The King is Toppled

Commentary On Job 12:12-25

Job 12:12–25 (ESV)

12  Wisdom is with the aged,
and understanding in length of days.

13  “With God are wisdom and might;
he has counsel and understanding.
14  If he tears down, none can rebuild;
if he shuts a man in, none can open.
15  If he withholds the waters, they dry up;
if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land.
16  With him are strength and sound wisdom;
the deceived and the deceiver are his.
17  He leads counselors away stripped,
and judges he makes fools.
18  He looses the bonds of kings
and binds a waistcloth on their hips.
19  He leads priests away stripped
and overthrows the mighty.
20  He deprives of speech those who are trusted
and takes away the discernment of the elders.
21  He pours contempt on princes
and loosens the belt of the strong.
22  He uncovers the deeps out of darkness
and brings deep darkness to light.
23  He makes nations great, and he destroys them;
he enlarges nations, and leads them away.
24  He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth
and makes them wander in a trackless waste.
25  They grope in the dark without light,
and he makes them stagger like a drunken man.


This is a noble discourse of Job’s concerning the wisdom, power, and sovereignty of God, in ordering and disposing of all the affairs of the children of men, according to the counsel of his own will, which none dares gainsay or can resist. Take both him and them out of the controversy in which they were so warmly engaged, and they all spoke admirably well; but, in that, we sometimes scarcely know what to make of them. It were well if wise and good men, that differ in their apprehensions about minor things, would see it to be for their honour and comfort, and the edification of others, to dwell most upon those great things in which they are agreed. On this subject Job speaks like himself. Here are no passionate complaints, no peevish reflections, but every thing masculine and great.

I. He asserts the unsearchable wisdom and irresistible power of God.

It is allowed that among men there is wisdom and understanding, v. 12. But it is to be found only with some few, with the ancient, and those who are blessed with length of days, who get it by long experience and constant experience; and, when they have got the wisdom, they have lost their strength and are unable to execute the results of their wisdom. But now with God there are both wisdom and strength, wisdom to design the best and strength to accomplish what is designed. He does not get counsel or understanding, as we do, by observation, but he has it essentially and eternally in himself, v. 13.

What is the wisdom of ancient men compared with the wisdom of the ancient of days!

It is but little that we know, and less that we can do; but God can do every thing, and no thought can be withheld from him. Happy are those who have this God for their God, for they have infinite wisdom and strength engaged for them. Foolish and fruitless are all the attempts of men against him (v. 14): He breaketh down, and it cannot be built again.

Note, There is no contending with the divine providence, nor breaking the measures of it. As he had said before (ch. 9:12), He takes away, and who can hinder him? so he says again. What God says cannot be gainsaid, nor what he does undone. There is no rebuilding what God will have to lie in ruins; witness the tower of Babel, which the undertakers could not go on with, and the desolations of Sodom and Gomorrah, which could never be repaired. See Isa. 25:2; Eze. 26:14; Rev. 18:21. There is no releasing those whom God has condemned to a perpetual imprisonment; if he shut up a man by sickness, reduce him to straits, and embarrass him in his affairs, there can be no opening. He shuts up in the grave, and none can break open those sealed doors—shuts up in hell, in chains of darkness, and none can pass that great gulf fixed.

II. He gives an instance, for the proof of this doctrine in nature, v. 15.

God has the command of the waters, binds them as in a garment (Prov. 30:4), holds them in the hollow of his hand (Isa. 40:12); and he can punish the children of men either by the defect or by the excess of them. As men break the laws of virtue by extremes on each hand, both defects and excesses, while virtue is in the mean, so God corrects them by extremes, and denies them the mercy which is in the mean.

1. Great droughts are sometimes great judgments:

He withholds the waters, and they dry up; if the heaven be as brass, the earth is as iron; if the rain be denied, fountains dry up and their streams are wanted, fields are parched and their fruits are wanted, Amos 4:7.

2. Great wet is sometimes a great judgment.

He raises the waters, and overturns the earth, the productions of it, the buildings upon it. A sweeping rain is said to leave no food, Prov. 28:3. See how many ways God has of contending with a sinful people and taking from them abused, forfeited, mercies; and how utterly unable we are to contend with him. If we might invert the order, this verse would fitly refer to Noah’s flood, that ever memorable instance of the divine power. God then, in wrath, sent the waters out, and they overturned the earth; but in mercy he withheld them, shut the windows of heaven and the fountains of the great deep, and then, in a little time, they dried up.

III. He gives many instances of it in God’s powerful management of the children of men,

Crossing their purposes and serving his own by them and upon them, overruling all their counsels, overpowering all their attempts, and overcoming all their oppositions. What changes does God make with men! what turns does he give them! how easily, how surprisingly!

1. In general (v. 16):

With him are strength and reason (so some translate it), strength and consistency with himself: it is an elegant word in the original. With him are the very quintessence and extract of wisdom. With him are power and all that is; so some read it. He is what he is of himself, and by him and in him all things subsist. Having this strength and wisdom, he knows how to make use, not only of those who are wise and good, who willingly and designedly serve him, but even of those who are foolish and bad, who, one would think, could be made no way serviceable to the designs of his providence:

The deceived and the deceiver are his; the simplest men that are deceived are not below his notice; the subtlest men that deceive cannot with all their subtlety escape his cognizance. The world is full of deceit; the one half of mankind cheats the other, and God suffers it to be so, and from both will at last bring glory to himself. The deceivers make tools of the deceived, but the great God makes tools of them both, wherewith he works, and none can hinder him. He has wisdom and might enough to manage all the fools and knaves in the world, and knows how to serve his own purposes by them, notwithstanding the weakness of the one and the wickedness of the other.

When Jacob by a fraud got the blessing the design of God’s grace was served; when Ahab was drawn by a false prophecy into an expedition that was his ruin the design of God’s justice was served; and in both the deceived and the deceiver were at his disposal. See Eze. 14:9. God would not suffer the sin of the deceiver, nor the misery of the deceived, if he knew not how to set bounds to both and bring glory to himself out of both. Hallelujah, the Lord God omnipotent thus reigns; and it is well he does, for otherwise there is so little wisdom and so little honesty in the world that it would all have been in confusion and ruin long ago.

2. He next descends to the particular instances of the wisdom and power of God in the revolutions of states and kingdoms;

For thence he fetches his proofs, rather than from the like operations of Providence concerning private persons and families, because the more high and public the station is in which men are placed the more the changes that befall them are taken notice of, and consequently the more illustriously does Providence shine forth in them. And it is easy to argue, If God can thus turn and toss the great ones of the earth, like a ball in a large place (as the prophet speaks, Isa. 22:18), much more the little ones; and with him to whom states and kingdoms must submit it is surely the greatest madness for us to contend.

Some think that Job here refers to the extirpation of those powerful nations, the Rephaim, the Zuzim, the Emim, and the Horites (mentioned Gen. 14:5, 6; Deu. 2:10, 20), in which perhaps it was particularly noticed how strangely they were infatuated and enfeebled: if so, it is designed to show that whenever the like is done in the affairs of nations it is God that does it, and we must therein observe his sovereign dominion, even over those that think themselves most powerful, politic, and absolute.

Compare this with that of Eliphaz, ch. 5:12, etc. Let us gather up the particular changes here specified, which God makes upon persons, either for the destruction of nations and the planting of others in their room or for the turning out of a particular government and ministry and the elevation of another in its room, which may be a blessing to the kingdom; witness the glorious Revolution in our own land twenty years ago, in which we saw as happy an exposition as ever was given of this discourse of Job’s.

(1.) Those that were wise are sometimes strangely infatuated, and in this the hand of God must be acknowledged (v. 17):

He leadeth counsellors away spoiled, as trophies of his victory over them, spoiled of all the honour and wealth they have got by their policy, nay, spoiled of the wisdom itself for which they have been celebrated and the success they promised themselves in their projects. His counsel stands, while all their devices are brought to nought and their designs baffled, and so they are spoiled both of the satisfaction and of the reputation of their wisdom.

He maketh the judges fools. By a work on their minds he deprives them of their qualifications for business, and so they become really fools; and by his disposal of their affairs he makes the issue and event of their projects to be quite contrary to what they themselves intended, and so he makes them look like fools. The counsel of Ahithophel, one in whom this scripture was remarkably fulfilled, became foolishness, and he, according to his name, the brother of a fool. See Isa. 19:13, The princes of Zoan have become fools; they have seduced Egypt, even those that are the stay of the tribes thereof. Let not the wise man therefore glory in his wisdom, nor the ablest counsellors and judges be proud of their station, but humbly depend upon God for the continuance of their abilities.

