“Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
Oh that with an iron pen and lead
they were engraved in the rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God.” (Job 19:23-26)
The most memorable phrase from the Book of Job is Job’s declaration, “I know that my Redeemer lives.” It is one of the few hopeful statements found in Job’s speeches with his friends. And it is the inspiration for several great hymns still in use today.
But just exactly who did Job have in mind when he expressed this confidence? In the context, who is Job’s “redeemer”?
The term Job uses here is the Hebrew word גָּאַל (go’el), and it means “redeem, do the part of the next of kin.” It is used in several places in the Law of Moses to explain the various duties of the next of kin (as in Leviticus 25:25; Numbers 35:19). It is also featured in the Book of Ruth and the story of her go’el, Boaz (Ruth 3:9). This term is also used to describe God’s role as Israel’s redeemer (as in Exodus 6:6; Isaiah 41:14).
When Job declares that his go’el lives, he could have in mind one of his next of kin who will take up his case. Another view (the one adopted by the ESV) is that the go’el is God, and that Job believes God will ultimately redeem him. Which is it?
Nothing in the text itself definitely answers this question. Some commentators point to the language of 19:25 – “at last he will stand upon the earth” – and combine this with Job’s hope to see God in his flesh (19:26) to argue that Job has in mind God’s final redemption of him in the resurrection. However, the term translated “at last” (אַחֲרוֹן, ʾakharon) can mean “later, afterwards.” Indeed, the KJV translates the expression as “at the latter day.” So this is not decisive.
Surveying various commentaries, there are three positions.
First, some contend that Job believes God will be his go’el.
But he reaches beyond his experience of God’s wrath to state his trust in God, who will in time secure his acquittal and who will also accomplish his deliverance from suffering. In this passage Job is expressing genuine faith, for he makes an unconditional affirmation about God’s commitment to him against all circumstantial evidence to the contrary. (John Hartley, The Book of Job, NICOT series, p. 295)
Others suggest that Job is asking for a human go’el. Here is John Walton’s paraphrase of the passage:
“I firmly believe that there is someone, somewhere, who will come and testify on my behalf right here on my dung heap at the end of all this. Despite my peeling skin, I expect to have enough left to come before God in my own flesh. I will be restored to his favor and no longer be treated as a stranger. This is my deepest desire!” (The NIV Application Commentary: Job, p. 221).
And, some commentators allow for the possibility that Job intends both a human and divine go’el:
It is possible both were in his mind. Certainly he had wished for some fellow human being then and there to say a good word for him before God and his neighbors, but he also envisioned a divine Redeemer. (Robert L. Alden, Job. NAC series, p. 207).
So how do we decide which view is correct? It seems to me that if we look at Job’s statement in the larger context of the book, it is very difficult to argue that Job believes God will be his go’el. The phrase in question is found in the midst of the the second round of speeches between Job and his friends. In his response to Eliphaz in that second round, Job says that God has made war against him:
God gives me up to the ungodly
and casts me into the hands of the wicked.
I was at ease, and he broke me apart;
he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces;
he set me up as his target;
his archers surround me.
He slashes open my kidneys and does not spare;
he pours out my gall on the ground.
He breaks me with breach upon breach;
he runs upon me like a warrior. (16:11-14)
In Job’s mind, God is not his redeemer; God is his adversary, and what Job wants more than anything else is to argue his case before God (16:18-21).
Job 19 contains Job’s response to Bildad, also in the second round of speeches. And in this immediate context of the “redeemer” statement, Job again expresses his belief that God is his opponent:
He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone,
and my hope has he pulled up like a tree.
He has kindled his wrath against me
and counts me as his adversary. (19:10-11)
This sentiment persists into the third round of speeches. Job tells Eliphaz:
Today also my complaint is bitter;
my hand is heavy on account of my groaning.
Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his seat!
I would lay my case before him
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would know what he would answer me
and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; he would pay attention to me.
There an upright man could argue with him,
and I would be acquitted forever by my judge. (23:2-7)
So before, during, and after the speech in which Job mentions his go’el, he insists that God is against him, that he wants to take his case to God, that he desires acquittal from God. For this reason, it is very difficult for me to understand Job’s statement in 19:25 as a reference to God. As much as I love singing about God as my Redeemer, I don’t think that’s the tune Job was singing here.
Instead, it seems much more likely that Job has in mind someone else as his go’el. Perhaps someone in his family – maybe even someone in heaven, like an angel – but someone to come and speak up for him. There is a hopeful tone to what Job says here, but it is also a desperate statement. “Surely somebody will speak up for me and not let this injustice continue!”
Job’s anxious desire for a go’el is made even more poignant by the phrase at the end of verse 25: “at last he will stand upon the earth.” The ESV has a footnote on the word “earth” to alert the reader that the actual Hebrew word here (עָפָר, ‘apar) means “dust.” This is the word Job uses throughout the book to describe his disintegrating condition that will finally lead to death:
- “My flesh is clothed with worms and dirt” (7:5).
- “For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be” (7:21).
- “Remember that you have made my like clay; and will you return me to the dust?” (10:9).
- “I have sewed sackcloth upon my skin and have laid my strength in the dust” (16:15).
- “They lie down alike in the the dust, and the worms cover them” (21:26).
- “God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes” (30:19).
Job doesn’t expect God to “stand on the dust” (Holman Christian Standard Bible) with him – in his view, God has put him in the dust of death. What Job wants is someone who will join him on the ash heap, stand by him as he returns to dust, and defend his integrity in his lawsuit against God. And for this reason, I don’t think the position that Job is describing God as his go’el is sustainable.
BUT – this doesn’t mean that God isn’t Job’s redeemer. It is very important to remember that what Job says is not always correct. What Job believes to be the case versus what actually is the case is not the same thing. In my view, Job is asking for a redeemer because he believes God is his adversary – but Job is wrong about this. God is not Job’s adversary; in fact, God is Job’s biggest “fan.”
Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? (Job 1:8 and 2:9)
Job thinks he needs a go’el to help him in his case against God because he believes God has unjustly punished him as an evildoer. But Job is totally wrong about this. God does not see him as a wicked person; God knows that Job fears him and turns away from evil. Job doesn’t need anyone to defend his name before God. At the end of the book, God defends Job’s name when he says to the friends:
My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. (42:7, also in 42:8)
God vindicates Job, so it turns out that God is indeed the go’el Job sought! But that’s not what Job thought in 19:25. As is often the case in Job’s speeches, what he assumes to be the case is not in fact true.
So to summarize, when Job asks for a go’el to stand with him in the dust, he is not thinking of God. He has mind someone to defend him against God. And this is because he doesn’t understand that God is truly on his side in a way he cannot imagine.
And in a way that we cannot fathom. Centuries later, when God enters the human story in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, he also will cry out in desperation, quoting the opening words of Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”). Later in that psalm the one who suffers says, “You lay me in the dust of death” (22:15). We indeed have a Redeemer who joined us “in the dust,” and now lives in heaven to take up our case.