Job Pt 4 (Chapters 15-25)

by Glenn on October 8, 2014

I

The focus of the preaching at Imago Dei Community this year has been telling “The Story,” God’s story as it is revealed through the Bible. We began with Genesis way back in the second Sunday of January and recently arrived at the New Testament. We’ve been reminded throughout the year that we are a “story people” who “live out of a narrative.” A week ago Sunday, Rick McKinley cautioned us that if we’re not careful we “will allow other narratives to shape our story rather than letting God’s story shape our story. The whole point is to be a [God-]storied people.”

Then he added,
“For many believers, the Bible is something we treat almost like fortune cookies. We pick these verses out (“Isn’t that sweet?”) and we tack them onto our lives. When we pick and choose, we miss the fullness of the narrative. We miss the magnitude of the story.”

The story of Job is a complicated one within the larger story. And it’s a dangerous book to take a fortune cookie approach.

 

Job and his friends

Job and his friends. Oil painting by Ilya Yefimovich-Repin (1869).

II

One of those questions that Christians sometimes pose (so they can determine who is and who is not a true believer) is, “Do you take the Bible literally?” The correct answer is, of course, “Yes, I take the Bible literally.” But the problem I am discovering is that Job is not a book that can be taken literally throughout.

For example, in Job 12:2, Job says,

“Doubtless you are the only people who matter, and wisdom will die with you!”

This is one verse out of many in Job that isn’t literally true. It’s verbal irony or sarcasm depending on how you categorize it. Job did not mean that his three friends were the only ones whose opinions mattered and that when they died there would be no more wisdom. (The plain, literal meaning of what he says.) The context tells us he intended the exact opposite. This was a poetic (and polite?) way of saying, “You three are stupid and annoying.”

Another couple of verses not to take literally are Job 15:5–6, where Eliphaz tells Job,

“Your sin prompts your mouth; you adopt the tongue of the crafty.
Your own mouth condemns you, not mine; your own lips testify against you.”

We can’t these words literally because Eliphaz is wrong. He doesn’t know what he is talking about. Job hasn’t spoken out of sin and is honest when he says he is blameless. Some verses later, Eliphaz poses a question that I don’t think he intended as a question. In Job 15:14 he asks,

“What are mortals, that they could be pure,
or those born of woman, that they could be righteous?”

Eliphaz isn’t asking the question I as a reader want to know, which is, “How is it possible that Job is blameless?” No, he is making a statement of fact meant as an indictment of Job. Each of Job’s friends is vexed by his protestations of innocence and they say so, over and over again. You can’t take those verses literally because they are not true of Job.

The central conflict of this book comes from the fact that Job’s friends are very clear about the way wisdom should work but  are unaware that it’s not working in this case. (Job, to his credit and in spite of anguish, attempts to make his case.) The limited perspective of Job’s friends means we have to more or less ignore everything they say about Job. Their words are honest only to the extent that they believe they are true.

Job is not immune to saying things that cannot be taken literally, either. You have to be careful with the fortune cookie approach with what Job says, too, especially on the subject of death. There have been a number of times where Job has referred to death as sleep or annihilation or termination:

[sleep] “Why did I not perish at birth … For now I would be lying down in peace …” (Job 3:11, 13)

[annihiliation] “For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more.” (Job 7:21)

[termination]“If a man dies, will he live again?” (Job 14:14)

If you build your belief system about the afterlife using these verses from Job you’re going to have some interesting collisions with other parts of the Bible.

 

III

Surprisingly little happens in the book of Job. You’re certainly not overwhelmed by countless characters and plot points. In essence, some bad stuff happens to Job (for reasons he does not understand) and three of his “friends” argue with him about the source of that bad stuff.

Job’s position: “I’ve done nothing wrong, yet God has turned my life into a disaster. I have no recourse with God; I just want to die.”

Job’s friends’ position: “Bad stuff only happens to bad people, therefore you did something wrong, Job. Get right with God.”

These two positions more or less summarize the dialogue of Job 15–25. Job asks something like, “What is God doing to me when I am innocent?” Job’s friends, each in turn, argue in one way or another, “You must be guilty of something.” All the characters stay with their talking points. There is a fundamental “stuckness” that characterizes the book of Job.

Interesting, while Job’s friends are trying to reconcile Job to what they know to be true, we have to do our own reconciling of this story to the larger story of what God is doing. Psalm 97:10 says that the LORD “guards the lives of his faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.” Well, Job’s problem is not the wicked. His problem is God. The One who is supposed to be guarding his life has decimated it. Is it blasphemous to say that Job needs deliverance from God? He seems to say so again and again:

“God assails me and tears me in his anger …[God] has made me his target … God has wronged me … the hand of God has struck me (Job16:9 and 12; 19:6 and 21).”

