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65. Job 7:7-10, Life as a Vanishing Breath
7 “Remember that my life is a breath;
my eye will never again see good.
8 The eye that beholds me will see me no more;
while your eyes are upon me, I shall be gone.
9 As the cloud fades and vanishes,
so those who go down to Sheol do not come up;
10 they return no more to their houses,
nor do their places know them any more.
This passage is so clear and so hopeless. No substitute translation is needed, as the NRSV well captures the transience, futility, and flimsiness of Job’s life. Later in the chapter I will argue that Job turns upside down the meaning of one of the most beloved Psalms (Psalm 8:4 is commented upon in Job 7:17); but here in verse 7 we see Job overturning the meaning of Psalm 27:13. He often looks at the Scripture as a conversation partner, even though he frequently disagrees with this partner.
With glowing confidence the Psalmist had said, “I believe I will look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (27:13). Note the contrast with this passage. Job will never again “see” (raah) “good” (tob), while the Psalmist knows that he will “see” (raah) the “good/goodness” (tob) of the Lord. More specifically, Job says that he knows his “life” (chai) is a mere breath; the Psalmist knows that he will see God’s goodness in the land of “life” (chai). Nine words in Job 7:7; seven in Psalm 27:13, yet the three overlapping words are crucial, pointing precisely to the opposite conclusion. There is brimming optimism for the Psalmist, but utter despair for Job, with the same words fueling the opposing quests.
Job will not only show his adeptness at questioning the wisdom tradition at its most bold assertion (that God will make straight the paths of the one trusting God—Proverbs 3:5-6), but also in taking beloved Psalms and inverting their meaning. Basically he is saying 'The Scriptures don’t work for me.' This will be a sort of prelude to the big question: ‘Does the concept of serving this God or worshipping this God really work for me?’
Verse 7 also provides some linguistic similarities to one of the great historical Psalms of Israel: Psalm 78. There it says, “(God) remembered (zakar) that they were mere flesh, a breath (ruach) that passes away and doesn’t (lo) return” (shub, v 39). Remarkably, these four emphasized words are also in Job 7:7, but none of the three is also in Psalm 27:13. It is almost as if Job has the text of the “proto-Psalms” so clearly in his mind that he can just run down the scroll in mind and find inspiration for what he wants to say. After the overlaps with Psalm 27:13 and 78:39, Job 7:7 has only two words that aren’t in either place: the conjunction “that” (kiy) and “eyes” (ayin). If asked about the origins of his thought in 7:7, Job could honestly say that they were totally scriptural.
One other parallel from the Psalms is too precious to miss. In Psalm 102 we have idea parallelism rather than linguistic overlap, though there is one striking verbal similarity with Job 7:2. Ps 102 is a Psalm that stresses the Psalmist’s stark aloneness. In verse 11 the author says, “My days are as the shadow (tsel) that stretches out, and I dry up like the grass.” Who can’t hear an echo of Job 7:7 and especially Job 7:2, where the servant longs for the tsel (shadow) of death?
We aren’t sure whom Job is addressing in the first word of 7:7. Whom is he calling on to “remember?” Is this a plaintive appeal to God or to the friends? Perhaps it addresses both. But the word “remember” (zakar) also begins an impassioned plea in 10:9, where Job wants God to “remember” that God has made him like clay and that He will return (shub, as in 7:7) Job to the dust (aphar, same word as in 7:5). Job also expresses a similar idea in 9:25, “My days are swifter (using qalah, as in 7:6) than a runner; they flee away and do not see (raah) good (tob).”The repeated mention of the evanescent character of Job’s days and that he will not “see good” adds a deeply depressive tone to his already sad words. But by repeating and slightly varying his words from speech to speech, with the image of a fleeing runner rather than a weaver’s shuttle capturing the evanescence in 9:25, Job shows that not only can he speak to the Psalms, but he can speak to himself. Ultimately Job will become his own most engaging conversation partner, with the Scriptures as the force helping him to say the opposite of their hopeful message.
