortal sense.
First there is a vivid glance at that mysterious underworld where the shades or spirits of the departed survive in a dim vague existence.
"The shades are shaken
Beneath the waters and their inhabitants.
Sheol is naked before Him,
And Abaddon hath no covering."
Bildad has spoken of the lofty place where God makes peace. But that same God has the sovereignty also of the nether world. Under the bed of the ocean and those subterranean waters that flow beneath the solid ground where, in the impenetrable darkness, poor shadows of their former selves, those who lived once on earth congregate age after age-there the power of the Almighty is revealed. He does not always exert His will in order to create tranquillity. Down in Sheol the refaim are agitated. And nothing is hid from His eye. Abaddon, the devouring abyss, is naked before Him.
Let us distinguish here between the imagery and the underlying thought, the inspired vision of the writer and the form in which Job is made to present it. These notions about Sheol as a dark cavern below earth and ocean to which the spirits of the dead are supposed to descend are the common beliefs of the age. They represent opinion, not reality. But there is a new flash of inspiration in the thought that God reigns over the abode of the dead, that even if men escape punishment here, the judgments of the Almighty may reach them there. This is the writer’s prophetic insight into fact: and he properly assigns the thought to his hero who, already almost at the point of death, has been straining as it were to see what lies beyond the gloomy gate. The poetry is infused with the spirit of inquiry into God’s government of the present and the future. Set beside other passages both in the Old and New Testaments this is found continuous with higher revelations, even with the testimony of Christ when He says that God is Lord not of the dead but of the living.
From Sheol, the underworld, Job points to the northern heavens ablaze with stars. God, he says, stretches that wonderful dome over empty space-the immovable polar star probably appearing to mark the point of suspension. The earth, again, hangs in space on nothing, even this solid earth on which men live and build their cities. The writer is of course ignorant of what modern science teaches, but he has caught the fact which no modern knowledge can deprive of its marvellous character. Then the gathering in immense volumes of watery vapour, how strange is that, the filmy clouds holding rains that deluge a continent, yet not rent asunder. One who is wonderful in counsel must indeed have ordered this universe; but His throne, the radiant seat of His everlasting dominion, He shutteth in with clouds; it is never seen.
A bound He hath set on the face of the waters,
On the confines of light and darkness.
The pillars of heaven tremble
And are astonished at His rebuke.
He stilleth the sea with His power;
And by His understanding He smites through Rahab;
By His breath the heavens are made bright;
His hand pierceth the fleeing serpent.
Lo, these are the outskirts of His ways,
And what a whisper is that which we hear of Him!
But the thunder of His powers who can apprehend?
At the confines of light and darkness God sets a boundary, the visible horizon, the ocean being supposed to girdle the earth on every side. The pillars of heaven are the mountains, which might be seen in various directions apparently supporting the sky. With awe men looked upon them, with greater awe felt them sometimes shaken by mysterious throbs as if at God’s rebuke. From these the poet passes to the sea, the great storm waves that roll upon the shore. God smites through Rahab, subdues the fierce sea-represented as a raging monster. Here, as in the succeeding verse where the fleeing serpent is spoken of, reference is made to nature myths current in the East. The old ideas of heathen imagination are used simply in a poetical way. Job does not believe in a dragon of the sea, but it suits him to speak of the stormy ocean current under this figure so as to give vividness to his picture of Divine power. God quells the wild waves; His breath as a soft wind clears away the storm clouds and the blue sky is seen again. The hand of God pierces the fleeing serpent, the long track of angry clouds borne swiftly across the face of the heavens.
The closing words of the chapter are a testimony to the Divine greatness, negative in form yet in effect more eloquent than all the rest. It is but the outskirts of the ways of God we see, a whisper of Him we hear. The full thunder falls not on our ears. He who sits on the throne which is forever shrouded in clouds and darkness is the Creator of the visible universe but always separate from it. He reveals Himself in what we see and hear, yet the glory, the majesty remain concealed. The sun is not God, nor the storm, nor the clear shining after rain. The writer is still true to the principle of never making nature equal to God. Even where the religion is in form a nature religion, separateness is fully maintained. The phenomena of the universe are but faint adumbrations of the Divine life. Bildad may come short of the full clearness of belief, but Job has it. The great circle of existence the eye is able to include is but the skirt of that garment by which the Almighty is seen.
