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250. Job 26:2-4, Job’s Cynicism
2 “What a help you are to the weak!
How you have saved the arm without strength!
3 What counsel you have given to one without wisdom!
What helpful insight you have abundantly provided!
4 To whom have you uttered words?
And whose spirit was expressed through you?
Job hits the ground running with sophisticated cynicism in this passage. Previously, when responding to friends near the beginning of his speeches, he has either been slightly apologetic (if one takes his word lau in 6:3 as “rash” or “unrestrained”), or attacking (“miserable comforters” in 16:2 or “worthless physicians” in 13:4) or even slightly cynical (“If you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom!” in 13:5), but here he is brutally cynical. Rather than saying in anger or frustration, ‘I am powerless and you are no help,’ he begins with
"How (much) you have helped a powerless person!"
Then, we probably ought to see Job's words in 26:4 as a direct response to Bildad’s short speech of Job 25. Job would be pointing out to Bildad that his seemingly eloquent words of 25:4-6 are nothing other than borrowed words. My analysis has shown that this is true—Bildad simply cribbed thoughts from Eliphaz in 15:14-16 and 4:17-18, putting in a few of his own delicious words (“worms” and “maggots”). Previously we have thought that Job has little reason to continue the conversation with the friends; now with these words of 26:2-4, we understand why that conversation will soon come to an end.
Let’s turn to each verse. Though Job’s words drip with cynicism, I also see him describing his situation with dead earnestness in verse 2. He is a man without power (koach, 125x); he is one who has no strength (oz, 92x). In such a position of vulnerability, one most desires the counsel, wisdom and care of friends. But that isn’t Job’s current experience. What might have started out with cautious words of testing and affirmation in Job 4 had turned into a conversational nightmare by the end of the First Cycle. Now, nearing the end of the Third Cycle, things are even worse. Job is now fighting a two-front war—against God and the friends.
What adds to the cynical power of Job’s words in verse 2 is his use of two verbs that normally are associated with Yahweh’s covenantal relationship with the people of Israel. Job states in verse 2 that his friends certainly have “helped” (azar) one without power and have “saved” (yasha) one without strength. Who can forget the resounding words of God in Isaiah 41:10 to a fearful people,
“Fear not, for I am with you, don’t be dismayed. I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you (verb is azar). . .”
The Psalms, especially, speak often of God as a helper (e.g., 37:40; 46:5; 54:4, etc). Though the verb azar is certainly predicated of human activity in the Bible, its most memorable verses are associated with God’s help of Israel and the individual believer.
The same can also be said about the verb yasha, “to save.” The deliverance at the Red Sea is summarized in one short verse: “Thus the Lord saved (yasha is verb) Israel in that day” (Exodus 14:30). God is said to have saved (yasha) Israel from its enemies (Numbers 10:9). Other instances of God’s saving the people are too numerous to mention. Thus, Job’s cynicism in 26:2 is heightened when we see him using terms of rich salvation-historical significance. The friends are acting as if they are “helping” or “saving” Job. Right! We think of the friends; and then the vocabulary makes us think of God, and we conclude that there is no comparison between the two.
Verse 3 continues Job’s cynicism, but this time I don’t see him describing his actual situation. That is, while powerlessness accurately captures his current feeling, lack of wisdom does not. Verse 3 reads,
“How you have counseled one with no wisdom, and you have made known
sound wisdom in abundance.”
If verse 2 was suffused with terms describing God’s activity in history, verse 3 is full of important words derived from the wisdom tradition. Four leap out at us: the common verb for “counsel” (yaats), the familiar noun for “wisdom” (chokmah), the relatively rare noun for “prudence/sound wisdom” (tushiyyah), and the common verb for “know” (yada). Four out of the seven words in verse 3 are wisdom tradition words. A basic principle of Biblical Wisdom is that abundance of counselors brings victory (Proverbs 24:6). Of course the readers are Job are supposed to be familiar with a passage or thought like that. They thus hear or read Job and chuckle. Job has an abundance of counselors, and it isn’t leading to victory. One noun form of yaats is etsah, which appears 10x in Proverbs and is the basic attribute attributed to Wisdom in 8:14.
Both chokmah and yada appear too many times in the wisdom tradition to need illustration. Finally, tushiyyah appears only 11x in the Bible, but nine of those occurrences are in Job or Proverbs. Proverbs anchors the concept nicely in 2:7 where it talks about God’s laying up/storing up (the verb tsaphan, which we have often seen) tushiyyah for the upright (yashar, one word describing Job in 1:1). Tushiyyah is usually translated “sound wisdom” here. In the next chapter of Proverbs, the young person is urged to preserve tushiyyah and discretion (3:21). Tushiyyah is linked by hendiadys with etsah (counsel) to describe Wisdom in Proverbs 8:14. Thus, the two virtues predicated of divine Wisdom in Proverbs 8:14 are the two things that Job says with great irony have been provided by his friends to him. It is almost as if he is saying, sardonically, ‘I almost see divine Wisdom itself when I talk with you. And I am so deficient in wisdom. Thanks, friends.’
Two of the major theological movements in the Hebrew Scriptures are divine salvation in history and the provision of wise advice on how to live well. Job is saying, tongue-in-cheek, that the friends seemingly have mastered these categories in their speeches to him. Nothing like using the precious language of the tradition to show the utter inadequacy of the friends’ drivel.
Job doesn’t just hint at their inadequacy here; he actually exposes Bildad’s fumbling literary dependence in verse 4. Though we might see verses 2-3 addressed to any or all of the friends, I think verse 4 is particularly potent if it points directly to Bildad’s words in Job 25. Job asks,
“With whom/whose help have you uttered your words? The breath of whom has come forth from you?”
Though the word “help” actually doesn't appear in verse 4, the concept of (fake) help suffuses verse 2-4. By gently asking this question of Bildad, Job is showing that he knows the precise literary move Bildad has made in 25:4-6. It would have been even more cynical and funny had Job said to Bildad, ‘I just love the way your words for worm and maggot replaced Eliphaz’s earlier terms for abominable or hated things. You really have a knack of making things vivid, don’t you?’ But Job, mercifully, just leaves Bildad with a shot across his intellectual bow by suggesting that he knows that Bildad is now delivering second-hand wisdom, taken from his colleague Eliphaz.
Job has dispensed with the friends. Now he can turn to a subject even deeper than we could have imagined—an alternative creation story.