Job and Psalm 139 V
Too Wonderful for Me
In these essays on Job and Psalm 139 we have seen how Job emptied the Psalm of its intended meaning by rereading a crucial word ("beset"--"sur" in Hebrew), reinterpreting the relationship of light and darkness, and indicting rather than praising God for meticulous care in creating humans. In Job 42 we will see how Job finally buries his anger and grief in a moment of vision and confession. The instrument through which Job expresses his changed perspective is, probably not unexpectedly, Psalm 139.
This is not the place to show what led to Job's change of mind in Job 42. Other mini-essays discuss that. Suffice it to say that after Elihu's and God's speeches in 32-41, Job is completely undone. Elihu enabled him to see his distress in a new light; God exposed Job's ignorance of God's workings in history and the present. In the first few verses of Job 42, all of this comes to a head in Job's extraordinarily rich confession and vision. We will only examine 42:3 here.
Job 42:3 is a confession fueled by the dual engines of Ps. 139:5 ("too wonderful for me") and Ps. 139:17 ("vast is the sum"). In Job 42:3 Job confesses that he has spoken "what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I had not known." Wonder is sandwiched by expressions of ignorance. Job is saying something like the following: 'Even though my screams of anger, bitterness, resentment and grief may have come from a heart deeply touched by pain, these screams were not "on target." They were skewed by my pain; they were misdirected fulminations, ignorant stabs in the dark which attempted to quiet my raging mind.'
He spoke without knowledge. He did not know the vast thoughts of God, which the Psalmist embraced. He had not yet been ushered into the divine theater to view the wonders of creation (Job 38-41). Now, with the vast sum of those thoughts available to Job, he is overwhelmed by his former ignorance. He has to say it twice: 'I just did not know. I just did not understand.'
But it is Job's use of the precise language of Ps. 139 in v.3 that cinches the case. The things Job didn't know were simply "too wonderful" for him. The word for "wonderful" may also be translated "extraordinary, surpassing, incomprehensible" (see the usages s.v. in the standard Hebrew lexicons). But his use of the word draw us back to its usage in Ps. 139. In that context it was "too wonderful" for the Psalmist to understand fully that God "beset" him, that God lovingly encircled him with care.
By using the precise expression of Ps. 139:5 in Job's confession in 42:3 Job is adopting the linguistic field of that Psalm. He who formerly construed "sur" as "besieging" is now coming home to the Psalmist's reading of it as "besetting (encircling) with loving care." Elihu's speech and God's amazing revelation of Self loosened Job's mental attachment to "sur" as "besieging" and allowed him to return to the Psalmic interpretation. Formerly, Job says, "I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear," but now all things are different: "but now my eye sees thee (Job 42:5)." The powerful language of the Psalm coaxed Job into a deeper and different knowledge of God.
There is a profound lesson for us in Job's use of Psalm 139 about the value of internalizing sacred and well-crafted texts (such as the Bible or Shakespeare). Words that capture the heart because of their visual intensity or their close approximation to reality [a mathematician may call these words "asymptotic to life"] are to be mastered. They must be memorized, mulled over, made our own. When that happens the words take on a life of their own in our life, and can lead to most profound and arresting insights. So it was for Job. So may it be for us.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long