The question may be asked, What place has this poetical tribute to the majesty of God in the argument of the book? Viewed simply as an effort to outdo and correct the utterance of Bildad the speech is not fully explained. We ask further what is meant to be in Job’s mind at this particular point in the discussion; whether he is secretly complaining that power and dominion so wide are not manifested in executing justice on earth, or, on the other hand, comforting himself with the thought that judgment will yet return to righteousness and the Most High be proved the All-just? The inquiry has special importance because, looking forward in the book, we find that when the voice of God is heard from the storm it proclaims His matchless power and incomparable wisdom.
At present it must suffice to say that Job is now made to come very near his final discovery that complete reliance upon Eloah is not Simply the fate but the privilege of man. Fully to understand Divine providence is impossible, but it can be seen that One who is supreme in power and infinite in wisdom, responsible always to Himself for the exercise of His power, should have the complete confidence of His creatures. Of this truth Job lays hold; by strenuous thought he has forced his way almost through the tangled forest, and he is a type of man at his best on the natural plane. The world waited for the clear light which solves the difficulties of faith. While once and again a flash came before Christ, He brought the abiding revelation, the dayspring from on high which giveth light to them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
According to his manner Job turns now from a subject which may be described as speculative to his own position and experience. The earlier part of chapter 27 is an earnest declaration in the strain he has always maintained. As vehemently as ever he renews his claim to integrity, emphasising it with a solemn adjuration.
As God liveth who hath taken away my right,
And the Almighty who hath embittered my soul;
(For still my life is whole in me,
And the breath of the High God in my nostrils),
My lips do not speak iniquity,
Nor does my tongue utter deceit.
Far be it from me to justify you;
Till I die I will not remove my integrity from me.
My righteousness I hold fast, and let it not go;
My heart reproacheth not any of my days.
This is in the old tone of confident self defence. God has taken away his right, denied him the outward signs of innocence, the opportunity of pleading his cause. Yet, as a believer, he swears by the life of God that he is a true man, a righteous man. Whatever betides he will not fall from that conviction and claim. And let no one say that pain has impaired his reason, that now, if never before, he is speaking deliriously. No: his life is whole in him; God-given life is his, and with the consciousness of it he speaks, not ignorant of what is a man’s duty, not with a lie in his right hand, but with absolute sincerity. He will not justify his accusers, for that would be to deny righteousness, the very rock which alone is firm beneath his feet. Knowing what is a man’s obligation to his fellow men and to God, he will repeat his self defence. He goes back upon his past, he reviews his days. Upon none of them can his conscience fix the accusation of deliberate baseness or rebellion against God.
Having affirmed his sincerity Job proceeds to show what would be the result of deceit and hypocrisy at so solemn a crisis of his life. The underlying idea seems to be that of communion with the Most High, the spiritual fellowship necessary to man’s inner life. He could not speak falsely without separating himself from God and therefore from hope. As yet he is not rejected; the consciousness of truth remains with him, and through that he is in touch at least with Eloah. No voice from on high answers him; yet this Divine principle of life remains in his soul. Shall he renounce it?
"Let mine enemy be as the wicked,
And he that riseth against me as the unrighteous."
If I have aught to do with a wicked man such as I am now to describe, one who would pretend to pure and godly life while he had behaved in impious defiance of righteousness, if I have to do with such a man, let it be as an enemy.
"For what is the hope of the godless whom He cutteth off,
When God taketh his soul?
Will God hear his cry
When trouble cometh upon him?
Will he delight himself in the Almighty
And call upon Eloah at all times?"
The topic is access to God by prayer, that sense of security which depends on the Divine friendship. There comes one moment at least, there may be many, in which earthly possessions are seen to be worthless and the help of the Almighty is alone of any avail. In order to enjoy hope at such a time a man must habitually live with God in sincere obedience. The godless man previously described, the thief, the adulterer whose whole life is a cowardly lie, is cut off from the Almighty. He finds no resource in the Divine friendship. To call upon God always is no privilege of his; he has lost it by neglect and revolt. Job speaks of the case of such a man as in contrast to his own. Although his own prayers remain apparently unanswered he has a reserve of faith and hope. Before God he can still assure himself as the servant of His righteousness, in fellowship with Him who is eternally true. The address closes with these words of retrospection (Job 27:11-12):-
"I would teach you concerning the hand of God,
That which is with Shaddai would I not conceal.
