Job 23:1-17

   Print this page

Job 23:1-17

Background to the Book of Job

The book of Job was of immense importance to me when first I studied it as student. It contains wonderful poetry, marvellous rhetorical questions to Job and is unique in the way the question about suffering is addressed within the book. It begins and ends with prose writing (Job 1-2 and 42:7-17) with Job 1-2 setting the scene for the following chapters. The prose gives us information about Job, his character, family and social circumstances and takes us into the heavenly realm for the dialogue between God and Satan. The image of a God who has to play games with Job and his family as a means of proving that Job will remain faithful even without any protection from God, doesn't sit easily with a Christian perspective. It is well to be reminded that the picture of God in the Old Testament reflects something of the world of that time as well as going beyond that view.

The understanding of suffering is tied to the idea of retribution, that is, when a person sins they will suffer the consequences, therefore if a person is suffering they must have sinned. Job is insistent that he hasn't sinned even with his horrific suffering, and his friends depicting the current thought of the time are equally sure that he must have sinned to be suffering so much. Job calls on God to vindicate him and indeed challenges God's own integrity. In the end it is the personal encounter with God which leads Job to retract his case against God (Habel 1985, 66). Job never hears of the wager with Satan nor did he ever succumb to his friends and accept their view of his suffering.

The prologue and epilogue bear characteristics of folk tales and one suggestion has been that a folk tale from a surrounding country has been used by the author of Job for his own purposes. On the other hand, Habel believes there is a continuous narrative plot and the framework should be part of a coherent whole (Habel: 1985, 25). These two points of view are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Many scholars see the Elihu speeches as later insertions that turn up suddenly in chapter 32 and disappear again after chapter 37. This may be the case, but if we deal with the book as a whole we ask questions about their role in the overall message. Habel includes them in his last movement as set out below (Habel: 1985, 70-73).

  1. Job 1:1-2:10 - God afflicts the hero - the hidden conflict
  2. Job 2:11-31:40 - the hero challenges God - the conflict explored
  3. Job 32:1 - 42:17 - God challenges the hero -the conflict resolved

It has become more frequent for scholars to view Old Testament Literature as beautifully crafted pieces of literature and in applying the tools of literary criticism realise the benefit which can help us gain a deeper understanding of the message. The author is well versed in Israelite literary traditions: speeches are shaped as disputations, rhetorical questions, legal argumentation and hymns which are all genres drawn from prophetic, wisdom and other Israelite traditions. An examination of Job reveals close parallels with a number of prophetic books especially Isaiah 40-55, Lamentations, Psalm and Proverbs. Furthermore, the author was probably familiar with the Mesopotamian tradition of the 'righteous sufferer' or other Near Eastern Wisdom literatures. 'Job' is not a typical Israelite name, and the land of Uz is located in either Edomite or Aramean territory (Berlin: NIB.1996, 328). The three friends, also come from outside of Israel. It is these facts which support the adoption of a non-Israelite story to surround the theological question of 'why the righteous suffer?'

There has been a variety of dates suggested for the Book of Job which seek to take into account what appears as very early material as well as that which is from a later period. The lack of any historical events or persons make it even more difficult to give a firm date and provenance. I think it is best to acknowledge that there is very likely to be early material in Job, but its final composition has taken place in the post-exilic period. The representation of Satan supports this view as it parallels literature from the same period (1 Chronicles 221:1, Zechariah 3:1-2). The issue of the righteous person suffering cannot be linked to a particular time or place.

Job is portrayed as quite passive in the opening prologue, but once we enter into the speeches with his friends and God we encounter quite a different person. He becomes hostile towards God, and his frustration, bitterness and anger are all present in the speeches. Notwithstanding, within the book we have the person who appears initially to accept his suffering and conversely a person who rails against his circumstances.

