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356. Job 34:29-33, Descending Into Obscurity
29 “When He keeps quiet, who then can condemn?
And when He hides His face, who then can behold Him,
That is, in regard to both nation and man?—
30 So that godless men would not rule
Nor be snares of the people.
31 For has anyone said to God,
‘I have borne chastisement;
I will not offend anymore;
32 Teach me what I do not see;
If I have done iniquity,
I will not do it again’?
33 Shall He recompense on your terms, because you have rejected it?
For you must choose, and not I;
Therefore declare what you know.
These verses are among the most difficult and obscure in the Book of Job. They appear in the section of Elihu’s second speech where he speaking of the extent of divine judgment. Elihu isn’t crystal clear whether judgment is against just the mighty (v 24) or all mortals (v 21). As the closing verses of the chapter (vv 34-37) make clear, Job is included in this number. Job’s answers are those of a wicked person (v 36); he speaks without knowledge and insight (v 35).
But before we get to those verses, we have to slog through these verses where we often don’t know who is speaking or what really is being said. In addition, many of the verbs have several meanings. Because the context for their use is not provided, we really don’t know which meaning to select. For example, the usual translation of the first verb of the quotation in verse 31 is “I have borne/endured chastisement/punishment” (verb is the common nasa), though other translations are “I am guilty” (NIV) or “I have forgiven” (Jubilee Bible 2000) or even “I have spoken of God.” Young’s literal translation has, “I have taken away.” As mentioned, the verb is nasa, among the most frequently-appearing verbs in the Bible. It usually means “to lift up” (the flood waters did this to the ark in Genesis 7:17) or “to bear” (when Cain complains in Genesis 4:13 that his punishment is too much to bear) or “bear one’s guilt/sin” (throughout Leviticus). As we have already seen in Job, confirmed in Leviticus 19:15, the verb can mean “to be partial to” (literally “to lift up the face”) a group of people. Thus, when Elihu simply says, “For unto God has one said, I have nasa,” we are plunged into uncertainty. That is simply one example; we will get to others.
With that as introduction, let’s try verse 29. It seems to emphasize God’s sovereignty. We recall our context is the cry of the afflicted to God (v 28), a cry that gets through to God because the mighty turn aside from following God. Here is verse 29:
“And he brings quiet, and who can condemn? And when he hides his face, who can behold him, either among the nations or humans alike?”
This workings of God are then further described in verse 30:
“He keeps the hypocritical/godless person from ruling, from laying a snare for
The verb for “bringing quiet” or “keeping quiet” in verse 29 is shaqat (41x/4x Job). It is the usual verb employed in Judges to describe the “undisturbed” land after the reign of a judge (e.g., 3:11, 30; 5:31). Job used the verb twice powerfully in his impressive opening speech of Job 3, when he longed for a place and time when he could lie down and be at rest (shaqat, 3:13), even though he realized that he had neither ease nor quiet (shaqat, 3:26). Is Elihu trying to “poke at” Job though his use of shaqat here, hinting that the only one who really brings true peace and quiet is God?
God’s sovereignty is shown in verse 29 by bringing quiet and peace. Who is in a position to condemn (rasha) God? God’s sovereignty is also demonstrated by hiding the divine face so that people can’t “behold” (shur, 16x) him. Shur is a favorite verb of Elihu; he uses it six times in his six chapters. He will use it three times in the next chapter alone (35:5, 13, 14). We wonder again if this targeted use of a rare verb is a subtle response to Job, who had said in despair in 17:15, “Who will regard (shur) my hope?” Though Elihu usually uses shur to show how people don’t see God, he also uses it in the sense of God’s “beholding” people (33:27; 35:13). The notion of God’s hiding the divine face has its echo in Psalm 104:29,
“When you hide (satar, same word as Job 34:29) your face (panim, same as in 34:29), they are
Job 34:30 is difficult to understand. We would have expected a verse that gives the opposite of verse 29. God hid the divine face in verse 29. Why not reveal or open the divine face in verse 30? Thus we were expecting something like, 'When you restore your face to people. . .you enable just government' or something like that. But here there is no “restoration of face” envisioned, but simply, literally in verse 30,
“from ruling a man, a hypocrite/godless; from snaring the people.”
There can be no connection between God’s hiding the divine face and the prevention of the godless from ruling—that would not make any sense at all. There also can be little connection between God’s “returning” the divine face so that the godless won’t rule, since it seems that the presence of God’s “face” in the world doesn’t invariably or even frequently produce good rulers. Thus, we don’t know what it means that the hypocritical person, who lays snares for people, doesn’t rule or is kept from ruling. It might make the most sense if we see this as Elihu’s profound wish. God’s plan and desire is to prevent the godless from ruling.
