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How are we to Understand the Book of Job?


Job1:13-19; 2:7-9; 3:1; 19:23 -27         Hebrews 2:6-9


I: — Suffering is unavoidable. We are fragile creatures with fragile bodies and fragile minds. Assaults hammer us from without; disease undermines us from within. As we fragile creatures move through life we start to feel like lookouts on a ship that is feeling its way through water that’s been mined: our eyes are skinned for anything lurking just beneath the surface that might damage us. Careful as we lookouts are, however, sooner or later our ship strikes a mine. The explosion rocks us; the devastation pains us. In life suffering, some suffering at least, is unavoidable for all of us.

Not only is suffering unavoidable; it’s also unacceptable. We don’t regard it as a polite visitor, or even as a nuisance visitor. We regard suffering as a brutal intruder. It’s simply unacceptable.

Not only is suffering unavoidable and unacceptable; it’s also un-understandable. To be sure, some suffering is understandable. If we play with fire anywhere in life we are going to get burned. (There’s no problem understanding this.) At another dimension in life, if we race motorcycles or climb mountains we know we are courting unusual suffering and sooner or later will have it. The person who is pained in pursuing these activities isn’t perplexed. She knows why she’s in pain. She doesn’t fall into depression or despair; doesn’t feel that life has suddenly become capricious or chaotic or malicious.

Once we’re plunged into incomprehensible suffering, protracted suffering, however; once our pain has moved far beyond the warning that’s needed to have us seek medical assistance; once our pain has ballooned into something huge and inexplicable; when our pain fills the horizon of our life and we can think of little else; at this point it becomes un-understandable.

And when we are stuck with suffering that is at one and the same time unavoidable, unacceptable and un-understandable our pain threatens to eclipse our faith in God and his goodness


II [1]: Whenever we ponder protracted pain and its seeming capacity to eclipse our faith in our Father, Job comes to mind: both the man and the book about the man. The book is cast in the form of a historical novel, a novel with many features of a “once upon a time” story. “Once upon a time there lived a perfectly charming fellow named Job.” Job is said to be blameless, upright, God-fearing. He avoids evil of any sort. He has seven sons and three daughters, thousands of sheep and oxen, camels and asses, as well as many servants. Plainly he’s richer than the Reichmann brothers. His family-life is perfectly harmonious. His seven sons, each as wealthy as an Arab oil-producer, take turns hosting magnificent banquets to which they always remember to invite their sisters. In addition Job is pious: he offers sacrifices in the temple frequently. Not surprisingly our anonymous author tells us that Job is “the greatest of all the people of the earth.”

One day Satan has an office appointment with God. Satan suggests that anyone can be pious and upright in the midst of affluence like Job’s; anyone can trust God when the sun is shining. “But I’ll wager,” Satan says to God; “I’ll wager that if Job were stripped of his good fortune he would turn on you and curse you to your face.” “It’s a bet,” replies God; you have my permission to test Job.”

The testing begins. In no time Job’s servants are killed. His animals are slain. A hurricane collapses his house, crushing his sons and daughters. Job tears his clothing. (This is a Hebrew sign of distress.) He shaves his head. (This is a Hebrew sign of mourning.) He summons up his courage and resigns himself to what has befallen him. “Why should I have expected anything else? Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked I shall return. The Lord gives and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” He’s resigned to his situation and says so. Alas, he has spoken too soon, for now his entire body breaks out in repugnant sores. At his point Job says nothing.

[2] Job has three friends. They hear of his misfortune and come to comfort him. When they see him; when they see first-hand the disasters that have overtaken him and the misery visited upon him, they tear their clothing and weep like children. For seven days and seven nights they sit with Job, saying nothing, our text tells us, since they see that his suffering is very great.

When Job’s three friends visited him and wept with him and said nothing: it was the best comfort they could have brought him. There are few stresses harder to endure than the stress of someone who means well (who, after all, doesn’t mean well?) yet who clearly doesn’t apprehend our pain. Because he means well we can’t write him off or dismiss him; we even feel bad about asking him to leave, since he cares enough to inconvenience himself and visit us. Still, his presence only frustrates us all the more just because he doesn’t apprehend our pain. If he says “I know exactly how you are feeling” our frustration boils. But then, how can we stay angry at someone who means well? At the same time, how are we ever going to be comforted by someone who doesn’t perceive our pain? We are isolated in it, and our isolation only magnifies our suffering.

