Job 23:1-9, 16-17
The context for any passage in the book of Job has to begin with chapter 1, which establishes Job’s excellent character (1:1-5), acknowledged even by God (1:8). But God permitted “the satan,” one of the heavenly minions, to test Job by taking away his wealth, his family (1:13-21), and finally his health (2:1-10).
NOTE: The satan of the book of Job is not the same as the diabolical Satan of the New Testament. The satan of the book of Job is one of the heavenly minions.
The intervening chapters (2:11 – 22:30) are composed largely of conversations between Job and his friends (although in chapter 5 God speaks). The pattern throughout those chapters is that Job’s friends, who are convinced that God prospers the innocent and punishes the guilty, try to convince Job that he must be guilty of some terrible sin and should repent. Job, however, refuses to acknowledge his sin, because he believes that he is innocent—a fact that we, as the readers of the first chapter, know to be true.
The immediate context for chapter 23 is the preceding chapter where Eliphaz tries to persuade Job that Job’s wickedness is great (22:5). Eliphaz said, “Acquaint yourself with him, now, and be at peace” (22:21)—by which he meant that Job should acknowledge his guilt. Eliphaz then promised, “If you return to the Almighty, you shall be built up” (22:23a). That promise must have tempted Job mightily, because he once lived a wonderful life but has been reduced to a terrible life. But Job will not compromise his integrity by confessing to sins that he has not committed.
JOB 23:1-2. TODAY MY COMPLAINT IS REBELLIOUS
1Then Job answered,
2“Even today my complaint is rebellious (Hebrew: meri).
His hand is heavy in spite of my groaning.”
“Then Job answered” (v. 1). Job answered Eliphaz, who has been trying to persuade Job to confess his guilt and return to God.
“Even today my complaint is rebellious” (meri) (v. 2a). It is no wonder that Job feels bitter. He has been wronged, and terribly so. He has suffered not only the loss of his wealth and his family, but he has also been afflicted by some sort of terrible skin disease—possibly boils—that cover his body from head to toe. His physical misery must be almost beyond measure.
Job has cause to be bitter toward his friends, who keep insisting that he must surely be guilty of some terrible sin. Job believes, rightly, that his friends are wrong, but they refuse to believe him. Any person suffering the severe emotional and physical distress that Job is experiencing should have our deepest sympathy—but “when Job needed friends, what he got was theologians” (Tucker, 435).
Job also has cause to be bitter toward God, who permitted this grave injustice.
An alternate translation for meri is “bitter.” It is possible that this verse is speaking of Job’s bitterness rather than his rebelliousness. However, rebellious is an appropriate translation, given the context. Job has defied his friends as they tried to persuade him to acknowledge his guilt. As we shall see, Job will also seek to confront God so that he might argue his case and receive vindication. That could also be considered a form of defiance.
“His hand is heavy in spite of my groaning” (v. 2b). God’s hand is heavy upon Job—and God has not seen fit to lighten his grip on Job even though Job is groaning in pain.
Balentine translates this “Job’s hand” rather than “his hand” (Balentine, 361, 374), but the context favors “his hand,” meaning “God’s hand.”
JOB 23:3-5. OH THAT I KNEW WHERE I MIGHT FIND HIM
3“Oh that I knew where I might find him!
That I might come even to his seat!
4 I would set my cause (Hebrew: mis∙pat) in order before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
5 I would know the words which he would answer me,
and understand what he would tell me.”
“Oh that I knew where I might find him! That I might come even to his seat” (v. 3). Surprisingly, Job has not lost confidence either in his own innocence or in God’s justice. He is convinced that he could persuade God of Job’s innocence if he could only speak to him face-to-face—man-to-God. Job proclaims boldly that he would even go to God’s dwelling—visit God in his heavenly realm—stand before God’s throne. He would go to any length to visit God, but he doesn’t know where to start—doesn’t know where to find God.
“I would set my cause (mis∙pat) in order before him, and fill my mouth with arguments” (v. 4). The word mis∙pat is often translated “justice,” but its meaning is dependent on the context. In this context, Job is talking about presenting his case to God—his legal case—the arguments in his behalf—the evidence in his favor.
Most of us would prefer not to go to court because, even if we were certain of our innocence, we could not be certain that a judge or jury would make the right decision. However, Job wants his day in court, because: (1) He has nothing to lose. Things are as bad for him as they could be. (2) He believes both in the rightness of his cause and the fairness of his God.