Context of Job 23 (What's Happening in the Literature around Job 23)

In the first two cycles of speeches the three friends have spoken of the traditional understanding of misfortune to which Job reacts vehemently. They fail as his friends and even God who is confronted by Job gives him no comfort. In the second cycle of speeches (15:1- 21:34) each of the friends describes the fate of the wicked. Again Job complains to God about what he perceives as God's criminal violence and he denounces God's injustice.

Each of the friends come with a basic premise:

  1. Eliphaz comes with the basic premise that the innocent never suffer permanently. He believes that Job is essentially innocent and consequently his suffering will be over soon (Clines:1989, xl). But even the most innocent of humans must expect to suffer deservedly.
  2. Bildad is even more convinced about the doctrine of retribution after seeing the demise of Job's family- they must have been very wicked. However, Job is still alive and there must be some hope for him
  3. Zophar has no intention of trying to lessen the sin for Job. He is guilty because he is suffering and even worse, Job refuses to acknowledge it, therefore he is a far worse sinner than anyone could have imagined. Zophar offers little hope

Chapter 23 is within the third cycle of speeches in which Eliphaz is urging Job to repent (Job 22:1-30). Job has flatly refused to accept their view of retributive suffering (Job 21) and Eliphaz tries to say that redemption is at hand if Job will only accept that he needs to repent of the sins which Eliphaz has named for him (22:6-11).

Job 24 is part of Job's speech which began in chapter 23. Job indicts God of indifference to the suffering in the world. Several instances are named by Job as concrete examples of God's apathy within the categories of exploitation of the poor and intentional lawbreakers. However, Job or another speaker suggest at the end of their speech (24:18-25) that the wicked will meet their just deserts in the end. Basically the question Job wants to know is why the faithful are unable to see the punishment of those who perpetuate injustice in the world. The answer at the end of the chapter is the wicked will suffer but it may not be discernible to those around.

Insights/Message of Job 23 (Insights from the Text & Literary Structure)

This verses are part of Job's seventh response (Job 23:1 - 24:25). He ignores his friends and their suggestion of repentance, instead he directs his speech to God. I will address the structure of the whole chapter because it needs to be viewed as a whole rather than only the verses selected in the lectionary readings.

The poetic structure is one which the second line repeats the thought of the first in slightly different words and concepts. It is both a memory aid and a means to emphasise the theological issues.

I would lay my case before him

and fill my mouth with arguments: (Job 23:4)

Job begins with a complaint (v1) which extends into his desire for a trial in which he could lay his case before God (vv.3-7), but he is unable to find God (vv.8-9). He acknowledges that God knows where he, Job, has been and Job is confident he will be proven pure (vv.10-12). Alongside his confidence, is his trepidation and respect (fear) in the knowledge that God will do as God desires (vv.13-16) and his final lament is the feeling of darkness surrounding him on all sides (v.17). Each unit is structured in that it moves from the initial desire (vv2-5, 8-9) to an affirmation about God (vv.6-7,10-14). The final consequence of these thoughts about God lead into a final acknowledgement of how Job feels (vv.15-17).

I find the use of the hand image quite fascinating in the Job material. In 2:5 the hand put forth by a deity will bring suffering, in 2:10 the hand of God brings good and evil and in 23:2 Job's hand is heavy.

This is the fifth time Job has asked for a trial before God. The first time in chapters 9-10 he is somewhat sceptical, but thinks about what he would say to God. In chapter thirteen he fluctuates between confidence and God's overwhelming power. In Job 16, he has given up on his own defence, but hopes for an advocate who will plead his case. Job 19 is similar, but at the end of the chapter Job has returned to the idea of presenting his own defence (Newsom: 1996, 508).

In spite of his desire for a trial before God Job cannot find him. The endings of each line in vv 8-9 emphasis the absence of God - he is not there; I cannot perceive him; I cannot behold him; I cannot see him.

