Thinkest thou this to be right, [that] thou saidst, My righteousness [is] more than God’s? For thou saidst, What advantage will it be unto thee? [and], What profit shall I have, [if I be cleansed] from my sin?
Elihu continues his efforts at active listening, this time focusing on Job’s supposed claim that righteousness (tsedeq) and purification (chatta’ah) are of no utility (cakan) or profit (ya`al). This gets a little skanky, since Job most likely only uttered that sentiment as an example of the wicked. Elihu appears to echo Eliphaz’s sentiment (and error):
If thou sinnest, what doest thou against him? or [if] thy transgressions be multiplied, what doest thou unto him? If thou be righteous, what givest thou him? or what receiveth he of thine hand?
So, two questions:
1. Does Job really believe righteousness is unprofitable?
2. Does Elihu’s response make sense?
To be honest, I’m not sure about the first. Like Elihu, I remember Job claiming that, but going back now I can’t find where he said it for himself rather than rhetorically. So, let’s table that for now and focus on the second.
Elihu’s argument appears to be that virtue and vice have no impact on God, so thus they must be of value to us:
Thy wickedness [may hurt] a man as thou [art]; and thy righteousness [may profit] the son of man.
It seems a plausible train of thought:
* God clearly commands virtue.
* God doesn’t need our virtue.
* Thus, virtue must be for our benefit.
It may not be ironclad logic, but it is a fair inference. I think Elihu is making an important point, one we often lose sight of: virtue is good for you. Somewhere along the way, a big chunk of Christianity acquired the mindset that virtue primarily means obedience to the inscrutable and arbitrary commands of God. Put another way, we had to be virtuous to keep God happy, not to make ourselves happy.
I think Elihu overstates it slightly, in that I do believe God is pleased by our righteousness, and grieved by our folly. And even if God didn’t benefit, one could imagine other reasons besides our own benefit for God to command virtue. Yet, at a deeper level I believe Elihu’s reasoning is sound. I might paraphrase it as:
Job, Job, you’re missing the point. God is not some arbitrary deity punishing you for imaginary slights. He is not a man to feel wounded and cry for revenge. Rather, He knows that your sins are hurting you, and that righteousness will profit you, and that is why He is putting you through the wringer.
Okay, I know I’m reading a lot into that, but it seems a plausible interpretation to me. Of course, the challenge is to reconcile that supposed sentiment with the rest of the chapter. The next few verses are a little hard to parse. It starts out taking about the cries (za`aq shava`) oppression (`ashuwq):
By reason of the multitude of oppressions they make [the oppressed] to cry: they cry out by reason of the arm of the mighty.
There they cry, but none giveth answer, because of the pride of evil men.
Is it those same cries? Its a different word, and surely it would be strange for anyone (except Job) to talk about the cries of the oppressed not being answered. The intervening verses don’t shed much light:
But none saith, Where [is] God my maker, who giveth songs in the night; Who teacheth us more than the beasts of the earth, and maketh us wiser than the fowls of heaven?
So, who are the ‘none’, and why do they not speak (`amar) in such specific language? Okay, that’s too weird, let’s try inverting the negatives to see if we get something more coherent:
* People are suffering
* If they cry out for God, and acknowledge His wisdom
* Then, He will answer their cries
Okay, that part seems to make sense. But the implication is that oppressed people do NOT cry out this way, so God will NOT hear their cries. Why? Because the pride of the evil (paniym ga’own ra`). But whose pride? The oppressed or the oppressors? Does it instead mean “The oppressed cry out, but their evil oppressors have too much pride to answer?” And what the heck does this have to do with the rest of the chapter?
Surely God will not hear vanity, neither will the Almighty regard it.
Okay, at last a concrete statement. Somewhere earlier I believe I said that Job hypothesized that his righteousness might a) prevent suffering, and b) guarantee a hearing. (a) was proved false, and Elihu is now attacking (b). He is telling Job that a vain (shav’) entreaty, based on pride, will not gain a hearing (shama`) from God. And in case Job doesn’t think this refers to him:
Therefore doth Job open his mouth in vain; he multiplieth words without knowledge.
True, the word vain (hebel) here is different, but the sense is close enough.
I have to be honest: I am thoroughly confused by this passage. Even the Hebrew seems confused, as some verses are translated very differently in the NIV and KJV. And part of it is no doubt the ambiguous phrasing, and lack of pronouns (or unclear antecedents). Given all that, it is tempting to attribute my confusion and the apparent inconsistencies to sloppy editing.
But that seems far too easy of a cop out. In fact, there is a powerful literary argument that the whole point of the book is to challenge my existing mental models, and that if I am confused (even given the gaps in culture and language) then that’s a good thing. Of course, I feel like I’m confused by Elihu, rather than God, but the point may still be valid.
The last three words of the chapter are ‘words without knowledge’ (millah b@liy da`ath), or talking without understanding. The characters of this play often seem to be talking without understanding each other, and occasionally without me understanding them. Which only reinforces Job’s perplexity in the face of what God is doing. Maybe sometimes the only way to get the point is to be confused.
God, I’m confused. Part of it is no doubt because of the historical gap, and part no doubt due to my lack of education in biblical matters. Yet it feels like part of it is deliberate — that you are sovereignly using Job to reveal to me just how confused I am about so many important things. Lord, save me from vanity, and from evil pride in my own understanding. Especially from the kind that leads to oppression. Grant me the grace to be humbled, broken, and confused before you, that I may receive your answer. Amen.