At one point Job speaks directly to God:

“Surely, O God, you have worn me out; you have devastated my entire household …” (Job 16: 7)

It’s small comfort, but as we were allowed to see inside the deliberations of heaven, it’s more technically correct to say “God allowed” all of this stuff to happen to Job. It would be scary to live in a world where good and evil are duking it out and we’re not sure who will win, but I’m not sure how less troubling it is to think of a world where a sovereign God allows bad things to go on. We can blame Satan as the direct cause for all this trouble in Job’s life, but doesn’t God bear some responsibility? I feel like we are left with this difficult conclusion: God’s sovereignty offers no guarantees about quality of life for anyone. The person that God was most proud of was given some of the worst circumstances to endure. It seems to me that Job is a kind of foreshadowing of Christ.

IV

What I am finding as I read through Job is that I don’t read very well. I mean, I can read. I’m reasonably well educated and follow the action (though admittedly the story of Job is not that difficult to follow), but understanding Job in its fullness requires more understanding than I have right now. A lot of this, I believe, has to do with my lack of familiarity with Hebrew poetry, much of which I fear is flying past me. I may not be alone. As I listened to Chuck Smith teach through chapter 6*, I noticed he skipped right past the allusion in verses 19–20. (After reading Job 6:18, he said, “Down to verse 21.”)

“The caravans of Tema look for water,
the traveling merchants of Sheba look in hope.
They are distressed, because they had been confident;
they arrive there, only to be disappointed.” (Job 6:19–20)

I’m at a loss. The analogy is fuzzy and in its context, I just don’t know. It’s a many thousands of years-old reference and I will be interested to see what commentators say about those verses. There are other passages in Job that Pastor Chuck reads through without any sort of comment. I don’t know what to make of that. (For the record, I am not making any statement about Pastor Chuck’s Biblical knowledge.)

Some of the language I do get, like the simple similes, [Job:] “he uproots my hope like a tree,” (Job 19:10) and the plain metaphors, [Bildad:] “The lamp of the wicked is snuffed out,” (Job 18:5) and there are some passages that become clearer the longer I wrestle with them, [Zophar (speaking of the “godless” and by extension suggesting that this applies to Job):]

“Though evil is sweet in his mouth
and he hides it under his tongue,
though he cannot bear to let it go
and lets it linger in his mouth,
yet his food will turn sour in his stomach;
it will become the venom of serpents within him.

He will spit out the riches he swallowed;
God will make his stomach vomit them up.
He will suck the poison of serpents;
the fangs of an adder will kill him. (Job 20:12–16)

There’s a lot going on there: “The godless thinks evil tastes good and so he keeps it in his mouth because he can’t get rid of it, but it sours in his stomach and becomes like snake poison and he throws it up (metaphor for losing his wealth?) because God makes him and then he gets poisoned by snakes.” Wow. Slow down, there, Zophar.

Lay that passage next to others like it and you are at a loss trying to understand how all of this fits together and what is being said and what it all means. It seems most of it is metaphorical and much of it has to be carefully interpreted in light of other Scripture. At least, when you read all those long passages of Job’s friends and find it a little opaque or overwhelming, Job himself seems to agree: “Will your long-winded speeches never end? What ails you that you keep on arguing?” (Job 16:3)

V

Job’s friends are blunt instruments. “To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” They have their one point (“Bad things happen to bad people … you must be bad.”) that they want to make over and over and over on Job’s poor head.

But Job, in the midst of grief, is living with complexity and nuance and inconsistency. In chapter 21 he describes the contradiction between the way of wisdom and reality. He has noticed that some times wicked people flourish. And in his own life he understands only too well how bad it can get for a good guy. All of his high art in speech serves to reinforce two observations:

Good people suffer while bad people do well.
Good people do well while evil people suffer.

In Job 21:23–26, he captures it this way,

One person dies in full vigor,
completely secure and at ease,
well nourished in body,
bones rich with marrow.
Another dies in bitterness of soul,
never having enjoyed anything good.
Side by side they lie in the dust,
and worms cover them both.

He sees life accurately, doesn’t he. Like we say these days, “He gets it.” What neither he nor we know is Why? I mean, we do know what has gone on behind the scenes in Job’s case, but we don’t have a good answer to the question. Life is a mystery. Job seems to have a finger on the pulse of that reality.

