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30. Job 3:20-26, Returning to Reality
20 “Why is light given to one in misery,
and life to the bitter in soul,
21 who long for death, but it does not come,
and dig for it more than for hidden treasures;
22 who rejoice exceedingly,
and are glad when they find the grave?
23 Why is light given to one who cannot see the way,
whom God has fenced in?
24 For my sighing comes like[c] my bread,
and my groanings are poured out like water.
25 Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me,
and what I dread befalls me.
26 I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
I have no rest; but trouble comes.”
This section consists of one very long question (vv 20-23) and then Job’s gradual mental return to his current reality (vv 24-26). He had already posed questions both in verses 11-12 and verse 16, but those questions assumed or expressed a wish never to have been born, while the long question in vv 20-23 (despite its phrasing as two questions in the translation above) assumes dissatisfaction with a life in progress. They end in much the same place (a desire for oblivion), but they function differently in the psychology of the poem. Musing on the possibility of never being born led Job to a journey to another realm, where he saw kings and princes of the earth; when thinking about his dissatisfaction with his actual life, he is brought back to the reality of that life in verses 24-26. Thus, we not only see a brilliant and heart-wrenching poem here but also a subtle journey of the soul, from a desire for mental escape, to pleasant images in that escape, to a reluctant return to the present. In the final analysis, he cannot escape his body and the torment he feels; he cannot escape the weight of thought, which will first lead him to the supposition that God is behind his disaster and then to an full-fledged legal case against God. But it all began with escape and then return to reality.
His long question in verses 20-23 might best be rendered as follows,
“Why is light given to the sufferer and life to one bitter in spirit; that is,
a) to one who waits for death and it is not, who searches it out like one might search for hidden treasures;
b) to one who rejoices extremely with great exultation upon finding the grave;
c) to the warrior (geber) to whose way is hid and whom God has hedged in?
Just as Job’s relentless pain had pushed him to seek a mental retreat or reprieve, so his imaginative daydreaming pushes him to this most searching question. The question deals with trouble, here captured through the two words amel and mar. The consonant group a-m-l yields three words in Biblical Hebrew, the verb amal, the noun amal, and the noun amel, all of which occupy the same sphere of toil, worthless labor, or trouble. The word used here, amel, appears only 9x in the Bible, and is mostly translated “worker” or “laborer” but can, as here, also mean “sufferer” (same meaning in Job 20:22). A majority of its appearances are in Ecclesiastes, the book par excellence for analyzing the pain of worthless toil. The verb amal appears 11x in the Bible, eight of which are in Ecclesiastes. The noun amal is much more common (55 appearances), with eight alone in Job 3-7. Its meaning overlaps considerably in Job with rogez, which we have already seen in 3:17 and which will occur again in 3:26. Job’s famous poem on the futility of life, and its pain, in Job 14 is headlined by the word rogez (14:1).
In 3:20, however, the word amal is associated with mar, bitterness. Though appearing once in Genesis, mar entered the Hebrew vocabulary most visually through the story at Marah, the place of bitter waters, in Exodus 15. Mar then appeared about three dozen more times in the Bible, four of which are in Job. Two of the other three appearances of mar in Job are crucially located and seem to be the emotion motivating Job’s personal transformation from a patient sufferer to a querulous litigant. He will complain “in the bitterness of soul” (7:11); he speaks against God “in the bitterness of his soul” (10:1). Job will find it difficult to eliminate the bitter taste from his mouth. The use of mar in 3:20 is one indication that Job’s long question is about himself, as well as about the general run of humans.
The characterization of this bitter person continues in verse 21. This person “waits for death” and “searches for it.” As we are now accustomed to see in Job 3, there is a euphony to these verbs: chakah/chaphar. Chakah is often rendered “to yearn/long” for death, yet a better rendering is probably “who wait patiently” for death. The verb (14x total) appears once more in Job, describing Elihu’s patient waiting while the Job’s three friends were speaking to him (32:4). It also is the verb in the notable passage in Habakkuk 2:3, where God encourages the prophet to wait, even if a long time, for the vision that God will give.
Chaphar carries with it the sense both of searching out and of digging for something. The “digging” sense is more prominent. Though used only 22x in the Bible, seven of these appear in Gen 26, which is the chapter describing one of the patriarch Isaac’s most notable contributions in life—digging wells. Digging a well requires equipment, personnel, patience and time. It is a great word to capture the one who not only patient waits for death, but seems actively to be digging around for it. Interestingly, an entry following shortly thereafter in the Hebrew dictionary is chaphas, which also means to investigate or search out something thoroughly. The two euphonious verbs in Job 3:21 emphasize the waiting and digging task for the one who wants to die.
In the case of verse 21, however, the searching is for “hidden treasure” (matmon). We have already seen the verb taman (“to hide”) in 3:17. Matmon is just the noun form of that verb. Its most memorable Biblical appearance is in Proverbs 2:4 where one who searches for wisdom as for hidden treasures (matmon) will eventually be rewarded in that search.
