Correctness over compassion - Job 3
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Joseph Parker was the minister of the City Temple in London, from 1874 until his death in 1902. He said that up to the age of 68 he had never had a religious doubt, but then his wife died and his faith all but collapsed. He wrote: `In that dark hour, I became almost an atheist. For God had set his foot upon my prayers and treated my petitions with contempt. If I had seen a dog in such agony as mine, I would have pitied and helped the dumb beast; yet God spat upon me and cast me out as an offence - out into the waste wilderness and the night black and starless."
Where is God when your world is falling apart? Why doesn't he say something? Why doesn’t he do something, even if it is simply putting an end to the misery by taking away your life? Those are the cries of men like Parker, and they may have been your cries too. They were certainly the heartfelt pleadings of Job.
Job, as we have seen, a model of godliness, a paradigm of virtue, kindness itself, is now reduced to a pitiful, tortured figure sitting on the local dung hill scratching at his boils with a broken piece of pottery. His livelihood is in ruins; his family decimated and his health all but broken. In fact, he has very little left save two things: his faith - just, and his integrity. In the central sections of the book which we are looking at this morning, both of these come under a blistering attack from three of his closest friends. And we might think that with friends like these who needs enemies!
However, it has to be said that no matter how crass, misleading and insensitive Job's three counsellors - Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar- prove to be, their intentions were nonetheless sincere. In their own way they represent a certain type of Christian which is to be found today. If we wanted to summarise their position it would be: ‘My mind is made up- don’t confuse me with the facts. I have my ideas and I am sticking to them.’ Even before Job opens his mouth they have already decided what the problem is and where the problem lies. The problem is sin and it lies with Job. It can't be God's fault he wouldn't do such a thing without a reason, and the only reason they could see for God inflicting such suffering is in judgement. Judgement upon what? Upon Job's sin, of course!
On the other hand, we have Job who also represents a certain group of Christians; and if we were to sum up his position it could be in the words of a John Lennon song: `Gimme some truth.' Job is in effect saying to his friends: `I don't want your tight theology, however logical it may seem to you. I want to get to the bottom of what is really going on. I want the truth. More than that, I want to meet the God of truth, so that he can declare me innocent before the world. To suffer physical pain and loss is one thing, but to suffer false accusations of being a liar, a cheat and deserving what is happening, as my friends are saying, is one pain too many, and only God can put it right.' That is the burden of these chapters.
What we are introduced to in these central sections is, if you like, a ‘philosophical’ courtroom. And the way matters develop in this section is the way they would have happened in an ancient Near Eastern court. Everyone is buying into the retribution theory: good is rewarded and evil is punished and that is how God shows he is just – so they think. Three claims are being laid out: 1) God is just, 2) Job is righteous, and 3) the retribution principle is true. However, all three can’t be right at the same time in this instance. At least one of them has to go for the tension to be relieved. The question is: which one? Or putting it another way: who is to be proved false- is it God, is it Job or is it the retribution principle?
What happens next is this: each of Job’s friends in turn attacks him verbally. After each assault Job defends himself. This cycle of attack, defence and counter-attack is repeated three times, until eventually Job explodes in one long outburst, reducing his friends to silence. Even then he still doesn’t succeed in convincing them that he is innocent- their minds were made up thank you very much and they didn’t want to be confused by the facts.
Their reasoning was quite simple and went something like this: all suffering is due to wickedness. Job is suffering, therefore he is wicked- QED. What could be simpler? We see this in Eliphaz’s speech in 4:7-9:’Consider now: Who being innocent has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plough evil and those who sow trouble reap it. At the breath of God they are destroyed.’
Eliphaz prides himself in being an astute observer of human affairs; `Everyone knows, Job, that God has ordered the world in terms of moral cause and effect. If you are good you prosper, if you are bad, then eventually your sins will find you out. You can't escape it, any more than you can escape the law of gravity; it's immutable.'
What is more, Eliphaz claims that he has had a special revelation confirming this - a vision, and who can argue against that? (4:12-1). ‘A word was secretly brought to me, my ears caught a whisper of it. Amid disquieting dreams in the night, when deep sleep falls on men, fear and trembling seized me and made all my bones shake. A spirit glided past my face, and the hair on my body stood on end. It stopped, but I could not tell what it was. A form stood before my eyes, and I heard a hushed voice: "Can a mortal be more righteous than God? Can a man be more pure than his maker?"’