VI

This summer, before the lectionary took us to Job, Bill Clem as part of this series on “The Story” gave an introduction to the book. It was an tough appropriately stark message. Bill said, “Sometimes we’re looking at what God is doing and we say, ‘I don’t like this.’ You don’t like this because you have such a small view. Pain is your ultimate value. And if you can just get your pain stopped, [then] God is good. And if pain continues, then [you] struggle with … ‘How can God be good if I’m experiencing pain? Or how can God be good if anyone’s experiencing pain?’”

It was an exceptional distilling of 42 chapters into one reasonably-lengthed message. (I didn’t realize how good a summation it was until after I read Job.)

Some memorable points from the sermon that ring true from what I’ve been reading in Job:

1. There is suffering and it isn’t just people who are bad who have bad things happen to them.

2. When bad things happen to others, it’s tempting to say, “Admit your sin. Repent harder.”

3. When bad things happen to you, it’s tempting to say, “None of this would have happened if I was better. What did I do wrong? What can I do to get rid of it?” [My comment: If anything, Job disabuses us of the notion of trying to take a transactional approach with God. “If I will …, then He will …” Nope. Don’t go there, at least not on your terms.]

4. Job’s friends put Job in a tough position. “They tell him, ‘You’re spiritually proud.’ It’s a perfect trap: If he defends himself, then, yes, he is spiritually proud; if he doesn’t, then he admits he is spiritually proud.”

5. Just in case you are wondering what this preacher knows of suffering, Bill mentions the fact that when his first wife got cancer, they both agreed that they would not ask the question, Why? It’s quite a story he tells in a sermon he gave shortly after his arrival at Imago Dei.

VII

Final thoughts on reading this section of Job:

1. I am struck by the lack of basic compassion from Job’s friends. How can Job’s cries not break their hearts: “Have pity on me, my friends, have pity, for the hand of God has struck me.” (Job 19:21) If we assume they are well meaning, then they must think Job is delusional and are trying to help him see reality. But Job is an innocent on trial for crimes he did not commit. The attempts of the prosecution to break down the witness are cruel.

2. As a Christian, it’s hard not to bring Jesus into Job. “Is Job a type of Christ?” That’s for another day. But there a couple of passages where I can’t help but think of Jesus. The first is Job 16:9–14:

“God assails me and tears me in his anger
and gnashes his teeth at me;
my opponent fastens on me his piercing eyes.
People open their mouths to jeer at me;
they strike my cheek in scorn
and unite together against me.
God has turned me over to the ungodly
and thrown me into the clutches of the wicked.
All was well with me, but he shattered me;
he seized me by the neck and crushed me.
He has made me his target;
his archers surround me.
Without pity, he pierces my kidneys
and spills my gall on the ground.
Again and again he bursts upon me;
he rushes at me like a warrior.”

As I read this passage, I made two connections to Jesus, whether these are intended by this passage or not. The first connection is that these words seem prophetic of Jesus’ horrific death and separation from his Father. These are words that could be used to describe his passion and death.

The second connection to Jesus was a question that can’t be answered. How important was a passage like this in a book like this to a young Messiah, growing up in Nazareth, who is learning the Hebrew scriptures, trying to understand his place in the world and learning that the perfection he was able to live was no guarantee that he wouldn’t know some God-allowed pain and suffering?

A second passage, Job 16:19–21, seems prophetic as well. For all of Job’s (appropriate) complaint throughout this book about the lack of redress he has with God, then he offers this incredible statement:

“Even now my witness is in heaven;
my advocate is on high.
My intercessor is my friend
as my eyes pour out tears to God;
on behalf of a man he pleads with God
as one pleads for a friend.”

Doesn’t this sound like the book of Hebrews, for example, Hebrews 4:14–16?

“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

3. There is one moment of delightful irony in this section. In chapter 19 Job has complained about his friends and about God. His despair seems as deep and real as at any point in the story. Then he says,

“Oh, that my words were recorded,
that they were written on a scroll,
that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead,
or engraved in rock forever!” (Job 19:23–24)

Here he is complaining that no one will remember anything he is saying (by the way, who is writing all this down?) and then he speaks some of the most memorable words in the entire Bible. This is Job’s great gift to us. Out of despair comes a statement of faith, rising like a phoenix.

“I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25–27)

That’s inspired. That can be taken literally. And after so many statements about death that don’t seem to correlate to the rest of the Bible Job says it so right and so well.

Here is my favorite Mahler soprano, Sylvia McNair, singing the song that Handel wrote using those lyrics.

 

 

*See this link for an archive of Chuck Smith’s teaching through the whole Bible. One of my learning goals is to go through the entire Bible with Pastor Chuck.