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148. Job 14:20-22, Life Without Hope

20 “You forever overpower him and he departs;
You change 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.”

 

Job’s description of the relentless divine action against humans continues in these verses. God might have been responsible for lovingly pouring Job out like milk and coagulating him like cheese (10:10), but now God turns to destroy this so-called pinnacle of divine creation. When hope is destroyed (14:19), you wonder what really is left for humans? These verses tell us: not much. But they tell it much more eloquently than that.  

 

In addition to human hopelessness, just described, there appears in these verses the hydra-headed realities of loneliness and pain. If one is going down with the ship, so to speak, it might ease the mind of some to sing “Nearer My God to Thee” in a chorus; but Job imagines this process of loss of hope, and descent to death, as one of frightening isolation and pain. There are reasons why armies have since time immemorial honored soldiers who stay with their fellow dying soldiers until the end—because they recognize that staying with another person in his painful death throes provides a measure of comfort and understanding that honors the sufferer and deepens the comforter. Yet Job will face his excruciating pain and death in isolation. It really cannot be much more horrible than that.

 

Verse 20 sets the stage for this last chapter of human life. Literally, we have:

 

“You taqaph him, and forever he walks; you make his face again and you send him away.”

 

A literal reading, as we see, doesn’t get us very far. Let’s begin with the verb taqaph (4x), which only appears in Job (also 15:24) and Ecclesiastes (4:12; 6:10). The larger context of Ecclesiastes 6:10 (including 6:10-12) is very similar to that of Job. The author laments the final days of human life’s shadowy existence. The language is difficult, but the phrase using taqaph can be translated. “Humans are not able to contend with the one who is stronger than (verb is taqaph) than they are” (6:10).  

 

Clarity comes when taqaph is used as a verb in Ecclesiastes 4:12. The larger context of 4:10-12 discusses the useful point of joining forces with others in order both to have warmth and to prevail in life’s fights. Verse 12 says, “If one prevails (taqaph) against one that is alone, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

 

We can apply that meaning to the two Job passages. God “prevails” (taqaph) against humans, or “overcomes” humans, and the human then “walks” (the common verb halak, v 19). Eliphaz presents a similar, and painful, reality, in his next speech, even using the same rare verb taqaph in 15:24. The wicked (15:20) will wander about, looking for bread, knowing that their end is imminent (15:23).  Distress (tsar, a word Job had used to describe his condition in 7:11) and anguish (metsuqah, unique here in Job) terrify them, and these dual evils prevail (taqaph) against him (15:24).  

 

Though Eliphaz will only use the verb taqaph to refer to evil people, Job, in Job 14, brings all humans under the scope of taqaph, the prevailing power of God. God prevails against the person, and “the person/he walks” (the common halak). As most commentators argue, this seems to mean that humans die. God is stronger than we are; humans struggle against God; God prevails; humans die. Anderson, for example, calls halak here a “laconic euphemism” for “walking to death.” It is a bit unusual, however, that none of the verbs we have seen for death (muth, abar, gava) is used here. Perhaps the author used halak to emphasize that life continues for a while and may be likened to a solitary but inevitable “walk” to death. 

 

Yet I would argue that death is really not in view here. The pain of life for Job in this chapter is that one keeps living. One “walks” (v 19) and will continue to feel the pain of one’s own body (v 22). Yet one’s awareness is significantly compromised; the one suffering great pain doesn’t even know if his sons come to honor or dishonor (v 21). Rather than heading off to death, which Job characterized as a pleasant alternative in Job 3, Job here seems to contemplate a continuation of the “walking,” but with a compromised and pain-wracked life.

 

This “walking” is netsach (44x/6x in Job), which means “forever” in Job. But the grammatical question to answer is whether God prevails forever or that humans die forever (i.e., stressing the finality of it). Its ambiguous location allows us to go both ways, and so we will. God is relentless and will forever prevail against humans; humans then will die forever. Job may be suggesting a tentative answer to the question he has brought up, though not discussed, in 14:14, “If a human die, shall that human live (again)?” Answer: ‘Nope.’