Job 42:6 – Job’s Repentance or Job’s Comfort? (Textual Tuesdays)

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by Shane Scott

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
 therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:6, ESV).

One common understanding of the dramatic conclusion of the Book of Job is that God’s speeches are a rebuke of Job’s impatient and presumptuous challenges to God to defend himself in a lawsuit. According to this view, Job’s response is contrite repentance. God is all-powerful and all-wise, Job is not, and Job learns to be quiet.

I believe this understanding is inadequate. Yes, God does indeed talk about his powerful work of creation, but he does so in the same vein in which Jesus mentioned God’s constant care of the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field (see Matthew 6:25-31). Job feels alone and abandoned, but God’s pervasive care of the creation includes Job. And yes, God does challenge Job’s power to contain evil and chaos, but he does so to remind Job that what he cannot do, God can, if Job will trust him.

But will Job indeed trust God? The answer found in 42:1-6 is an emphatic YES. Job begins by declaring his confidence in God’s power.

I know that you can do all things,

and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted (42:2).

This expression of faith is remarkable given the fact that at this point Job does not understand the purpose of his suffering (although we as the readers do, based on the opening chapters). Yet he is persuaded by God’s speeches to place his trust in God.

Further, Job acknowledges that he has said a lot of things that – upon further reflection – were simply not true.

“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me, which I did not know (42:3).

In verse three Job quotes the LORD’s opening challenge in 38:2 and confesses that the LORD was spot on – Job had in fact spoken in ignorance. And indeed, throughout the book, Job makes many glaring errors as he lashes out at his friends and at the LORD.

  • In 7:7 Job says he will never see good again.
  • In 7:9 Job denies there is life after death (also in 10:21; 14:10).
  • In 9:17 Job claims there is no reason behind his suffering.
  • In 12:6-9 Job charges God with letting evil have its day.
  • In 13:24 Job claims that God counts him as an enemy (also in 16:9-14; 19:11).
  • And in 29:4-5 Job says that God is no longer his friend.

From the information available to us in the entire book, as well as from the larger biblical storyline, we know that these allegations are simply not true. Job was mistaken about a great many things. But he now sees the truth about God with much greater clarity.

 “Hear, and I will speak;

I will question you, and you make it known to me.”

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,

but now my eye sees you (42:4-5).

Job once again quotes the opening of God’s first speech (cf. 38:3) and concedes that his previous remarks were made in ignorance – “hearsay” – and that now he sees God. And by this, I understand Job to be saying more than that he visually sees God.  He sees God with greater comprehension (just as we say to someone, “I see what you mean”).

Most every commentator agrees with what I have said so far, but there is a great deal of disagreement about the meaning of the final part of Job’s response. This is due in part to the ambiguity of the actual grammar of the text.

The first line of verse six in Hebrew simply says, “Therefore I despise ____.” There is no direct object for the verb “despise.” What precisely does Job despise? Is it himself? That’s how the ESV renders it. Or, does Job despise what he has been saying? That’s how the NASB translates it – “Therefore I retract.” In other words, Job retracts the lawsuit he previously intended to serve to God. I think this is the right way to understand the first part of verse six. I like the NLT here – “I take back everything I said.”

The second line of verse six is even trickier. Most English translations say what the ESV says: “And repent in dust and ashes.” Curiously, Job does not use a term that simply means “repent of sin.” He uses a different word which has a much broader meaning, “be sorry, console oneself.” It is the term used in the OT in the instances where God is said to change his mind (like Gen. 6:6; Ex. 32:14; 1 Sam. 15:11).

So it is possible that Job is not repenting of sin but simply expressing his change of heart regarding his lawsuit. The notion that Job at the climax of the book would suddenly confess that he is a sinner would – in my mind – completely subvert the entire message of the book. Job is not a sinner – he is a just and upright man who fears God and turns from evil (1:1; 1:8; 2:3). To confess his sins at this point would be to concede that the friends were right after all, even though in the epilogue God completely repudiates the friends and calls upon Job to intercede for them (42:7-8).

But I think there is another interpretation of verse six that best captures what Job says, and poignantly summarizes the message of the entire book. Those of you who use the ESV will notice that there is a footnote on the word “repent” explaining that this could also be translated, “and am comforted.” And you may recall that one of the basic definitions of this Hebrew word is “console oneself.” This specific word is used seven times in Job, and everywhere else it is translated “comfort” (2:11; 7:13; 16:2; 21:34; 29:25; 42:11). I would suggest that it how it should be translated here. Job’s reaction to God is not repentance but comfort.

Maybe the reason translations choose “repent” is because of the accompanying phrase, “in dust and ashes.” But technically, repentance is not associated with dust and ashes, but sackcloth and ashes. The specific phrase “dust and ashes” is used two other times in Scripture. The first is when Abraham appears before God to intercede on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah: “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the LORD, I who am but dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18:27). Abraham is acknowledging his human frailty and mortality before God – not repentance.

The other occurrence is in Job, in his lament in 30:19-

God has cast me into the mire,

and I have become like dust and ashes.

Again, the meaning here is frailty and mortality. Job is sitting in the ashes while his body wastes away and returns to the dust from which it came (2:8; cf. Gen. 3:19).

In 42:6, I believe what Job is saying is that in view of God’s speeches and presence, he realizes his lawsuit was ill-conceived, and that even though he is dying, he is comforted in the presence of God.

And by making this confession before the epilogue in which Job is restored to his health, wealth, and family, Job answers the key question of the book – “Does Job fear God for no reason?” (Job 1:9). The Accuser claimed that Job only served God because God gave him stuff. This was a lie. Job served God for the sake of God himself, and that is why – even in dust and ashes – he is now comforted.

I love these words of Homer Hailey:

God achieved His desire in Job, and Job received what his heart yearned for: a true view of God and complete fellowship with him. He now had something that could not have been acquired apart from the experience through which he had passed…When we have passed through the crucible of experience, we can say with Job, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear,/ But now mine eye seeth thee.” This insight remains one of the great blessings and rewards of human suffering” (Commentary on Job, p. 366).