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187. Job 19: My Redeemer Lives! Introduction
Thanks to GF Handel and generations of Christian preaching, Job 19 is perhaps the best-known of any chapter in Job. But when that statement is subject to a little examination, we see that the knowledge, like the proverbial Platte River, is not very deep. People are familiar with the verse “I know that my redeemer lives” (19:25) and perhaps one or two verses leading up to it and following it. Indeed, that verse is a great hinge on which the entire structure of the Book of Job turns, but two things need to be understood about it: a) the context which leads Job to make such a statement; and b) the confusion, textually and verbally, which follows in its wake.
The context for that statement not only includes Job’s argument in 19:1-24 but also the attempts in earlier chapters (9:33-35 and 16:19) to think about the existence of a heavenly figure, either separate from or identical to the covenant God, that might help Job in his predicament. The textual and linguistic issues of 19:25-29 are so extensive and difficult that Clines, in his magisterial commentary on Job, has 26 separate notes, some of them fairly extensive, to try to explain 26 difficulties in these five verses. I promise I will not go to those depths here, even though I will try to make a coherent argument both on a) context and b) language/text.
The most important thing to do at first is to get our bearings as we read Job 19. We realize that this is the first time, other than Job 3, that Job will speak fewer than 30 verses (or fewer than two chapters) to the friends. Previous longer speeches have been in Chapters 6-7, 9-10, 12-14 and 16-17. He fits all of his thoughts here into one chapter of 29 verses. I make that point not simply as a counting exercise but to say that in each previous speech, Job reached his point of emotional intensity in the first of the chapters (or in chapter 13 for the three-chapter speech in 12-14), while the last of the chapters presents Job in a pensive or even depressed mood. For example, Job explores his ‘dark side’ in Job 7, 10, 14, 17, almost as if the intensity of his expression in the first of the chapters took so much out of him that all he was left with was exhaustion, both physical and spiritual.
This point is important for our reading of Job 19. Like in his earlier speeches, where Job reaches his point of intensity in the first chapter (Job 6; 9; 12/13; 16), Job reaches a point of intensity near the end of Chapter 19. in this case, however, he just stops there. We will have lots of difficulty trying to sort out the meaning of the final verses of the chapter, but one point is clear: Job has no mental letdown after his breakthrough verse in 19:25.
This structural comment is important for the development of ideas in Job. Previously when Job had broached the idea of a potential mediator or witness in heaven (9:33-35; 16:19), he then followed it with a kind of mental collapse that gave the reader the impression that this glorious thought was almost too glorious to consider. Hoping for a mediator to lay hands on both parties, to calm them down so that an orderly and respectful judicial process might proceed (9:33-34), was just too much to hope for. By the end of Job 10, Job had exhausted the lexicon for words of “darkness” so that he could retreat there. Then, later, the thought of a witness in heaven (16:19) that would stand for him couldn’t be maintained as Job quickly proceeded to the emotional depths of 17:1. What he had just spoken was, apparently, just too much to hope for.
But in Job 19 there is no corresponding mental collapse after the words about his Redeemer. In my mind this is because he finally is beginning fully to believe the truth of his own rhetoric: there will not simply be a witness for his cause but a Redeemer who will stand up for Job and save him from the unspeakable mess of his life. It is a hotly debated topic whether this Redeemer is the Covenant God or is another figure. I argued previously that the witness in heaven makes most sense if it is a figure separate from God, and I will maintain that point here with respect to the Redeemer, though gently qualifying it below. The text of Job 19 makes most sense (as it did in Job 16) to see this Redeemer as a figure different from the covenant God; the intensity of the vitriol directed towards God both in Job 16 and 19 makes most sense if Job just doesn’t have a volte-face in the middle of the chapter (i.e., ‘you hate me God, you make me your target, you tear me apart. . .oh, by the way, I love you and trust you. . .’). Yet, the thought of a figure in heaven apart from God that might help Job against God is so new and radical that I now believe that Job still hasn’t fully convinced himself at this point if this figure is the same as or different from the covenant God. Even though Job is, I believe, leaning towards identifying his Redeemer as a figure different from the Covenant God in Job 19, he may not ultimately make that decision until much later in the book.
The tone of Job’s words in Chapter 19 has also been the subject of much debate. I see Job speaking here with brimming confidence but also with angry defiance. The anger of Job 6-10, which I saw transmuted into the numbing grief of Job 12-14, has now returned. But I see his anger combined with expertise or, in other words, anger that is now focused in a legal case that he will bring against God (especially described in Job 13). Gone is the desperation of earlier chapters, the sense that the combined effect of God’s attack and the friends’ denseness has worn him down. Now Job’s anger is supplemented by confidence, confidence that there will be a Redeemer of his life.
It may seem strange to say this because, by almost any measure, Job 19:1-22 contains among the bleakest thoughts that Job utters. His opening words are consistent with the opening words of Job 12, 13 and 16; his middle words (vv 5-12) are fully consistent with the brutal words of 16:6-17. For the first time we have a fresh level of despair explored here, almost as if Dante has pulled aside an infernal curtain and exposed yet a deeper level of torment in Hell. In 19:13-20 Job goes through a catalogue of the intimate partners in his life who now despise him. We have known for several chapters that the friends are of no help, but when Job begins to talk about how his most intimate acquaintances are wholly estranged from him (19:13), we get a catch in our throats. He truly feels abandoned by God and by every human support. That is why his breakthrough in 19:23-29 is so dramatic. The person who feels completely abandoned by every comfort human and divine now posits the existence of a figure who will actually redeem him. While this realization doesn’t solve his theological or physical problems, it provides him the intellectual fuel to negotiate the remainder of the speech cycles, as well as the long peroration and conversation with Elihu. I would also argue that Job’s confession of a Redeemer here will be of paramount importance in giving him a method to respond to God’s words to him in Job 38-41.