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367. Job 36:8-12, The Story of the Kings

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.


Verse 8 gives us the hypothetical situation—scenario 1), mentioned in the previous essay:


    “If they are bound in chains (ziqah), seized in bonds/cords (chebel) of affliction"


Who can’t hear the echo of the Joseph story, as recounted in Psalm 105, through this verse? “They hurt (same root as for “affliction,” oni, in Job 36:8) him with fetters; he was laid in irons” (Psalm 105:18). The word for “fetters” in 105:18 is the rare kebel, which sounds and looks very similar in Hebrew to the chebel of Job 36:8.   

In Elihu’s telling of the kings' story, however, we have one word that actually reflects the Joseph narrative: asur (“to be bound”). It derives from the verb asar (70x), “to bind,” which appears 7x in the Joseph story alone (e.g., Genesis 39:20 (twice); 40:3, etc). Perhaps the Joseph narrative was dimly on Elihu’s mind as he thought about the binding of kings.  


We think that the “binding” must be a physical and not simply metaphorical or spiritual condition. The kings, who are supposedly on the throne forever, meet with this fate. In verse 9 we will learn that they have behaved themselves proudly, just like the evil men who cry out and aren’t heard (35:13), but we don’t know how widespread a condition this is for the kings of the earth.

They are bound “in fetters/chains” (ziqah, 7x). Though Israel served in captivity in Egypt and, later, in Babylon, there isn’t a lot of “fetter talk” in the Bible. Ziqah may indeed mean chains or fetters (see also Psalm 149:8 or Isaiah 45:14), but it just as often points to a kind of weapon such as a “firebrand” (Proverbs 26:18; Isaiah 50:11). Kebel is also “chains,” but it only appears twice. Psalm 149:8 uses both words, when God is said to execute vengeance on the nations:


    “To bind (asar) kings with chains (ziqah), and their nobles with fetters (kebel) of iron (barzel).”

Elihu, then, may have been following a long-standing method of how to express the judgment on kings.  

There are a few other words for fetters, the most interesting being moser (11x) and chebel. The former is obviously derived from asar, “to bind,” and most frequently appears in the Psalms. Psalm 2:3 captures the meaning, when the kings of the earth say:


    “Let us tear their fetters (moser) apart…”


We note that the word moser is almost identical in form with musar, “discipline” (derived from yasar, “to discipline,”) a word which will play an important role in the next few verses. Finally, verse 8 speaks of “bonds/chains/cords/bands” (chebel, 62x) of affliction. Chebel, however, is among the most polysemic of Hebrew words in the Bible, meaning everything from “ropes/cords” (II Samuel 17:13; II Samuel 22:6) to a “noose” (Job 18:10), to a “line” of men in battle (II Samuel 8:2) to a “group” or "band" of prophets (I Samuel 10:10) to a “region” (Joshua 19:29) to a “portion” of land allotted to a tribe (Joshua 17:14; 19:9). Metaphorically, it can also stand for “labor pains” or “sorrows” (Job 39:3). Perhaps the closest parallel to the use of chebel in Job 36:8 is in II Samuel 22:6, 


    “The cords (chebel) of Sheol surrounded me…”


If the kings of the earth are placed in this condition (verse 8), then point 2), from the previous essay, results: God tells them their work and their sin, that they have acted proudly/defiantly (verse 9).  Though none of the verbs for “teaching” we have already seen is used in verse 9 (yarah, alah, yada), we have God nevertheless trying to communicate to the king through his binding (the verb is the common nagad, “to declare”). Again, Elihu is sketchy on the details of how God communicates their “work” (the common paal) and “sin” (the common pasha) to them, though we learn that the kings have “acted defiantly” (gabar, 25x).


Gabar is usually a positive term in the Bible. Its basic meaning is “to prevail” or “to become strong/great.” We see the former in its first four appearances in the Flood narrative, where the waters “prevailed” (gabar, Genesis 7:18, 19, 20, 24) and increased on the earth. An enemy might also “prevail” (gabar, Lamentations 1:16) in a battle. God promises to “strengthen” (gabar) the house of Judah in the future (Zechariah 10:6, 12)  But Job tends to use this verb (3x in Job) in the sense of greatness misdirected, or arrogance. It is a word to describe excess or inappropriate self-magnification (see also Job 15:25; 21:7).  The verb gabar no doubt comes from the same lexical world as gabahh (“exalt” in a negative or neutral sense in Job 36:7; 35:5) and is a distant cousin of a slew of words, of which ga’own is one (35:12) and gevah is another (33:17), to describe proud people.


