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170. Job 16:18-22, Job’s Witness in Heaven: Introduction
Central to the practice of litigation in law are the importance of preparing a case and assembling witnesses. If you have no case or it is ill-prepared, you can expect to lose. If you have no witnesses or if the other side’s witnesses are superior to yours, you probably should expect to lose. Job has already told us that he has prepared his case/judgment and that he knows he will be vindicated (13:18). Now he will focus on getting a good witness for himself. Let’s begin with this most famous text.
18 “O earth, do not cover my blood,
And let there be no restingplace for my cry.
19 Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven,
And my advocate is on high.
20 My friends are my scoffers;
My eye weeps to God.
21 O that a man might plead with God
As a man with his neighbor!
22 For when a few years are past,
I shall go the way of no return.”
Securing witnesses in his distress has been much more difficult for Job than putting together the arguments he might use against God. The friends refuse to play that role; one might even say that they would rather be witnesses for God or for an understanding of God that Job increasingly wants to question. Job has already said, in increasing despair, that God has launched and renewed witnesses against him (10:17, using the common word ed for “witness”). Then, earlier in this chapter Job has used the word to describe God’s attack against Job. “You have shriveled me up, which is a witness (ed) against me” (16:8). Job may be confident of his arguments, but if the Almighty can marshal witnesses against him, then Job's case might not succeed.
Hence, the focus on Job’s finding a witness in this passage is timely and essential. This witness will stand for Job in Job’s future legal proceeding against God. Traditional commentators generally see Job’s call for a witness in heaven, described in this passage (16:19), as an appeal to the covenant God, an expression of dogged and determined faith that fails to be deterred even if everything is working against Job. Commentators have taken Job’s appeal to God in this instance as a spur to us who languish in faith, who complain about life, who trouble (seemingly) deaf heaven with our bootless cries.
But after just studying the previous passage in Job (16:9-17), I don’t know how such a belief can be maintained. If Job’s assertion of belief in his witness in heaven in 16:19 is simply a reference to the covenant God, then the intensity, relentlessness and hopelessness of what has just come before is nullified, with no explanation at all. It would nullify Job’s most heartfelt and eloquent words, with no intervening explanation. If the witness in heaven in 16:19 is the covenant God, it would be as if Job were saying,
‘God, you have torn me apart, betrayed me to my enemies, burst in on me repeatedly like a robber, made me the target for your archers so that my guts are lying on the ground, exhausted me in every way and oh, by the way, I trust you with every aspect of my life. You are my witness.’
Right. This, then, would be the textbook example of a kind of masochistic faith, desirable to some but shunned by almost any thinking person. If he calls upon the covenant God to be his witness, he knows what the verdict will be. God has already given the verdict on Job, in his mind. The brilliant spunkiness of Job resides not in his abandoning himself to God when he has just described God as undermining his life in every possible way, but in seeking for another helper in heaven, apart from God, who will understand and stand for him.
In so doing, Job will be journeying into uncharted territory, launching his bark not only into tempestuous but uncertain seas. Pain, though, has driven him to consider this alternative. If two traditional sources of comfort—friends and God—are absent, and seem to be conspiring to work against him, what choices are left? He might succumb to the onslaught without complaint, or he might object. Job chooses the latter course.
But his objection is not simply that of an attorney who rises and says, “Objection!” and then sits down. Job started uttering his objection beginning earlier in the book, but then will develop it here and in Job 19. Job will begin to develop an alternative faith reality that increasingly sounds more and more comforting to him than the traditional nostrums he has learned. In all of this the one thing that Job will not abandon is his personal experience.
Some may argue that it would be much more fitting for Job just to ‘sit down and shut up.’ Many people who read the Book of Job (though almost everyone I meet who does so gives up by chapter 10) think that Job is just a bit too arrogant, a bit too forthright, a bit too unwilling to bear, in the words of John Milton’s Sonnet 18, “this mild yoke.” Yet Job’s voice resounds through the corridors of time precisely because he didn’t say, ‘Let me shut up and bear this yoke in silence.’ He will not be silent even in the face of crippling pain and abandonment by friends and, apparently, by God. And (spoiler alert coming!), God seems to commend Job for this action and attitude in 42:7, 8.
Thus, my inclination at this point is to see Job’s reference to a witness in heaven not only as an entity or being that is on his side in the legal case he is preparing but as a force or entity distinct from the covenant God. It is this insight that will fuel him later to posit the existence of a Redeemer of his life (19:25) and, as I say, increasingly to reframe his faith. But before getting ahead of ourselves, we have a passage to examine!