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126. Job 12:20-25, Judgment on Illustrious People, Essay Three

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.

What had begun as a memorable description of God’s wisdom and power in verses 13 and 16, and was demonstrated in destructive activity in verses 14-15, has quickly progressed to a listing of leaders who are deprived of power by God. The double appearance of the rare “stripped” or “barefoot” in verses 17, 19 (sholal), the uncertainty regarding who the ethan are (v 19) as well as the unclarity as to the nature of the comeuppance suffered by kings in verse 18 have served, however, quickly to rob this promising description of clarity.  


The categories of people who will suffer reversal proliferate as the passage unfolds but, we become less and less confident that we can identify anyone about whom Job is speaking. For example, there are the “trusted people” in verse 20, the “strong” in verse 21 and the “heads of the people of the land” in verse 24. Are these categories of people that anyone would have recognized as the book was first written? Probably not. But these categories are balanced with the “elders” of verse 20, the “princes” of verse 21 and the “nations” of verse 23, all of which are categories that at least are mentioned elsewhere in the Scriptures.  


So as Job’s judgment oracle continues, we have mixed feelings. We say to ourselves, “Hmm. . .I can imagine a situation where princes are overthrown, but the loosening of the belt of the strong—well, that leaves me a bit cold…’ Yet if we see these verses not simply as categories of people but as Job’s attempt to come to grips with two or three other Scriptures, we are less inclined to have to look for categories here. The rest of this essay and the next will illustrate that. 


For example, Job 12:20 may be translated,


     “He removes the speech of trusted ones (aman is the verb), and the taste (taam) of the elders he      takes away.”


The noun taam (13x) first appears in the Bible in the description of the manna in the Wilderness. The manna was white and its “taste” (taam) was like wafers (Exodus 16:31; Numbers 11:8). Yet before long the meaning of the word expanded to include what one might call intellectual taste, and thus became “judgment” or “discernment,” or, in Proverbs, “discretion” (11:22; 26:16).  

The only other place in Scripture where the words aman and taam appear in such close proximity is in Psalm 119:66. We have, “Teach me good taste/discernment (taam) and knowledge, because I have trusted (aman is verb) in your commandments.” If we look at Job 12:20 as a reflection on the teaching of Ps 119:66 or a thought like it, we see Job’s oracle as an illustration of what happens when one either isn’t taught or abandons discernment (taam) and trust (aman).  


This approach to understanding the rest of the judgment oracle in Chapter 12 bears additional fruit when we then turn to verses 21-25. In those verses he quotes Psalm 107:40 and 107:27. But the quotation of Ps 107:40 is split between Job 12:21 and 12:24.  Psalm 107:40 says,


     “He pours contempt on princes and makes them wander in the waste, where there is no way             (shophek buz al-nediybim; vayyathem bethohu lo-derek). 

Job 12:21a has, “He pours contempt on princes” (shophek buz al-nediybim), the same words as in Psalm 107:40. Then, the last words of Job 12:24 are, “He makes them walk in a wilderness where there is no way,” (vayyathem bethohu lo-derek), identical to Ps 107:40b. 

The thoughts of Job 12:25 and Psalm 107:27 also overlap, even though the wording isn’t precisely the same. Job 12:25 has vayyathem kashshikkor, “He makes them wander as a drunken man.”  Psalm 107:27 says, yachoggu veyanuu kashshikkor, “They reeled to and fro and staggered as a drunken man.” But it is easy to see why Job wouldn’t have used the language, especially the first verb, of Psalm 107:27 here. That verb in Psalm 107:27 is chagag (16x), which means to “make a pilgrimage” or “keep a pilgrim feast.” Its secondary meaning describes what you might do at such a feast, such as dance. As I have pointed out in my Jonah commentary, the movements of “dance” and those of “staggering” like drunken men can sometimes be indistinguishable. So, the author of Psalm 107 is using a highly poetic and imaginative image with chagag. When combined with the following verb (nua,“to move to and fro”), we can imagine the sailors staggering on the windswept deck of a ship. Yet, this imagery would have been a bit too much for Job—all he wants to do is emphasize judgment on categories of people, and not worry about imaginative ways to use chagag. He has just used taah (“to wander”) in 12:24. Rather than trying to complicate life for himself, he repeats it in verse 25, so that we have drunken people “wandering.” But it is almost as if we can see Job scratching his head with words identical or similar to Psalm 107:27 in front of him and saying, “Hmm. . .I’ll stick with wandering. . .”

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