23Then Job answered: 2“Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. 3Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! 4I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. 5I would learn what he would answer me and understand what he would say to me. 6Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. 7There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.
8“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him;9on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. 10But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold. 11My foot has held fast to his steps; I have kept his way and have not turned aside. 12I have not departed from the commandment of his lips; I have treasured in my bosom the words of his mouth.
13But he stands alone and who can dissuade him? What he desires, that he does. 14For he will complete what he appoints for me; and many such things are in his mind. 15Therefore I am terrified at his presence; when I consider, I am in dread of him. 16God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; 17If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!
“Oh That You Would Rend the Heavens and Come Down” Job 23:1-9, 16,17 Oct 14, 2018
Several years ago, I remember getting a call from a person who is definitely not a “church-goer” who had a “bone to pick” with the God he didn’t really believe in. I had just returned home from an emergency colon surgery, and my prognosis wasn’t great. Upon hearing this, this individual called to put the God he didn’t believe in on trial as it were. It didn’t make sense to him that this God who didn’t exist would either cause or allow such a thing to happen to a church-going person like me (a pastor no less). Something just didn’t seem right with that picture.
The “fairness” or justness of God is a central theme in the book of Job. Many people know Job’s name and know him to be a person who supposedly had lots of patience (although we don’t see much of this exhibited in the book) but know only bits and pieces of the story. Unless you’re a faithful Bible reader, chances are you have never read through the entire book. The beginning and ending are written in narrative form, but the many chapters in the middle are written as a long, somewhat repetitive poem, and it is this part that many simply skip over. Since the lectionary text for today is taken from this long central poem, what better time to have a look at it.
Just to recap a bit of the narrative to this point, the story begins by telling of the virtues of this man from antiquity named Job. Scholars continue to debate if Job was an actual, factual, person, or merely a fictional character invented to tell the story of human suffering, the nature of evil, and how God factors into that suffering. In my estimation the story reads as if Job is an actual person, and he is referred to in other books of the Bible as if this were the case (see Ezekiel 14, James 5). As stated earlier, a central theme in the book is the justice of God, and how that coincides with the existence of evil/suffering. The theological name we use in referring to this question is “theodicy”.
Anyways, the story begins with the introduction of the righteous man Job, who stood as an exemplar to the peoples of his time. Satan appears on the heavenly scene, accusing God that Job’s righteousness was directly related to God’s favour for him, and should God withdraw that favour, Job would turn on Him in a minute. God responds to Satan’s accusation by allowing Job’s blessings to be removed- first all his livestock/wealth, and then all his children. As chapter one ends, amid the devastation, Job still believes in God, and will not curse Him.
On the following day things go from bad to worse, as Satan ramps up the rhetoric even more, stating that Job still has his health, and should that be taken away, Job’s faith in God would go with it. So, God allows Satan to attack Job’s health through boils that cover entire body. In the course of a couple of days, Job goes from a place of health, wealth, and prosperity, to sitting on an ash heap, scratching his sores with a shard of pottery, alone (save for a wife who was not overly supportive) and destitute.
Three friends arrive at the end of chapter two and sit quietly with Job in his grief for several days, but soon feel the need to say something. Once they do, things get even worse for poor Job, as they repeatedly tell him that the source of all this troubles is the sin in his life. Repent of this, and his fortunes will turn, and his life would be like theirs. Job contests his innocence and demands a meeting with the Almighty to vindicate himself. For 20 some chapters the friends accuse, and Job defends…and all the while God is silent. It is in the middle of this long poem in the book Job where we find ourselves today. Try to imagine yourself in Job’s shoes. One day you have life by the tail, and the next day it is all gone- your wealth, your family, your health, your honour, the support of friends…and now even God.
Even though it seems to Job that God has completely abandoned him, there is a change in Job at this point. Prior to this Job was despairing of life itself (wishing he’d never been born) and talked “about” God rather than “to” God. Even though in words of complaint and lament, Job is at least now directing his speech to God. He is convinced that if only he could get a hearing with God, a chance to make his case known, God would respond to Job’s plea, and “make things right”. Job is busy “dialing heaven”. Now if only God would pick up the phone.
Although God’s response to Job will be covered in next week’s reading, Job did in fact get his hearing. It wasn’t what Job (or most readers) might expect…but nevertheless it was a response. Job, and those who suffer want to make sense of their suffering and try and make sense of God’s (Satan’s?) role in that suffering. Although Job would not get a definitive answer from God regarding his suffering, he prophetically speaks of the truest and clearest response that God would one day give regarding the question of suffering; “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! 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.” Job 19:23-27a. God’s ultimate answer to human suffering is His own personal experience with it. Christianity is the only religion that knows of a God who actually enters in human suffering.
When we suffer, it’s not uncommon to experience questions and feelings like those of Job. I met people who have left the faith through various disappointments with God. Some continue on in the faith, but with serious reservation. Even my agnostic friend took exception with God regarding his dealings with me. Often, as was the case with Job, God is silent regarding the “whys” of our suffering. We lament and cry out for answers, but for the most part, those answers are not forthcoming.
Although we don’t get a specific answer as to Job’s suffering, we do discover some wrong answers given by Job’s friends. Although it was a common belief then (and even now) that suffering was the result of some particular sin, the book of Job says that such is not always the case. Job’s friends and counselors were incorrect in that assumption, as are many who make that assumption now. Much of what we say during the suffering of others (especially at the death of a loved one) is equally incorrect (or at least unhelpful); “God needed your love one more than you”, “It could be worse”, “God never gives you more than you can handle”, or, “it’s all part of God’s perfect plan”. Jobs friends were at their best when that just sat with their friend in silence. Often in speaking with people who are grieving, “less is more”. At some point however, as opportunity presents, we can speak of the One who entered into human suffering in His own suffering and death on the cross. That much we can say with certainty. Amen