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418. Job 42:1-6, Job’s Final Words
1 Then Job answered the Lord and said,
2 “I know that You can do all things,
And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.
3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
4 ‘Hear, now, and I will speak;
I will ask You, and You instruct me.’
5 I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear;
But now my eye sees You;
6 Therefore I retract,
And I repent in dust and ashes.”
We now move to the riveting concluding chapter of this classic work. Everyone has made his contribution to the unfolding case. Job has gotten by far the most words but, perhaps unexpectedly, Elihu comes in second. God is in the middle of the pack, but the divine words are the ones ringing in our ears as Job 42 opens. There are four things that Job says in these verses that will require attention:
a) His recognition that God can do all things (v 2);
b) His statement that there is something too wonderful in what has transpired (v 3);
c) His new perception of God, which he refers to as “seeing” (v 5) and
d) his concluding words in verse 6.
Not everything is crystal clear here, both in translation and meaning. I am reminded of the same kind of problem in what I have characterized as the theologically most rich section of Job before this (Job 19:25-27), in which I said that the three verses moved from clarity (v 25) , to sort of clear (v 26) to obscure (v 27). I see a similar movement happening in these verses, labelling the first three as clear (v 2), somewhat ambiguous (v 3), and obscure (v 5).
Verse 6, the subject of the next essay, has its own issues. I would say that it has moved from clarity to ambiguity in scholarly consensus, but I will propose a new clarity in my interpretation. My interpretation of verse 6 not only reflects what a call that “new conclusion” or “new direction” in my treatment of verse 6, but I take it one step further. A brief summary of how I developed my new understanding of Job 42 as well as my conclusions can be found in sections 64-69 of my When Leaving God is a Good Choice: Re-reading the Book of Job (Inkwater, 2020).
With that as a framework, let’s look in this essay at the first three of Job’s statements in 42:1-5. Before even doing that, however, we might first note an interesting and unique opening to the words in verse 1. Normally we simply have the speaker “answering” (e.g., Job 12:1; 15:1; 18:1) or, in a few of the later chapters, “picking up his discourse and saying” (e.g., Job 27:1; 36:1) or “answering and saying” (e.g., Job 34:1; 35:1), but 42:1 is the only place where someone is said explicitly to be addressing another of the speakers.
“Job answered the Lord and said."
One of the ironies in this brief verse, as well as God’s address later to Eliphaz (v 7) is that the book closes by everyone seemingly acknowledging everyone else except the one who has given the most important insight for Job—Elihu. Job never addresses or answers him; God doesn’t mention Elihu at all in Job 42. Many Job scholars have an explanation for that—Elihu’s words are a “later insertion” into the story, but the theological and literary task is to make sense of the book as we have it, though recognizing the possible stages of composition of the narrative. I think we may look at this ignoring of Elihu as one of the final “destabilizations” of the Book of Job, where the crucial speaker is seemingly ignored by everyone.
Before looking at Job’s statements in this section, we ought to note the fact that Job speaks when he says a few chapters previously that he would place his hand on his mouth, speaking no more (40:5). There is no explanation for why Job speaks again in Job 42, but a sufficient one for me is that Job perceives that God is finished speaking. In Job 40, God was still getting warmed up, before dilating extensively on Behemoth and Leviathan. Job may have seen the divine freight train coming at him then and decided that shutting up was the best thing to do.
a) Let’s look at Job’s four statements in this section. First, he says (v 2), literally,
“I know that all things you are able, and that no plan of yours is impossible.”
We are immediately plunged back into the reality of knowledge here (yada is verb; daath is noun). Job uses the verb once in verse 2 and then verb and corresponding noun in verse 3. In addition, Job adds the distinctive wisdom tradition verb bin (to understand/discern) in verse 3. Though the power of God is at issue here, the larger issue behind the final words will be one of knowledge and especially what Job knows and doesn’t know.
In this case he says that God can do all things, though the common verb for “doing” (asah) is replaced here by the not-as-common yakol, “to be able.” Though the Book of Job uses yakol 4x, it has no special significance in the book. The word rendered here “impossible,” translated by others as “can’t be thwarted” (NRSV; NASB; Clines) or “be withheld” is batsar (38x), whose first appearance gives a clear indication of impossibility (Genesis 11:6), but often is rendered as “fortified” (referring to a wall in Isaiah 22:10 or a city in Nehemiah 9:25). God’s “plans” are the divine mezimmah (19x), derived from the verb zaman, which means “to consider/purpose/devise.” In the Psalms mezimmah has a negative connotation, referring to the "plotting" or "mischievous devices: of bad people (10:2; 21:11). One can even read its other appearance in Job (21:27) in that light. Yet, elsewhere in the wisdom tradition, Proverbs especially, it refers to one's plans that show discretion or good judgment (Proverbs 1:4; 2:11, etc). That is the meaning of mezimmah that fits best in Job 42:2.
Job recognizes the great power of God. God can do all things. But rather than seeing this as any kind of confession or recognition of something new, it simply echoes what Job has believed all along and which he explicitly states in 9:10 and affirms throughout Job 26. Job has never denied the basic affirmation of the divine power; on the contrary, this affirmation is one of the things that makes his quest frustrating. God seems to have all the power and is nowhere to be found!
