Bible Commentaries
Job 31

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-40

Job’s Cry of "Innocent!" (31:1-40)

In chapter 31 the image of the courtroom is complete, for here Job, after having carefully reviewed the evidence in the case he is presenting, after having drawn the clear, unrelieved contrast between his former condition of righteousness and prosperity and his present condition of misery, now states his final argument. Thus "the words of Job are ended" (vs. 40), and save for two brief responses, he has nothing more to say on his own (Job 40:3-5; Job 42:1-6).

This final plea is simply a declaration of innocence, in greater detail than he has given before. In the empty courtroom, desperately aware that his words are echoing in a void, he nevertheless plays the role of self-defense to the end. By the current standards and ways of viewing God’s relationship to man, there could be only one explanation of the total reversal of Job’s fortunes as set forth in chapters 29 and 30. That explanation is the one the friends have presented so ably and so consistently: that Job’s sin has brought the inevitable retribution. In general terms Job has all along indignantly rejected this as a possible explanation in his case. Now he comes to particulars, and one after another he reels off the sins or transgressions that could be named against him. It is as though he leafs through a lawbook dealing with the possible infractions of an absolute code. As he reads, to each conceivable indictment he cries, "Innocent!" It is essential to remember that he does not know what crime is charged against him, he must make guess after guess.

The list makes an impressive speech. Some of the items Job mentions are the same that Eliphaz has guessed at shortly before (see Job 22:1-11), but Job is more exhaustive in his list than was Eliphaz. The list, moreover, is not arranged according to conventional standards of logical development, degrees of seriousness, or climactic order. This could mean that the speech has been disarranged (as many interpreters believe) but more probably that it reflects the desperation that Job feels and the fact that modern conceptions of orderly development and climactic arrangement are not the same as the literary standards which, in a different culture, guided the ancient composer of the Book of Job.

The Revised Standard Version has arranged the translation in convenient divisions, but the separate possibilities Job considers are indicated, not by these divisions, but by the recurrent form: "if" followed by a possible transgression and the punishment or consequence which should properly have accompanied it (see vss. 5, 7, 9, and throughout the chapter).

Verses 1-4 are not phrased in the usual formula. They deal with the particular sin of sexual impurity (vss. 1-2) and with the more general matter of retribution that befalls all workers of evil. It is significant that Job not only declares by implication his innocence from overt acts of impurity, but even testifies that he has abstained from the intent to stimulate improper desire (see Matthew 5:28). That he goes further and states strongly the doctrine of retribution for sin need not surprise us. Although he has earlier raised the question whether any such moral order operates in the world (see especially 9:22-24), the book represents him as modifying these earlier excesses (see ch. 27, if it be the speech of Job), and certainly he must adopt the view as a hypothesis since it is the only one at hand. He has no other principle with which to work.

Verses 5 and 6 declare Job’s innocence so far as falsehood is concerned. The modern reader cannot fail to be impressed by the high ethical quality of this chapter and by the way in which the hero again and again moves from the overt activity to the root of such activity in underlying attitudes. Verses 7 and 8 are rather general and may refer either to injustice or to uncleanness of lip and thought. The latter is probable since the next matter Job considers is adultery (vss. 9-12), a sin which he regards as particularly heinous (see the consequences in vss. 11-12).

In verses 13-15 there is a simple and beautiful declaration. If it is at odds with other words of Job’s which seem to betray an insensitivity to the needs of some (see Job 30:1-8), this statement must be taken as his best view. The basis for simple justice in dealing with his servants is that fundamentally he, the master, and they, the servants, are alike the creations of the one God — an insight which was more urgently stressed in the Hebraic faith than in any other religion of antiquity, and one which is still far short of perfect realization.

The matter of justice between man and man, especially between the powerful and the poor, is pursued in verses 16-23. As Job recalls his past life he can find no occasion on which he has taken advantage of the weak, or has failed to extend positive charity. Verse 18 is difficult, but probably refers again to the common lot the needy and the wealthy share as children of one Father. In verse 21 the phrase "help in the gate" refers to the possibility of getting a favorable decision for unjust acts; even with this legal right Job did not push an unfair or unjust advantage against such helpless ones as "the poor," "the widow," and "the fatherless."

