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279. Job 29:1-6, The Overwhelming Power of Wistful Longing
1 And Job again took up his discourse and said,
2 “Oh that I were as in months gone by,
As in the days when God watched over me;
3 When His lamp shone over my head,
And by His light I walked through darkness;
4 As I was in the prime of my days,
When the friendship of God was over my tent;
5 When the Almighty was yet with me,
And my children were around me;
6 When my steps were bathed in butter,
And the rock poured out for me streams of oil!
We have seen the phrase “took up his discourse” (nasa mashal), used in verse 1, in 27:1 (see comment there. As I noted there, the phrase also the appears in the Balaam narrative). It may indicate the author envisioned a “continuation after pause” scenario, which definitely would fit Job’s speaking here after the narrator’s insertion of the “timeout” of Job 28. As I have laid out the structure of Job, I don’t see Job 29-31 functioning as part of the Three Cycles of dialogue. Job 28 sets off Job 29-31 from the earlier dialogues. Thus, I posited three complete cycles of speeches of nine (Job 3-11), nine (Job 12-20) and seven (Job 21-27) chapters, with a timeout before Job’s concluding argument is presented.
But the real fireworks of this section happens beginning in verse 2. Job starts with a beloved phrase, miy-yitten, which also appears in 6:8; 11:5; 13:5; 14:4,13; 19:23 and 23:3. In each case Job uses it to express a deep heartfelt emotion. Job 6:8 expressed Job’s deep desire for God to cut him off; Job 13:5 was a wish for the friends just to shut up and listen to him; Job 14:13 presented Job’s incredibly strong desire to be placed out of harm’s way by God until the divine wrath subsided, when their relationship might be restored again; and Job 19:23 bespoke Job’s overmastering yearning that his words be preserved forever, carved on a rock. Job will now call to mind a surprisingly clear and wonderful picture of his past, using miy-yitten ("Oh/would that. . .) as a signal that we are entering into the deep spaces of profound emotion as he does so.
His longing in verse 2 is simply expressed: he wants to be as in the “months of old,” or “as the days (when) God watched me.” The phrase “months of old” is unusual; other places have “from days of old” (Isaiah 23:7) or “in ancient days” (Psalm 44:2). But the important point is in the last word of the verse: “(When) He (God) watched over me.” The verb is common and simple (shamar), but the thought is profound and complex.
Shamar is the basic verb used to describe “preserving” or “watching over” or “caring for” or “guarding” or “keeping” something. It appears unforgettably in Genesis 4:9 when Cain asked, indignantly, whether he was his brother’s “keeper” (present participle of shamar). Shamar is often used to describe human activity, such as when God instructs Abraham to “keep” (shamar) the divine covenant (Genesis 17:10) or when someone is said to be keeping a flock (Genesis 30:31). Yet, the theological echoes of shamar resound loudly. Shamar appears four times in the familiar Psalm 121, when the pilgrim is about to embark on a trip to Jerusalem. The pilgrim is assured, in verses 3, 4, 5, 7 that the Lord will keep him/her, keep his/her life, keep him/her from this day forth and forevermore.
We are no doubt to read this Psalm 121-type of meaning into Job’s use of shamar in 29:2. Job wistfully longs for the days when God “watched over” or “kept” him. What makes Job’s wish so heart-breaking is that he may seriously be entertaining the idea that God no longer watches over him. It would be an incredible and nearly unimaginable thought for someone in Job’s position to utter—that God’s care, and thus Job’s faith, might be at or near their end. Job doesn’t develop that thought here, but he has now uttered it.
Verse 3 really repeats the thought of verse 2, though with a much more memorable image, that of light in the darkness. God’s light/lamp (ner, 48x) shone upon him (halal). Usually the verb halal is used to express the concept of praise, but occasionally, as here and in Job 31:26; 41:10, the verb halal combines with the noun or/ner (light/lamp) to express the idea of light’s diffusion. Job maintains the image of light in the second part of the verse: “by his light (or) I walked in darkness.” This is the way the second part is normally translated. Literally, it looks like “to his light I walked darkness.” We have to supply prepositions and imagine prepositions with different meanings than usual to get to the traditional meaning.
But the more important point here is theological. We have just emerged from a chapter where the adventurous miners, seeking out gold, silver and other precious gems, burrowed deeper into the darkness (choshek), then to the deep darkness (ophel) and even to the shadow of death (tsalmaveth). Here, however, when Job remembers his past, it is a memory bathed in light. Lights and lamps shine, making his darkness part like the Red Sea parted when Moses lifted his arms.