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176. Job 17:8-10, Continuing in His Sadness

 

8 The upright will be appalled at this,

   And the innocent will stir up himself against the godless.

9 Nevertheless the righteous will hold to his way,

   And he who has clean hands will grow stronger and stronger.

10 But come again all of you now,

   For I do not find a wise man among you.

 

We feel like saying to Job at this minute, ‘Ok, I understand. Things are really bad. Can we just cool off and change the subject for a moment?’ But Job continues in his relentless way, wearing down both commentator and reader. We now seem to have a connected series of three verses in 17:8-10, which speak of the reaction of the “righteous” to Job’s condition, yet by the time we get to verse 9 and especially verse 10, we think that we detect a certain irony in Job’s voice again and we fear we may be missing what Job is saying. Yet, just when meaning is begin taken from us, Job “rescues” us again with the third of his desperate triad of statements in verse 11.  

 

Let’s go verse by verse. Verse 8 isn’t difficult to translate: 

 

       “The upright (yashar) are appalled (shamem, 95x) at this; and the innocent (neqiy, 43x) rouse            themselves (ur, 80x) against they hypocrites/godless (chaneph, 13x).”  

 

None of the words is either rare in the Bible or rare in Job. Job is bringing us back into the mainstream of his verbal expression. We are repeatedly told in earlier chapters that Job himself is an upright (yashar) person, but it seems that the reference to the upright, in the plural here, is to a group of people. Who might they be? One might playfully suggest it is the community of subsequent readers—we, then, are the “upright” who judge Job’s situation.

 

Job asserts that these upright people are appalled/astonished at this. The “this” seems to be Job’s treatment at the hands of God and the friends. The verb rendered “astonished” or “appalled” (shamem) has, not unexpectedly, a wider linguistic field than these terms. It also includes the idea of devastating or destroying. Job has already used it in this sense in 16:7, where he laments the devastation or desolation of his congregation/company. Bildad likes the sound of the word and will use it in his next speech to talk about how certain people are “appalled” at the fate of the wicked (18:20). Job, however, will have the last word on “astonishment” (shamem) in the book, where he asks everyone to “Look at me and be appalled/astonished” (21:5). The sight before the eyes of witness and reader alike ought to evoke extreme astonishment. ‘This awful sight before our eyes ought not to be,’ is the expected reaction.

 

Job continues to use words that are familiar to us. Now it is the “innocent” (neqiy, 43x, 6x in Job) who are “stirred up/aroused” at the “godless” (chaneph). Job has previously used neqiy (9:23), but the reference there is probably not to himself but to a general class of people whom God mocks rather than supports. We have already met the godless or hypocrites (chaneph, 13x, 8x in Job) in Bildad’s (8:13), Job’s (13:16) and Eliphaz’ (15:34) mouth. They are a favorite target of the Book of Job; the rest of the Hebrew Bible cares little about them. After reviewing the vocabulary of verse 8, one might safely say that the tone is a combination of indignation and sadness. It is like the feeling Isaiah attributes to God when he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people” (Isaiah 65:2). Job is, figuratively speaking, holding out his hands to the gallery of righteous people “out there” and asking for their astonishment.

 

We may detect some irony arising in verse 9. The righteous are invited to witness the unjust spectacle in verse 8. But now, what do they do?

 

    “Yet the righteous seizes (achaz, 68x) his own way and the clean of hands will add strength to          strength.”

 

My reading of this verse is that Job is fed up with the “righteous” (tsaddiq, no doubt the same as the yashar of the previous verse) who just look on and nonchalantly continue on their own path. But since Job is one of the righteous, too, the irony is strong. He can’t continue blissfully on his way, going from strength to strength. He is exhausted and at the point of death.  

 

Verse 9 brings us into the realm of the tsaddiq and taher, the “righteous” and the “clean,” who seemingly are the same as the yashar and neqiy of the previous verse, but no one has given us a road map on this one. Perhaps the words change because Job is in need of another alliteration. I translated achaz as “seize,” its basic meaning, though most translations have “hold to” or “persist in.” That is, the world is collapsing for the righteous Job, but the rest of the righteous are persisting in their way as if nothing has happened. In verse 8 they are appalled, but in verse 9 they are back to their normal and unconcerned way. Have they looked, been appalled and then had a discussion where they concluded that they needed to keep this appalling sight at arm’s length and just continue on their way?  Perhaps they realized the deep truth of the Dhammapada’s wisdom, where it says, “The self is the master of the self. . .with the self fully subdued, one obtains the sublime refuge which is very difficult to achieve,” (verse 160). By delving too deeply into another’s problems, one might run the risk of destabilizing one’s own life. Or, bringing us back to the safe and comfortable world of the biblical tradition, one might say that holding to the “path” (the derek) is the basic message of the Book of Proverbs (see esp. 4:26), so that the righteous holding to the path here is really the right thing to do.

 


Yet, they increase in strength (literally, “they add strength”). Is Job being ironic? bitter?  Or is he just expressing thoughts here which might have been expressed while he was on the ash heap in Chapter 2, before the onset of his debilitating depression and anguish? That is, why not look at 17:8-9 as the scraps of Job’s earlier thoughts when sitting on the ash heap? He was looking at his friends, whom he thinks are righteous. He sees how they were appalled at first seeing Job in his distress; and he thinks that this kind of support will lead them all on the way to increase strength for themselves and for each other. Maybe he scrawled these lines, left them in the dust and then picked them up and put them in here. But now they take on an ironic and mordant tone. No one really is going to attend to his needs. The righteous just keep on their way, strengthening themselves. Job is left alone to complain.

 

Verse 10 is seemingly opaque,

 

     “But now, all of you, return and come. But I will not find wisdom in you.”

 

It seems like we have a “return” of the friends to Job. Are they “returning” to attack him?  Listen to him?  Where have they “gone?” It seems that they have been present all along. However, if the thesis on the previous verse has any merit, the friends at first were sympathetic, and then they lost that sympathy, but now they are possibly “returning” to Job. Yet this return will not be a propitious one. Job won’t find a wise person among them. What had started out with great hope in Chapters 1 and 2 had now come to this low point. Job’s point and tone in verse 10 then would be, ‘So, just return to me now (after all, Job has spoken five of the last six chapters of poetry), but I don’t have any expectation that you will have wisdom.’ Perhaps this is supposed to be a dim echo of Job’s words in 3:26, where he said, “but trouble comes.” He knew that the speech of the friends would bring trouble. Now he knows that more trouble comes because he will not find a wise one among them.