There is little thought development in verses 8-10. Verse 8: “The eye of the one that looks at me will not closely regard me (shur) any longer; your eyes are upon me, but I will no longer be.” There is some question whether Job is dividing his onlookers into two groups: the friends (first clause) and God (second clause), but nothing seems to hang on the answer. The verse simply reinforces the preceding thought. Job is rapidly fading away and he shall “no longer be.” The haunting finality of those words is repeated in the final word of this speech: “You will diligently search for me, but I will no longer be” (7:21).
Two other verbal points from verse 8 should be noted. First, the verb shur (16x) carries the meaning of “closely observe” or “regard with watchful care.” Job almost owns the verb, with ten of its appearances in his 42 chapters. Six of these ten are in Elihu’s mouth—and Elihu likes to pull out the verbal stops to make sure that the words that burst from him (see Job 32:18-19) come out in the right way. Job also uses the word in 17:15 similarly to 7:8. “If I say to the Pit, ‘You are my father’ and to the worm (rimmah, the same word of the object that crawls on him in 7:5), ‘You are my mother and my sister,’ where then is my hope, and as for my hope, who will really regard it closely (shur)?” 17:14-15.
Then, we note the threefold appearance of “eyes” (ayin) in verses 7-8. There will be no good in Job’s “eyes” or in the “eyes” of anyone else. Job perhaps uses the terminology of seeing here because of his underlying theological concern as the story unfolds. Job just can’t believe that God doesn’t have eyes to see his distress. He might as well get all the references in to eyes that one can, for soon no one will be looking at him, and his eyes will be closed in death.
Verse 9-10 are of a piece, beautifully expressing the growing hopelessness of Job. Job has just said that his days come to an end (kalah) without hope (7:6). He resurrects the word for dying or coming to an end in the opening word of verse 9. Literally we have, “Fading/dying/disappearing/being complete (kalah) is the cloud and it walks; so the one going down to Sheol does not come up.” We have two kinds of movement here—the movement from visibility to invisibility of clouds; and the downward, but not upward, movement of the one who dies. More precisely, even though the cloud may simply disappear or fade away, it actually “walks” here (halak); we are probably to imagine it moving horizontally across the sky until it disappears from view. So, the movements are horizontal and vertical here. Clouds go horizontally; bodies go vertically. But the chilling thought is that the one descending to Sheol won’t rise.
Job seems to be fascinated with the idea of Sheol, that shadowy region of the dead. It appears, appropriately, 66x in the Bible, with eight of them in Job. All eight of its appearances are put in Job’s mouth. Sometimes he can look to it hopelessly as his future home (17:13), but in one fantastic passage he asks God to hide him there temporarily until the divine wrath has subsided. Then, God could recall Job and reestablish their now-frayed relationship (14:13). But in 7:9 it is the place of permanent hopelessness after death. He “descends” there (yarad) never to “arise” (alah). The one descending to Sheol never again returns to his home. “His place shall not know him (nakar, the familiar verb for “recognize”) again” (v 10). Eliphaz had used the word naveh twice to describe the “habitation” or “domain” of the wicked person or of Job (5:3, 24); Bildad will also use the word twice (8:6; 18:15). Job himself never uses naveh. He does, however, use beth and maqomin 7:10 to describe a home. The former is the typical word for “house” while the latter is best rendered “place” (he has used maqom already in this way in 6:17).
Finally, there is another brief reference to another Psalm. Verse 10b, which concludes the pessimistic picture of life drawn in 7:7-10, is repeated in Psalm 103:16. Though the latter Psalm also brims with optimism and with confidence that a good God orders and rules the universe, it also recognizes the ephemeral nature of humans. God knows our frame and remembers that we are dust (103:14). Our days are like grass, quickly passing away (103:15). Finally, the wind passes over people and they are gone and, in words identical to Job 10:7b, “And their place knows them now more.” In Job this is a sign of hopelessness, while Psalm 103 incorporates this into a greater picture of God’s care for the world.