Job’s friends are better than this. They don’t run off at the mouth, spouting well-meaning but alienating non-assurances that they know how much he is suffering. Instead they’re distressed themselves. Their silent apprehension of Job’s pain is the only comfort they can render for now. At the same time, their silent apprehension is the only comfort Job can receive for now. This point shouldn’t be lost on you and me this morning.

[3] Job’s pain intensifies even more. As his suffering mounts not even the comfort of his friends can stay his outburst: Job curses the day he was born. He wonders why he’s being kept alive when death would bring him release. Finally Job simply wishes that he were dead.

In Hebrew thought a wish for death isn’t merely a sign of weariness or hopelessness or intolerable pain or even raging bitterness. In Hebrew thought a wish for death is the sign of raging bitterness against God. As soon as Job’s three friends hear him long for death they give up their human wisdom (silence) for an inhumane foolishness (talk.) “Don’t say that,” they tell him. “Do you have any idea what you’ve just said? Bitterness against God is blasphemous. Do you want God to punish you for uttering such a thing?” By this time Job is in such torment he can’t imagine any punishment that could increase his pain in any way. When Job’s friends appear horrified at his blasphemy, they assume (if they’re thinking at all) that their horror will startle him and bring him to his senses; they assume that their reaction is helpful. In fact they aren’t helping him at all. If they’d possessed a modicum of sensitivity and wisdom they would have ignored his outburst, generated as it was by his torment.

Haven’t God’s greatest servants cried out, at some point, as Job did, “I wish I were dead”? Moses did. So did Jeremiah and Elijah too. At some point all these men felt that God had let them down so very badly that they couldn’t help railing at him. The psalms are full of this. “Why do you let me down when most I need you? Why do you hide your face when most I need to be held up?” (Ps. 10)

Is there anything wrong with this? Isn’t there admirable honesty and transparency here? I have heard this cry myself in situations of terrible heartbreak. I heard it for the first time when I was ten years old. A house caught fire on our street in Toronto , and the family of six perished in it. No one got out. One little fellow who burned to death (or at least suffocated) was a boy my age who had been born with hydrocephalus. Today a shunt would be place in his head and the fluid drained out of his brain. But fifty years ago anyone with “water on the brain” found his head swelling and swelling and his mental ability deteriorating. He was incapacitated and his family’s life was thereafter oriented around a child whose ailment was chronic: no relief for the parents. Let’s not say that the fatal fire was relief for them and for him. On this occasion I heard bitterness against God boil over, and I heard others warn, “Don’t say that; don’t add blasphemy to tragedy. We have to believe that God is good and just.”

Do we? Who has to? The person whose anguish (even if it’s anguish born of witnessing a tragedy) has torn this bitter railing against God out of him; he doesn’t have to for the simple reason that he can’t. Let all who are driven to say what they are driven to say; let them say it, for they stand in good company: Moses, Jeremiah, Elijah.

As long as Job’s friends are silent (except for their weeping) they comfort him. But as soon as they open their mouths and begin to yammer they inflate his torment. One garrulous friend decides to dabble amateurishly in theology. He claims it’s common knowledge that people get what they deserve in life. If Job is in great pain now then he must have deserved it. If Job would only look back over his life he would soon see why God has laid this torment on him.

This is a terrible thing to say to a sufferer. To hint it, even breathe it, is to compound suffering with guilt. And suffering compounded with guilt is suffering intensified. Even to hint that someone’s pain is God-sent is sheer cruelty. Then the cruelty is magnified in that to suffering and guilt there’s been added confusion as well. After all, what kind of God would visit torture on anyone, and particularly visit torture on his most faithful servants? In the days of our Lord’s earthly ministry a tower fell on a construction crew and killed eighteen men. Jesus insisted that these men had not been singled out as deserving something dreadful. It was an accident. On another occasion the disciples came upon a man who had been blind since birth. They put the question to Jesus, “Who sinned: this man or his parents? One or the other must have done something heinous for someone to be born in this condition.” Jesus insisted that neither the man nor his parents was being punished. It was a congenital misfortune. Let’s not compound pain with guilt and then compound it yet more with confusion by suggesting that calamity is God-sent punishment. We mustn’t even breathe it.

Job reaches the climax of his suffering as he comes to feel utterly God-forsaken. Deserted. Abandoned. Given up. Haven’t we all been there ourselves? Hasn’t there been an occasion in our life, an occasion of overwhelming need or pain or desperation, when we hammered on the door of heaven and were left feeling no one was at home? When this experience comes to us, what it adds to human suffering is indescribable. Yet when such experience overtakes us we stand in good company, for our Lord himself, tormented to the point of distraction, was driven to cry, “Why have you forsaken me?”

