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366. Job 36:5-12, God and The Kings (A Lesson that Will Then Be Applied To Job)
5 “Behold, God is mighty but does not despise any;
He is mighty in strength of understanding.
6 He does not keep the wicked alive,
But gives justice to the afflicted.
7 He does not withdraw His eyes from the righteous;
But with kings on the throne
He has seated them forever, and they are exalted.
8 And if they are bound in fetters,
And are caught in the cords of affliction,
9 Then He declares to them their work
And their transgressions, that they have magnified themselves.
10 He opens their ear to instruction,
And commands that they return from evil.
11 If they hear and serve Him,
They will end their days in prosperity
And their years in pleasures.
12 But if they do not hear, they shall perish by the sword
And they will die without knowledge.
Elihu will now move to the most important argument in all of his speeches. First, in this section, he will give what Clines calls a “cameo,” or a “small presentation” of his approach that he will apply to Job. The subject of this cameo are kings of the earth. What is impressive about his presentation in the next several verses is not the theology of it, for it is rather hackneyed and, at times, not fully-developed, but the process or method he suggests God uses in dealing with people. In a word, this will be what I call a “wooing” or “enticing” process, a process where God lures a person back to the divine through discipline or pain. Elihu will first state the theory with respect to kings and then, in verses 15-23, apply it to Job. God is the teacher; God gently woos or entices, sometimes with seemingly harsh means; the major issue will be whether and how the person who receives this divine attention will recognize and respond to it.
Before beginning his illustration in verse 7, Elihu starts with a few general observations about God’s character. The language of verse 5 has its difficulties, even if the ideas expressed are rather predictable. I will have an extended digression on one of the verbs in verse 5 because of its centrality in a crucial later verse in Job. We may render verse 5:
“Behold, God is mighty, and does not reject/despise/fade away; mighty is his strength of heart."
The language of “mightiness” to ascribe to God isn’t unusual in the Bible; what is unusual is that the word used to describe it, kabbir (10x), only appears thrice outside of the Book of Job. It is thus another “Joban word,” and it twice appears in this verse. Elihu uses it also on two other occasions (34:17, 24), making him the biggest “kabbir”-user in the Bible. Sometimes it is used to describe people (“mighty men”—Job 34:24), other times a meteorological phenomenon (“mighty wind”—Job 8:2). Elihu is also the only one who uses its verb form, kabar (“to be mighty,” a hapax, Job 35:16) to describe how Job “multiplies” or “makes mighty” his words. Thus, kabbir is different from what one might call the “vocabulary of mightiness” that tends to cluster around God (i.e., glory, majesty, splendor, etc); it is a general, though rare, word for something great or big that may be applied to God.
The verb rendered “reject/despise/fade away” is the 75x-appearing (12x in Job) verb maas. The verb maas is related to and may be identical in meaning at times with masas (21x, to “dissolve/melt/fade away”). I spend time on it here because the verb also appears in 42:6, a crux for understanding the entire Book of Job. My contention here will be that one has to distinguish its appearances in Job between maas + object and maas without object. It appears 7x in Job with an object, and the translation isn’t difficult: “despise/reject (the object..)” An example is Eliphaz’s words in 5:17, “Do not despise (maas) the discipline of the Lord.” Another two examples of maas + object are in 8:20 and 9:21. In the former Bildad says, “God will not reject/despise tam” (a blamelss/perfect person). In the latter Job says, “I despise my life.” The four other examples of maas + object in Job yield similar results.
But there are five instances in the Book of Job where maas appears without an object. In a few of these instances commentators have simply supplied an object, even though the text doesn’t give us an object. Yet I think the better approach is to try to render the sentence as written, without rushing to the easy, but unjustified, solution of adding Hebrew words. When there is no object, as in Job 7:16, many versions render maas as “waste away”—“I waste away, I will not live forever.” The same kind of fading/wasting away language may be appropriate for the very difficult Job 7:5, where Job describes his skin: “My flesh is clothed/caked with worms. . .my skin is cracked/breaks open and festers/dissolves/melts away” (maas).” The other three places where maas appears in Job without an object are 34:33, a notoriously difficult verse, here and 42:6. I will argue below, when getting to 42:6, that “fade away” is also the best rendering of maas in that context, so it makes sense to try to see it so translated here in 36:5. We then would have two statements of God’s mightiness which sandwich the words “but/and he does not maas.” Mightiness can certainly surround despising as well as fading away, but I think it makes more sense in 36:5 to say that God is mighty and not fading away/melting away; mighty in strength of heart. ‘Strength…not weakness…strength’ then would be the flow of 36:5.
