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178. Job 17:12-16, Finishing Up
12 “They make night into day, saying,
‘The light is near,’ in the presence of darkness.
13 If I look for Sheol as my home,
I make my bed in the darkness;
14 If I call to the pit, ‘You are my father’;
To the worm, ‘my mother and my sister’;
15 Where now is my hope?
And who regards my hope?
16 “Will it go down with me to Sheol?
Shall we together go down into the dust?”
Thoughts of death continue to stalk Job as he finishes this chapter. He refers to “they” in verse 12, though it isn’t clear who is meant. The central movement of these verses seems to be to work out the implications of his threefold statement in 17:1, 7, 11. If death is imminent, with cords of life snapped or life extinguished or eyes dimmed, then hope has disappeared. That the last five verses of this chapter are about hope, and especially hope's absence, is shown by the dual appearance of the word for hope (tiqvah) side by side in verse 15. The absence of hope is the end to which this chapter is rushing. As verse 15 says, “Where then is my hope? My hope, who shall behold it?” Hope also has disappeared.
As most scholars affirm, verse 12 is, as one says, “obscure.” Literally, we have,
“They place (replace) night for the day; the light is near before the darkness.”
We feel we have entered into that darkness just by reading the verse. Clines tries to connect this to the preceding verse by eliminating the third person plural force of the verb and substituting it with a subordinate clause… “the desires of my heart (v 11) which had turned night into day (v 12).” It is a valiant effort from a great linguist and scholar, but I can’t follow it. Seow has the eloquent but difficult-to-understand, “Night is turned to day; But light is brief because of darkness.” As with Job 7, Job’s reckoning of time may be out of kilter here. Perhaps this verse is also to be read in conjunction with other Joban thoughts on darkness, such as 3:4-6; 10:21-22. Not only does Job face, and desire, darkness, but somehow certain unnamed forces (“they”) are also conspiring to limit the length of days. Fearful people imagine conspiratorial forces always at work “out there.” Perhaps verse 12, then, is an indication of Job’s growing paranoia.
But then, a little light breaks forth in verses 13-15 as the theme of hopelessness, treated with surprising eloquence, receives fresh attention. My literal translation begins with a conditional clause:
“If I wait/hope for Sheol/the grave as my house, that is, if I spread out (the rare rare raphad) my bed (the rare yatsua) in darkness (choshek, frequently used already in Job), and (if) I call to the Pit and say, ‘You are my father’ and to the worm and say, 'You are my mother and sister,’ where then is my hope? My hope, who shall behold (shur, 16x) it?”
The full implications of his statements in verses 1, 7, 11 are now washing over Job. The imminence of death and the irreversibility of his plans leads him to imagine his actual descent into the grave. Earlier he had said that the grave (qeber in the plural) was “for him” (17:1), but now he describes in more detail the welcome he will receive in Sheol or, conversely, the greetings he will extend to others as he enters. It is simultaneously a ghoulish and plaintive picture. Along the way, however, we hear the slightest echo of Psalm 139 as if Job, who already wrestled with that Psalm in 10:8-10 and elsewhere, can’t quite get it out of his mind.
Job imagines himself sinking into Sheol/the grave in these three verses. When his children were killed, it was as if his home and whole household was destroyed. He only had the ash heap on which to sit. But now he imagines making Sheol his home. He thinks of sinking into the grave as sinking into a couch which has been spread out for him. The notion of “spreading out the bed” in “Sheol” sends us on a journey of aching loneliness when we realize that Psalm 139 uses some of those same words. Hear Psalm 139:8,
“If I ascend into heaven, you are there; if I make my bed (yatsa, which is the verb form of yatsua, the “couch,” in Job 17:13) in Sheol (the same place where Job is making his bed in 17:13), you are there.”
The Psalmist is confident that God is there when he spreads out his bed in Sheol; Job knows that his journey to Sheol would not be attended by God. When he gets there, looks around, and sees the gloomy and enervated shades with him in Sheol, he will greet the Pit (shachath, 23x) and the consuming worm with greetings as if they are his family members. Job has already once used the word for Pit in 9:30, where he was quite confident that if he cleaned himself up, God would dip him into the Pit. The unfriendly Pit and the consuming worm then become his family members in 17:13-15. It is such a picture of abject forlornness that we want to weep for and with Job.
Verse 15 follows on with its bracing realism. What becomes of Job’s hope if he just descends to the grave? It vanishes, just like everything dear to him has seemingly vanished already. Job may put the word “hope” (tiqvah) together twice in succession, but even were he to place it five times in a row, his hope would have vanished. Perhaps it is a realization of the utter irreversibility of his mode of thinking in Job 17 that will lead him back to a more optimistic vista in Job 19, especially Job 19:25. Yet, for now, he is imagining his descent into Sheol. The bed won’t be very comfortable. Thus, I don’t share the view of some scholars who look at Job’s descent as a joyful alternative, extending the typical greetings of hospitality which he might have extended in the “upper” world. I see Job as running on empty.
Verse 16, Job’s coda, is mangled. Scholars differ whether it ought to be a question or a declaration. I take it as the latter.
“They will descend to the gates of Sheol, if together upon the dust there is rest.”
If we don’t try to make sense of the individual words, but realize that they just continue themes of Sheol and dust, we probably are on the right track. The final word, however, is usually translated “rest” or “quietness” or even “descent.” If there is rest that Job will get, it will be the rest of oblivion, where he is forgotten and his struggle has disappeared. But, even though it seems that he is tempted to go there at the end of Job 17, he stops at verse 16, leaving us, as well perhaps as himself, in the grip of uncertainty and terror.