“I would know the words which he would answer me, and understand what he would tell me” (v. 5). Job seeks not only to present his case, but also to listen to what the Lord has to say. He understands that he doesn’t know everything—and has the faith to believe that the Lord does know everything. Job wants to speak—to present his case—but he also wants to enter into dialogue with the Lord—to hear what the Lord has to say—to receive the illumination that can come only from the Lord.
JOB 23:6-7. AN UPRIGHT PERSON MIGHT REASON WITH HIM
6“Would he contend (Hebrew: riyb) with me in the greatness of his power?
No, but he would listen to me.
7There the upright might reason with him,
so I should be delivered forever from my judge.”
“Would he contend (riyb) with me in the greatness of his power?” (v. 6a). The Hebrew word riyb continues the emphasis on legal terminology. It means “to conduct a lawsuit or legal case and all that it involves” (Baker & Carpenter, 1051).
This is the first hint of doubt in this text. Job is aware that he is asking to negotiate, not with a mere king, but with the Lord. He knows that the Lord can defeat him in a debate or squash him like a bug. For just a moment, Job asks whether he has gone too far—whether he would put himself in mortal jeopardy by initiating a dialogue with the Lord.
“No, but he would listen to me” (v. 6b). But Job concludes that the Lord will not take advantage of his great power. Job believes that the Lord will give him a chance to speak, and will listen carefully to what Job says. He believes that the Lord will not be bent on winning the argument, but will instead want to rectify any injustice that Job might have experienced.
“There the upright might reason with him, so I should be delivered forever from my judge” (v. 7). Job believes that any upright person can reason with the Lord and that the Lord will happily acquit any upright person. He further believes that he is an upright person, so he is confident that he can reason with the Lord and that the Lord will acquit him.
JOB 23:8-9. HE IS NOT THERE—I CAN’T SEE HIM
8“If I go east, he is not there;
if west, I can’t find him;
9He works to the north, but I can’t see him.
He turns south, but I can’t catch a glimpse of him.”
“If I go east, he is not there; if west, I can’t find him” (v. 8). “The points forward, behind, left, and right are based on an eastward orientation” (Hartley, 340). Forward would be east, on the other side of the Jordan River. Backward would be west—the Mediterranean Sea. Job can’t find the Lord in either of those directions.
“He works to the north, but I can’t see him. He turns south, but I can’t catch a glimpse of him” (v. 9). The left would be north, in the direction of Syria. The right would be south, in the direction of Egypt.
Job says that he has looked in all four directions, but has been unable to find the Lord. His experience has been quite different from that of the Psalmist, who asked, “Where could I go from your Spirit? Or where could I flee from your presence? If I ascend up into heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there” (Psalm 139:7-8).
We might be more inclined to understand Job’s complaint than the Psalmist’s assurance, because most of us have wondered if the Lord hears our prayers. Most of us have felt very alone during troubled periods of our lives.
JOB 23:10-15. BUT HE KNOWS THE WAY THAT I TAKE
10“But he knows the way that I take.
When he has tried me, I shall come forth like gold.
11My foot has held fast to his steps.
I have kept his way, and not turned aside.
12 I haven’t gone back from the commandment of his lips.
I have treasured up the words of his mouth more than my necessary food.
13But he stands alone, and who can oppose him?
What his soul desires, even that he does.
14For he performs that which is appointed for me.
Many such things are with him.
15Therefore I am terrified at his presence.
When I consider, I am afraid of him.”
The verses are not included in the lectionary, and were omitted to create a more compact reading. However, the preacher needs to be aware of them, and should include them in the reading if he/she is basing the sermon on this text. Murphy goes so far as to pronounce the omission of these verses as “fatal” (Murphy, 266).
“But he knows the way that I take” (v. 10a). The Lord knows the paths that Job takes, so the Lord also knows the paths that Job has taken in the past. The Lord knows Job’s innocence or guilt.
“When he has tried me, I shall come forth like gold” (v. 10b). Job is confident that he is not guilty—and that he will survive testing like gold (v. 10b). There are various tests for gold. One involves melting the gold so that the impurities in the gold (which would be lighter than gold) would separate from the gold. This kind of test requires a very hot fire, and Job surely feels that he has been experiencing a hot-fire test with the loss of his wealth, family, and health.
