Lessons from Job: Job the Poet

November 10, 2009

Part I: Job’s Elegy on Death

Job Charcoal 1

Naked came I... PLR '99

“Every being born of a women is short-lived and full of trouble. He blossoms like a flower and withers away, fleeting as a shadow, he does not endure.” The Book of Job 14:1-2

We all know the clichés, we’ve all seen the bumper stickers: Life’s a Bitch and then You Die, You Can’t Take it With You When You Die, Two Things are Certain: Death and Taxes. Had cars existed in Job’s time, he may well have made his fortune coining cute phrases that speak a deeper, even if unpleasant, truth. Fortunately for us, Job speaks his truth considerably more eloquently than a bumper sticker; however, often his truth is just as unpleasant to hear. All the chapters of The Book of Job possess stunning imagery; each speaker uses poignant similes and metaphors to convey his ideas, but two chapters can be pulled out from the text and each stand alone as a complete poem. The first is Chapter 14. This is a speech Job gives at the end of the first cycle of debates with his friends. Fair warning: it is pretty depressing. It is not something you would expect to hear from a deacon at your church, or a man who has been a strong tower of security for many others, certainly not from someone considered to be the most righteous man on earth. Everything Job proclaims has truth to it, but we must consider Job’s state of mind when he makes this speech. He had lost every material possession and all of his kids in disaster; his wife has given up on him; his body is wracked with feverish pain; his skin is so bad it is constantly running with sores, so it is peeling off, and what is left is blackened with disease; he is coughing up blood and phlegm on a regular basis; he has chronic diarrhea, and now his friends who had come to comfort him have taken a round of verbal punches against his integrity. Job is depressed; so while we can accept everything he says in this portion of scripture as true, standing alone, it lacks the fullness of truth.
The Book of Job Chapter 14 can almost be considered the abridged version of Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon makes the argument that without faith in God, life is completely pointless and meaningless. Job comes to the same conclusion in this speech, yet his statement of hope is very short and easy to miss in the midst of Job‘s despair; however, it is very clear, and it speaks volumes about his faith in God. Let’s begin by examining the first six verses:

1Every being born of a women is short-lived and full of trouble.
2He blossoms like a flower and withers away;
fleeting as a shadow, he does not endure;
he is like a wineskin that perishes,
or a garment that moths have eaten.
3It is on such a creature you fix your eyes,
and bring him into court before you!
4Who can produce pure out of unclean? No one.
5Truly the days of such a one’s life are determined,
and the number of his months is known to you;
you have laid down a limit which cannot be exceeded.
6Look away from him therefore and leave him
to count off the hours like a hired labourer.

Job’s statement is very poetic, but what he’s really saying in verses 1-2 is literally, life’s a bitch and then you die! Job knows he has done everything humanly possible to please God, but he now, in verses 3-4, realizes that it can never be enough. If God was really to call us to account for our actions, humans, in our fallen state, would never be able to measure up to God’s standard of righteousness. Job recognizes in verse 5 that God possesses knowledge of every choice we make, good and bad, and he knows the time we are going to die. He concludes this thought in verse 6 with an excellent simile; we’ve all watched the clock at work, observing the minutes stretching into hours as time seems to move in slow motion, until we can finally go home and rest; Job now views his life as nothing but hard labor and he just wants to die. In the next section, Job focuses on the meaninglessness of life:

7If a tree is cut down,
there is hope that it will sprout again
and fresh shoots will not fail.
8Though its root becomes old in the earth,
its stump dieing in the ground,
9yet when it scents water it may break into bud
and make new growth like a young plant.
10But when a human being dies and all his power vanishes;
he expires, and where is he then?
11As the waters of a lake dwindle,
or as a river shrinks and runs dry,
12so mortal man lies down, never to rise
until the very sky splits open.

