Favorite Undergrad Papers: Exegesis of Job 7:17-21

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This was a short exegetical paper I wrote for the class “Exploring the Old Testament” with Dr. Maxwell in Fall 2016. I don’t know if I’ll share my other exegesis papers in this series, but I had to at least share this one since it is this passage of Scripture that inspired the Watcher of Men deity from The Mirror Poole. (There is also a not-so-sly reference to The Mirror Poole in footnote 35.) I’ve included some retrospective comments below.


Job 7:17-2117 What is man that you make so much of him, that you give him so much attention, 18 that you examine him every morning and test him every moment? 19 Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant? 20 If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of men? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you? 21 Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins? For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more” (NIV 1984).

  1. This is part of a poetic dialogue among Job and his friends, but in this specific part of the dialogue, the characters are Job (“me”; cf. 6:1) and God (“you”; cf. 7:7).
    Job speaks to God, but God does not respond (until chapter 38). There are questions but no answers here.
  2. The passage focuses mainly on God’s actions in his relationship to man—both man in general and Job in particular. These actions consist of the following:
  3. a) making so much of him and giving him so much attention (v. 17);
  4. b) examining him and testing him all the time (v. 18);
  5. c) watching him (v. 20);
  6. d) making [Job] his target (v. 20);
  7. e) pardoning [Job’s] offenses and forgiving his sins (v. 21);
  8. f) searching for [Job] (v. 21).
  9. These actions of God lead to a contrast or twist in the final verse: though right now God will not leave Job alone, soon he will no longer be able to do any of these things to him because Job will lie down in the dust and be no more (v. 21; cf. v. 8).
  10. There is also the universal theme of “man vs. God” underlying this passage, as man is contrasted with God through a poetic description of God’s relationship to man.
  11. It seems implied in v. 21 that Job “will be no more” on account of the way God is treating him. So God will not be able to find Job because of what he has done to Job (cf. 6:4).
  12. The repetition of “that you” in v. 17-18 seems to signal a purpose/result statement, but it is framed as an inquiry. “What is man [i.e. is man really so significant] that you make so much of him…?” Is the implicit conclusion of this inquiry that God’s relentless watching and examining of man reveals man’s significance (as in Ps. 8)? Or is Job rather using an ironic rhetorical device here to say that this treatment is unfair?
  13. The tone of the passage is one of perplexed and anguished inquisitiveness (cf. 7:11).

Historical Context

Historically the canonicity of Job has never been doubted.1John E. Hartley, Job, New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. Robert L. Hubbard. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) 3. However, there is some controversy concerning its origin, authorship, and date.2H. H. Rowley, New Century Bible Commentary, ed. R. E. Clements and Matthew Black, Job, rev. ed.(1976; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) 8.

The author does not identify himself, and it may very well be that Job has no single author but was redacted over time as many of the Old Testament books likely were.3Tremper Longman III, Job, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. Tremper Longman III (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012) 24. There are significant parallels between Job and some other books of the Old Testament, which could suggest that the final product was composed after some of these other books were written, but it could also be that these books are all interdependent or that they all draw from a common source.4Hartley 13. In the end what really matters is the final canonical form of Job, and it is impossible to know for sure exactly who wrote it or when.5Longman 26. If a date is needed, however, Job was likely composed between the 7th and 2nd centuries B.C.6Ibid.

The narrative is set before the time of the patriarchs in the land of Uz, which is somewhere in “northern Saudi Arabia or southern Jordan,” a region known in the Bible as Edom.7James L. Crenshaw, “Job,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 858; Robert L. Alden, New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, vol. 11, Job. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993) 29. Consistent with the high desert plateau of Edom, Job contains references to farming and a fertile landscape with stormy weather that includes snow.8Alden 29. References to tents suggest a seminomadic civilization, but there are also urban references to permanent structures like gates and walls.9Ibid. Job may have been a “pastoral-nomad who regularly attached himself to some city,” but the precise identification of Job’s role in his society does not significantly affect one’s reading of the story.10Ibid.

The heavenly scenes in the opening chapters are harder to make sense of, and Alden concludes that “the only satisfactory explanation is that we are given only what we need to know, not what we want to know.”11Alden 31.

Literary Issues

Job is a unique book in terms of its literary features for several reasons. For one thing, it is one of the most difficult books of the Bible to translate; even ancient translators struggled with it.12Longman 27; Hartley 3. This is partly due to its use of rare vocabulary.13Alden 36. In fact, Job has more hapaxes (words used only once in the Bible) than any other book in the Bible besides Isaiah, as well as some words that are entirely unique in Hebrew literature.14Ibid.

