Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Handel Had It Right

November 7, 2010

First Reading
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Commentary on Job 19:23-27a

Handel Had It Right

At least once a year, in the church where I grew up, our resident soprano soloist sang with great enthusiasm (and a bit too much tremolo) “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from Handel’s Messiah. As a student in college and in seminary, I sang or played trombone in Messiah productions each year. In subsequent years my wife and I sang in choirs or were part of a Messiah audience. Never, I think, has a Christmas season gone by without hearing Handel’s composition.

In the light of sophisticated contemporary biblical scholarship, can we still listen to Handel’s settings of these texts as not only musically satisfying, but also as responsible expressions of our biblical Christian faith? My answer is yes.

Now, on to the text in Job 19.

Setting, Structure and Context
Matters of date and authorship remain debated among the scholars; most would understand the setting for the material in the time of the Babylonian exile (587-539 BCE) or later. The book should not be understood as a historical account, but rather as reflections on the problems of the suffering of the innocent, the prosperity of the wicked, and the place of God in all this. The structure of the book is clear:
Chapters 1-2: Introduction. God allows Job to be tested
      3-31: Disputes between Job and his three friends
     32-37: Young Elihu speaks
     38-41: God speaks
42: Conclusion: Job, friends and God

To zero in on Chapter 19 as a part of 3-31: Chapters 3-14 are a first cycle of speeches by Job (3, 6-7,9-10, 12-14) with responses by Eliphaz (4-5), Bildad (8) and Zophar (11). Chapters 15-21 are a second cycle with speeches by Eliphaz (15), Bildad (18) and Zophar (20) and responses by Job in 16-17, 19 and 21. Thus Chapter 19 offers Job’s response to Bildad’s speech in Chapter 18.

Reading Job 19

1-6 Job’s complaint against his friends: you are tormenting me! The opening “then Job answered” indicates that these words are a response to Bildad’s speech in Chapter 18, where Bildad is certain that Job is suffering because he is hiding some secret sins.

7-12 Job’s complaint against God: God is not fair! Job has serious problems with God. He cries out in prayer but God does not answer. God is just not fair (7)! God has made it impossible for Job to travel along life’s way, walling him up, and setting him in darkness (8). Like a tree uprooted by a storm, the roots for Job’s hope have been pulled out (10). Like a commander surrounding a city with troops, God has surrounded Job (11-12).

13-22 Job’s further complaints: and it is all God’s fault! Job says his life is miserable. He finds no support from family or friends (verses 13, 14, 19, 21). Even little children do not like him (18) and his wife finds him repulsive (17). Job is certain that God is behind all of this (13, 21, 22).

23-29 Job’s declaration of faith: I know that I have one who will rescue me from this mess! The key word in this part of the chapter which is the climax of the piece is Redeemer, capitalized in translations because it refers to God. The Hebrew word translated “redeemer” is goel. In non-theological contexts the word may indicate buying back a field that has been sold (Leviticus 25:25, 26, 33; 27:13, 15, etc.) or a person sold into slavery (Leviticus 25:48, 49). In modern non-theological usage “redeem” may be used in reference to buying back a guitar, for example, which has been sold to a pawnshop and then is bought back by the owner.

When the word is used with God as subject, it may refer to God delivering God’s people from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 6:6) or from exile in Babylon (“Redeemer” in Isaiah 43:1,14; 44:6,24; 47:4; 48:17 etc.). The word is also used to refer to God’s delivering an individual from death (Psalm 103:4) or taking up the cause of an orphan whose field has been stolen (Proverbs 23:11) or rescuing one who is praying for help (Psalm 119:154).

The meaning here in Job is thus quite clear. Job expresses his conviction that there is One living who will eventually rescue him from the suffering and mess his life has become. As that One once rescued Israel, or the exiles, so the Redeemer will one day put Job’s life back together.

Preaching and Teaching Job 19:23-27a
The best commentary on this text in my view is done in the texts that George Frideric Handel selected (with Charles Jennens) for Part III of Messiah. They include portions from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (15:20-22, 51-57) as well as the apostle’s letter to the church at Rome (8:31) and a text from Revelation (5:12-14).

One can read countless learned commentaries debating the exact sense of Job 19:23-27a. Those I recommend as especially helpful are Kathryn Schifferdecker’s work in the Lutheran Study Bible  and J. Gerald Janzen’s Job in the Interpretation series (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985). But beyond these scholarly commentaries is the setting of this text in Handel’s Messiah which includes being considered in connection with the New Testament texts listed above.

In decades of teaching and preaching on Isaiah 9 (“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” or “For unto us a child is born…”) or these texts from Job, 1 Corinthians and Romans, I have always hauled in an LP phonograph, a cassette player, or a CD player and have let Handel have his way with these texts. Often I have gathered copies of Handel’s Messiah  so that students could follow along or sing along. It always works. There is no doubt in my mind that Handel had it right.