Behold, all ye yourselves have seen it;
Why then are ye become altogether vain?"
At this point begins a passage which creates great difficulty. It is ascribed to Job, but is entirely out of harmony with all he has said. May we accept the conjecture that it is the missing third speech of Zophar, erroneously incorporated with the "parable" of Job? Do the contents warrant this departure from the received text?
All along Job’s contention has been that though an evildoer could have no fellowship with God, no joy in God, yet such a man might succeed in his schemes, amass wealth, live in glory, go down to his grave in peace. Yea, he might be laid in a stately tomb and the very clods of the valley might be sweet to him. Job has not affirmed this to be always the history of one who defies the Divine law. But he has said that often it is; and the deep darkness in which he himself lies is not caused so much by his calamity and disease as by the doubt forced upon him whether the Most High does rule in steadfast justice on this earth. How comes it, he has cried again and again, that the wicked prosper and the good are often reduced to poverty and sorrow?
Now does the passage from the twelfth verse onwards correspond with this strain of thought? It describes the fate of the wicked oppressor in strong language-defeat, desolation, terror, rejection by God, rejection by men. His children are multiplied only for the sword. Sons die and widows are left disconsolate. His treasures, his garments shall not be for his delight; the innocent shall enjoy his substance. His sudden death shall be in shame and agony, and men shall clap their hands at him and hiss him out of his place. Clearly, if Job is the speaker, he must be giving up all he has hitherto contended for, admitting that his friends have argued truly, that after all judgment does fall in this world upon arrogant men. The motive of the whole controversy would be lost if Job yielded this point. It is not as if the passage ran, This or that may take place, this or that may befall the evildoer. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar never present more strongly their own view than that view is presented here. Nor can it be said that the writer may be preparing for the confession Job makes after the Almighty has spoken from the storm. When he gives way then, it is only to the extent of withdrawing his doubts of the wisdom and justice of the Divine rule.
The suggestion that Job is here reciting the statements of his friends cannot be entertained. To read "Why are ye altogether vain, saying, This is the portion of the wicked man from God," is incompatible with the long and detailed account of the oppressor’s overthrow and punishment. There would be no point or force in mere recapitulation without the slightest irony or caricature. The passage is in grim earnest. On the other hand, to imagine that Job is modifying his former language is, as Dr. A.B. Davidson shows, equally out of the question. With his own sons and daughters lying in their graves, his own riches dispersed, would he be likely to say-"If his children be multiplied it is for the sword"? and
"Though he heap up silver as the dust,
And prepare raiment as the clay;
He may prepare it, but the just shall put it on
And the innocent shall divide the silver"?
Against supposing this to be Zophar’s third speech the arguments drawn from the brevity of Bildad’s last utterance and the exhaustion of the subjects of debate have little weight, and there are distinct points of resemblance between the passage under consideration and Zophar’s former addresses. Assuming it to be his, it is seen to begin precisely where he left off; -only he adopts the distinction Job has pointed out and confines himself now to "oppressors." His last speech closed with the sentence: "This is the portion of a wicked man from God, and the heritage appointed unto him by God." He begins here (Job 27:13): "This is the portion of a wicked man with God, and the heritage of oppressors which they receive from the Almighty." Again, without verbal identity, the expressions "God shall cast the fierceness of His wrath upon him," [Job 20:23] and "God shall hurl upon him and not spare," [Job 27:21] show the same style of representation, as also do the following: "Terrors are upon him His goods shall flow away in the day of his wrath," [Job 20:25; Job 20:28] and "Terrors overtake him like waters". [Job 27:20] Other similarities may be easily traced; and on the whole it seems by far the best explanation of an otherwise incomprehensible passage to suppose that here Zophar is holding doggedly to opinions which the other two friends have renounced. Job could not have spoken the passage, and there is no reason for considering it to be an interpolation by a later hand.