The next section (vss. 24-28) deals not with social injustice but with the general sin of idolatry. This may be either the basic kind of idolatry, where gold, or any value, is made the primary confidence of life (vss. 24-25), or the more overt kind exemplified by the worship of sun and moon. The phrase "my mouth has kissed my hand" probably refers to an act of worship, perhaps secretly practiced.

Job further declares his innocence in the realm of inward attitude as he protests that he has been free even from joy over the ruin of an enemy (vss. 29-30; see the contrast to the attitude of some of the Imprecatory Psalms). He returns to the subject of his consistent practice of charity and adds the practice of hospitality (vss. 31-32). Again dealing with inner attitude, he even protests that, unlike Adam (vs. 33, see margin), or more probably unlike the mass of men — including us all — he has not concealed his sin.

Job has not concealed his sin because, as this speech makes increasingly clear, he is not conscious of sin. That fact comes to full statement in verses 35-37, where he sums up. Aware of his isolation and pathetically afraid that his speech and his testimony of innocence will go unheard, he nevertheless draws up the testimony and signs it. The word "signature" is actually "my taw," the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet. This, written as a kind of crossmark, could be a type of signature which Job imaginatively affixes to the symbolic document he has been drawing up to witness to his innocence (see a similar use of the image of writing in another climactic statement at Job 19:23-26). More probably it refers to the last words in his argument—as we would use "Z" or "Omega" as a symbol of conclusion.

Job has drawn up every conceivable indictment against himself and has rejected each one. If there is any other, even the indictment written by his "adversary," he still has no fear of being justifiably pronounced guilty. It is not clear whether by "adversary" Job means merely an enemy who would be eager to find falsity in him, or God. The lines in verses 36-37 seem to suggest the latter, for they depict Job as unafraid and resolute, taking whatever charge could be brought against him, and turning it from an adverse criticism or indictment into an occasion of pride and glory. He can without fear or evasion "give him [God] an account of all . . . [his] steps" and even approach the Almighty "like a prince."

After this notable declaration the concluding verses (38-40) sound lame and anticlimactic. There is, however, no sufficient reason to rearrange them in a spot earlier in the chapter, for what seems anticlimactic to us may have been a deliberate literary device in another age with other standards of aesthetic enjoyment. It is conceivable that the author intended for the speech to end with this kind of trailing-off conclusion or reflective afterthought. There is certainly a parallel to this in the conclusion of Job’s great speech in chapter 19. In this particular instance Job enters a final cry of "Innocent!" almost as though it were uttered as he stepped down from the witness stand. He is innocent of the double sin of misusing the earth to the extent that its barren and wasted fields could testify to his greed, or of reaping its produce without balancing payment of labor.

To look back on the chapter as a whole, and especially on the central affirmation in verses 35-37, is to be impressed with the clarity of this picture. Here the poet presents his hero as the righteous man who is secure in the awareness of his own righteousness. To say that he is "self-righteous" is not quite true, for the term generally indicates the sin of pride. There is no hint that the poet means this, or that he regards pride as the subtle sin which must, in the end, be taken as the explanation of Job’s pain. No, here is the man whom God himself in the Prologue has called "blameless and upright" (1:8). The picture is not meant to repel. It is presented for approval, and its protestations are nowhere denied. It is a true picture of Job, Job the righteous, the perfect example of the Old Testament righteousness for which the Law gave incentive and direction. As long as man’s righteousness is measured by his fellow man or by Law, this must stand as a testimony to a perfect man. It is when man stands before the perfect God and finds himself measured not by Law but by what God is, that this picture falls in ruins. Job can go no further until he meets that God. We can go no further until we meet him in Job’s experience, or better in Jesus Christ.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Job 31". "Layman's Bible Commentary".