The righteous man Job

When we speak of Job, we are reaching behind the patriarchs of the nation, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to a more primordial history of our race, and especially in the Semite Job, who I’ve heard say was related somehow by descent to Abraham himself. We don’t know very much about him anymore, but we have had preserved for us are fragments of the story of his great faith, his initial patience in suffering and his later calling the Holy One to a reckoning. This reminds me of the title of a famous book by Mr. C. S. Lewis, called God in the Dock. In our culture today, we are very fond of putting God in the dock about the so-called problem of evil, and claiming victory over Him by questioning His very existence. Why does the good God doesn’t arrive in the midst of suffering with some relief at the very least, or even complete healing? Doesn’t God wish our happiness at all times? Well, the theme of the book of Job seems to be that suffering and personal calamity can be rather arbitrary, rather than (as the ancient mind was accustomed to think) representing God’s vengeance descending to punish somebody for his or her sins or, indeed, the sins of his or her parents, grandparents, etc. To set up the scene, the book of Job presents the character of Job as specifically Just in the Hebrew sense – one who obeys the Law of God in every respect, and actually goes a step further and attempts to make satisfaction not only for his own personal sins, but for the sins of his children. He strained therefore to keep his family safe spiritually, and always at one with God. And then, when his integrity and his faith were called into question – as lasting only as long as he is prosperous and enjoys divine blessing – God decides to test Job and prove his love. And Job’s first reaction is quite famous; having lost all his possessions and his children, he is patient.

“Then rose up Job, and rent his garments about him; and he shaved his head bare, and fell down to earth to do reverence. ‘Naked I came,’ said he, ‘when I left my mother’s womb, and whence I came, naked I must go. The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away; nothing is here befallen but what was the Lord’s Will; blessed be the Name of the Lord.‘ In all this, Job guarded his lips well, nor challenged with human folly God’s wisdom.”

Job, 1: 20-22

But this was before Job lost his personal health too, and could hardly sit up for pain. Then, in great despair, he still defended God before his own wife:

“Little comfort his own wife gave him; ‘What,’ she said, ‘still maintaining thy innocence? Better thou shouldst renounce God, and have done with living.’ ‘Spoken like a foolish wife,’ Job answered. ‘What, should we accept the good fortune God sends us, and not the ill?‘ So well, even now, did Job guard his lips.”

Job, 2: 9-10

For, you see, of one thing Job was certain – he had committed no sin against the Law of God and did not therefore deserve any punishment. Like his friends, who now visited him – Eliphaz the Themanite, Baldad the Suhite, and Sophar the Naamathite – Job still saw all suffering as retribution from God for sins committed. These friends of his seem determined, therefore, to convict Job of sin or to get him to confess that he has sinned. This repeated onslaught, that travels across almost the whole book, finally breaks Job’s patient suffering – feeling forced to defend his innocence, he starts to question the justice of God Himself, in inflicting punishment with no provocation. He ends up attempting to, in the words of C. S. Lewis, put God in the dock. Let’s summarise the position of Eliphaz the Themanite:

“‘No more we hear now of that fear of God, that life perfectly lived, which once gave thee confidence, gave thee strength to endure! And, sure enough, ruin never fell yet on the innocent; never yet was an upright soul lost to memory. The men that traffic in wrong-doing, that sow a crop of mischief they themselves must reap at last, these I have seen undone; one breath, one blast of the divine anger withers them quite, and they are gone.”

Job, 4: 6-9

It’s an odd thing to say: that those innocent of wrong-doing have never suffered ruin. Really? Which community was he living in? It does go on and on a bit. Job responds by asking the three to convict him of sin, even in the midst of his wretchedness. If he had been guilty of wrongdoing, Job asks rhetorically, why wouldn’t God simply forgive him, a poor little nothing in the grand scheme of things…? Then Baldad the Suhite jumps in and his position is not unlike that of Eliphaz – Job must be guilty of sin, he must make satisfaction, and God will bless him once more, as before.

“‘Can sentence undeserved come from God, unjust award from the Almighty? What if these children of thine committed some fault, and He allowed justice to take its course? For thyself, thou hast but to keep early tryst with God, make thy plea to His omnipotence. Then, if thou comest before Him innocent and upright, He will give thee audience betimes; He will establish thee in thy possessions again, as one that enjoys His favour. A poor thing thy old prosperity will seem, matched with the abundance He gives thee now.'”

