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286. Job 29:21-25 Celebrating the Honor Received from Rapt Listeners
21 “To me they listened and waited,
And kept silent for my counsel.
22 After my words they did not speak again,
And my speech dropped on them.
23 They waited for me as for the rain,
And opened their mouth as for the spring rain.
24 I smiled on them when they did not believe,
And the light of my face they did not cast down.
25 I chose a way for them and sat as chief,
And dwelt as a king among the troops,
As one who comforted the mourners.
We are at first surprised by this passage, as it seems to rehash themes already covered in verses 11-17, but then we realize that it emphasizes the aftermath of the proceedings and judgments Job rendered rather than the process itself or immediate result. The theme continued from before, however, is that of silence. Previously we saw that when Job arrived on the scene, the young men withdrew and the elders became silent. While Job was uttering judgments, Job spoke and others listened. Now we learn that after he spoke, they didn’t speak any more (verse 22). Job is, figuratively speaking, a one-man judicial show where he does his work and the others remain in stunned or respectful silence—from beginning to end. One wonders for a moment how he knows what to say since everyone is silent all the time, but one little word in verse 22 helps us. After Job’s words they “didn’t speak again” (shanah, “to repeat”, 22x); obviously the litigants had, with trepidation but hope, spoken their concerns to Job before he rendered judgment. All the others were gathered around in respectful silence.
We have all the drama of ancient judicial procedure in these few verses. Verse 21 tells us that the focus is on Job. Literally we have,
“To me they listened; and they waited; and they maintained silence for it—my counsel."
The appearance of three rather common verbs serves to stretch out the silence, the long period of stony and uncertain indecision, before Job spoke. They knew that Job held the key to their future, and all they could do was wait. The verb for “waiting” here is the common yachal (40x/8x) which also can be rendered “hope.” It has an interesting history in the Book of Job. At first the “hope” dimension is emphasized, as Job asks what his hope is, now that everything has collapsed (6:11, yachal); Job wasn’t inclined to wait in his new painful situation (13:15, yachal), even though everyone waited on him for judgment in the deep past. The only thing Job was willing to wait for was expressed in 14:14, where Job would gladly have waited for God’s anger to subside, as long as a restored relationship was in view. But now, it is others who must wait. . .and wait. . .and wait for Job to render judgment.
Back to verse 21. As the litigants or appellants waited, they kept silent (damam, 30x). Damam has a moderately wide linguistic reach, including “to rest, keep silent, hold still.” When Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, the verb damam was used to express the thought (Joshua 10:13). Thus, we see the crowds around Job not only hoping and waiting, but standing still in silence. The thing they were waiting for was “it”—then defined as “my counsel” (etsah, 89x). Etsah finds its most comfortable home in the wisdom literature, with more than one-fifth of its appearances in either Job or Proverbs. Proverbs exhorted people with its spare style: “Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to advice” (etsah, Proverbs 12:15; see also 19:20). Etsah is an attribute of God (Job 12:13) or the Divine Wisdom (Proverbs 8:14). All, then, were waiting in seemingly interminable silence, while the verbs keep dragging on, for Job’s counsel.
Then, in verse 22, decision is rendered. But how does one characterize, in seven words, the results of years of judicial work? All we have is:
“After my words, they didn’t repeat; and upon him my words fell like dew.”
Several things stand out from this brief verse. First, there are two words for “word” here, the common one (dabar) in the first part, and the Job-specific one (millah, 38x/34x in Job) in the latter part. Second, as noted above, the verb shanah (“to repeat/say again”) appears here to show that the litigants actually did at some point reveal their concerns to Job. Third, though the proceedings bear all the indicia of judicial encounters, the result is expressed in metaphoric language: Job’s words fell like dew. The verb that expresses this concept is nataph (18x), which can at times simply be rendered “to speak” (Micah 2:6, 11 (five times in these two verses)), but usually has the notion of dripping or dropping associated with it. For example, nataph occurs thrice in the Song of Solomon to describe either hands or lilies dripping with myrrh (5:5, 13) or the bride/spouse, whose lips distill/drip with nectar (4:11). Proverbs warns us that the words of an adulteress “drip” (nataph) with honey (5:3); the Psalmist describes an epiphany of God by saying that when God appeared, the heavens “dripped/dropped” (nataph) rain (Psalm 68:8).
The reason that nataph carries with it this metaphorical dimension is that its underlying noun, taph, means “dew.” Thus, Job’s characterizes his words as something akin to gentle, and desirable, rain falling upon the hearers. In this connection, Job’s thought world is identical, thought the words are different from , the brilliant opening description of Moses’ near-final words to the people in Deut 32:
1 "Give ear, O heavens and I will speak;
let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
2 May my teaching drop like the rain,
my speech condense like the dew;
like gentle rain on grass,
like showers on new growth.
Instead of using nataph for words that “drop/distill” as in Job 29, Moses here uses the Deuteronomy-specific verb araph (only here and Deuteronomy 33:28) to express “drip/drop.” Moses is the teacher, and so his teaching will drip, even though verse 1 uses the verb form of the word (dabar, “speak”) used in Job 29:22. Deuteronomy 32:2 speaks about speech “condensing” (nazal, “to flow, trickle,” 16x, exclusively appearing in poetic contexts) like the dew (tal). Moses then goes on to liken his speech to rain on grass, using the hapax sair (probably “droplets”) and the contrasting rebibim (“showers”, 6x) to describe the “dripping” of Moses’ speech on the people.
Job not only talks about his speech “distilling” or “dropping” (nathal) but also the result of his speech being likened to spring rains (malqosh, 8x, verse 23). Both places emphasize the freshness of the rain, dew, speech, the “drippings” of the authoritative speaker (Moses or Job) on the people.
Note that in Job, rather than Deuteronomy, the people’s reaction to the droppings of rain is given. In verse 23 Job now looks at the judicial process from the perspective not of the one rendering judgment (i.e., “dripping” water) but of the waiting people.
“They waited for me as for the rain, and their mouth opened wide as for the latter rain."
We begin with a repeated verb: yachal (“to wait/hope;” we saw it in verse 21). The people are still standing around waiting. But now, rather than their silence, we have their eagerness described. They wait for him as for rain (matar, 38x, the common word for “rain”) and for the spring rain (malqosh), that is, the rain falling in March-April, crucial for the harvest. In other places the two technical terms of “early rain” (yoreh, late fall) and “late rain” (malqosh) are used together (Deuteronomy 11:14; Jeremiah 5:24; Joel 2:23, where the early rain is called the moreh), but Job doesn’t seem either to know the term for “early rain” or be much concerned with laying out the difference in kinds of rain.
His point is rather to stress the attitude in which the people are waiting, and this attitude is captured by the rare verb paar (4x, “gape”). In three of its four usages, paar is best rendered “to open the mouth wide.” Its most memorable appearance is in Psalm 119:131, where the Psalmist opened his mouth wide (paar) and panted (shaaph, 14x, actually a verb that finds a home also in Job (5:5; 7:2; 36:20)) because he longed for God’s commandments. I think the picture created by Psalm 119:131 is helpful to understand Job 29:23. The people weren’t just patiently waiting for Job’s word, they were like people scanning the heavens, with mouths agape, for any trace of rain. We can add the image, not present in Job, of chicks craning their necks and opening their mouths waiting for the nourishing food from the mother. Job provides nourishment and sustenance for the vulnerable and eager people.