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139. Job 14 The Music of Job’s Grief
Perhaps Job had reached too far or too high in Chapter 13, because he comes crashing down in Chapter 14. His neatly-prepared and ordered words in the second half of Job 13, first claiming with confidence that he had already arranged the case/judgment, then laying out procedural rules and substantive claims for an encounter with God, probably made him realize that he had overplayed his hand. Maybe he was just a bit too confident in those words. The reality of his situation was that he “wastes away like a rotten thing” (13:28). That is how he felt. His life was as precarious as the life of a wind-blown leaf, of a discarded piece of chaff (13:25). That is his sentiment as he speaks to us in Job 14. Rather than a confident and confrontational Job, we have a Job that is pensive and even grief-stricken. His last words in that chapter say it all: “s/he (humans) feel only the pain of their own bodies, and mourn only for themselves” (14:22). In the Hebrew, the last word of the chapter is derived from the verb abal, “to mourn.” That will be the word that captures Job’s growing sadness as Job 14 proceeds.
We may profitably divide Job 14 as follows:
14:1-6, The Pain and Brevity of Mortal Life
14:7-17, Hope for a Tree
(14:13-17, Need for a Timeout)
14:18-22, But Not for Me
Job 14:1-6, The Pain and Brevity of Mortal Life
1 “Man, who is born of woman,
Is short-lived and full of turmoil.
2 Like a flower he comes forth and withers.
He also flees like a shadow and does not remain.
3 You also open Your eyes on him
And bring him into judgment with Yourself.
4 Who can make the clean out of the unclean?
5 Since his days are determined,
The number of his months is with You;
And his limits You have set so that he cannot pass.
6 Turn Your gaze from him that he may rest,
Until he fulfills his day like a hired man.
Though the last word of this chapter will be “grief,” he doesn’t begin this chapter in grief or mourning. Rather, the tone of these first six verses is closer to bewilderment than grief; the content of the verses emphasizes the brevity of human life on earth. But Job’s bewilderment will grow as the chapter unfolds. God seems to take such care in making sure that nature flourishes and comes back to life each successive spring; why isn’t that same provision made for humans? There will be ‘hope for a tree but not for me.’ That is the central message of Job 14.
The NASB translation of verse 1 is twelve words in length. Each word is well-sculpted; none is wasted. Yet behind this translation lies a Hebrew verse of even more chiseled elegance, seven words in length. Literally we have, “Man born woman—short days, full trouble.” It is almost as if the author wanted to make the idea (brevity of life) be reflected in the terse clarity of the words. The word for “human/man” here is the most common Hebrew term: adam. Other places Job will use enosh or geber or ish, but here we have the name of the first human. We met the passive participle yulad (“to be born”) also in 5:7 and 11:12. In 5:7 it was that humans (also adam) were born to trouble (amal). Here humans are born to “shortness of days” (qetsar yamim). Lying behind the qetsar is the verb qatsar (49x) which means “to be short” or “to cut short.” The term is especially prevalent in harvest texts and is rendered “reap” (e.g., Leviticus 23:22; 25:11). That usage of qatsar appears in Job 4:8. If you reap the fields, you are cutting things down.
The noun derived from qatsar appears only five times. Two of those instances are in Proverbs 14 (vv 17, 29), where the word is combined with aph or ruach to suggest something that is “short of anger” or “short of spirit,” i.e., a quick-tempered person. With this understanding of cutting lying behind Job’s word in 14:1, we might paraphrase qetsar yamim as “cut off quickly.” Greek mythology is replete with images of the Fates, who measure out and cut the thread of human life. The image is none the less powerful in Job 14:1 for being prevalent in other world literature. We also note that qatser occupies the middle position in this verse; like a Janus-word it swings back and forth, capturing the entire verse in its scope. Life is simply short/cut off.
Not only are human days brief or cut off; they are “full of trouble.” We have met the verb saba (“full,” 49x) on three occasions, and they all appear on Job’s lips. He is “full of tossing” all night (7:4); God “fills me with bitterness” (9:18); if he lifts up his head he will be “full of disgrace” (10:15). Job’s empty life is expressed well through the concept of fullness. Rather than his “trouble” here being amal, as in 5:7, is it rogez. Rogez is a vivid term describing the trembling that accompanies great distress. Derived from ragaz (41x, 2x in Job), the noun rogez is primarily used in Job (5/7 are in Job). It appears twice in the chapter where Job is most unsettled: Job 3. It is in 3:17, where the peacefulness of Sheol allows people to “cease from raging.” It is also the last word of the chapter, where Job knows that “trouble comes” as he looks around both at his situation and his friends fidgeting to speak. We are thus on familiar literary ground with all the significant words as we open this most sad chapter.