The genre of Job is also unique. Some scholars would go so far as to call it sui generis—a work that defies categorization—but for exegetical purposes, it is more helpful to think of it as a brilliant synthesis of a variety of genres.15Longman 30; Hartley 38.

Wisdom literature is a good general categorization of Job as well since the narrative centers around a great wisdom debate concerning Job’s suffering.16Longman 32 The conclusion is that God alone is wise, and men will not always know the reasons for their suffering.17Ibid. In the metanarrative of the Scriptures, then, Job functions alongside Ecclesiastes as a sober qualification of the principle taught in Proverbs that the wise man will be rewarded in this life while the fool suffers.18Ibid.

As noted earlier, Job is composed of a large poetic section bookended with shorter prose sections. This was a common rhetorical device in Ancient Near East wisdom literature used to “provide a specific historical framework within which to interpret teachings that had broad application.”19Crenshaw 859.

The poetry also reveals that Job is not intended as a “precise historical report.”20Longman 33. Whether or not he was a historical figure, the “theological value of the story of Job does not depend on its being historically true,” unlike many other events in the Bible.21Longman 34.

Content Analysis

Job is the story of a righteous man who has a good name in the sight of God and man. With the permission of the LORD, Satan brings calamity upon Job, destroying his children and possessions and attacking his health, in order to prove that Job will curse God if he is afflicted in these ways. (See Job 1–2.)

In his anguish, Job curses the day of his birth, while his friends gather in silence. Then his friend Eliphaz rebukes him with a speech implying that he deserves his suffering.22Rowley 58. He brings to mind the “law of retribution” that says the good prosper while the evil suffer.23Hartley 104. (See Job 3–5.)

Now Job responds with another lament. (See Job 6–7.) The verses examined in this exegesis are at the conclusion of Job’s second lament and are addressed to the LORD.

7:17-18 “What is man that you make so much of him, that you give him so much attention, that you examine him every morning and test him every moment?”

Scholars see in these verses a parallel to Psalm 8:4, though it is debatable which came first or whether they are independent of each other.24Alden 112. In Psalm 8 the question is “what is man that God should so honor him,” but here “Job asks what is man that God should so torment him.”25Rowley 69.

In the RSV, “examine” is translated “visit,” and it carries the idea of a stiff overseer coming by to inspect him with a mind for finding fault.26Rowley 69.

The Hebrew term used for “test him” suggests that Job is being put in a crucible to test his quality and purity.27Ibid. While his perspective is certainly askew, this notion of “testing” reflects more accurately than he realizes what is actually going on “behind the scenes.”

7:19 “Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant?”

Unlike the psalmists who find comfort in God’s watchful eye (e.g. Ps. 33:18; 139), Job despises the LORD for not leaving him alone.28Ibid. “Even for an instant” is the NIV’s more accessible paraphrase of an ancient idiom that literally reads, “leave me alone till I swallow my spit” (ESV).29Alden 112.

Earlier in the lament, he says how he wishes he could die and escape his suffering (Job 6:8-13), and indeed he is quite confident he will soon die (7:8, 21). Here he pleads for “a few moments of rest” from God’s miserable “surveillance” before he dies, which reveals how his “understanding of God has been turned upside down.”30Hartley 152.

7:20 “If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of men? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you?”

Job is indignant because he does not understand how anything he could have done could merit the suffering he endures.31Longman 149.

He calls the LORD the “watcher of men.” Normally this is a positive title “expressing the confidence that the afflicted have in divine protection.”32Hartley 152. However, Job uses it sarcastically here, as though the LORD is a hostile God intent on harming him without apparent cause.33Rowley 69. He calls himself God’s “target,” suggesting that God strikes at him like a warrior.34Rowley 70; Hartley 152.

Verse 20 continues the trend of the previous verses where wonderful attributes of the LORD are turned on their heads and made terrible. The Watcher of Men is not a loving, caring shepherd but a distant, terrifying enigma.35Inspired by Job’s sarcastic perversion of it, Fowler uses the title “Watcher of Men” for the name of a mysterious deity in his literary novella The Mirror Poole. See bibliography below.

As for the sentence translated “have I become a burden to you?” there is some controversy over whether it should be translated “have I become a burden to myself?”36Alden 113. If translated “to you” as most modern translations do, then Job is questioning why the Almighty God should be so burdened by a lowly man that he will not let him be.37Hartley 152. If translated “to myself,” Job is again lamenting that his life has become so miserable and burdensome.38Rowley 70. The former translation seems more likely given that in the immediate context Job has concluded the “lament proper” (v. 1-10) and is now focused on God’s actions and motivations in the matter.39Hartley 142.