[5] Yet our Lord was brought through his experience of God-forsakenness into the light and joy of his resurrection. Anticipating Christ’s victory by a thousand years, Job is allowed to see a glimmer of light in the midst of his black and bleak experience of God-forsakenness. The glimmer he sees constrains him to cry, “I know that my redeemer lives. One day he will stand upon the earth…in my flesh I shall see God.” What Job is allowed to glimpse is nothing less than that day when THE REDEEMER of the whole world of suffering will stand upon the earth. And because this redeemer, Jesus Christ, has stood upon the earth, those whose suffering drives them to exclaim they are God-forsaken shall one day see God.

I believe this with all my heart: one day we shall see God. But until the day comes when we see God face-to-face we need help now. While the promise of our future restoration is glorious, it remains future, and we need help now. And we have such help. The author of Hebrews insists that just because Jesus Christ has passed through his test of suffering, he is able to help those who are meeting their test now. His test, of course, was Gethsemane and Calvary . He passed through it in that his Father’s faithfulness brought him through it. Because our Lord has been through what we are now going through, Hebrews speaks of his as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” He is the trail-blazer who pioneers our faith-venture ahead of us. He is also the goal or destination of our faith, the bright light that beckons us and whose illumination lights up our pathway through the suffering we can’t avoid.

Remember, because Jesus Christ our Redeemer has stood on our earth we shall indubitably see God. But until that day comes we must count on the help of him who can effectively help us in our test of suffering just because he has passed through that test himself. He didn’t immerse himself in our pain only to get bogged down in its quicksand halfway through. He wasn’t left to founder in it, thereby becoming useless to himself and to us. He was brought through, and is now our effective companion, just because his victory guarantees our emergence from the dark night of pain.


III: — The book of Job concludes in a way that many people find unsatisfactory. After Job has lost everything – wealth, livestock, children and health – it’s all made up to him 200%. Now he’s wealthier than ever. It’s a fairy tale ending, isn’t it: first the prince is unjustly impoverished, then the prince is made richer than ever.

If we find the conclusion unsatisfactory we aren’t alone. Our Jewish friends, in the wake of the Holocaust, find it utterly unsatisfying, and for one reason: our Jewish friends who lost everything in the Holocaust – their goods, their children, their lives – nothing was made up to them.

I have long felt that for the proper conclusion to Job’s story we need to look to two other biblical writers. First, the psalmist: he tells us that humankind is the highest point of God’s creation, and that God has subjected everything in the universe to us, to our control. To be sure, much of the universe is in subjection to us. Advances in science, for instance, illustrate the fact nature is increasingly subject to us, to our control. But do we see everything subjected to us? Everything? Incurable disease? Hideous birth-defects? Protracted derangement? Disfiguring death? Surely there’s much that isn’t subject to us and therefore much that we don’t see subject to us.

Our second writer, the writer of Hebrews, agrees. We do not yet see everything subject to us. However, we do see Jesus. And seeing him victorious, we are guaranteed that everything now afflicting us will one day be subjected to us for ever.

William Sangster was an outstanding English Methodist clergyman who died horribly of a rare neurological disease. Years before his own death, however, when he was but a boy, he had a sister, the youngest child in a family of boys. She had been born deformed.   She lived only until age nine. In the last seven years of her life she underwent surgery fourteen times. Five gaping wounds yawned in her head, and at the last she was hidden away. Explanations? Anyone who proffers an explanation we should ignore. There is no explanation. Years later Sangster did say that the sheer inexplicability of his sister’s ailment in a world created and sustained by God found a parallel in a summer camp experience he had about the same time. As a boy Sangster ran out of canteen money at camp. He sent a postcard to his father asking for some more. No answer came back. His camp mates chided him, “Perhaps your father has forgotten you’re here.” (Ridiculous suggestion.) “Perhaps he’s too busy to bother with you.” (Equally ridiculous.)   “Perhaps your father simply doesn’t care.” (The youngster knew better than this.) “Then what’s the explanation?” his chums insisted. “I don’t know,” replied Sangster; “I simply don’t know. I’ll have to wait until I get home, and my father will tell me himself.”

We do not yet see everything subject to us. But we do see Jesus. In his company we are going to arrive home. And concerning that suffering which is now but a bleak, black mystery for which we have no explanation; concerning this we shall ask our Father and he will tell us himself.

Until that day dawns, however, we, like Job, continue to rejoice that our redeemer lives. And because our redeemer has stood upon the earth, we shall indeed see God.


                                                                                                      Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                       

February 2005