Message / Theology in Job 23

The lament of Job which begins and ends this chapter tells us something about the state of Job's mind which he now experiences in that he feels bitter and surrounded by darkness. Today we would say he is deeply depressed. Job is fully aware of where his friends stand and yet he is still convinced he didn't deserve what has happened to him. His integrity won't allow him to repent, which was the advice of Eliphaz (Job 22). Instead, he is determined more than ever to find an audience with God. He is totally confident that God will listen to him. However, Job encounters a major problem because he cannot find God - vv.8-9 emphasise the effort he has put into this search, all to no avail.

His mind then moves to another affirmation about God and how he perceives God in his life (vv.10-14). Job is confident that God is fully aware of how he has lived his life and therefore he, Job, will ultimately be justified and come forth unblemished. However, before any of that can take place God may have a whole lot more in store for him. It is not surprising then to hear of Job's fear, as in dread, at what might happen when he comes into the presence of God.

It is a very realistic picture of a person who is confident, on one the hand about some aspects of their relationship with God, and on the other hand are aware of the mystery and what they don't know about God. This chapter continues to affirm that it is okay to rail and make complaint against God. It is one of the positive messages in the Old Testament which gives us permission to say precisely how we feel, and confidence that God will hear and understand. Almost at the same time we can feel trepidation because of the power and transcendence of God.

OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Mark 10:17-31, contains in v.19 the six commandments from the second half of the decalogue. The command to honour your father and mother has been placed last and 'defraud' has replaced covet. These commandments relate to interpersonal relationships rather the first four commandments which relate to worship of God. The man who wants to know how to inherit eternal life (M 10:17) is told that he must go beyond keeping the commandments by selling all his possessions and following Jesus. To inherit eternal life is more than keeping torah and now incorporates obedience to Jesus instead.

Resources/Worship for Job 23 (Worship and Ways to present Job 23)

It would be helpful to put Job 23 into context, especially if there had been no reference the previous week to the Job readings.

I am leaving part of Robert Frost's poem in this week's suggestions in case people have not read it before.

The speech of Job lends itself to a character story and the sermon could be a present day situation done in first person narrative.

Psalm 22:1-15 picks up parallel thoughts to those expressed in the Job reading. Unlike the positive image in Job 23:6-7, Ps 22:6 is a very negative image and one I would not wish to promote. However, it does the express the reality of how a person who has been rejected and ridiculed might feel about themselves. The images are very graphic and need to be used with care. It is worth noting that the opening words of the Psalm are those expressed by Jesus on the cross and is a very pertinent psalm for him to have quoted on the cross. It certainly expresses the deep anguish which is often felt by people in terrible situations.

Robert Frost has this wonderful poem on Job called a "Masque of Reason" which is set out in poetic dialogue. It is both very clever and brings God and Mrs Job into the picture in different ways.
This poem sets out the issues and if read well can be very interesting to listen to.

Masque of Reason: 232 - 235

This begins on page two of the poem
(The throne's a plywood flat, prefabricated,
That God pulls lightly upright on its hinges
And stands beside, supporting it in place.

Wife: Perhaps for an Olympic Tournament, Or Court of Love.

Man: More likely Royal Court Or Court of Law, and this is Judgement Day.
I trust it is. Here's where I lay aside
My varying opinion of myself
And come to rest in an official verdict.
Suffer yourself to be admired, my love,
As Waller says.

Wife: Or-not-admired. Go over
And speak to Him before the others come.
Tell Him He may remember you: you're Job.

God: Oh, I remember well: you're Job, my Patient.
How are you now? I trust you're quite recovered,
And feel no ill effects from what I gave you.

Job: Gave me in truth: I like the frank admission.
I am a name for being put upon.
But, yes, I'm fine, except for now and then
A reminiscent twinge of rheumatism.
The letup's heavenly. You perhaps will tell us
If that is all there is to be of Heaven,
Escape from so great pains of life on earth
It gives a sense of letup calculated
To last a fellow to Eternity.