7:21 “Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins? For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more.”

Job is baffled that the LORD does not forgive him if indeed he has committed some great offense.40Longman 149. “Pardon” is translated from a word that means literally “to bear” and recalls Exodus 34:6-7 where the same word is used of God’s forgiving nature.41Hartley 152-153. Knowing that God is forgiving, Job appeals to “God’s sovereign will” and not “his own morality.”42Ibid.

He fears his death is nigh and needs God to forgive him now before it is too late.43Rowley 70. The demands of justice will never be satisfied if he dies now because the ancients thought justice could only be resolved on this side of the grave.44Alden 113.

Still, Job’s fear is that the LORD will relent too late, not that he will never relent. He knows the LORD is a “God of justice and love, even though he is declaiming against his cruelty and injustice. Two views of God are struggling in his mind, and he appeals to the God of one view against the God of the other.”45Rowley 70. This tension and confusion propels the narrative toward the LORD’s eventual reply in Chapter 38.


Like Job Christians today will inevitably go through trials and suffering for reasons beyond their knowledge and control, but how ought Christians react to these circumstances?

The psalms of lament are often viewed as a provision for being emotionally honest with God, but the situation is not so simple here. When God finally replies in Chapter 38, he does not thank Job for his emotional honesty. Instead, in a frightening theophany, speaking out from the storm, he challenges Job with probing questions that leave him despising himself and repenting in dust and ashes (42:6). Job’s suffering was not a punishment for unrepentant sin as his friends believed, but in the end he did need to repent for “speaking without knowledge and questioning divine justice.”46Alden 113.

Emotional honesty may be a legitimate application from this passage but that is not the end of the story. Clearly in the larger context of the book it is far from ideal to dwell forever in an attitude skewed by negative emotion. Anguished resentment must eventually give way to humble repentance and a larger view of who God is.

Commenting on Job 3, Longman notes that a typical psalmic lament is addressed to God and contains a speck of hope—if only a speck.47Longman 106. In contrast to these laments is the hopeless grumbling of the Israelites in the desert.48Ibid. They did not address their complaints to God and only invited divine judgment upon themselves (Num. 11; 16:31-35; 21:6-7).49Ibid. God is decidedly displeased with this sort of self-centered grumbling.50Ibid.

Suffering Christians may speak honestly as Job did, but also like Job they should never stop seeking the LORD in the midst of their suffering even when they feel he is distant from them. Answers may never come and healing will not be immediate, but as time goes by, suffering should eventually drive Christians toward a greater view of who God is. The words of Scripture and the support of good friends (unlike Job’s miserable comforters) can be an immense help on this hard journey of suffering.


Alden, Robert L. New American Commentary. Edited by E. Ray Clendenen. Vol. 11, Job. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993.

Crenshaw, James L. “Job.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 3, edited by David Noel Freedman, 858-868. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Fowler, Timothy. The Mirror Poole. Plantation, Florida: Fowler Digital Books, 2015.

Hartley, John E. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Edited by Robert L. Hubbard. Job. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.

Longman, Tremper, III. Baker Commentary on the Old Testament. Edited by Tremper Longman III. Job. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012.

Rowley, H. H. New Century Bible Commentary. Edited by R. E. Clements and Matthew Black. Job. Rev. ed. 1976. Reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.

In Retrospect:

I see that I drew the application from a different text (Job 38–42). This is not always a bad thing to do, especially in a sermon. But the reason I did this, if I remember correctly, is that I did not think it was possible to apply Job 7:17-21 apart from the larger context of the book, and this is simply not true. I’ve heard enough great expository sermons in the intervening years to know that you need not go very far to find life applications even in a difficult text like this. I’m sure if I were to take some more time to meditate on this passage and read sermons others have preached on it, I could find applications right here without needing to go to other texts. For instance, I could have focused on Job’s implicit admission of sin in verse 21. The application could have been about not slinking away from the hard facts of our sinfulness even during times when our hearts are tender from suffering. If you can think of any other applications from this text, feel free to leave a comment!

Check back in a week or two for another Favorite Undergrad Paper! The next one I share might be my paper on the biblical ethics of deception.

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Notes   [ + ]

2 Replies to “Favorite Undergrad Papers: Exegesis of Job 7:17-21”

  1. Good study, Brother. One point I see here is that each new day brings a fresh divine visitation, new testings, and new challenges be overcome, divinely designed by our loving Father to give measurable increase in our Spiritual growth and stamina as we walk the pathways of life with Him.

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