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371. Job 36:17, The Key, Essay Two
17 “But you were full of judgment on the wicked;
Judgment and justice take hold of you.
But Elihu does more than simply give Job an interpretation of how God is trying to communicate to Job through his pain (vv 15-16). He also provides Job an interpretation of what he, Job, is doing now (v 17). Instead of embracing the God who allures to freedom and sets the table with abundance, Job is pursuing a lawsuit. Instead of listening, Job is fighting. Let’s give a literal rendering of 36:17 and then interpret it:
“Judgment of evil/the wicked fills you; judgment and justice lays hold of you.”
Job 36:17 is only six words in Hebrew and is neatly divided into two three-word phrases. One of the verbs (male, “to fill”) has just been used in the previous verse to describe the fulness or abundance on the table. Now, Elihu says that Job is full of something else. What that “something else” is is a bit unclear. What does it mean that the “you are full of the judgment of the wicked” or “you are full of judgment due to the wicked”?
Some have rendered it, “You are obsessed with the case of the wicked.” I think its interpretation makes most sense when we connect it with the second phrase in the verse. There is both a broad and very precise point that can be made. The broad point is that Job has “law” or “legality” or “judgment” on the brain. Ever since he framed his approach to God in terms of a legal case (13:18), Job has been cultivating that case, refining it, finding witnesses for himself (he has, as we know, a witness in heaven), and then justifying his conduct past and present (Job 29-31). He is acting like a lawyer, finding fault with friends, finding reasons for suing a person (God), finding dissatisfaction wherever he turns.
Elihu has picked up on that point. Job is obsessed with the concept of law. But then, more specifically, he says, “Justice and judgment (mishpat, the same word used by Job to characterize his “case” in 13:18) lay hold of you.” The verb rendered “lay hold of” is tamak (21x), appearing only here in Job but occupying the verbal field of “grasping” (Genesis 48:17; Psalm 17:5), “holding fast” (Proverbs 3:18), “upholding” (Psalm 63:9) or “holding onto” (Amos 1:5, 8). It thus has a pretty narrow range of meanings. The very precise point is that Job’s lawsuit (mishpat) now dominates his life. Job is grasping/holding onto his case like one would a treasured child. And that comparison may be apt. Perhaps Job even looks at his legal case with as much love and commitment as he looked at his (deceased) children. He has nurtured it as a favorite child. It may function as a substitute child.
The ‘upside’ of Job’s tremendous focus and dedication is that he has framed a case that he will not abandon. The ‘downside’ of Job’s attitude is that it has so claimed his mode of thinking and his conception of reality that he is unable to imagine alternative ways of interpreting his distress. His distress must mean that God is his enemy, that God is deliberately undermining him, that God owes him an explanation of what has happened. The proper response to this, in Job’s mind, is to fight back, but with the weapons of law rather than of hand. After all, how do you attack an adversary you can’t even find?
In these three verses (36:15-17), Elihu is doing three things. He is:
1) Defining how God works in the world (leads out of distress through distress, v 15); and
2) He is explaining the mechanism of the divine work more precisely (luring into freedom and abundance, v 16); and
3) He is also telling Job why Job is unable to see this divine work (judgment and justice grasp him, v 17).
He has now given Job everything Job needs to re-conceptualize or reframe his case, if he so chooses. We never know how Job responds to these words of Elihu, since after Elihu speaks there is no Joban response; God finishes up the poetic sections with his dramatic speeches of Job 38-41. Yet I will argue below that Elihu’s words were not without effect on Job and that, really, Job’s response to God in Job 42 is best understood from the perspective that Job actually heard and internalized these words of Elihu.
This passage is such a shining example of clarity and helpfulness that one almost feels like saying to Elihu, ‘Ok, guy, shut up now. You have said everything you need to say.’ Elihu may have realized some of the truth of this because he now descends into an impenetrable thicket of meaninglessness. But as we slog through that thicket, slicing our hands and garments along the way, we never forget the blinding clarity and beautiful interpretive skills of Elihu in 36:15-17.