Brevity, mentioned in verses 1-2 and hinted at in verses 5-6, will be the principal theme of verses 1-6. In between will be references to purity and uncleanness, references which are so surprising that many scholars have excised them, concluding that they are misplaced. But I think, as I will show below, that verses 3-4 function integrally in destabilizing Job’s seemingly confident case preparation of Chapter 13, thus propelling him to deeper levels of grief than we have hitherto seen.
Verse 2 uses two commonplace expressions to illustrate the brevity of life. Life is like a flower that fades, and like a shadow that quickly disappears. This is the only place where Job makes reference to a flower (tsiyts, 15x, is the typical word for “flower.” It can also describe the “plate” on the high priest’s mitre). Isaiah 40 uses the word three unforgettable times in verses 6-8, where the ephemerality of the flower is contrasted with the Word of the Lord that stands/rises (qum) forever. It also occupies a central place in another great passage meditating on the brevity of life, Psalm 103. Note the language of the Psalm: “As for humans (enosh here), his days are like grass; like the flower (tsiyts) of the field, he flourishes. The wind passes over it and it is no more” (Psalm 103:15-16).
For Job, the flower comes forth (the common yatsa) and then is “cut down” (probably namal, 5x). The verb I have translated “cut down” is controverted. The form may either be derived from malal, which means “to languish” or “to wither” or namal (5x), which means to cut down or circumcise. Actually, malal is a much more complicated verb than that: it also can mean “to speak” or “to rub/scrape.” The King James renders the verb “cut down,” where as most modern translations follow the NRSV and NASB’s lead and render it “wither.” Take your pick. One can argue that the image of cutting, already in verse 1, would be consistently followed if it is namal in verse 2. Or, one can argue that the author would want to vary the imagery. . .In Job 18:16 Bildad uses both qatsar and namal/malal, and most translations have the branches “withering” there.
The second image is of a shadow that doesn’t “stand” (the common amad). While several Scriptural passages emphasize a shadow as something that protects (“hide me under the shadow (tsel, 49x) of your wings,” Psalm 17:8), here the emphasis is on human insubstantiality. Shadows “flee” (barach, 65x/5x in Job) rather than persist. Job first used “shadow” in 7:2, emphasizing the place for which the servant or hired person yearns in this brief pageant of life. Bildad next picked up this reference to a tsel when he stressed that our days on earth are like a shadow (8:9). The antiphonal use of it continues here, in 14:2.
Breaking up the emphasis on shadows and short-lived flowers are two verses (vv 3-4) on judgment and cleanness/uncleanness. A word-for-word translation of those verses may help focus the issue:
“Certainly on this one (Job?) you have opened your eyes; and you have brought
me into judgment with yourself. Would that a clean thing from something unclean from something something unclean. There is no one!”
The language changes in the middle of the verse from third person (“this one”) to first and second person (“me/you”). Bothered by that apparent untidiness, some scholars have sought to bring consistency by eliminating the first person reference, but I think the movement from third to first person is suggestive. It is as if Job was speaking about life in an impersonal and rather distant way in verses 1-2, but then it dawns on him that this all relates to him! He is one who appears as the flower, who flees like the shadow. The force of it dawns on him in verse 3, where the word “me” is strategically placed in the center of the verse. It goes from the “him” who feels/suffers these things to ME. Just as we saw a proliferation of first person emphatic pronouns in 13:2, 3, so we return here to the emphasis on Job’s experience.
The reason he might also use a first person designation here is because of the word mishpat (“judgment”) near the end of verse 3. God will bring ME into judgment. The word mishpat makes everything personal. Recall that mishpat was the word just used by Job in 13:18 to express his brimming confidence in the “case” he was preparing. The “judgment” or his “case” was already prepared—and he knew he would be vindicated. But now, it seems as if the prerogative for judgment has shifted back to God. God brings into “judgment.” This adds to Job’s anxiety, and leads him to reflect on sin and uncleanness in verse 4.