The tone changes in verse 22 to one of extreme rejoicing. But this rejoicing isn’t in God or the delights of faith—it is because the one who has been searching for death will actually find the grave. The grave, rather than wisdom or God, is the poet’s highest delight or joy. We can imagine in our mind’s eye the poet’s complete emotional release when coming upon a tombstone etched with his name on it. It is the longing not only of many people suffering the infirmities of age or of physical or mental torment, but of Job himself. Three verbs capture Job’s exceedingly great joy in verse 22: the common simach (150x), the rare gil (9x) and sis/sus (27x). The combination of simach and gil appears also in Psalm 43:4 and 45:15, as well as in Isaiah 16:10; Jeremiah 48:33 and Joel 1:16. Thus, most of gil’s appearances are in tandem with another word for “rejoicing.” It is “rejoice and delight” or “rejoice and have exceeding joy.” The most memorable appearance of gil is in Zechariah 9:9, where Zion is told to rejoice greatly (gil) and shout for joy (rua) because her king will come to her. Joy, biblically speaking, is thus a word that often doesn’t appear by itself. Like the feeling itself, it needs friends.
If we had any doubts that one of the referents in 3:20-23 was Job himself, those doubts are removed by verse 23. Verse 23 mentions three words that are uniquely tied to Job's personal experience. First, as the question continues, we have, ‘Why is light given. . .to a geber?’ Geber is a word that began our chapter (3:3) when the midwife joyfully shouted, “You’ve got a little man/warrior here!” 15/65 appearances of geber are in Job; it usually speaks of man in general, but we never will forget its reference to Job in 3:3. In this case Job’s way is “hidden” and “hedged in.” The verbs are satar/suk; the former was part of Job’s question in 3:11; the latter appeared on the Satan’s lips referring to Job in a kind of mocking address to God in 1:10. As we recall, the Satan used the word suk in 1:10 emphasize God’s “protection” of Job; here the meaning is ambiguous. It might be used in the way the Satan used it; it might alternatively take on a more sinister meaning of “obstruct” or “block the way of.” But we ought to hear a reference to Job’s own experience when it is used in 3:23.
Job’s long and involved question leads him back to the reality before him (vv 24-26). As many commentators have noted, verse 24 really doesn’t make much sense. Literally it says, “For before (probably in front of rather than a temporal meaning) my bread comes my sighing. My groans are poured out like water.” We can imagine that Job, after his reverie and long question, only reluctantly wants to return to the reality in front of him. Language is often hard to recover after we have been in dreamland. So, verse 24 reflects that difficulty.
We have no difficulty, however in figuring out the general meaning of verses 24-26. Job’s multiple oppressions seem to return with a vengeance. He puts it in terms of fear in verse 25, “I feared a fear and it came upon me; that which I was afraid of has come upon me.” “Fear” is represented three times in this verse. Job seems to be saying what is probably the reality faced by many wealthy people—they fear they might lose everything at a moment’s notice. In this case the very thing that he dreaded came upon him. The verb yagor ("fear/dread") only appears 5x in the Bible; one other appearance is in Job 9:28: “I dread all my pains.” We are back to perfect clarity now. While 3:24 might have been suffused with the fog of the one returning from reverie, 3:25 is full of Job’s fear. The very thing feared has now overcome him. Interesting to note is that the common verb bo, “to come,” appears both at the end of 3:25 and 3:26, just as it did at the end of 3:6 and 3:7. The two references in 3:6, 7 are negative—“May it not come.” The two references in 3:25, 26 are positive—things have already come. We hasten to add, though, that the things that came in 3:25 and 3:26 were not positive: they were "fear" in 3:25 and a series of multiple pains in 3:26.
The language of 3:26 has been briefly noted above. Job turns the language of ease and comfort of 3:13, 17 on its head with a series of three negatives (lo) and one positive. The negative thoughts are that there is no ease (shalah, 5x, one other location in Job), no quiet (shaqat, which we saw in 3:13), no rest (nuach, which we saw both in 3:13 and 3:17), but only trouble comes (rogez, which we saw in 3:17). It summarizes Job's anguish perfectly.
Just as the rest or relaxation of 3:13 captured the one concept of rest, though using in four words; the joys of 3:22 represented one joy in three verbs; and the fears of 3:25 represented one large fear in three verbs; so we can conclude that the troubles described in four phrases in 3:26 really represent one big trouble. But, on a humorous note, we might see the friends shifting around uncomfortably as Job finishes his words. One of the reasons that “trouble comes” in 3:26 might be because Job is saying, ‘Well, trouble is coming—in the person of my friends, as they are fidgeting and preparing to speak.’ We can scarcely wait to see how it unfolds.