Deep in his misery, Job contemplates two symbols of his hopelessness.
In Job 14, he considers that the utter hopelessness of his life rests in the fact that he does not seem to have a possibility of an afterlife. “Man born of woman is short-lived and full of trouble, like a flower that springs up and fades, swift as a shadow that does not abide,” (verses 1-2).
The fate of man is contrasted with of a tree:
For a tree there is hope;
if it is cut down, it will sprout again,
its tender shoots will not cease.
Even though its root grow old in the earth
and its stump die in the dust,
Yet at the first whiff of water it sprouts
and puts forth branches like a young plant (verses 7-9).
Notice how Job is at pains to distance himself from any possibility of hope. He draws an analogy with the fading flower to describe the mortality of man. But nature also abounds with analogies of the resurrection: new life from the seed of a dead plant, the changing of the seasons, and, here, the seemingly dead tree which sprouts anew.
But Job rejects this last analogy. The stump may revitalize, but this does not happen with man. His body decays. There is no hidden vigor waiting to be released. “But when a man dies, all vigor leaves him; when a mortal expires, where then is he?” (verse 10).
Job then further develops this contrast into another analogy. In the case of the tree, water nourishes the moribund stump back into life. But water can also be a destructive force:
Mountains fall and crumble,
rocks move from their place,
And water wears away stone,
and floods wash away the soil of the land—
so you destroy the hope of mortals! (verses 18-19)
If water can wear down rock, just imagine how perishable man is, no matter how durable he may make himself out to be.
Job thus presents us with two images. One, the replenished stump, is an image of hope for renewal, but man is assumed to be excluded from this hope. The other image is one of hopelessness which does encompass mankind.
The above two images are connected by a third: that of water. In one image, water is the source of renewal. In the other, it is a cause of ruin. It is a testament to how forlorn Job considers himself that something which brings life to other living things—dormant tree stumps—is seen as only bringing death for man.
But, in this darkness, light shines.
In the first instance, the stump, the language parallels and anticipates that of Isaiah 11:1, which speaks of a “shoot” from the “stump of Jesse”—a well-known prophetic image of Christ. This also recalls an earlier text, Isaiah 6:13, which likewise speaks of the “holy seed” of a stump.
Arboreal imagery is particularly fitting for Christ. It is not only the context of Isaiah 11 and St. Paul’s statement in Romans 15:12 that confirm the stump of Jesse foreshadows Christ. Remember, Christ’s destiny on earth is particularly linked to a tree, the cross, on which He dies in in order to destroy death and extend the hope of resurrection to all men.
For Job the sprouting stump is a paradoxical image. It is an authentic symbol of hope. But, in the mind of Job, it only reinforces his despondency because it is assumed that man cannot partake of this hope. In Christ, then, this longing is unexpectedly fulfilled. And it is done in both a symbolic and literal manner—literal, because Christ’s act of deliverance occurs on an actual tree.
Likewise, his image of hopeless is reversed to one of hope.
The flood waters that ravish all the earth—even the mountains—undoubtedly recall the Genesis flood. This event is another well-established type for baptism, the sacrament in which we are spiritually reborn and given hope of a full resurrection in the next life. Baptism is a form of participation in the death of Christ who is called the ‘living water’ in the gospels (see Romans 6:4; John 4).
Thus, in Job, two symbols—one of a hope impossible to fulfill, the other of hopelessness impossible to avoid—are transformed in Christ. The first is unexpectedly fulfilled. The second is fulfilled but in an unexpected way by being reversed from a sign of hopelessness into one of hope.