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147. Job 14:18-22, But Not For Me

 

18 “But the falling mountain crumbles away,

    And the rock moves from its place;

19 Water wears away stones,

    Its torrents wash away the dust of the earth;

    So You destroy man’s hope.

20 You forever overpower him and he departs;

    Youchange his appearance and send him away.

21 His sons achieve honor, but he does not know it;

    Or they become insignificant, but he does not perceive it.

22 But his body pains him,

    And he mourns only for himself.”

 

All reveries must end and life, such as it is, needs to be faced. These verses describe the end of Job’s reverie or brief period of escape. When Job returns to his life, he rediscovers it as having nothing to offer other than a bleak picture of sadness and loneliness. Mourning, rather than joy, pain rather than relief, ignorance rather than sharing of knowledge—all these things characterize the actual life Job faces. The chapter ends on a note of wrenching and wretched hopelessness.  

 

If nature can give hope, it can also take hope away. Nature taught us that “there was hope for a tree,” principally because the roots of a tree would reach out into the earth and come back to life when perceiving the slightest hint of water. Did this betoken or foreshadow life/renewed life/life after death for humans? It would seem so. But then imagery from nature enters again in these verses. The seemingly everlasting mountains will eventually crumble; water will erode even the most enduring stone. Thus, the vulnerable things in nature come back to life; the secure and strong things crumble.  Nature teaches contrary lessons. But it is he image of destruction, and crumbling away, that has the last word for Job in this passage.

 

The verbs in this section, and one noun, are rare and their meaning is often difficult precisely to pin down. Let’s begin with verses 18-19:

 

     “Surely the mountains fall and wither; the rock moves from its place; waters wear away/pulverize         the stones and its aftergrowth rinses/washes away the dust of the earth.”

 

As noted above, the passage begins with a strong adversative (ulam, 19x/10x in Job), best rendered as “but” or “indeed” or “however.” We are now back in Job’s felt reality.  His felt reality is that the mountains fall and yibol (from nabal).  Normally when one sees the word nabal, one thinks of foolishness or senselessness. But this 25x-appearing verb is almost always rendered “to wither” or “to fade,” though secondary meaning such as “disgrace” or “make vile” show us how little we really know about the language. When it is rendered “wither” (e.g., Psalm 1:3; Isaiah 40:7, 8), it almost always points to grass or flowers that wither. Psalm 1:3 memorably says that one who delights in the law of the Lord is like a plant whose “leaf does not wither” (nabal is verb). In Job 14:18, however, it is mountains that wither. Is the author toying with us again, or is the image really a very powerful one—that mountains, those most secure of things, actually become as vulnerable as a withered leaf and then fade away? Most translations try to save the embarrassment at the word “wither” by rendering nabal as “crumble,” but it really doesn’t mean that.  


The idea of rocks being removed from their place (verb is atheq, 9x/5x in Job) is already familiar to us from Job 9:5, where God is said to “remove” mountains. The word for “rock” here is tsur, a common word (77x) not only for “rock” but also as an appellation for God. “Who is a rock (tsur) besides the Lord?” or “Blessed be my rock (tsur) and exalted be God,” (II Samuel 22:32, 47). It may also remind us of the tseror of the previous verse, the “bag” in which Job’s sins would be placed. The thought is clear, even though Job brings in a verb of “withering” rather than “crumbling” (and several verbs for crumbling or collapsing were available to him) to describe the fall of the mountains. 

 

The same thought continues into verse 19, though now Job uses two euphonious verbs, shachaq and shataph, to describe the further eroding of seemingly secure things of the earth. The language isn’t pellucid; the opening phrase may read, “as the rocks pulverize/wear away the waters” or “as the waters wear away the rocks.” The latter makes more sense, even though the author could easily have removed the ambiguity.  Shachaq (here usually rendered “wear away”) is a rare verb, appearing only 4x, with two of them being the repeated words of Psalm 18:42 and II Samuel 22:43. Yet the meaning is everywhere similar—pulverize, reduce to dust, beat something into very small pieces.  Our best translation as “waters erode stones.”  

 

But the next clause is problematic. We have saphiyach which shataph the dust of the earth. Saphiyach only appears four other times, and in each instance it points to the aftergrowth, or what grows of itself upon the completion, of a harvest (Leviticus 25:5, 11; II Kings 19:29). But here it appears in the midst of images for waters and erosion. We once again have the mingling of the concepts of solid nature (rocks and mountains) and soft nature (plants and trees) that we saw in verse 18. The verb shataph originally had a ritual meaning, pointing to the priestly washing or rinsing of hands (Leviticus 15:12), but eventually it pointed to overflowing waters (e.g., Psalm 69:2, 15). We literally have the incongruous picture of “aftergrowth rinsing/overflowing the dust of the earth.”  

 

The author has destroyed or destabilized our understanding of language; he might as well continue by destroying hope—at the end of verse 19, “So you destroy human hope.” The words couldn’t be more crystalline. Nature may teach us that there is hope for a tree, but that same nature, through mixed metaphors, takes away that hope and erodes that confidence.  Hope, the thing that started our author on his optimistic journey, has now come crashing down.  There is such an air of finality in “You destroy the hope of humans.” That tone prevails for the rest of the chapter.