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352. Job 34:16-28, Addressing Job:  It’s Inconceivable That God Should Be Unjust

 

16 “But if you have understanding, hear this;

Listen to the sound of my words.

17 Shall one who hates justice rule?

And will you condemn the righteous mighty One,

18 Who says to a king, ‘Worthless one,’

To nobles, ‘Wicked ones’;

19 Who shows no partiality to princes

Nor regards the rich above the poor,

For they all are the work of His hands?

20 In a moment they die, and at midnight

People are shaken and pass away,

And the mighty are taken away without a hand.

21 For His eyes are upon the ways of a man,

And He sees all his steps.

22 There is no darkness or deep shadow

Where the workers of iniquity may hide themselves.

23 For He does not need to consider a man further,

That he should go before God in judgment.

24 He breaks in pieces mighty men without inquiry,

And sets others in their place.

25 Therefore He knows their works,

And He overthrows them in the night,

And they are crushed.

26 He strikes them like the wicked

In a public place,

27 Because they turned aside from following Him,

And had no regard for any of His ways;

28 So that they caused the cry of the poor to come to Him,

And that He might hear the cry of the afflicted—

 

This long, and largely unoriginal, section on the divine judgment might further be subdivided as follows:

 

34:16-19, The Propriety of Divine Judgment

34:20, The Suddenness of Divine Judgment

34:21-28, The Extent of and Reason for Divine Judgment

 

In the two verses following this section (vv 29-30), whether it is a separate mini-section or not and continuing over to the last part of the chapter, Elihu becomes obscure. But the section given above is unequivocally about the judgment of God on people. Rather than giving a list of bad deeds that merit punishment, however, Elihu is more interested in looking at the “judgment” gem as if it were a multi-sided jewel, holding it this way and then that way to the light to descry different things about it. He addresses Job in these verses, even though Job isn’t mentioned by name (the verbs of v 16 are in the singular), and his major points are that God is fully just and that it is right for such a God to judge the creatures. We run into several translation difficulties along the way, but the general sense of the passage is the same as in the Abraham-God conversation in Genesis 18 (which shares a few verbal similarities with this speech): the judge of the earth will do right.  

 

Let’s focus in this essay on Job 34:16-19. For the third time in this speech (also vv 2, 10), Elihu asks people to listen to him. Though the verb for “give ear” used here (azan, 42x) appears much less frequently in the Bible than the usual word for “hear” (shama), Elihu has now used it four times (also 32:11; 33:1; 34:2, here) and will use it once more (37:14) before he finishes. There is both a note of linguistic fulness and perhaps slight pleading or desperation in the continued use of the pair of “listen up” verbs. Elihu wants to be heard—very badly. He tweaks the nouns surrounding the familiar verbs this time by using the “voice of my words” and by addressing “those with understanding” (binah).  Elihu uses the most significant concepts of the wisdom tradition in appealing for their ears: chokmah, binah, yada, anshe lebab (literally, “men of heart”).  

 

In this case he addresses Job at perhaps the most vulnerable point in Job’s argument (v 17):

 

    “Is it certain that one who hates justice should bind (us)? That you should condemn a righteous

     and mighty one?” 

 

The central point Job has been making is that God has mistreated him, visiting him with affliction far out of proportion to his desserts. The implication of Job’s argument is that God really doesn’t know how to measure or calibrate what justice is; God is just a whimsical deity who can do whatever He desires. Job never says actually that God “hated” justice, but Elihu is drawing an inference from Job’s argument. A whimsical God really doesn’t favor justice; he simply favors caprice. Thus, such a divinity “hates” justice.

 

Now we should understand Elihu’s point, even though the first question uses an unexpected and unclear word here. Almost all versions render the first question something like the following: “Shall one who hates justice govern?” or “Shall one who hates right govern?” The only problem is that the verb translated “govern” doesn’t mean that. It is chabash (33x), which almost always means “to bind” or “to saddle.”  Its most poignant and memorable usage is in Isaiah 61:1, where the prophet talks about his task as “binding up” the broken hearted (literally the “shattered of heart”, Isaiah 61:1).  Much more prosaically, however, chabash normally is used to describe the “saddling” of donkeys (Genesis 22:3; Numbers 22:21; Judges 19:10; II Samuel 16:1 and often) or binding caps to the priest's head (Exodus 29:9; Levitius 8:13). It never elsewhere is close to meaning “govern.” In order to “save” the question, we may render it, “Shall one who hates right/justice bind (requirements on people)?” Perhaps Elihu uses chabash in a rare sense in order to signal to the readers that more obscurity is coming. . . Thanks.

 

The second question of verse 17 really “saves” the first question because it is obviously a parallel question—“Shall you condemn a righteous (tsadiq) and mighty (kabbir) one?” Kabbir is a relatively rare term in the Bible (10x), but Job used in in 8:2 to describe a “mighty” wind; Eliphaz used it in 15:10 simply as a comparative (“mightier/older”) and Job used it in 31:25 in parallel construction with rab, “great.”  Clines takes kabbir in 34:17 as synonymous with Shaddai (the Almighty), though Elihu certainly could have used that word had he desired.

 

We should reiterate the point that Elihu poses this pair of questions because he is hitting Job at probably Job’s most vulnerable point in argument. Though Job’s experience of life at this point is of wrenching pain and enormous loss, Job really doesn’t believe that God has completely subverted the order of nature. Job still believes all the traditional affirmations about God. That, indeed, is what increases his torment. If Job truly believed that a capricious God was in charge of the world, he wouldn’t have much really to complain about. Stuff happens when caprice rules.

 

In verse 18 Elihu probes the social implications of Job’s theological affirmation of verse 17. That is, if God truly hates justice, then it is fully reasonable to say to kings “You are base” and to nobles “you are wicked.” There is no order in the world, and no one deserves respect. The word for rendered “wicked” or “base” here is beliyyaal, which will become Belial, a proper name to describe the prince of wickedness or rascality in later Jewish history.


Rather, God is a good and just God, who renders judgment impartially (v 19):

 

    “Who (God) doesn’t respect princes, nor does he regard the rich over the poor,

     because they are all the work of his hands.”

 

“Respecting princes” means that God doesn’t show partiality towards them. The same phrase (literally “lift up the face”) appears also in 13:8. God’s not regarding (the common nakar) the rich over the poor is said with rare words. The word for “rich” is showa (3x) which nowhere else means “rich.” Both of its other appearances, in Isaiah, are either a “crying” (Isaiah 22:5) or perhaps a “noble” or “generous person” (Isaiah 32:5). Elihu could have used ashar (17x, “to become rich”) or its noun form ashir (23x) to express his meaning. An identical thought is found in Proverbs 22:2, where the rich and poor have this in common: Yahweh is the maker of all. Here they are the “work of his hands.” Yet, just as he demonstrated his verbal orneriness by employing chabash rather than mashal (“to rule/govern”) or nachah (“to lead/guide”), so Elihu continues that practice here. To finish off the words: Hebrew has a much richer vocabulary of poverty than wealth; thus the use of dal (47x; “poor”) here instead of ebyon or rush or anav/ani/anah is not unexpected.

 

But the point of Elihu’s short section here ought not to be overlooked. Job, he says, is basically affirming belief in a God who “hates” justice. Elihu will emphatically disavow this belief for himself. For Elihu, God not only is a judge, but is a judge who renders judgment impartially and fairly.