“My foot has held fast to his steps. I have kept his way, and not turned aside” (v. 11). The picture that comes to mind is that of a boy following his father—trying hard to put his feet in his father’s footsteps. Job claims that he has been doing that with the Lord’s footsteps. He has deliberately followed in the way that the Lord led him, and has not succumbed to the temptation to turn to one side or the other. We know that Job is telling the truth, because the Lord has already borne testimony to Job’s faithfulness (1:8).
“I haven’t gone back from the commandment of his lips. I have treasured up the words of his mouth more than my necessary food” (v. 12). Earlier, Eliphaz advised Job, “Please receive instruction from his (Lord’s) mouth, and lay up his words in your heart” (22:22). Now Job says that he has done that. Not only has he observed the Lord’s commandments, but he has embraced them—treasured them in his bosom—incorporated them into his innermost being.
“But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? What his soul desires, even that he does” (v. 13). But now Job experiences another moment of doubt, because he knows that the Lord stands above all and does whatever he wants. So, while Job wants to go into God’s presence to appeal his case, he is anxious. Who is Job to change the Lord’s mind? Who is Job to persuade the Lord to rectify the injustice that he has experienced.
“For he performs that which is appointed for me. Many such things are with him” (v. 14). Job knows that he is completely at the Lord’s mercy. He also senses that the Lord must have given his consent for Job’s suffering. Since his current suffering was unjust, Job understands that there might be more suffering in his future.
“Therefore I am terrified at his presence; when I consider, I am in dread of him” (v. 15). Job’s moment of doubt morphs into a moment of terror—the kind of terror that comes from dealing with a world that doesn’t make sense—the kind of terror that comes from dealing with overwhelming power. While a moment ago Job expressed great confidence in the rightness of his cause and the Lord’s sense of justice, now he is not so sure. He has experienced suffering that he didn’t deserve, so it would seem quite possible that his future will be as unfair as his present. The Lord’s awesome power has the potential to be deadly.
JOB 23:16-17. GOD HAS MADE MY HEART FAINT
16“For God has made my heart faint.
The Almighty has terrified me.
17Because I was not cut off before the darkness,
neither did he cover the thick darkness from my face.”
“For God has made my heart faint. The Almighty has terrified me” (v. 16). Job lays the responsibility for his terror at the Lord’s feet. In one sense, he is right. Although he doesn’t know the full story behind his suffering, he knows that he is suffering unjustly. That is frightening, because it means that he is living in a world that he cannot understand—and worshiping a God whom he cannot fully comprehend.
But in another sense, Job is responsible for his terror. Earlier he expressed faith in his innocence and the Lord’s justice. When he was thinking that way, he was not frightened. It was when his faith wavered that he became afraid. If he can recover his faith, his terror will vanish.
“Because I was not cut off before the darkness, neither did he cover the thick darkness from my face” (v. 17). The Hebrew for verse 17a admits to more than one possible meaning. The NIV says, “Yet I am not silenced by the darkness.” The NRSV suggests that Job has given up and wants the world to open up and swallow him—a feeling that most of us have experienced at some time or another. But the NIV leads us in the opposite direction, suggesting that Job still has a defiant spirit that refuses to be silenced, even though Job might be afraid.
Scholars differ on this verse, because the original Hebrew would allow either of the above translations. The context doesn’t settle the matter either. But the preponderance of scholarly opinion seems to favor the NIV translation, which has Job standing tall and defiant to the end (Newsome, 543; Balentine, 366; Alden, 243).
Chapter 24 is not part of this reading, but the preacher needs to be aware of it. In that chapter, Job complains of wicked people who cheat and steal and take advantage of helpless people—but the Almighty seems not to hold them accountable. Where is the justice? Why does God allow such things? Good questions!
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Alden, Robert L., New American Commentary: Job, Vol. 11 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
Andersen, Francis I., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Job, Vol. 13 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, no date)
Balentine, Samuel E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Job (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2006
Hartley, John E., New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Job (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988)
Janzen, J. Gerald, Interpretation Commentary: Job (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985)
McKenna, David L., The Preacher’s Commentary: Job (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986)
Murphy, Roland E., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Newsom, Carol A., The New Interpreters Bible: Job, Psalms, and 1 & 2 Maccabees, Vol. IV (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Newsome, James D., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Wilson, Gerald H., New International Biblical Commentary: Job (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007)
Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan