The Limits of Human Wisdom and the Fear of the Lord: Job 28 in Context

How does the wisdom poem of Job 28 fit into the structure of the book? Its awkwardness has long been recognized, and some have proposed this chapter was a clumsy later insertion or that it had wandered from another location in the scroll.[1] But such explanations are highly speculative, and engage the reader in a dangerous game of rewriting the book to satisfy their personal sense of what is fitting instead of allowing the very awkwardness of the chapter to raise fresh questions about the book as a whole. All we can access, after all, is the text in its final canonical form; what sense can we make of it?

Job’s Despair by William Blake

In contrast to the dialogues of Job 3–27, chapter 28 is a wisdom poem, a sub-genre of which the other prominent biblical example is Proverbs 8. Both are meditations on the worth of wisdom that employ creation theology and urge the reader to fear the Lord and turn from evil (Prov 8:13). Yet Job 28 stands in contrast and even tension with its counterpart in Proverbs. There personified Wisdom had offered herself even to the simple and foolish (8:5); she had promised that “those who seek me find me” (17). Job 28 uses the wisdom poem to make almost the opposite point: that the acquisition of wisdom is beyond human power.

Although the poem’s location initially suggests Job is the speaker, a closer analysis of the context points elsewhere. The chapter is placed immediately after the third and final cycle of dialogue. In chapters 26 and 27 Job passionately defends his integrity in response to Bildad: “Far be it from me to say that you are right;” he exclaims, “until I die I will not put away my integrity from me.” (Job 27:5). But the detached tone of Job 28 is hardly appropriate for a man burning for justice; the chapter avoids the first and second person entirely. And although there is a weak verbal link between Job 27 and 28 in references to “silver” (27:16, 17; 28:1), little else connects the chapters. Even Tremper Longman, who argues for Job as the speaker, is compelled to admit, “It is true that the chapter does start a whole new line of thinking, with little if any connection to Job’s words in the previous section.”[2] Moreover, the poem is not connected to Job’s speech that follows either. Job’s final defense in 29–31 shows no awareness of Job 28; his closing speech is about justice, not wisdom. The opening words of Job 29, “Job continued his discourse,” allow for the possibility he is resuming speaking after some interlude. (This cannot be pressed too far, however, for 27:1 employs the same device between two of Job’s own speeches.)

Could Job 28 be a speech from one of the friends? Although some elements might support their arguments, the poem’s meditation on the inability to acquire wisdom brutally contradicts the friends’ assured confidence in their judgment. (“We have examined this, and it is true. So hear it and apply it to yourself.” [5:27]). Besides, the only friend who could speak here without violating the book’s structure is Zophar, who is missing from the third cycle. Yet the elevated tone of the wisdom poem is utterly out of character for the abrasive Naamathite. The most plausible suggestion is David J. A. Clines’s proposal that the poem is the conclusion of Elihu’s speech, but this depends on an imaginative reordering of whole sections of the book.[3]

These differences in both tone and content from any of the characters in the book suggest that the poem comes from the mouth of another voice outside the action, rather like the chorus between scenes remarking on the action in a play. The voice is not necessarily either God’s or the narrator’s. Much like Elihu’s contribution, it may anticipate and support the conclusion of the book. As Clines points out, twelve of the 28 uses of ‘wise’ or ‘wisdom’ in Job belong to Elihu.[4] Located as it is after the third cycle of dialogues and before Job’s final defense, it may serve as a welcome intermission, evaluate the preceding three cycles of dialogue, and introduce notes that will be fully developed when God speaks forth from the storm.

The three cycles of dialogue between Job and his friends had been a debate over who possessed true wisdom. “No doubt you are the people, and wisdom will die with you,” Job retorts at the end of the first cycle. “But I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you. Who does not know such things as these?” (12:2,3) But instead of resolution, three cycles of dialogue have ended only in frustration for Job and his friends. If Job 28 is the voice of the narrator reflecting on what has preceded, then, “the reader is reminded that the wisdom of both sides to the debate is finite and limited because it is human; true wisdom is to be found in God alone, and the only proper human response is to fear God and to reject evil.”[5]

The poem may be structured as follows:

1. Wisdom cannot be found by human effort (1–14). The poem opens by describing miners boring shafts deep into the earth to dig out precious metals. They tunnel to places no animal has ever been; the ingenuity of humans has no rival. “Their eyes see every precious thing … hidden things they bring to light” (10,11). There is no limit, it seems, to the reach of technology harnessed by human desire. But then, the poet demands, “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Mortals do not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living.” (12, 13) The implied negative answer to this rhetorical question is disturbing. “After hearing v. 13,” Stephen Geller observes, “our hypothetical Israelite reader might reasonably suspect, presumably with horror, that the poet intends to deny the possibility of piety.”[6]

(2) Wisdom cannot be acquired by human commerce (15–19). Not only can wisdom not be mined from the earth, but it also cannot be purchased with precious metals. Drawing on the longstanding motif of the pricelessness of wisdom, the poet declares that “the price of wisdom is beyond pearls.” This is less a celebration of the inherent worth of wisdom than a sobering reminder of its inaccessibility: wisdom is simply not on the market at any price. It is no more graspable by human commerce than by human technology. Wisdom is beyond human reach, and the quest is doomed to failure.