The very way Job’s friend’s speeches are couched appear rather thin in terms of their poetry let alone theology compared to that of Job who towers above them like a colossus and whose speeches are only outshone by God’s in the last few chapters. For instance, just listen to Job’s response in chapter 9:5ff-( and compare his vision of the grandeur of God with that of his friends or even ours) ‘He moves mountains without their knowing it and overturns them in his anger. He shakes the earth from its place and makes its pillars tremble. He speaks to the sun and it does not shine; he seals off the light of the stars. He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.’ These men are spiritual pygmies compared to Job and yet they treat him as if he is the dumb one! Has that every happened to you? It smarts doesn’t it?
Furthermore they bring in the big guns of religious tradition against Job as we see with Bildad in chapter 8:2-3, 8-10. "How long will you say such things? Your words are a blustering wind. Does God pervert justice? Ask the former generations and find out what their fathers learned, for we were born only yesterday and know nothing, and our days on earth are but a shadow. Will they not instruct you and tell you? Will they not bring forth words from their understanding? Does the Almighty pervert what is right?’
In other words, `This is no novel idea Job we are propounding that God operates according to strict justice. It is the received wisdom of our elders, men far wiser than you have come to this conclusion. So why don't you stop being so obstinate? Admit your sin and repent. Nothing could be simpler.'
Job, however, remains intransigent. No matter how ‘sound’ their ideas are, and Job admits they are 9:1, “Indeed, I know that this is true,”- the theory does not fit the facts. While it is a rule of thumb that what a man sows, so shall he reap – live the life of a hell raiser and don’t be surprised if you die of an overdose- that at least makes some sense. But that is not Job's situation and it is wrong to pretend otherwise.
Eventually, after listening to Job's special pleading, which in itself may have confirmed his guilt in his friends' eyes - he protests too much - the third of his friends, Zophar, can't stomach any more. He knows what he believes and he is sticking with it and, no matter how cutting and unkind his words may be, he is going to give Job a piece of his mind, 11:2ff: ‘Are all these words to go unanswered? Is this talker to be vindicated? Will your idle talk reduce men to silence? Will no-one rebuke you when you mock? You say to God, "My beliefs are flawless and I am pure in your sight.” Oh, how I wish God would speak, that he would open his lips against you and disclose to you the secrets of wisdom, for true wisdom has two sides. Know this: God has even forgotten some of your sins.’
In a torrent of rage, Zophar and his two colleagues are bullying Job into signing a false confession. This is the Inquisition at work. `Look,' he is saying, `you may be able to fool some people with this "Butter wouldn't melt in my mouth" story. But you don't fool God. If he were here he would soon put you in your place. Why, so great is your sin and so long is the list of them that even God couldn't keep a complete record, that's why he's forgotten some of them. '
Later, in 22:4-8 Eliphaz is even more merciless in driving home the point: "Is it for your piety that he rebukes you and brings charges against you? Is not your wickedness great? Are not your sins endless? You demanded security from your brothers for no reason; you stripped men of their clothing, leaving them naked. That is why snares are all around you, why sudden peril terrifies you, why it is so dark you cannot see, and why a flood of water covers you.’
That is, `Everyone knows how certain rich men get their wealth - double dealing on the side, fiddling the books, exploiting the poor. That’s how you must have come upon your wealth, Job, and God has found you out and is now giving you your just deserts.' The solution each of them gives to Job is the same: come clean, repent and turn to God and you will soon be restored to your former prosperity- 22:21: `Submit to God and be at peace with him; in this way prosperity will come to you.'
You have to admit their theology is all very neat and tidy, admitting of no loose ends. It explained things remarkably well, so well in fact they didn't have to bother thinking for themselves, it was all done for them in their theory of retribution. So what if some of the facts didn't seem to fit? They could either be conveniently ignored or forced to fit. But it is just a little too convenient isn’t it? To the question: ‘If God is so good then why are things so bad?’ They would say ‘it must be because you are so bad.’
Let us be clear the Bible does teach that some suffering is punishment for sin- read Romans chapter 1- but not all suffering is to be viewed in this way. What Job's friends were doing was mistaking part of the truth for the whole truth and the result was appallingly cruel. They add more suffering to one who is already at breaking point by trying to get him to abandon one of the few things left which is precious to him- his integrity. By this verbal arm twisting they aim to get him to say that which he does not believe to be true. But they also blind themselves, foreclosing on any possibility that their understanding might be broadened.
Here then, is a warning for us all, namely, however sincere, we must be careful not to become a Job's comforter.
To begin with, it is obvious that they didn't really give any weight to what Job was saying. And that hurts. When you are going through a crisis, suffering deep emotional pain, then the last thing you want is for your own integrity to be violated, for someone to treat you as if you are less than a human being, without thoughts, without feelings -but just an object to be assailed with `the right answers' . It seems that whatever concerns these friends had for Job, those concerns were overridden by a greater concern, namely, to keep their own watertight beliefs intact. It is sad that Christians are not immune to this rather unfortunate habit of burying their heads in the sand instead of rigorously thinking something through.