In verses 7-9, Job explains how vegetation is able to regenerate itself through seed, and often becomes renewed through trimming and exposure to water and the elements. Even a stump that looks dead may spring back to life, but that is not the case for humans. In verses 10-11, Job states that as we turn the corner of middle age, we have nothing to look forward to but our diminishing strength and eventual demise. However, we get our first glimpse of hope from Job in verse 12; man cannot come back to life as tree might, but Job recognizes a distant time when this age will end, and perhaps a new age will begin. As we see in the next section, Job understands that while our bodies are mortal, our spirits last much longer, perhaps even forever, in the next life:

13If only you would hide me in Sheol,
conceal me until your anger is past,
and only then fix a time to recall me to mind!
14If a man dies, can he live again?
He can never be roused from this sleep.
I would not lose hope, however long my service,
waiting for my relief to come.
15You would summon me, and I would answer;
You would long to see the creature you have made…

Sheol is the name the ancient Mesopotamians called the afterlife. In most of the Old Testament whenever the after life is mentioned as Sheol, the understanding of the place is that humans will exist in a dreamlike, sleep state whether they were good or bad. With all the pain Job is experiencing, he longs for this rest in the afterlife, but, in verses 13-15, he also adds a new revelation to the understanding of Sheol. Job believes that while his current life may be full of trouble and pain, he will receive deliverance in the afterlife. He believes that God is angry at him, but he takes hope in the fact that God, as his creator, will come to show love and affection to him. Just as a parent who may be angry at their child for a time will never lose affection for that child and will seek reconciliation, so Job will find relief and be able to spend eternity with his God in communion and in peace. Yet for now, he is still in the midst of pain and confusion, and he turns again to the meaninglessness of life:

16…whereas now you count my every step,
watching all my errant course.
17Every offense of mine is stored in your bag,
where you keep my iniquity under your seal.
18Yet as a falling mountainside is swept away,
and a rock is dislodged from its place,
19as water wears away stone,
and a cloudburst scours the soil from the land,
so you have wiped the hope of frail man;
20finally you overpower him, and he is gone;
with changed appearance he is banished from your sight.
21His sons may rise to honor, but he is unaware of it;
they may sink into obscurity, but he knows it not.
22His kinsfolk are grieved for him
and his slaves morn his loss.

Job laments in these last verses, 16-22, that this life is pointless. Whatever good you do is still overshadowed by your sin. God sees it all, it cannot be hidden from him, and no matter what we do in this life, it will all be forgotten anyway. No matter what accomplishments you make: you, your work, your descendants, and all memory of anything will be wiped away into obscurity. Pretty dismal, but even though these statements can be considered true, and even though Job catches on to a deeper understanding of eternity than most in his time had, in his despair, he is still lacking revelation. Let’s look at the life you are living right now. True, unless you are George Washington or The Beatles, no one in 100 years will probably remember that you existed. But consider the consequences of your choices on this earth. If you were all about selfishness and made choices that only helped yourself, and in the fallout caused harm to others, you have left a negative legacy on this earth, you made it a bit more shitty than it would have been otherwise. On the flip side, if you were all about giving and serving, and you made choices that benefit others as much as they would you, then you have left a positive legacy on this earth, and you made it a bit more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise. Imagine if we humans were more selfless than we are selfish; imagine the kind of world we have the potential to possess if it wasn’t always about me, me, and me. So even if we leave the idea of rewards and punishments in the afterlife out of it, we see that our choices we make in life leave consequences that span the ages, and even have the potential to last into eternity. Additionally, even though Job wasn’t being punished for his sin, he did have it right when he laments that no human is righteous enough for God. However, God, in his love for us and his desire to be with us, did provide a way for us to be redeemed, and even though Job probably was not aware of the fullness of his own words, we can see the foreshadowing of God’s plan to bring a Savoir to the world, part of this foreshadowing is Job‘s statement of faith from this speech that he will have deliverance in the afterlife, but there is stronger evidence of prophecy in The Book of Job in other places. In a later Post we will look at the evidence of Jesus in The Book of Job.

  • All scripture references are from The Oxford Study Bible: Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha.

Peter L Richardson

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One Response to “Lessons from Job: Job the Poet”

  1. peterrock12 Says:

    Job is pretty depressed, but he manages to speak some profound truths in his statement about life and death. What about you? How do you feel about life and death? Is there meaning to it all? Is there a purpose in what we do? Do you believe there is an afterlife? If so, does the afterlife have anything to do with this present age?


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