Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Job sits on an ash heap, bereft of children and wealth, covered by painful sores and surrounded by three “friends” who tell him that it’s all his fault.

October 14, 2012

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Commentary on Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Job sits on an ash heap, bereft of children and wealth, covered by painful sores and surrounded by three “friends” who tell him that it’s all his fault.

In a way, a lot has transpired between last week’s reading and this one. In another way, nothing much has changed. Job is still on the ash heap. The companions who sat in silence with Job for seven days (2:13) now can’t seem to get it through their thick heads that silence was the way to go. They have accused him of terrible things (chapter 22), their worldview threatened by his inexplicable suffering. They believe, after all, that suffering is always the result of sin, and so they try to find some hidden sin in this innocent man to protect themselves from the threat of the chaos that has engulfed him.

[We do the same thing, of course, though more subtly. When we hear of a tragedy, our gut reaction is often to reason to ourselves why it won’t happen to us: They built their house in a flood plain. He wasn’t watching his child closely enough. She lives in the wrong neighborhood. This instinct begins early. When my 8-year-old daughter heard of a 9-year-old child who had been shot, her first reaction was “But the child was a boy, right?”]

Through it all, Job holds to his integrity. He knows that he has done nothing to deserve this suffering: “Far be it from me to say that you are right; until I die I will not put away my integrity from me. I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days” (27:5-6). Suffering is not always the result of sin, claims Job, a radical assertion in his day, and an important one to affirm even today.

The speeches of Job and his “friends” are repetitive, sometimes tedious, to read. But it is important to note some moves that Job makes in these long chapters of dialogue. He begins the dialogue in chapter 3, for instance, with a curse on the day of his birth, wishing for death, wishing that he had never been born in the first place. That death wish surfaces again a few times in his speeches, but he eventually moves from wishing for death to wishing for justice. Today’s reading is a good example of this theme:

“Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge” (Job 23:3-7).

This desire for justice finds its fullest expression in Job’s last speech, which consists of a long oath of innocence and a call for God to answer him (31:35-37), a call that is met by the speeches of God at the end of the book (the topic of next week’s reading).

Another important move Job makes in the dialogue is the move from speaking only about God to speaking directly to God. That change begins in chapter 7:

“Am I the Sea, or the Dragon, that you set a guard over me? ….

What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?” (Job 7:12, 17-19)

Job’s words are bitter, even despairing. He accuses God of terrible things, of watching him like a hawk, waiting for him to sin. In the reading for today, he despairs of ever getting a hearing with God: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him” (23:8-9). Even feeling God’s absence, though, Job continues to address God:

“Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come. You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands” (Job 14:13-15).

This move from speaking only about God to speaking directly to God is the move from theologizing to lament. It is a move that Job’s companions never make. They give Job ample advice about how he should respond to suffering; they claim to speak for God (13:7-12); but they never once intercede for their suffering friend, a failing for which they are chastised by God in the end (42:7-8).

It is a mistake that many people make in the face of tragedy, of course. “God needed your [mother, brother, child] in heaven.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “God is testing you.”

Job will have none of it: “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay… See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face” (13:12, 15).1 Job speaks to God directly, honestly. He speaks in all his anger, pain, grief, and despair because he knows that God is big enough to handle it. He holds on to God with a fierce faith. He calls on God to answer him, to help him. He laments, in other words, and through that lament, something like hope is born.

Wendell Berry writes of the relationship between speech and hope: “The distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence. There is a world of difference between the person who, believing that there is no use, says so to himself or to no one, and the person who says it aloud to someone else. A person who marks his trail into despair remembers hope — and thus has hope, even if only a little.”2

In lament, the despairing person “says it aloud” to God, and thus holds on to God even in the depths of despair. And in that holding on, something like hope is made possible. Job dwells in the depths of despair, but in the midst of that despair he addresses God; he demands that God answer him; he holds on to God; and in that holding on, a fierce hope is indeed born:

“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27a). 

At the end of this week’s reading, we are still on the ash heap with Job, but we have learned from him how to lament. We have learned from him how to bring our anger, pain, grief and despair directly to God, even when we feel only God’s absence. We have learned from him how to have hope, even if only a little, holding on to God with a fierce faith, trusting that God is God, trusting that God will hear, trusting that God will answer. And that answer will come, not one that Job (or we) could ever imagine, but an answer nonetheless.

1The last verse can also be translated, “Though he kill me, yet I will hope in him. I will defend my ways to his face.” The difference in translation hinges on one word.
2Wendell Berry, “A Poem of Difficult Hope,” in What Are People For? (New York: North Point, 1990), 59.