Point 3) from the previous essay is described in verse 10. By declaring their work and sin to the kings, God begins to “open their ear to discipline (musar, 50x)” and “say to them to return from iniquity (aven, 78x).” Most translations have “commands them to return from sin/iniquity,” but the verb is a simple amar ("say/speak") rather than tsavah ("command") or something stronger. Musar, usually rendered “discipline” or “instruction,” is a quintessential wisdom tradition word. 30/50 of its appearances are in Proverbs alone. It appears three times in the preface to the Book of Proverbs (1:2, 3, 7), indicating its central importance in the catalogue of virtues inculcated by the wisdom teachers. Though musar only appears 4x in Job, Elihu may be pointing to its first appearance (5:17) when using it in 36:10. In 5:17 Eliphaz had urged Job to see what was happening to him as the instruction or discipline of God. Happy is the person whom God instructs. Yet, Elihphaz’s words, especially in his second and third speeches, were so full of severe language that the gentle coaxing tone of 5:17 was fully lost. But not on Elihu. He picks up musar in 36:10 to describe what God is doing by declaring their sins and their works to kings. God “instructs” them.  

More precisely, God “opens their ear” to instruction. The verb for “open” is a common one, galah (185x) that usually means to “uncover” or “remove” something. Elihu has used it suggestively in 33:16 by employing an almost identical phrase as in 36:10. When God speaks to humans in a vision of the night, God “opens the ears of people” (33:16). That this is the motherlode of divine working can be seen because Elihu will use the phrase a third time, this time more specifically referring to Job, at 36:15, “in their affliction he opens their ear.” That Elihu isn’t the only one that can use this suggestive idea, even if the phrase is slightly different, is confirmed by the third Servant Song in Isaiah (Isaiah 50:4-11). Two phrases are suggestive: “Morning by morning God wakes my ear to hear as they that are taught” (v 4) and “the Lord has opened my ear” (using the verb pathach rather than galah).  

In the case of the Servant in Isaiah, he says “he was not rebellious” (50:5). But, for the kings of the earth in Job 36, there are two possible reactions to God’s declaration and God’s instruction or discipline. These two reactions are explained in neatly balanced phrases in 36:11-12. On the one hand (point 4, from the previous essay)), if these kings listen to and serve God (the common verbs shama/abad), then they shall finish off their days (the common kalah) with prosperity/good (tob) and their years in pleasantness (na’iym). The word tob is as common as any Hebrew word, but na’iym only appears 13x, and this is its only Joban appearance. A similar word, na’em, appears 8x. It occupies the world of sweetness, pleasantness, delightfulness or pleasures. It doesn’t really suggest the possibility of material rewards or even success; its most memorable appearance is in Psalm 16:11, where the Psalmist says,

    “In your right hand are pleasures (na’iym) for evermore.”

But point 5 (from the previous essay)) follows in verse 12:

    “If they do not hear (the same verb, shama, as in verse 11), they shall pass over with the sword,

     and they shall expire without knowledge."

The trigger for different divine reactions, as we see, is on “hearing” or not “hearing.” In this case the result of not hearing is the unusual phrase: “to pass over with the sword.” Clines and others have pointed out that the verb “pass over” (abar) never elsewhere directly refers to death; one usually passes over/through land or passes over a river. Thus, many talk about “passing over a river” which is a euphemism, of course, for death in this instance. But the more interesting phrase is that kings who don’t “hear” will “perish (gava, 24x/7x Job) without knowledge.”  


The phrase “without knowledge” is one that gives us pause.  Elihu has just used a similar phrase at the end of Job 34 to describe Job:


    “Job speaks without knowledge, and his words are without insight” (34:35). 


By putting the two passages together Job might feel that the words are possibly directed at him. If he speaks without knowledge, and if the fate of proud kings, who don’t listen to God when God patiently disciplines or instructs them, is to “die without knowledge,” then Job might be perilously close to dying without knowledge. The stakes are raised even higher when the first words out of God’s mouth when the divine actually shows up to speak are:

    “Who is this who darkens counsel without knowledge?” (38:2).

The big question of life for Elihu is what kings do with the instruction/discipline God gives them. That will also be his question for Job—‘What, Job, will you do with the knowledge and discipline God has laid upon you?’ There is a process that God employs in dealing with the kings of the earth. Fetters/disasters come into their lives, but it is a means by which God tries to get the kings’ (Job’s) attention, to see if they really can “hear” the divine words. Elihu is now ready for his most significant point. God not only deals with kings this way but also is doing the same thing with Job. But before getting to that blockbuster revelation in verses 15-23, Elihu speaks another two verses (vv 13-14) that may or may not have a reference to Job.  Let’s hear them.

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