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122. Job 12:13-25 Correct Theology, Miserable Life, Introduction
13 “With God are wisdom and strength;
he has counsel and understanding.
14 If he tears down, no one can rebuild;
if he shuts someone in, no one can open up.
15 If he withholds the waters, they dry up;
if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land.
16 With him are strength and wisdom;
the deceived and the deceiver are his.
17 He leads counselors away stripped,
and makes fools of judges.
18 He looses the sash of kings,
and binds a waistcloth on their loins.
19 He leads priests away stripped,
and overthrows the mighty.
20 He deprives of speech those who are trusted,
and takes away the discernment of the elders.
21 He pours contempt on princes,
and looses the belt of the strong.
22 He uncovers the deeps out of darkness,
and brings deep darkness to light.
23 He makes nations great, then destroys them;
he enlarges nations, then leads them away.
24 He strips understanding from the leaders[e] of the earth,
and makes them wander in a pathless waste.
25 They grope in the dark without light;
he makes them stagger like a drunkard.
This is a somewhat remarkable and unexpected passage. Job has just finished excoriating his friends, declaring that his understanding is at least equal to theirs, calling himself innocent and just, as well as a laughingstock of the friends. He has called on various categories of created things to witness to his mistreatment at the divine hands. One would have expected him to launch immediately into a catalogue of the divine mistreatment, though he doesn’t do that until Job 16. One might also have expected him immediately to put together his legal case case. But he won’t do that until Job 13. Instead we have this seemingly enthusiastic hymn to the wisdom and strength of God. When one looks at this hymn more closely, however, we see its tone as somewhat ambiguous. It is stitched together with literary help from Psalm 107; it repeats a rare word for no apparent reason; it emphasizes more the destructive than creative power of God. We may end up wondering what kind of hymn this really is.
We might partially divide 12:13-25 into: a) a recognition of the divine wisdom and strength (vv 13, 16); b) God’s destructive power (vv 14-15); c) God’s stripping leaders naked (vv 17-19); d) Job’s use of Ps 107: 27, 40 in three verses (Job 12:21, 24, 25). In the other verses Job dumps filler material that often obscures rather than clarifies. The result is a hymn often praised for its literary beauty but, on close inspection, has glimmers of beauty but also seems to present seemingly incompatible parts.
Before examining verses 13-25 in greater detail, it might be useful to compare its general flow to that other hymn of praise to God that we have heard from Job’s lips, 9:4-12. Like Job 12:13, 16 the poem in Job 9 will begin with a recognition of God’s wisdom and strength (9:4). There follow in Job 9 three verses of God’s destructive activity (9:5-7) that correspond nicely to 12:14-15. Then, Job 9:8-10 provides three verses describing God’s awesome creative power, a thought that shares more with the thought world of Psalm 8 than Job 12. Finally, in Job 9:11-12 is a description of the mysterious activity of God, activity that will frustrate Job immensely. Though Job 12 will pick up on God’s mysterious ways (uncovering deep things from darkness, 12:22), the mysteriousness and inaccessibility of God in Job 9 actually becomes a theological problem, unlike its passing reference in Job 12:22. In neither passage does Job simply praise God with full throat; perhaps because of his devastating loss that Job has experienced, he no longer can simply view God as a good creator who shaped the world with wisdom, power, strength, and goodness.
Job 12:13 starts out auspiciously enough. Four familiar and traditional terms are used to describe things that accompany God (the first Hebrew word is immo, “with him”). Those things are “wisdom” (chokmah, 149x), “strength” (geburah, 61x), “counsel” (etsah, 89x), and “understanding” (tebunah, 42x). All of the terms, except geburah, disproportionately appear in the wisdom tradition of Israel. Geburah, however, comes from descriptions of God’s mighty deeds, descriptions more plentiful in the Psalms for example than the wisdom books. Almost 30% of the appearances of geburah are in the Psalms, emphasizing the divine mighty deeds (Psalm 150:2; 145:12) or strength (Psalm 147:10) or power (Psalm 106:2 8). But the Book of Job is also about power, so Job’s reference to the divine geburah here is certainly not misplaced. I also note below how Job seems to draw on Proverbs 8:14 for the thought behind this verse (and Job 12:16) as geburah appears in Proverbs 8:14.
Little needs to be said about the other three terms. Etsah appears 9x in Job and 10x in Proverbs. “Counsel” is the thing needed most for those aspiring to be wise. “Understanding" (tebunah) is really “owned” by Proverbs, where 19/42 appearances are. Perhaps the most familiar place where two of these virtues (chokmah and tebunah) appear together is Proverbs 2:2, “If you incline your ear to wisdom (chokmah) and stretch out your heart to understanding (tebunah). . .” But in Job 12:13 God is said to have these virtues. God, therefore, is mighty and wise, strong and full of counsel and understanding. It is a noteworthy start.