Job, 8: 3-7

And Job retorts that he knows all of that, as one who has ever feared God and worked hard to remain innocent and upright. Job now begins to challenge God’s justice, as applied to his particular case. At this point (chapter nine), he doesn’t feel ready to challenge God’s judgement/condemnation, but he wishes to protest the severity of the sentence; he says that the suffering imposed is far in excess of any sin he may have committed. So, what says Sophar the Naamathite? Well, you know it…

“‘Ready to speak should be ready to listen; glibness will not make an innocent man of thee. Must all keep silence till thou hast done; shall none make answer to thy raillery? Still thou wilt have it that all thy dealings are upright, that thy heart, as God sees it, is pure. Would He but speak one word in thy ear, make thee His confidant! Would He but reveal to thee the secrets of His Wisdom, in its ordered variety! Then wouldst thou learn that the penalty He is exacting of thee is less, far less, than thy sins deserve.'”

Job, 11: 2-6

Well, poor Job. He still knows that he has done nothing that warrants punishment according to the Law of God. At this point now, he again calls God forth to defend either Job, or to defend the infliction of suffering upon Job as a punishment. For how is it that an innocent man must suffer when wicked men live in great comfort?

“‘…a man such as I will still cry upon God, and have Him answer the summons; the simplicity of the upright was ever a laughing-stock, and indeed, it is but a rushlight, despised by shrewd and prosperous folk, but it waits its turn. Meanwhile, see how well the robbers store their houses, braving God’s anger, and yet in all things He lets them have their way! Dost thou doubt it? The very beasts will tell thee, the birds in air will be thy counsellors; the secret is known in every cranny of the earth, the fish in the sea will make it known to thee; none doubts, I tell thee, that all this is the Lord’s doing…'”

Job, 12: 4-9

Yes, indeed, God permits evil and the comforts of wicked men. The Bible often mentions this. The question posed here is whether God can be questioned about this as being a matter of His execution of justice. If God permits injustice to exist, is God Himself unjust? Job wants God to answer for this situation, and to answer personally (chapter thirteen). Now, the three visitors, who had at first tried to convict Job of sin, begin to treat Job’s daring to call God to account for injustice. Job calls them out for tossing words around, and not bothering to share or assist with his grief.

“But Job answered: ‘Old tales and cold comfort; you are all alike. Words are but wind; there is no end to them, and they cost thee nothing. Believe me, I could do as well, were you in my case, talk the language of consolation, and mock you all the while, speak of encouragement; my lips should tremble with a show of pity. But here is grief words cannot assuage, nor silence banish; grief that bows me down till my whole frame is lifeless; these furrowed cheeks are the witness of it. And now a false accuser dares me to my face and baits me!”

Job, 16: 1-9

That false accuser is the one Scripture calls Satan. Job is still protesting his innocence and seems to be annoyed that his friends will not accept his claim. He still wants an answer from God for the injustice of his condition. Chapter nineteen is a wonderfully long Leave me alone to his friends, and yet they persist. Eliphaz would have Job repent and fall in with seemingly unjust punishments for sins Job must acknowledge, even if he is convinced that he is innocent (chapter twenty-two). Their position is given altogether by Baldad in the short:

“Then answered Baldad the Suhite: ‘Ay, but what power, ay, but what terrors He wields, who reigns peacefully, there in high heaven! He, the Lord of countless armies, He, whose light dazzles every eye! And shall man, born of woman, win his suit, prove his innocence, when he is matched with God? Dim shews the moon, tarnished the stars, under His eye; and what is man but waste and worm in his presence?

Job, 25

So, should we be permitted to question God in the matter of undeserved suffering? We now have Job’s final address, calling upon God to account for his suffering.

“‘As sure as He is a living God, He, the Omnipotent, who so refuses me justice, who makes my lot in life so bitter; while life is in me, while He still grants me breath, never shall these lips justify the wrong, never this tongue utter the lie! Gain your point with me you shall not; I will die sooner than abandon my plea of innocence. That claim, once made, I will not forgo; not one act in all my life bids conscience reproach me. Count him a knave that is my enemy, every detractor of mine a friend of wrong!'”

