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353. Job 34:20, The Suddenness of Divine Judgment

20 “In a moment they die, and at midnight
People are shaken and pass away,
And the mighty are taken away without a hand.


Elihu not only believes that God’s judgment is fair; it is sudden and unexpected. The language is actually somewhat chilling, even if not fully clear.  Literally, we have:


    “In a moment/instantly they die, in the middle of the night. People are shaken

    and pass away and the mighty are taken away without a hand.”


We muse for a moment and wonder if this thought stands in some tension with the preceding. Verse 19 told us that God shows no partiality, but usually that phrase is used in contexts where a judicial process is in view and judgment is parceled out according to one’s desserts. God’s impartiality then becomes a lesson for human judges on how not to “regard the face” of anyone, but to render judgment according to neutral principles of justice.

Yet here, and then a few verses later (v 24 especially), God seems to judge both with suddenness and no investigation. Perhaps Elihu is overplaying his hand here, attributing too much to the powerful God. But we will withhold our evaluation of Elihu until we have heard more. Here he just stresses the suddenness of God’s judgment. It is rega (23x; “in an instant”). The same meaning as here also appears in Lamentations 4:6, where the author talks about the sudden destruction both of Sodom and of the people of God. The fact that rega is associated with Sodom brings us back again to Elihu’s frequent use of terminology that recalls that story.  


Reference to the “middle of the night” suggests the unpredictability of divine judgment.  It can happen any time. Yet, Elihu’s attempt to use this as an expression of divine power might end up backfiring on him, since judgment at midnight may begin to sound a bit like whimsicality. Adding to the drama is the appearance of the relatively rare verb gaash (9x), “to shake/quake.” The verb is sometimes used in hendiadys with another “shaking” verb, such as the rhyming raash (“to tremble”; Psalm 18:7) or ragaz (“to shake”; II Samuel 22:8), but elsewhere it can be translated “stagger” (Jeremiah 25:16) or “toss” (i.e., the waves of the sea, Jeremiah 5:22). 

The second half of the verse has occasioned a lot of discussion for two reasons. First, we have the general and inclusive word am (“people”) when all the previous discussion had focused on princes and lofty people. Even the second half of this verse speaks of the “mighty” (abbir, 17x, whose meaning is the same as kabbir). So, many scholars have sought to emend the “people” to another word suggestive of nobility. I’ll keep the text as it is.

Finally, however, the phrase “not with a hand” or “without a hand” is difficult.  The mighty are taken away “not with a hand.” Most interpret this phrase as “without human agency” (the hand), thus seeing it again as a sign of the divine power.  

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