The phrase “mighty in strength of heart” is actually “mighty, strength, heart,” a wonderful list of useful Hebrew words (kabbir, koach, leb) that can be linked in various ways. “Mighty in strength of understanding” or “mighty in strength and wisdom” (KJV) or “mighty and strong of heart” or “mighty in strength of understanding” (Jewish 1917) are some ways of putting these three words together.
This mighty God, just described, acts pretty predictably. In verse 6 we have:
“He doesn’t keep alive the wicked; but gives justice to the poor/humble.”
We would like to have seen a preposition in Hebrew before the word for “poor/humble,” but it isn’t there. Literally, then, it is, “Justice humble he gives.” This is an expression of an old and predictable theology, but we don’t even know if Elihu believes it. Wicked people obviously are alive; in the previous chapter Elihu had said that one reason God doesn’t answer people is because of the “pride of evil people” (35:12). Admittedly, the word “evil” of 35:12 (ra) isn’t he same as “wicked” of 35:6 (rasha), but the concept is identical. In Job 35 the evil keep living; in Job 36 they seem not to keep living. As for giving justice to the poor—that is a theme repeated both in Psalms (138:6; 147:6) and Proverbs (29:23) as well as other places; we have no reason to believe that Elihu is adding anything to that concept.
Elihu is at his best when he leaves general theological affirmations to the side and focuses on the issues of God as teacher and the means of discipline God uses to lure humans back to the divine. Verse 7 shows Elihu beginning that process, even though he still gets caught in the thicket of general affirmation:
“He doesn’t withdraw his eyes from the righteous; he sets kings upon the throne forever and
they are exalted.”
Hebrew verbs can be very difficult because of their frequent polysemy (many meanings). The concept of polysemy points to differences that often are mediated by “contiguity of meaning.” That is, often verbs have a field of related meanings that are explicable by thinking of the nature of related human activities. The first verb of verse 7, gara (22x) reflects that approach to polysemy. It may be translated “withdraw” (as I suggest here; Numbers 27:4; 36:3) or “diminish” or “cut short” or “take from” (Deuteronomy 4:2) or “limit/restrain” (Job 15:8) or “hinder” (Job 15:4) or “reduce” (Exodus 5:8, 11, 19) or even “deduct” (Leviticus 27:18). I suppose the basic concept behind it is to “lessen” or “diminish” or “take (something) away” from something else. Elihu could just have easily used a more common verb for what he is describing, but his penchant for developing his own vocabulary, illustrated above, is on display here. He also uses gara below in verse 27. We might gently contrast those two usages by saying that in verse 7, God doesn’t “draw away” the divine eyes from the righteous; in 36:27 God “draws up” (gara) the drops of water from the earth.
The idea of God not removing the divine eyes from the righteous is another common theological topos, but the second part of the verse may simply be false. The shock of the translation, “He (God) sets them (kings) on the thrones forever” (with netsach, 44x, being translated “forever”) has led some translators to drop the concept of “forever” and render it, “but with kings on a throne he seats them” (Clines). Yet it is hard to avoid the word netsach. Admittedly, in one or two of its appearances it can simply be translated “Glory” (I Samuel 15:29) or “victory” (I Chronicles 29:11), but almost every other appearance is “forever,” and the previous appearances of netsach in Job are best rendered “forever” (4:20; 14:20; 20:7; 23:7; 34:36), though the last one might also be rendered “to the end” or “to the limit.” I think it is best to see Elihu’s words in 36:7 as reflecting some hyperbole. The kings of the earth are apparently established forever, and they are exalted. They appear to be in such impregnable positions, high and mighty as they rule over their dominions.
It is important for Elihu to make this argument because of the crucial verses that follow (vv 8-12). These kings who supposedly would be exalted and on thrones forever are severely tested. The flow of these next few verses is among the clearest of all of Elihu’s words, and consists of a five-fold process of education God uses with kings and, as we will see beginning in verse 15, with Job.
1) Verse 8 gives a hypothetical situation that happens to the kings (being bound in fetters);
2) and 3) Verses 9-10 then show what God is trying to do to the kings through this hypothetical situation. God first declares or shows their work to the kings (verse 9); then he opens their ear to instruction (verse 10);
4) Verse 11 tells us what happens to the king who actually listens to the divine speech to them (they will spend their days in prosperity);
5) Verse 12 gives the result for the king who doesn’t listen to God (he will perish by the sword).
Given this hypothetical, perhaps it is best to translate the netsach in verse 7 as “apparently forever” or “forever (in their minds).” Those who are in seemingly impregnable positions often mistake their feeling of impregnability for the reality of their vulnerability.