Verse 2, then, provides a clear expression of Job’s long-time belief. We wish we could have heard the tone of Job’s statement in verse 2. We don’t know if it is said as a prelude to abject confusion or as a matter-of-fact declaration of what Job has believed all along. In any case, it is not as dramatic a statement as many commentators would assume. It is as if Job wants to start with "common ground" with God before taking his own approach, ultimately in 42:6.
b) Job’s second statement, in verse 3, leads us into potential unclarity. The first few words quote God's statement from 38:2, changing one word. Then, the second line is often translated as presented by the NASB, that is, that Job recognizes that perhaps because of the divine immensity he has been uttering things beyond his knowledge. Clines, ever-conscious of the legal implications of the proceedings, decides to render the middle part of verse 3:
“To be sure, I made my depositions without understanding.”
What is certainly in view here is Job’s new awareness that he didn’t understand a lot of things when he was making his case. That is almost always the case in a legal proceeding. Lawsuits certainly allow the plaintiff to state the facts, as s/he sees them, in a fashion most favorable to them but lawsuits often end up teaching all parties many new things. Everyone thinks they control the legal process until the process actually is joined. Then something new and different happens.
The same can be said here. Job confidently assembled his case, but then God spoke to him in a way fully unexpected, both by him and Elihu. Job will certainly end up seeing things differently and this verse is an indication of that. But the two steps that I just mentioned, that of assembling the case and hearing God speak, might actually be represented in the language of verse 3b. If this is the case, Job would only be recognizing his lack of understanding of the divine words in 38-41, rather than the inadequacy of his pleadings throughout the rest of the book. That is how I proposed to read it in my earlier book and I will also read it here. That is, I see Job’s words in verse 3b, after the near quotation of God’s earlier words, as describing the two steps of the lawsuit to date. That they may also have reference to Job’s learning some new things in the process is no doubt true, but here is my rendering:
“Therefore I spoke/uttered, and I didn’t understand—those things were too wonderful/difficult for me, and I didn’t know (them).”
Rather than looking at the second section of 42:3 as having Job say that he uttered what he didn’t understand, though I think Job may also be implying that, I see Job as saying that “I spoke” (i.e., I put together and presented my case), and then “I didn’t understand.” It really doesn’t say “I spoke what I didn’t understand.” It is either “I spoke, and I didn’t understand” or “I spoke, but I didn’t understand.” But when did he not understand? When God started speaking in Job 38. God began to speak “wonderful/difficult” things, things that were too difficult for Job. He, as God surmised during the blistering interrogation, simply didn’t know them.
Thus I see verse 3, which begins our process into unclarity, as potentially having two meanings. Job is either admitting that he said things that went far beyond his knowledge (which is often the case in a lawsuit) or is laying out in brief form the two steps of the case, where he spoke (in Job 3-31) but then he didn’t understand (in Job 38-41). The author of the Book of Job is probably chuckling at us now as we struggle to make sense of this ambiguous verse.
Under any reading of verse 3, however, Job isn’t confessing sin or shortcoming. At the most he is just admitting something he may have known all along but became “obscured” for him in the “blinding clarity” of his lawsuit, that God is far greater and more complex than he could ever have imagined. At the least Job isn’t admitting anything here, but just describing the two stages of the lawsuit that have been presented: I spoke and God spoke (things I didn’t understand).
c) But now that we have gone from clarity (verse 2) to possible ambiguity (verse 3), we ought to be prepared for point three, an opaque statement, which we get in verse 5. Job says,
“With respect to the hearing of the ear, I have heard you; and now my eyes see you.
What can this mean? Does it refer to a contrast between his former life, where he had to be content with “hearing” things about God, because that was the way that wisdom was transmitted, and his newfound “seeing” God, perhaps in the encounter here in Job 38-41? This doesn’t seem right for two reasons. First, the language of the text is that Job formerly heard God and not heard about God. That is, he can’t really be speaking about the way he had formerly learned of God, if that learning was captured in the wisdom tradition method of presentation and mastery of principles of life. He says that he “heard” God. Is he referring to a special divine communication he received in his earlier days? We never have any indication of that. Eliphaz, through his vision in 4:12-16, and Elihu, through his confidence of the “spirit” in him in 32:8, may be said to have claimed a greater “hearing” relationship with God than Job ever did.
Second, there is no indication that Job has “seen” God in Job 38-41, whatever that might mean. Earlier, in the confusing concluding verse in the Redeemer passage (19:25-27) Job had thrice mentioned that he would see God. Does the “hearing” of God's words in Job 38-41 then constitute the “seeing” of God that is spoken of both in 19:26-27 and 42:5? That would be strange. I have to conclude at this point, in line with the Joban method of clear, to ambiguous, to opaque, that we have a fully opaque verse here. Even if we think that it relates somehow to what has just happened in Job 38-41, we have no reason to believe that 42:5 is anything like a confession, and we have a difficult time understanding how “hearing” God speak in 38-41 is actually “seeing” God. At most it can point to a new manner or vehicle of knowledge of God, but one that is left tantalizingly unclear to us.
Thus far, then, we have Job: a) recognizing a truth he has confessed all along (that God is great and can do anything); b) speaking ambiguous words that can either mean that he didn’t know everything he was getting into as he presented his case (a common experience of litigants), or that he was simply rehearsing the two steps of the case; and c) being obscure and eluding our understanding. Now that he has done all these things, he presents his final words in verse 6.