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234. Job 23:13-17, The Return of Job’s Feeling of Terror
13 “But He is unique and who can turn Him?
And whatHis soul desires, that He does.
14 For He performs what is appointed for me,
And many such decreesare with Him.
15 Therefore, I would be dismayed at His presence;
WhenI consider, I am terrified of Him.
16 It isGod whohas made my heart faint,
And the Almighty whohas dismayed me,
17 But I am not silenced by the darkness,
Nor deep gloom whichcovers me.
Two contrary thoughts now wash over Job. First, he is confident in the rightness of his claim and the righteousness of his life. He is confident that when God tests him, he shall come out as refined gold. But he also realizes that his opponent is also his judge, and that this judge is absent. To make a mental journey from divine absence to fear of divine whimsicality is not a long journey, and Job explores the implications of that feeling in verses 13-17. Even though Job has both a case and what he feels is a just claim, he feels that approaching God might be fruitless. No one can explain satisfactorily to him how God is working in this instance or how to resolve his conflicting thoughts; he is left to his own intellectual devices. Sometimes when we are left alone with our thoughts, we are alone not because of personal stubbornness or unwillingness to listen to friends but simply because no one has quite been able to frame their comments in ways that meet our needs.
This passage has several difficult-to-translate phrases but if we go slowly, we not only notice, figuratively speaking, the rare plants growing around us as we go but we can also appreciate the overall commanding vista. Verse 13 immediately makes us go slowly. Literally, we have:
“But he is in one and who can turn him (back)? And (what) his soul desires, it
The first phrase is arresting and, as Clines shows, has been taken by scholars in at least six different ways. We are grateful we have a commentator such as him who has the smarts, patience, and perhaps scholarly courtesy, to wade through all the suggestions. Our interpretive problem arises because of the appearance of echad, the common term for “one.” The most famous use of it in the Bible is in the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One (echad).” I think it isn’t a stretch to see Job’s use of it in 23:13 in this way. The “oneness” of God here means two things: God’s independence and, perhaps the flip side of independence, God’s whimsicality. That the text literally says “he is in one,” and that is confusing at first glance (but see next paragraph).
Job’s terror will return here because he realizes that God, ultimately, can do whatever God wants. God doesn’t report to a Board of Directors or other governing committee; the divine budget can’t be held hostage by another branch of heavenly government. This freedom of God may be a glorious thing in the religious tradition of Israel, but it also has a shadow side to it. God seemingly is not be accountable to any creature. That is a huge problem for Job. Yet he expresses it here through that little word echad. The phrase is actually, “He is in one or He is with one.” Some more philosophically-inclined translators have rendered it, “He is at one with Himself,” though that seems to import vaguely Trinitarian language into the verse. Let’s just leave it that God is “in oneness” and mean the two things I have just mentioned (freedom and possible capriciousness).
Because of this, Job poses the question in verse 13b, “Who can make him turn back/return?” (shub) The idea of turning or turning back is on Job’s mind probably because Eliphaz urged him to “return” to the Almighty and be built up (22:23). But Zophar hinted at the potential fruitlessness of this approach: “Who can turn God back/hinder God ?” (shub, 11:10). Job can turn/return, if he chooses to do so, but the problem is that no one can make God “turn.” The full contours of that divine “turning” aren’t explored by Job, but it might include thoughts like “turn to the lawsuit” or “turn one’s attitude” or even “change (the divine) mind.” The independence or freedom of God, a trait so beloved of many modern theologians, terrifies Job.
God does what God “desires” (avah, 25x). It is the only time that avah appears in Job, though the concept of craving or longing or desire suffuses Job’s pages. The bottom line is that God is a committee of One. While other Scriptures point to God’s doing what God pleases (using avah, e.g., Psalm 115:3; 135:6), they do so with quiet confidence that God’s pleasure and human good are compatible. Not here.
Verse 14 also has its vagueness, though its thought is linked to the preceding verse and is relatively clear. Both clauses are hard. The first is:
“Because he will complete my statute/things appointed for me.”
The verb for “complete” or “perform” is shalem, a wonderfully supple verb in Hebrew that covers the waterfront from “bring peace” to “be complete” to “make restitution” to “get revenge" or "repay." God will complete Job’s choq, a word we just saw and had some trouble with in verse 12. I think it is slightly easier to read here. Picking up on what one might call its “pre-Psalm 119” meaning, we might take it in the broad sense of one’s portion or even “what is planned” (Clines). Whatever Job has planned or appointed, God will bring to completion. We don’t “hear” Job’s tone as he utters these words, but we can tell from verses 15-17 that they don’t bring him comfort. Preachers may smilingly say to congregants today that God has a wonderful plan for our lives, but Job wouldn't fully agree with that sentiment.
The second phrase of verse 14 may literally be translated:
“And as these many (are) with him.”
The thought seems to be that God not only has a “plan” for Job’s life but this plan consists of many interlocking parts. The “these” and the “many” would then point to the multi-pronged plans that God has in store for Job.