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361. Job 35:9-11, Job’s Empty Words, First Essay
9 “Because of the multitude of oppressions they cry out;
They cry for help because of the arm of the mighty.
10 But no one says, ‘Where is God my Maker,
Who gives songs in the night,
11 Who teaches us more than the beasts of the earth
And makes us wiser than the birds of the heavens?’
There is no obvious connection between verse 9 and verse 8. Elihu has just tried to dispose of a couple of Job’s arguments about the futility of faithfulness or the moral superiority of Job to God. But in verse 9 he turns to why people, like Job, can cry to God and not be heard. My point, however, will be that it is Elihu struggling here and not clearly stating the issue. He begins by saying (v 9):
“From/because of the multitude of oppressions they cry out; they cry out because of the arm of
“Oppression” (ashuq, 5x) is derived from the fairly common verb ashaq, “to oppress” (35x). One doesn’t have to search very deeply in Scripture to find instances of oppression of the little people by the mighty. It is a fact of life, both in antiquity and today. Elihu gives the impression that these oppressions are brought about by humans (“the arm of the mighty”). Job’s oppression was certainly effected by the Chaldeans and others, but the source of his distress really lay in a conversation between God and the Satan. Nevertheless, we might agree with Elihu at this point that Job’s cry, as with many others, was provoked because of the “arm of the mighty.”
Yet, Elihu is maddeningly imprecise when he says, “they cry out.” He uses two familiar verbs for that action, zaaq and shava, but he leaves out whether the cry that the oppressed people utter is just a generic cry of pain or is a targeted plea to God. Maybe it is immaterial for Elihu and that the direction of one’s cry is negated because of the attitude of the one that cries, but he doesn’t really say that specifically. This imprecision has led to like imprecision among scholarly commentators. Some see the problem with the oppressed people here is that they just cry out (and not to God), while some emphasize that even if they cried to God they wouldn’t be heard because of their pride.
The difference may be significant, and Elihu doesn’t even show that he is aware of the problem. He may have ignored the niceties of the aforementioned distinction (i.e., whether the cry is directed to God or not) because of his eagerness to move to verse 10. Verse 10 is where he shines. In fact, verse 10 and the first word of verse 11 capture the two areas where Elihu is at his best: describing how God desires to relate to the creature and how God is a teacher.
Each should be mentioned briefly. Though people cry out in their oppression, the thing they don’t say is (v 10):
“Where is God my maker, the one who gives songs/psalms in the night?”
The description of God is surprisingly alluring. It is surprising because we don’t expect a reference to “God my maker” in a section that has been filled with judgment. As others have previously remarked, more expected would probably have been “God my savior” or “God the judge,” but here it is “God my maker.” This maker is not described as one who hears the prayers of the saints, or eagerly awaits the praises of the faithful, but as one who gives “songs in the night.” The word for “songs” is zamir (7x; the verb zamar, “to praise,” appears 46x). It’s most memorable appearance is in Psalm 119:54 where the author says, “Your statutes have been my songs (zamir) in the house of my sojourning.” Instead of crying out, then, because of oppressions they should have asked about the one who gives songs in the night.
But this song-giver is also a teacher. Elihu is at his best when he speaks this way, and he does so in verse 11. Literally, we have:
“Who teaches us more than the beasts of the earth and makes us wiser than the birds of
Our first reaction, contrary to what was just said, is not to be too impressed with Elihu’s statement. After all, it isn’t hard to imagine that humans should be wiser than birds or that God’s care for and instruction of humans would exceed that offered to beasts. Yet by speaking this way Elihu is referring to two earlier passages in Job where Job spoke of the instructional value of the animals.
First in Job 6:5, where Job laments the attack on him by God (“for the arrows of God are within me,” 6:4), he asks, “Does the wild ass bray when he has grass? or Does the ox complain when it has fodder?” That is, the animals know when to complain and when to express satisfaction. Job is, in 6:5, likening his perception to that of animals. He too knows when he has received pain and is suffering. It is God who has targeted him. Animals, then, teach us.
Second, in Job 12:7-8, Job asks his hearers to inquire of the beasts of the earth and the birds of the air (the same two categories as in 35:11), and these animals will teach them that the hand of the Lord has wrought Job’s distress. Animals, again, are the teachers of valuable lessons of life.
But in Job 35 Elihu changes the way animals ought to be perceived. Now they are no longer the teachers. God is the teacher who instructs us more than those animals instruct us. The verb for “teach/instruct” in 35:11 is the rare alaph (4x), which we have previously seen on Bildad’s (15:5) and Elihu’s (33:33) lips. But Elihu does Job (in 6:5) one better by urging him to see God, and not simply the animals, as the One instructing him. Elihu then has given us two powerful lessons about the God whom he serves: God brings songs in the night, and God teaches more than any created thing could teach us. The problem with humans, as we will go on to see, is that they/we aren’t open to these levels of instruction. This is an important point for Elihu, since his final speech (Job 36-37) will focus on what God might be trying to teach Job through his distress. But before we get there we need to try to understand, from Elihu’s perspective, why humans don’t respond to the gentle songs in the night and the instruction from God.