Even the aged, who seem to hold their wisdom by prescription, and think they have got it by their own industry and therefore have an indefeasible title to it, may yet be deprived of it, and often are, by the infirmities of age, which make them twice children: He taketh away the understanding of the aged, v. 20. The aged, who were most depended on for advice, fail those that depended on them. We read of an old and yet foolish king, Eccl. 4:13.

(2.) Those that were high and in authority are strangely brought down, impoverished, and enslaved, and it is God that humbles them (v. 18):

He looseth the bond of kings, and taketh from them the power wherewith they ruled their subjects, perhaps enslaved them and ruled them with rigour; he strips them of all the ensigns of their honour and authority, and all the supports of their tyranny, unbuckles their belts, so that the sword drops from their side, and then no marvel if the crown quickly drops from their head, on which immediately follows the girding of their loins with a girdle, a badge of servitude, for servants went with their loins girt. Thus he leads great princes away spoiled of all their power and wealth, and that in which they pleased and prided themselves, v. 19.

Note, Kings are not exempt from God’s jurisdiction. To us they are gods, but men to him, and subject to more than the common changes of human life.

(3.) Those that were strong are strangely weakened, and it is God that weakens them (v. 21) and overthrows the mighty. v. 19.

Strong bodies are weakened by age and sickness; powerful armies moulder and come to nothing, and their strength will not secure them from a fatal overthrow. No force can stand before Omnipotence, no, not that of Goliath.

(4.) Those that were famed for eloquence, and entrusted with public business, are strangely silenced, and have nothing to say (v. 20):

He removeth away the speech of the trusty, so that they cannot speak as they intended and as they used to do, with freedom and clearness, but blunder, and falter, and make nothing of it. Or they cannot speak what they intended, but the contrary, as Balaam, who blessed those whom he was called to curse. Let not the orator therefore be proud of his rhetoric, nor use it to any bad purposes, lest God take it away, who made man’s mouth.

(5.) Those that were honoured and admired strangely fall into disgrace (v. 21):

He poureth contempt upon princes. He leaves them to themselves to do mean things, or alters the opinions of men concerning them. If princes themselves dishonour God and despise him, if they offer indignities to the people of God and trample upon them, they shall be lightly esteemed, and God will pour contempt upon them. See Ps. 107:40. Commonly none more abject in themselves, nor more abused by others when they are down, than those who were haughty and insolent when they were in power.

(6.) That which was secret, and lay hidden, is strangely brought to light and laid open (v. 22):

He discovers deep things out of darkness. Plots closely laid are discovered and defeated; wickedness closely committed and artfully concealed is discovered, and the guilty are brought to condign punishment—secret treasons (Eccl. 10:20), secret murders, secret whoredoms. The cabinet-councils of princes are before God’s eye, 2 Ki. 6:11. (7.) Kingdoms have their ebbings and flowings, their waxings and wanings; and both are from God (v. 23): He sometimes increases their numbers, and enlarges their bounds, so that they make a figure among the nations and become formidable; but after a while, by some undiscerned cause perhaps, they are destroyed and straitened, made few and poor, cut short and many of them cut off, and so they are rendered despicable among their neighbours, and those that were the head become the tail of the nations. See Ps. 107:38, 39. (8.)

Those that were bold and courageous, and made nothing of dangers, are strangely cowed and dispirited; and this also is the Lord’s doing (v. 24): He taketh away the heart of the chief of the people, that were their leaders and commanders, and were most famed for their martial fire and great achievements; when any thing is to be done they are heartless, and ready to flee at the shaking of a leaf. Ps. 76:5. (9.) Those that were driving on their projects with full speed are strangely bewildered and at a loss; they know not where they are nor what they do, are unsteady in their counsels and uncertain in their motions, off and on, this way and that way, wandering like men in a desert (v. 24), groping like men in the dark, and staggering like men in drink, v. 25. Isa. 59:10.

Note, God can soon nonplus the deepest politicians and bring the greatest wits to their wits’ end, to show that wherein they deal proudly he is above them.
Thus are the revolutions of kingdoms wonderfully brought about by an overruling Providence. Heaven and earth are shaken, but the Lord sits King for ever, and with him we look for a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible:

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