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369. Job 36:15-21, Interpreting Job’s Distress
15 “He delivers the afflicted in their affliction,
And opens their ear in time of oppression.
16 Then indeed, He enticed you from the mouth of distress,
Instead of it, a broad place with no constraint;
And that which was set on your table was full of [f]fatness.
17 But you were full of judgment on the wicked;
Judgment and justice take hold of you.
18 Beware that wrath does not entice you to scoffing;
And do not let the greatness of the ransom turn you aside.
19 Will your riches keep you from distress,
Or all the forces of your strength?
20 Do not long for the night,
When people vanish in their place.
21 Be careful, do not turn to evil,
For you have preferred this to affliction.
Clarity suddenly returns to Elihu, and it accompanies him through this passage, even though the first four verses (vv 15-18) are most significant for his argument. In verses 15-18 Elihu will apply the lessons to kings of verses 7-12 to Job’s situation. The crucial verb in verse 16, suth (“to entice/allure/lure”) has both a singular subject and a singular object—that is, it is best rendered “He (God) has allured you (Job).” Thus, I argue here that the focus of this passage is on Job’s situation. Elihu now addresses Job.
When he addresses Job he first articulates a general principle of divine dealing with people in verse 15 and then applies this principle to Job’s case in verses 16-18. The point, a most remarkable one in my judgment, is that God is trying to use Job’s distress to get a message across to Job. Through or in the distress God is luring Job out of his more narrow experience of life into the broad places of freedom. Yet, by turning this situation into a lawsuit, by questing for “judgment and justice” (verse 17), Job is missing the point of the divine allurement. We never know how Elihu’s argument here was actually received by Job, but if he truly had ears to hear it, we have good reason to believe that when God began to speak in Job 38, Job is waiting for an encounter with a God who wants to lead him to a broad place of freedom. Elihu is preparing him in this section, and especially in Job 37, for that kind of encounter with God.
Let’s turn to the principle stated in verse 15:
“He (God) delivers (chalats) the poor in their affliction/misery, and he opens their ears in oppression.”
The language is worth pondering. The verb chalats (44x) is frequently used in the Pentateuch as an adjective to describe “armed troops” (e.g., 9x in Numbers 31-32). Leviticus 14 uses it in a specialized way to describe the “tearing out” of stones in a house infected with leprosy (14:40, 43). But by the time one gets to the poetic books, especially the Psalms and one poetic passage in II Samuel 22:20, the verb means “deliver.” Most pertinent for our argument here is the presence of concepts of “deliverance” and “broad space” in two poetic passages as well as Job 36:16.
Let’s consider one of those poetic passages in this essay. Psalm 18 is psalm of personal deliverance from enemies. But the Psalm doesn’t just record the Psalmist’s distress, prayer and deliverance; it is filled with the language of heavenly activity—as if the Psalmist’s prayer triggered not just the simple divine saving activity but all kinds of meteorological signs in the heavens. But the bottom line of deliverance is expressed in 18:19 (18:20 in Hebrew):
“He (God) brought me out to a broad place (merchab); he delivered (chalats) me
because he took delight (chaphats) in me.”
This verse also appears in II Samuel 22:20. In addition to the pleasant euphony of the two verbs chalats/chaphats is the notion that divine deliverance is framed as bringing a person out of something and into a wide place. Elihu will say that same thing in Job 35:15-16. God delivers (chalats) people in their distress; God then leads them to a rachab (“broad space,” verse 16).
Thus, Elihu is working with concepts of deliverance from straitened circumstances to a wide space that is familiar to the tradition. But before we get to verse 16, we should pause to hear more precisely the rest of verse 15. If Psalm 18:19 can provide euphony in verbs, Job 35:15 does that for nouns: ani/oniy (77x/36x respectively) are words to describe the “poor/those in distress." The point of 35:15a is that God delivers (chalats) the poor (ani) in or through their distress (oniy). The preposition is important. For Elihu it is through or in the experience of distress that deliverance happens. If we read the preposition be/buh as “through,” then we have the eye-catching idea that deliverance comes through distress. Distress, then, rather than something to be seen as an unwelcome intruder into our lives, becomes a means by which God’s deliverance comes. Distress itself becomes the vehicle for deliverance.
Lest we miss the power of this thought, Elihu repeats it in verse 15b: “And he opens (galah) their ears (ozen) through oppression.” We have seen the precise phrase “opening the ears” just five verses previously, referring to the kings (36:10), as well as in 33:16, where Elihu speaks of the way God opens the ears of humans through dreams in the night. “Oppression” has been on Elihu’s mind since he mentioned it in 35:9, though the word for “oppression” is ashuq in 35:9 and lachats in 36:15.
Elihu has now cast down the theological gauntlet—God uses the affliction of humble/poor people to deliver them. God opens the ears of these people through affliction/oppression. The reason that God opens the ears is that He is ready to become the divine teacher, to bring instruction to one’s life. Elihu then ends verse 15 poised at his most powerful point. He is now ready to turn to the means by which God is trying to communicate with Job.