Commentary on Job 23:1-9, 16-17
The last line of Job 2:1-10 (last week’s first reading, 18 Pentecost) reckons Job’s behavior, above all his speech, as righteousness:
“In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” This evaluation is not flat approval of Job, nor does it necessarily imply that Job may have sinned on the inside (in thought, if not word). Rather this is a bit of foreshadowing for what happens in Job 23. We might take “In all this Job did not sin with his lips…” as the ‘open mouth’ to “Today also my complaint is bitter…”‘s ‘insert foot.’ If Job did not, at first, give voice to sin in response to his suffering, now he is about to do so.
While, in the scheme of the whole of Job, the move is not as abrupt as the lectionary jump from chapter 2 to 23, Job is not able to maintain his stoic response to suffering and pain. He moves from apparent acceptance to challenging God, demanding answers to his mouthful of arguments, and assuming justice in a court-of-law style case to be his due. Job appeals to reason and fully expects that his judge will hear him favorably (7). “Brief” in hand, Job is ready to register his complaint.
The specifics of Job’s complaint, bitter as it is, are not central to our reading from chapter 23. In fact we might say that this isn’t yet complaint, not really, but more of a declaration of intent. Still there a number of striking elements here, any of which would offer a homiletically pleasing entre to the text.
Job’s ode to a complaint begins with the heartfelt wish that he could find God and press his case. “Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!” (3) The opening phrase is an interesting idiom, literally “who will give,” that I may know where to find God. It is unlikely that Job is literally asking around for someone who can tell him where God is to be found. Translation questions are not necessarily a big deal here, but “Oh, that I knew” strikes me as a soft-sell of Job’s bitterness.
What Job is doing is giving voice to his longing. The key sense of this idiom is a longing for a different reality, a reality as different from the present one as possible. What Job wants, is precisely what Job is not experiencing–God’s presence.1 It might be worth reframing Job’s fervent wish, perhaps with something like, “What I wouldn’t give” to know where to find God. Job has already “given” (read: had taken from him) everything to end up where he is−his family, his wealth, and his physical health, and now he seems on the verge of giving up his spiritual health as well, just to get at God.
This longing, this desperate need for–if not an answer to the whys of suffering, then at least some sense that God is near, concerned, interested, caring, something–is sure to resonate with anyone who hears it.
Job is clearly ready for his day in court. But therein lies the problem; Job can’t find his way to the courthouse.
Heaping up the introductions to a complaint to God, Job adds to the list the fear and frustration that no matter where he goes, there God isn’t. Job 23:8-9, “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.” This presents an almost ironic reversal of Psalm 139:7-10. The psalm reads,
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
For Job, the reverse is true. God is nowhere to be found. God’s hand, it seems to Job, neither leads him nor holds him fast.
The final verse of this reading, having skipped 23:10-15 which reiterate Job’s claims to blamelessness and uprightness, address God, the Almighty. El “has made my heart faint,” Shaddai “has terrified me.” The reality of Job’s faint-heartedness, the actuality of his terror, is his desperate theological loneliness.
Finally, we don’t need any other specifics of Job’s complaint; we don’t need details, or arguments, witnesses or affidavits. We can see well enough, what is the heart of Job’s struggle–not the loss of wealth, not the physical pains, not even, perhaps, the mourning for the lost hopes and dreams of family–rather that God is absent. If Job’s question to his wife, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” may be taken as a foreshadowing or faint echo of Jesus’ cry from the cross, this confession of terror is the raw scream of it.
At the heart of Job’s complaint is neither that he is suffering, nor even that God would allow such a thing, but that God feel’s distant, absent, so far removed as to be unknowable. A longing for a sense of God’s presence, for God’s attention, is what drives Job’s complaint and is its tacit substance. This may not be the easiest of texts to preach. It may be difficult to even read. But we would do well not to leave the text alone, either ignored or left hanging.
Job resonates. Job echoes not just Jesus’ cries, but our very own. Job gives voice to the bitter complaints and terrors that any believer may feel and that no doubt some who will join us for worship this Sunday are feeling. We do well both to let him speak, and to speak with him.
1A similar sense is found in Psalm 55:6 “And I say, ‘O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest….'” and is a relatively frequent idiom to Job: 6:8; 11:5; 13:5; 14:4, 3; 19:23; 31:31, 35. See also Deuteronomy 28:67.