(3) God alone has access to wisdom (20–27). “Where then does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding?” (20) The rhetorical questions of verse 12 are repeated, but no mere human can supply an answer. It cannot be found in this world — or beyond. “Abbaddon and Death say, ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’” (22) Even the death for which Job longs will not bring the wisdom he needs. “God understands the way to it, and he knows its place.” (23) Interestingly, wisdom here is described not as an attribute within the divine nature, but as something with independent being that God sees and searches out (27). This is linked to divine creative activity, in words that anticipate God’s speech from the storm: “When he gave to the wind its weight, and apportioned out the waters by measure; when he made a decree for the rain, and a way for the thunderbolt; then he saw it and declared it; he established it, and searched it out.” (25–27). Since wisdom is the pattern of all reality, only the one present when order emerged from primordial chaos can behold wisdom in its pure state.

(4) The fear of the Lord is wisdom (28). The final verse of the poem offers the only possible human response. “And he said to humankind, ‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’” This is an allusion to the opening verse of Job: the man from Uz “feared God and shunned evil.” But can it be the case that the author is bringing us full circle to the opening verse of the book? Has no advance at all has been made in the preceding 27 chapters? It is not surprising that some scholars would excise the verse from the poem — a choice that Clines labels “a failure of nerve”.[7] But the poem cries out for a concluding moral (compare the concluding “Now then, my children, listen to me” in Proverbs 8 as that wisdom poem moves from God’s creative work to ethical application). Job 28:28 is not only integral to the poem, it is the chapter’s climax. “Wisdom is found in a moral universe that is fundamentally rooted in the awe of the God who ordered the world.”[8]

How does this verse offer a resolution of Job’s problem? As Carol Newsom observes, “One can imagine Job vigorously resisting the claim of the wisdom poem … he has not been engaged on some futile ‘quest for wisdom’; he has been trying to assert a claim of justice.”[9] True enough, but Job has been seeking for a way to recover noetic equilibrium, not merely to have his misfortunate reversed, but to understand how reality works now that his previous naïveté about God and the world has been shattered. Job 28 teaches that “one is not to seize wisdom as by a raid on the inaccessible but to enter into wisdom’s realm through the practice of a piety and an uprightness defined in terms of human response to the divine trust.”[10]

But had Job not lived his life that way before affliction struck him? Yes and no. Clines underlines the emotive aspect of the fear (Heb. yir’at) of the Lord.[11] The fear of the Lord may result in an ethical disposition, but at its root is sacred awe in the numinous presence of the creator and sustainer of all reality. In such an encounter the old confident ways of knowing collapse. “Because God is majestic and therefore to be feared before all things, to encounter him is to be encountered by that which we can never master, which can never become an object, an idea or pattern of words or experience that we can retrieve and inspect at will.”[12]

Job 28:28, which at first appears to be a shopworn cliche, actually foreshadows Job’s terrifying encounter with the God who interrogates him from the whirlwind. By the book’s end, Job’s “fear of the Lord” will be borne of overwhelming existential encounter and not merely a set of moral convictions, however sincerely held. “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” (42:5) This is true wisdom.

The Lord Answering Job Out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Job is not a theodicy in the traditional sense because it offers no rationale for evil in the world; in fact, Job never receives an explanation for his suffering. What he must learn is that the moral order of the world “exists as a deep structure not accessible to the rational consciousness”, and the only possible response is surrender to the hidden ways of an incomprehensible God.[13] That realization unsettles old securities, of course. The attraction of the retributive theology of conventional religion is that it offers a moral technique by which one can manage reality with the correct ethical inputs. It is a “fear of the Lord,” ironically, in which God himself is not necessary; ironclad laws of cause and effect operate the world independently. But by the end of the book Job realizes the falsity of these assumptions, and is overcome by a fear of the Lord, who moves in the world with power and freedom beyond human scrutiny.


  1. See the approaches listed in Alison Lo, Job 28 As Rhetoric: An Analysis of Job 28 in the Context of Job 22–31 (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 2–15.
  2. Tremper Longman, Job, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 464.
  3. David J. A. Clines, “Putting Elihu in his Place: A Proposal for the Relocation of Job 32–37,” JSOT 29,2 (2004), 248–49.
  4. Ibid, 250.
  5. J. A. Grant, “Wisdom Poem,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008), 892.
  6. Stephen A. Geller, “Where Is Wisdom? A Study of Job 28 in Its Settings,” in Judaic Perspectives On Ancient Israel, ed. J. Neusner, B. Levine, and E. Frerichs (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 100.
  7. Clines, “The Fear of the Lord Is Wisdom’ (Job 28:28): A Semantic and Contextual Study,” in Job 28: Cognition in Context, ed. Ellen Van Wolde (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 76.
  8. Scott C. Jones, Rumors of Wisdom: Job 28 as Poetry (New York: De Gruyter: 2009), 102.
  9. Carol Newsom, The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 176.
  10. J. Gerald Janzen, Job, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985), 305.
  11. Clines, “The Fear of the Lord Is Wisdom”, 64, 69–70.
  12. Webster, John. B, Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 28.
  13. Newsom, 177.



Th.M. student at Regent College. Pastor of Tbilisi International Christian Fellowship. Canadian in Georgia. 🇨🇦🇬🇪

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Bart Byl

Th.M. student at Regent College. Pastor of Tbilisi International Christian Fellowship. Canadian in Georgia. 🇨🇦🇬🇪