Commentary on Job 19:23-27a
The Old Testament text for this Sunday is perhaps most famous because of the exquisite soprano aria from Handel’s Messiah: “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.”
The aria is part of the heart language of many Christians. But Job’s “redeemer” would have been a close relative, not Jesus or any other messiah. Better translation and historical analysis have refined our understanding of the original meaning of the text, which is a good thing, but better analysis has left preachers in a bind. Which meaning do they proclaim?
George MacDonald wrote, “Complaint against God is far nearer to God than indifference about Him.” If so, Job may well be closer to God than anyone before or after him. Job is certainly not indifferent; he suffers neither patiently nor quietly. From Job chapter three until “the words of Job are ended” in the final verse of chapter 31, Job shakes his fist in the face of the Almighty and accuses God of injustice, of torturing him without cause, and of unrestrained violence. Some will consider Job’s rage over the top, but those who have walked Job’s road may well understand his passion.
What does Job want from God? He wants justice. He wants the world to make sense. He wants people—himself in particular—to get what they deserve, and he assumes that it is God’s responsibility to make this happen. Job is adamant that his suffering is undeserved, and the audience of the book knows that he is correct. This is important. Both the narrator and God have testified that Job is “blameless and upright” (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3). Imposing the Christian doctrine of original sin on the book of Job distorts its meaning. Along with the writer of Psalm 17, Job can honestly say, “If you test me, you will find no wickedness in me” (Psalm 17:3-5).
Knowing that he is guiltless, Job concludes that his suffering proves that God, the supposed distributor of just deserts, has failed utterly (Job 9:22-24). More than that, Job accuses God of unleashing on him a mercilessness punishment of relentless intensity. God is vicious and sadistic: “he mocks at the calamity of the innocent” (9:22-23; 10:16-17; 16:11-14; 19:6-12).
The thing Job wants most is his day in court with God (Job 9:3, 16, 32; 13:3, 6, 13, 17,18; 23:1-7). He wants God to admit wrongdoing and vindicate him. But how does one drag the Almighty into court? And what will it be like for Job to stand before God and argue his case? He worries that a trial before God is doomed to failure. God is both the judge and the accused. How can Job prevail? What’s more, Job worries that God’s presence will overwhelm and silence him (9:3, 14-20, 32-35; 13:15, 20-22). Who wouldn’t stutter into silence before the eternal judge?
Job casts about for ways he might get a fair hearing before God. He considers first that he might descend into Sheol, the place of the dead, to wait until God’s anger abates. Perhaps then God will again think of him kindly, consider his case, and restore his rights (Job 14:14-17). But the hope of a return from Sheol is far-fetched. Like the Sadducees in today’s Gospel reading, Job believes that humans die never to rise again (7:9-10; 10:21-22; 14:7-12). Secondly, Job considers the possibility of a third party intervening on his behalf, perhaps an arbiter who will stand between him and God to mediate the dispute (9:32-35) or a witness in heaven who will vouch for his innocence (16:18-19). Who or what this witness and arbiter might be is unclear. Perhaps they are simply projections of desperate hope.
In the text for this Sunday, Job imagines two further ways he might eventually be vindicated. He accepts the likelihood that he will die unanswered by God. And if he dies, so too dies his case. His presumed guilt will be the final word. Therefore, he fervently wishes that his case against God be inscribed in a book. Better yet, his words could be engraved with an iron pen on a rock and the letters lined with lead to protect them from wear, an enduring, monumental testimony to his innocence.
Job’s next words (in Job 19:25-27) are notoriously difficult to translate, as the footnotes in the NRSV attest. David Clines’ translation is preferable to the NRSV: “But I know that my champion lives and that he will rise last to speak for me on earth, even after my skin has thus been stripped from me. Yet, to behold Eloah [God] while still in my flesh—that is my desire, to see him for myself, to see him with my own eyes, not as a stranger.”1 In these verses Job again considers vindication mediated by a third party, a “redeemer” or “champion” (Hebrew go’el) who will arise to defend him. Go’el is sometimes used of God, but on the earthly plain it refers to a person’s nearest kinsman whose role it is to protect the rights of the deceased and fulfill their obligations. Job has in mind the latter. After his death, Job expects that a kinsman redeemer will arise and stand “upon the Earth” to defend him. This contrasts with his earlier hope for a witness in heaven (16:18-19). Job has suffered on earth, and his vindication must be earthly as well. The repulsive aspects of his disease and his presumed guilt have alienated him from his earthly community (19:14-22), and so a satisfying vindication must be earthly and public.
But vindication after his death through a third party is not fully satisfying. The words “I know that my redeemer lives …” are not an expression of faith; they simply affirm what is common knowledge about the role of a kinsman redeemer. Job articulates this solution in order to reject it. A post-mortem, third-person vindication is not the personal hearing he fervently desires. “Yet, to behold Eloah while still in my flesh—that is my desire, to see him for myself, to see him with my own eyes.” Job wants his day in court with God while he still has flesh and eyes.
Strangely, wonderfully, God shows up and answers Job at the end of the book, and that is apparently enough. Job says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5). And with that he withdraws his case. Rational answers, “the hearing of the ear,” fall short. But the presence of God manifest is answer enough, perhaps the only answer there is.
1 David Clines, Job, 1–20. WBC 17. (Word, Inc., 1989), 428. The commentaries by Norman Habel (1985), Samuel Balentine (2006), and Leong Seow (2013) also provide excellent discussions of the translation issues.