Job's struggle to hope is not only a gradual process; it is also reversible. Sometimes he goes three steps forward and two back. Other times is seems as if it is two steps forward and three back. Expressions of absolute hopelessness follow quickly after assertions of brilliant hope. The Book of Job reflects the reality of hope's intangibility and elusiveness in the midst of great suffering.
A case in point is the relationship between Job 16 and 17. Job's most confident affirmation of hope to date comes in 16:19 ("my witness is in heaven"), while four verses later he is plunged into despair, "My spirit is broken, my days are extinct, the grave is ready for me (17:1)." Chapter 17 then jumps around to several themes before coming back to the verse for this essay: "My days are past, my plans are broken off, the desires of my heart (17:11)." These staccato-like phrases represent only 6 words in Hebrew. Each phrase invites review.
Days are Over
The word in Hebrew translated "past" may best be rendered "disappeared" or "vanished." It is the same word ("abar") that appears in Job 6:15 where Job accuses his friends of being treacherous, "like freshets that pass away." During the rainy season, the wadis flow, but "when it is hot, they vanish from their place (6:17)." Job's days disappear like a passing shadow (Ps. 144:4), like "flying chaff (Is. 29:5)." They fade; they are insubstantial; they fly away. Life as Job knows it is over. The only thing he has to look forward to is his burial.
While the first phrase emphasizes the disappearance of life, these two words stress the violent irruption of life. The Hebrew word translated "broken off" ("nitak") is also used in the story of Samson to describe how Samson used all his strength and "snapped" the bowstrings with which Delilah bound him in an unsuccessful attempt to subdue him (Jud. 16:9). Samson snapped the bowstrings "as a strand of fiber snaps when it touches the fire." This is the way that Job's life has been decimated. His heart strings, the chords that hold together his life, have not simply vanished; they have exploded under God's violent and searing attack.
There is no verb in the last phrase. It is usually rendered as an appositional clause, modifying or supplementing the two earlier phrases. It is as if Job is unable to put a verb with the idea. He can't even say "fade away" when he says "the desires of my heart." They have so utterly disappeared that the verb, as it were, fades before it is uttered. Job's resultant grief is numbing, immobilizing, enervating. His energy has been sucked out of him and the only weak words we hear are "desires of my heart." They are all gone. No reversal is in sight. The full measure of Job's utter desolation is now upon him.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long