Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,XXXVIII.
(1) Then the Lord answered Job.—This chapter brings the grand climax and catastrophe of the poem. Unless all was to remain hopelessly uncertain and dark, there could be no solution of the questions so fiercely and obstinately debated but by the intervention of Him whose government was the matter in dispute. And so the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, or tempest: that is to say, the tempest which had been long gathering, and which had been the subject of Elihu’s remarks. The one argument which is developed in the remaining chapters is drawn from man’s ignorance. There is so much in nature that man knows not and cannot understand, that it is absurd for him to suppose that he can judge aright in matters touching God’s moral government of the world. Though Job is afterwards (Job 42:8) justified by God, yet the tone of all that God says to him is more or less mingled with reproach.
Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?(2) Who is this?—The question may be answered by Job’s own words (Job 14:1). It is a man as so described, a dying and enfeebled man, like Job himself, not even a man in his best estate, but one so persecuted and exhausted as Job: one, therefore, altogether unequal to the task he has undertaken.
That darkeneth counsel.—That is, probably, my counsel, which was the matter under debate. The words, however, are often used proverbially in a general sense. Such discussions, carried on, as they cannot but be, in entire ignorance by blind mortals, must to God’s omniscience seem thus, and cannot be otherwise than the darkening of counsel by words without knowledge.
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.(4) Where wast thou?—The comparison of the creation of the world to the building of an edifice is such a concession to the feebleness of man as serves of itself to heighten the effect of the inevitable answer to the question preferred.
When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?(7) The morning stars.—The context seems to suggest that by the stars are meant the angels entrusted with their guardianship, from whence Milton has borrowed his conceptions. The magnificent sublimity of the expression and the thought needs no comment.
And brake up for it my decreed place, and set bars and doors,(10) And brake up for it my decreed place.—Rather, And prescribed for it my decree: that is to say, determined the boundaries of its abode. When we bear in mind the vast forces and unstable nature of the sea, it seems a marvel that it acknowledges any limits, and is held in restraint by them.
Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place;(12) And caused the dayspring to know his place.—Changing, as it does, from day to day with the changing seasons.
That it might take hold of the ends of the earth, that the wicked might be shaken out of it?(13) Shaken out of it.—The figure is that of a man shaking a cloth (Job 24:15-17).
It is turned as clay to the seal; and they stand as a garment.(14) As clay to the seal.—In the darkness every object is without form and void, just as clay or wax, which has no distinctness of shape till the seal is applied, and then the impression is clear and manifest. So with the coming of the daylight after darkness. We should rather render, It is changed as clay under the seal, and all things stand forth as in their proper raiment.
Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?(16) The search of the depth—i.e., the secret recesses of it. The “springs of the sea” are rather, perhaps, the mazes, intricacies, &c. of the trackless, pathless deep. This leads to the cognate thought of the bottomless pit of death (Job 38:17).
Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all.(18) Perceived.—Or rather, perhaps, comprehended.
The breadth of the earth.—The earth being conceived of as a vast plain (comp. Job 38:13). Unscientific as all this language is, it is not a little remarkable that the majestic sublimity of it is not one whit affected thereby.
That thou shouldest take it to the bound thereof, and that thou shouldest know the paths to the house thereof?(20) That thou shouldest take it—i.e., go with or track it.
Knowest thou it, because thou wast then born? or because the number of thy days is great?(21) Knowest thou it?—It is better to read this verse without an interrogation, as sublime irony. “Doubtless thou knowest all this, for thou wast born then, and the number of thy days is so great!”
Which I have reserved against the time of trouble, against the day of battle and war?(23) The time of trouble.—As was the case with the Canaanites, in Joshua 10:11. (Comp. Psalm 18:13.)
By what way is the light parted, which scattereth the east wind upon the earth?(24) By what way is the light parted?—i.e., distributed in turn to all the inhabitants of the earth.
The east wind.—As naturally suggested by the origin of light and the mention of it.
Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters, or a way for the lightning of thunder;(25) Who hath divided a watercourse.—Rather, cleft a channel for the water-flood.
To cause it to rain on the earth, where no man is; on the wilderness, wherein there is no man;(26) To cause it to rain on the earth.—Because God is mindful of His creation, independently of the wants of man.
The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.(30) The waters are hid.—Or, The waters hide themselves and become like stone. Water loses its familiar quality, and is turned into stone.
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?(31) The sweet influences.—With reference to their supposed effect on weather and the like, or perhaps the word means chain or band, with allusion to their group—“Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.” The context, however, of “the bands of Orion” seems rather to favour the other view. “Canst thou regulate the influences exerted by these several constellations in either direction of increase or diminution?”
Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?(32) Mazzaroth is commonly understood to mean the signs of the Zodiac, and by the children of Arc-turus the three stars in the tail of Ursa Major.
Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth?(33) The ordinances of heaven.—Comp. Job 28:26. That is, the recurring seasons and their power of influencing the earth.
Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts? or who hath given understanding to the heart?(36) Wisdom in the inward parts.—The mention of the inward parts and the heart here, in the midst of natural phenomena, perplexes every one; but it is a natural solution to refer them to the lightnings personified: “Who hath put such understanding in their inward parts?”
Who can number the clouds in wisdom? or who can stay the bottles of heaven,(37) Who can stay the bottles of heaven?—This is understood in two opposite senses—of pouring out the bottles or of laying them up in store. It is not easy to decide which is most in accordance with the context, for the context also is somewhat uncertain, according as we interpret the solid mass of thick mud or of hard, dry soil. The survey of physical phenomena ends with this verse.
Wilt thou hunt the prey for the lion? or fill the appetite of the young lions,(39) Wilt thou hunt the prey?—The new chapter ought to begin here with this verse, inasmuch as the animal creation now passes under review.
Who provideth for the raven his food? when his young ones cry unto God, they wander for lack of meat.(41) They wander for lack of meat.—The second clause is not a direct statement, but is dependent on the previous one; thus: “When his young ones cry unto God, when they wander for lack of meat.”