What is perhaps worse is the cruelty of adding to a person's pain guilt which doesn't really belong to there. A modern day example of this is what is called `healing prosperity' or `name it and claim’ it teaching. It goes something like this: if you have an illness, have faith and you will be healed. If you are not healed it is because you haven't got enough faith, or because your wife doesn't have enough faith, or because you great-uncle was a Freemason! This is a theology with no loose ends, which does not acknowledge that there is such a thing as innocent suffering, and so multiplying the pain.
But let me add that this is not simply the danger for those who we may consider to have extreme theologies, but also for those of us who value biblical theology. Did you notice that Job’s three friends are placing a lot of faith in their theology about God rather than exercising faith in God? They were willing to argue with Job but not pray for Job. In fact only Job is recorded of having prayed in the whole sorry episode, and he prays for these men to be forgiven would you believe? In fact Job 42:7 where God rebukes the three friends it could be translated, ‘You have not spoken to me as my servant Job has.’ Job is a prayer not just a debater unlike these men. So here is an important lesson for those of us who highly prize the Bible and doctrine: truths and propositions can be advanced with zeal which are wrong, at least in part. Here the wrong truths were applied to the wrong person at the wrong time. And who has not done this, maybe in a desire to defend God or Scripture against ‘heresy’- you think you have won the argument but lost the person? We need to be careful in what we say and how we say it, lest we become a ‘Job’s comforter’.
But Job will have none of it. Whatever the majority might say, however impeccable their orthodoxy or whatever alleged ‘special revelations’ they have received, he knows the truth and will not sacrifice his integrity on the altar of expediency. Although, like an innocent man after prolonged interrogation by his captors, it must have been so tempting to give up and take the easy way out, and say, `OK, I'm guilty, just let me out of this hell,' Job at least has the courage to say, `No'. Whatever is going on, it is not my fault and I will not be brutalised into false humility by taking the rap for something I did not do: (27:2-5) "As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice, as long as I have life within me, the breath of God in my nostrils, my lips will not speak wickedness, and my tongue will utter no deceit. I will never admit you are in the right; till I die, I will not deny my integrity.’
In chapters 29-31 Job gives a most moving recital of all the godly things he did before his world fell apart. He had been honest, disciplined, rescued the poor, helped the blind, comforted those who mourned, and made a promise not to look lustfully at a girl. He opened his home to countless strangers, he never rejoiced over their misfortune saying `Serves them right', and he never trusted in his own wealth. Isn’t that stunning? And his friends would have known this!
What Job wanted was not some theoretical problem-solving of the `Why does God allow evil?' variety. He wanted to meet with God. He wanted to hear God's voice, to hear God's reason for allowing this appalling act of human misery (10:1ff): ‘I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God: Do not condemn me, but tell me what charges you have against me. Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands?’
Job turns to God to plead with him to show himself just for once and explain this injustice, for that is what Job is convinced it is. In a fit of deep depression he longs for the days when he knew God's kindness: (29:1-5), ‘How I long for the months gone by, for the 'days when God watched over me, when his lamp shone upon my head and by his light I walked through darkness! Oh, for the days when I was in my prime, when God's intimate friendship blessed my house, when the Almighty was still with me and my children were around me, when my path was drenched with cream and the rock poured out for me streams of olive oil.'
Isn't that so moving? He wants to be with God. And the astonishing thing is this: although Job sails very close to the wind in bordering on blasphemy, he never ceases to believe. Not once does he slip over into atheism - he can't: ‘Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face. Indeed, this will turn out for deliverance, for no godless man would dare come before him!' (13:15-16).
He is so convinced of his innocence that he is willing to die if that is the only way he can come before God to vindicate himself for he is sure God will clear his name. But it is God vindication he wants, not that of his friends. And, as we shall see in a few weeks’ time, his heart's desire was eventually granted, but not until many more tears have been shed.
Now let me say this, like Job we too are not to be content with anything less than a personal knowledge of God. Don't be satisfied with theories about him, or clever ideas about the problem of evil - settle for nothing less than God himself.
But where is such a God to be found? A God who is merciful, a God who understands? The answer: is that he is found, of all places, on a cross. If we really want to know what God is like and to have that intimacy of fellowship with him, then that is where we begin to look, at the God-man Jesus, who also knew the dark night of the soul, rejection and misunderstanding, even by his closest friends, and who, having gone through it all, now rules this broken world of ours. In the words of the writer to the Hebrews, `We see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone' (2:9).
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