Sometimes the lectionary truncates books or passages of Scripture, and its treatment of Job is unfortunately of this kind. In the chapters between last week’s reading and this week’s, the poetic story of Job has unfolded with the visit of his three friends, whose initial sorrow soon turns to persistent ruminating on the possible causes of Job’s suffering. Two cycles have come and gone, with Job’s complaint answered and challenged in turn by the three ‘friends’, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. As the friends harangue him, linking his suffering to the sin they feel must have brought it on, Job’s responses grow shorter and more desperate. Before Job speaks in chapter 23, Eliphaz has just begun a third cycle, ramping up the rhetoric against Job. In 22:56, Eliphaz claims, ‘there is no end to your iniquities.’ Eliphaz lacks wisdom, as we will see at the end of the book of Job, for in 22:3, he asks, ‘Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous?’ Ironically, that is precisely the case in chapter 1, in which God boasts of Job’s righteousness. In the end, the view of retributive justice held by the friends is questioned implicitly by God, who says that the friends have not spoken of God what is right, as did Job (42:7).
As chapter 23 opens, Job responds with a bitter or rebellious complaint. The Hebrew word meri (‘bitter’) is a substantive noun used here as an adjective. Job is conceding he has been rebellious, but goes on to complain that God’s oppressive hand has been heavier still.
In v. 3, Job ardently wishes that he knew where to find God, to go to his dwelling. ‘Oh that I knew where to find God’ implies that he searches, but does not seem able to find what he seeks. In the wisdom tradition God is hidden from human affairs, seen only through second-hand effects and glimpses of the structure of human life and creation. The sense of deus absconditus, the hidden or inaccessible God, is a theme that carries through much of this spiritual tradition.
In vv. 4 and 5, Job expresses the wish that he could lay his case before God to see what God’s answer would be. Using a courtroom analogy, he wishes to give evidence before God as the heavenly judge. Again, there is a wistfulness to the language that belies his weariness, having complained bitterly and having heard no divine response. Job does not at this stage envision an intermediary to put his case before God.
In the imagined heavenly court, Job asks in v. 6, ‘Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?’ He answers himself, ‘No, but he would give heed to me’, i.e. hear him. Ironically, when God does see fit to answer Job out of the whirlwind (in next week’s lectionary reading), God does not conform to Job’s ideal judge, hearing impartially. Rather, God behaves in a manner thought by Job to be inconceivable, contending with Job from a position of power.
In Job’s idealized view in v. 7, he envisions a heavenly court where reason would prevail, and Job would be acquitted forever. Interestingly, Job is not seeking restoration or redress for wrongs suffered at this point, but for his name to be cleared of the slanderous accusations the friends have made against him. He still holds to his integrity, unwilling to confess to sins he knows he has never committed.
In v. 16, Job takes the wisdom value of the fear of God to an extreme, saying that he has been terrified of God. In the preceding verses, Job implies that this is because God has done so much to him already, and may ‘complete what he appoints for me.’ Given all of that, Job wishes in v. 17 that he could disappear from God’s sight, to vanish in darkness. The interpretation of v. 17 is disputed and somewhat ambiguous. It may be that Job is saying that he would prefer death to prolonged suffering, or that he feels darkness has covered him.
In preaching on this and the other Job passages, one could draw out the human tendency (embodied by Job’s friends) to seek for a cause for suffering. Seeing a link between those who suffer and their purported sinfulness can be a way of giving the observer an unwarranted sense of being insulated from the possibility of suffering.
Job’s frustration in not being able to find or feel God’s presence in a dark time could be explored to ask how faith attempts to keep alive an assurance of God’s presence even when God seems far removed.
The Job reading for this week is paired with Psalm 22:1-15, which Jesus quoted from the cross in the cry of dereliction. There may be in Job and in this Psalm a note of comfort for people of faith, that biblical figures and even Christ himself have known what it is to feel abandoned by God, to ‘cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but find no rest’ (Ps 22:2). The psalm alternates despair with passages that recall God’s faithfulness both to God’s people and to the suffering psalmist. The writer of Job does not link his story to the larger story of God’s people. It remains more a cautionary wisdom tale of the suffering of the righteous at the hands of an implacable God.
In preaching these texts in the context of Christian worship, one might focus on the God who hears the deepest fears and complaints of the heart, and who in Jesus knows the feeling of isolation and abandonment.
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