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226. Job 22:12-20, God is Truly in Charge
12 “Is not God inthe height of heaven?
Look also at the distant stars, how high they are!
13 You say, ‘What does God know?
Can He judge through the thick darkness?
14 Clouds are a hiding place for Him, so that He cannot see;
And He walks on the vault of heaven.’
15 Will you keep to the ancient path
Which wicked men have trod,
16 Who were snatched away before their time,
Whose foundations were washed away by a river?
17 They said to God, ‘Depart from us!’
And ‘What can the Almighty do to them?’
18 Yet He filled their houses with good things;
But the counsel of the wicked is far from me.
19 The righteous see and are glad,
And the innocent mock them,
20 Saying, ‘Truly our adversaries are cut off,
And their abundance the fire has consumed.’
This is a most curious section that serves as a transition from Eliphaz’s blistering attack on Job’s wicked behavior (vv 6-11) to a radiant expression of hope for Job’s future (vv 21-30). He could have gone directly from condemnation to hope; indeed, that is a frequent method used by preachers since time immemorial to get their hearers to change their attitudes and actions. But his condemnation is so harsh in verse 6-11, and is without any substantiation, that one would think that immediate words of hope might fall on deaf ears. So this middle section (vv 12-20) could have been inserted as a gentle way to make a transition between harshness and hope. Yet it is filled with non-sequiturs and uncertain meaning. Perhaps the author, or the friends, are running out of things to say. But the Third Cycle has been launched, and we grimly continue with it.
The best way to begin may be to suggest a rough flow of the argument in these nine verses. In verses 12-14 Eliphaz attributes a belief to Job that God is so high in the heavens and removed from earthly realities that God really doesn't see or care for what is going on in earth. This belief, Eliphaz argues in verses 15-17, is shared by the wicked people of long ago. They were snatched away before their times because they also (like Job) told God to "depart from us" and thought that God couldn't do anything to them. Despite their attitudes toward God, God filled them with good things (v 18). Yet, far from believing it good to follow their paths, Eliphaz quickly adds that this path is far from him (v 18). Finally, in vv 19-20, he turns to the righteous, who don't follow that path, and are glad they don't. Mention of the righteous will then be Eliphaz's cue to speak about the path that the righteous should take--turning to God (vv 21-30). Well, at least this seems to be what is going on here!
In this essay, I will only comment on verses 12-14. Eliphaz almost sound rhapsodic in verse 12.
“Isn’t God high in the heavens, doesn’t God see the heads/tops of the stars—how high are they!”
Other places in Scripture talk about God dwelling in heaven and looking far down on the people of the earth (see, e.g., Psalm 113:5-6), but here the reference to God’s loftiness is only used to accuse Job. Note verse 13,
“But/And so you say, ‘What does God know? Can God really judge through the darkness?”
Eliphaz attributes to Job a doctrine of the distance of God from the world, with a corollary being that this distance means that God really doesn’t connect with or show much concern over the world. Eliphaz’s reference to the deep darkness (araphel) in which God lives in verse 13 suggests that God is thereby precluded from getting a good view of things on the earth. We are pretty sure that this isn’t Eliphaz’s view of God, but he seems to attribute it to Job.
To be fair to Eliphaz; one could have inferred from Job’s attack on God’s lack of concern with justice in Job 21 that God is a distant God, but Job’s doctrinal equipment at this point is alternatively so shattered and affirmed at this point that to try to pin him down to any precise formulation is a waste of time. Yet, that is what Eliphaz will try to do here. He has scored Job, without substantiation, for unethical conduct. Now he will try to argue that Job’s doctrine of God has Job positing a distant God who “sees not” (v 14).
Eliphaz continues with his description of God’s distance, adding a note of eloquence in verse 14 to match his rhapsodic words in verse 12. He says,
“Clouds mantle him and he cannot see; he walks back and forth on the circle of the heavens."
The word for “clouds” (ab, 32x) is often rendered “thick clouds,” and that may be a better translation here. The word ab appears 8x in Job, with Elihu using it three times alone in his speeches in 32-37. The verb for “mantle” is the familiar “hide” (satar, 80x). What is usually overlooked about this speech is the vital role that “seeing” plays in it. Verbs for “see” appear in verse 11, 12, 14 and 19. Job couldn’t see in verse 11; God can’t see in verse 14. Everyone’s vision, it seems, is occluded in Job 22. Except, of course, the vision of Eliphaz the speaker. When a theological speaker accuses everyone else of blindness, s/he rarely confesses that s/he suffers from the same debility.
The picture at the end of verse 14 is of a God who is standing on the vault, or thick covering, of the heavens, walking back and forth. Job 22 isn’t alone in using the rare word chug (3x, the “circle” of the heavens) to describe the dwelling place of God. Isaiah 40:22 talks about God who “sits above the circle (chug) of the earth, and the inhabitants of it are like grasshoppers.” Thus, Eliphaz attributes to Job a belief in a distant God whose vision is blocked by clouds between the vault of heaven and the earth. This is a somewhat strange belief to attribute to Job, since Job has spent a good deal of time complaining that God is too close to him (Job 7:17-21) or that God directly “broke him in two” (16:7-16).
One of the endearing characteristics of the Book of Job is its subtle use of the simple verb halak (“to go/walk”). We saw it in the Satan’s description of its activities on the earth (1:7); we saw it in that most eloquent of poems, Job 14, where human hope is crushed; God prevails for ever against humans, and “they walk” (halak, 14:20) or pass away. Later, God will ask Job, “Can you send forth lightnings that they may walk?” (halak, 38:35). Now, in 22:14, God is “walking around,” with halak in the hithpael, on the vault of heaven. All this “walking,” which suggests some kind of movement or passing away, is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s skillful use of three words for “walk” in Sonnet 130. The brilliance of this sonnet is that Shakespeare compares the beloved to many features or creatures of the world, and the beloved comes up short in every comparison yet still the love of the author for the beloved is the rarest thing in the world. The beloved doesn’t have to be world-class in any category to have won the preeminent place in his heart. Note the Bard’s language in lines 11-12:
“I never saw a goddess go; My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
Something about the activity of walking or movement, in Shakespeare and the Book of Job, triggers deep emotion. In sum, then, Eliphaz accuses Job of believing in a God who is distant and who doesn't intervene in the affairs of the earth.