Job, 27: 2-7

Chapter twenty-eight is a discourse on divine Wisdom, and the joy of acquiring it/her, such as we have already had from the Wisdom of Solomon and parts of Ecclesiasticus. But the most compelling part of this final discourse of Job’s is his self-defence, as he describes his works of mercy in detail (chapter thirty-one). This then is how he ends:

“‘O that my cause might be tried; that He, the Almighty, would grant my request, that He, my judge, would write my record down; how proudly I would bear it with me, shoulder-high, wear it as a crown! I would proclaim it wherever I went, fit for a king’s eyes to read. Can these lands of mine bear testimony against me, can their furrows tell a sad tale of harvests enjoyed, and no price paid for them, of labourers cruelly treated? Then thistles for wheat, thorns for barley may it yield me.

Job, 31: 35-40

I still don’t think that Job has yet committed any act of disrespect toward the God he loves. He remains faithful, in spite of everything. What he does of course is declare that he is innocent (which he is, as per the story), that his reduced condition is an unfair and unjust reward for his life of virtue, and he asks Almighty God to account for this by defending this treatment of Job. Job knows that all things happen because God permits them, so God is ultimately responsible for Job’s state in life, and Job wants to know why he has suffered so much. Daring he is, but has he committed a sin? The suddenly-introduced Eliu the Buzite son of Barachel certainly thinks he has. Appearing out of nowhere in chapter thirty-two, Eliu condemns the three friends of Job as not having treated Job’s arguments well, or his challenge to God. Eliu seems to me to be the voice of the Old Testament when he says that Job cannot expect to match himself against God in any type of court scene.

“‘But there is no substance in thy plea; I tell thee, man cannot be matched with God. What, wouldst thou complain that He does not meet these charges of thine? Know, then, that God warns us once, but does not repeat His warning. Sometimes in visions of the night, when deep sleep falls upon men as they lie abed, He speaks words of revelation, to teach them the lesson they need. This is one means by which He will turn a man away from his designs, purge him of his pride; and so the grave is disappointed, the sword misses its prey.'”

Job, 33: 12-18

So, all imposed suffering is instructive, to save men from a spiritual death. This was the lesson given us by the writers of the chronicles and by the prophets, especially during and after the exile of the Judaites to Babylon. So, Job, however innocent he may be, must be able to draw instruction from this episode of his life, rather than plead his innocence before God. Again, see this:

“‘Listen to me, then, discerning hearts! From God, the Almighty, far removed is all wickedness, is every thought of wrong; He treats men only as they deserve, giving due reward to each. What, should Almighty God pervert justice by condemning the innocent? Is the care of the wide earth entrusted to some other; is not the Maker of the world Himself the world’s judge? He has but to turn His thought towards men, reclaiming the spirit He once breathed into them, and all life would fail everywhere; mankind would return to its dust.'”

Job, 34: 10-15

Eliu is uncovering here the flaw in Job’s approach – that he is calling God to account – and Eliu calls this blasphemy. The rest of his address is a glorification of Almighty God. But chapter thirty-eight is what we’ve all been waiting for, for God appears in a whirlwind to answer Job’s summons. Job seems to still be in the divine favour, for God calls him out for his daring, but still does show up in all His Majesty. God in a lengthy discourse declares that Job doesn’t have the big picture, because he is not intimately involved in the working of the Creation, as God is. God repeats what Eliu already has – that no mortal man dares match himself with God and survive the ordeal. And Job promptly returns to his humble patience at the beginning of the book:

“All this the Lord said to Job, and added besides, ‘What is this? One that would match himself with God, so easily put down! Nay, God thou didst challenge, God thou must refute.‘ And thus Job made the Lord answer: ‘So vain a pleader, I have no suit to make; finger on lip I will listen. Once and again I have spoken the word I would fain unsay; more I dare not.'”

Job, 39: 31-35

Job’s is finally the triumph, for he is vindicated in his innocence, and by God Himself, as he had requested, when accused of sin by his three friends. He is convicted only of his foolishness in calling God to account, but his humble retraction has made satisfaction. His friends (but not Eliu, who is probably the voice of the Old Testament more than any of the other friends) are condemned for speaking badly about God, probably about the way divine Justice is administered. The books ends with Job being restored to prosperity in family and possessions. And like other similar books, like Tobit and Judith, he lives happily ever after, to long life. And that is the book of Job.