The next three verses (34:31-33) are equally obscure, though some meaning might be gleaned from them. Verses 31-32 sound like they could be Elihu’s summary of Job’s case, or even Job’s actual words that Elihu is quoting. But because he has not only already quoted Job but also knows how to set off Job’s statements with clear verbal markers, the latter is not as probable. Let’s look at verses 31-32, then, as Elihu further summarizing Job’s case, now with the new realities of the divine judgment of verses 16-30 thrown in.
Verse 31 literally says:
“Because to God has one said, ‘I have borne punishment (nasa); I shall not offend."
The problems of translating nasa have already been mentioned. If we assume that it is rendered as “bear punishment,” and if we assume further that Elihu is thinking of Job’s words, then it makes sense. Elihu would be speaking of “one” (i.e., Job) who already feels he has experienced divine punishment, even though he didn’t offend (a possible way of translating the second verb). The verb rendered “offend” (chabal) is also hard to translate. In its 27 appearances it can mean “retain/take a pledge” (Job 22:6; 24:3; five times in Exodus and Deuteronomy), to “be in debt to” (Proverbs 13:13), to “travail with/bear” (Psalm 7:14), to “bring to ruin” (Isaiah 54:16; Is 32:7); to “be in labor” (Song of Solomon 8:5); to “be broken” (Job 17:1); to “be corrupt/act corruptly” (Nehemiah 1:7, twice). Clines renders this verse, “I was misguided, I will not offend again,” but if we see this as Elihu referring to Job’s statement of his case, that isn’t likely. Let’s go with “I have borne punishment, even though I didn’t act corruptly” (though chabal is in the future tense here).
If we see verse 31 as Elihu summarizing Job’s case, then verse 32 actually makes sense. Job would still be talking (or being summarized):
“That which I will not see, teach me; if I have done iniquity, I will not do it again.”
The first words of verse 32 are very close in wording to Job’s own words in 6:24, where he says to the friends:
“Teach me (the same verb as in Job 34:32) and I will be silent (the favorite verb
of Elihu in 33:31, 33).”
Thus, Elihu’s “summary” of Job’s complaint in 34:31-32 seems to be saying the same thing as Job stated in his first response to Eliphaz in Job 6. Job also recognized that the pain he was suffering might have driven him to rash statements (6:3), even though translation of the last word of 6:3 is exceedingly difficult. But Elihu’s statement: “If I have done iniquity, I will not do it again,” perfectly summarizes Job’s attitude in Job 6. Elihu then would be saying in 34:16ff that judgment is certain, that it will reach Job, and that even though Job tries to extricate himself by statements of innocence or desire to be taught, he really doesn’t possess those characteristics. In truth, as Elihu will go on to say, Job is multiplying his words against God (34:37).
Now that we have gleaned some meaning from verses 29-32, we are becoming confident, probably too confident, in our interpretive abilities. We only have one more verse to go (v 33) before some light dawns, because in verses 34-37 we have Elihu’s relatively straightforward summary of what others say about Job. But the link between Elihu’s summary of Job’s own case and his summary of what others say about him is in the impenetrable verse 33. We have, literally:
“Shall not from with you he requite? For you have rejected/waste away (maas),
because you have chosen (bachar) and not I? And what you know, speak.”
If we look at the first part of verse 33 as Elihu’s continuing reflection on his summary of Job’s case in verses 31-32, we may see a glimmer of interpretive light. The first seven English words would be Elihu’s responding to his summary of Job’s case—where he says that God will, nevertheless, requite you/judge you. The impossible little word “from with you” may suggest that ‘whatever you do/whichever way you go, from or to or with or by, you are judged.’ It would be emphasizing the inescapability of the divine requital of Job.
But then, I see the next two verbs (maas, bachar) as expressing a separate thought. In many instances the verb maas is translated as “reject” or “loath” or “despise,” but in those instances it invariably is followed by an object. There is no object here. In the two instances we have already seen in Job where maas appears without an object (Job 7:5, 16), it is best rendered “fade” or “waste away.” The same verb will appear in Job 42:7, one of the most crucial passages of the book, also without an object.
So, if we keep the “fade/waste away” meaning, we might have Elihu saying to Job, ‘For you are wasting away, and you have chosen (it/this course), and not I.” Elihu then would be summarizing Job’s complaint in somewhat obscure words in verses 31-32, then saying that God, nevertheless, would judge Job (v 33a), even though Job is wasting away/fading away. After all, it is the path Job has chosen. Elihu had nothing to do with Job’s choice.
If we read it this way, the final words of verse 33 make some sense. Elihu would be urging Job to respond to what he has said. He has already asked Job to respond at the end of his previous speech (33:32); he would be asking him to do so again. But this time it would be an invitation for Job to speak after Elihu has said that God would requite him.