God: Yes, by and by. But first a larger matter.
I've had you on my mind a thousand years
To thank you someday for the way you helped me
Establish once for all the principle
There's no connection human can reason out
Between their just deserts and what they get.
Virtue may fail and wickedness succeed.
Twas a great demonstration we put on.
I should have spoken sooner had I found
The word I wanted. You would have supposed
One who in the beginning was the Word
Would be in a position to command it.
I have to wait for words like anyone.
Too long I've owed you this apology
For the apparently unmeaning sorrow
You were afflicted with in those old days.
But it was of the essence of the trial
You shouldn't understand it at the time.
It had to seem unmeaning to have meaning.
And it came out all right. I have no doubt
You realise by now the part you played
To stultify the Deuteronomist
And change the tenor of religious thought.
My thanks are to you for releasing me
From moral bondage to the human race.
The only free will there at first was humans ........
Who could do good or evil as they chose.
I had no choice but I must follow them
With forfeits and rewards they understood -
Unless I liked to suffer loss of worship.
I had to prosper good and punish evil.
You changed all that. You set me free to reign.
You are the Emancipator of your God,
And as such I promote you to a saint.

Job: You hear Him, Thyatira: we're a saint.
Salvation in our case is retroactive.
We're saved, we're saved, whatever else it means.

Job's wife: Well, after all these years!

Job: This is my wife.

Job's: If You're the deity I assume You are
(I'd know You by Blake's picture anywhere) -

God: The best, I'm told, I ever have had taken.

Job's wife: I have a protest I would lodge with You.
I want to ask You if it stands to reason
That women prophets should be burned as witches,
Whereas men prophets are received with honour.

Job: Except in their own country, Thyatira.

God: You're not a witch?

Job's wife: No.

God: Have you ever been one?

Job: Sometimes she thinks she has and gets herself
Worked up about it. But she really hasn't -
Not in the sense of having to my knowledge
Predicted anything that came to pass.

Job's wife: The Witch of Endor was a friend of mine.

God: You wouldn't say she fared so very badly.
I noticed when she called up Samuel
His spirit had to come. Apparently
A witch was stronger than a prophet there.

Job's wife: But she was burned for witchcraft.

God: That is not
Of record in my Note Book.

Job's wife: Well, she was.
And I should like to know the reason why.

God: There you go asking for the very thing
We've just agreed I didn't have to give. -

(The throne collapses. But He picks it up
And this time locks it up and leaves it.

Where has she been the last half hour or so?
She wants to know why there is still injustice.
I answer flatly: That's the way it is,
And bid my will avouch it like Macbeth.
We may as well go back to the beginning
And look for justice in the case of Segub.

Job: Oh, Lord, let's not go back to anything.

God: Because your wife's past won't bear looking into? -
In our great moment what did you do, Madam?
What did you try to make your husband say?

Job's wife: No, let's not live things over. I don't care.
I stood by Job. I may have turned on You.
Job scratched his boils and tried to think what he
Had done or not done to or for the poor.
The test is always how we treat the poor.
It's time the poor were treated by the state
In some way not so penal as the poorhouse.
That's one thing more to put on Your agenda.
Job hadn't done a thing, poor innocent.
I told him not to scratch: it made it worse.
If I said once I said a thousand times,
Don't scratch! And when, as rotten as his skin,
His tents blew all to pieces, I picked up
Enough to build him every night a pup tent
Around him so it wouldn't touch and hurt him.
I did my wifely duty. I should tremble!
All You can seem to do is lose Your temper
When reason-hungry mortals ask for reasons.


Clines, David J.A. 'Job 1-20'. WBC 17. Dallas: Word, 1989.
Good, Edwin M. 'In Turns of Tempest: A Reading of Job with a Translation'. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press,1990.
Eaton, J H. 'Job'. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1985.
Habel, Norman C. 'The Book of Job'. OTL. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985.
Hartley, John E. 'The Book of Job'. NICOT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.
Janzen, J.Gerald. 'Job'. Interpretation. Atlanta: John Knox, 1985.
Newsom, Carol A. 'The Book of Job'. NIB Vol IV. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.
Pope, Marvin H. 'Job'. 3rd ed. AB 15. Garden City, N.Y.: doubleday, 1979

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: