Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 14, 2018
Job 23:1-9; 16-17 Commentary
When we left Job last week, he was sitting in the ash heap, covered with nasty open sores, surrounded by three compassionately silent friends, quietly accepting the trouble the Lord had presumably sent into Job’s life. Here, twenty chapters later, not much has changed in one sense. Job is still in utter misery. But in another sense, everything has changed.
We are in the third cycle of speeches by Job’s suddenly verbose friends. They have broken their silence. Oh, that they hadn’t. With increasing vigor and venom, they have pressed their case that Job must have sinned greatly. How else can we explain his great suffering, because everyone knows that great suffering is caused by great sin. That’s how a just God has arranged the world. So, with great passion, they urge Job to repent and have his health and wealth restored by God. Eliphaz has just finished his third speech in chapter 22, in which he accuses Job of specific egregious sins and begs Job to return to the God he must have left.
Job 23 is Job’s response, not primarily to Eliphaz’s speech, but to his whole situation. Particularly, he speaks to and about God. The tone and content of his reply is much different than his closing words in chapter 2. Perhaps because of the sniping of his friends and undoubtedly because of the intensity and persistence of his suffering, Job has changed.
Over the course of twenty chapters, Job has moved from his submissive acceptance of his suffering (“in all this Job did not sin with his lips”) to a bitter, almost rebellious complaint against God. “Even today my complaint is bitter.” In the Hebrew, the word “complaint” has about it the sense of rebelliousness. Job has moved from accepting God’s will to challenging God’s justice, demanding answers to his mouthful of arguments. Job has moved from his wish for death (Job 3) to a demand for justice. Is Job now guilty of sin?
Before we answer that, let’s be clear about the nature of Job’s “case” (verses 3 and 7) against God. He wants to bring his legal case into God’s court (“his dwelling” or seat or throne) so that he can get a divine answer to his burning question. It is the same question we ask when we suffer. Why has all this happened to me? More precisely, why have you done this to me? Job was completely righteous (Job 1:1). Even God said so, twice (Job 1:8 and 2:3). So, Job has been saying to his friends and to God, “I did all the right things. You, God, have not played fair. What’s going on here? I need to know.” (I am indebted to Karla Suamala for the sharply worded summary of Job’s argument here).
But Job can’t find God anywhere. So, in this chapter, he voices the prayer we pray all the time. Where is God in all of this? “O that I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling!” He wants to go into God’s courtroom, but he can’t find the courthouse. More important, he can’t find God. In his bitter complaint, Job is simply spilling the despair of his heart. He wants what he lacks most—the presence of God. Even if he can’t get a good answer to his questions, then at least he needs a sense of God’s presence with him in his suffering.
Why doesn’t Job take his wife’s blunt advice? “Curse God and die!” Because in all his bitter complaint and rebellious questions, he is still a believer, a confused, caustic, but still seeking believer. We hear that in verses 8 and 9: “If I go the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.” Notice. God is still there; I just can’t find him. God is still at work, but I can’t understand what he is doing. Job is angry with God to the point of sin, but he hasn’t given up on God yet.
That is especially clear in verse 10, which the Lectionary unfortunately leaves out of our reading. I suspect it is omitted because it ruins the picture of utter dejection in the rest of the chapter. If the lesson to be learned from Job 23 is that even believers can challenge God in this bitter way, then we don’t want a note of genuine trust and hope to intrude. But it is there in the text, and it is there in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
It is a Gospel reminder to all of us when we feel like Job. Yes, we can complain and challenge and even rebel, but let us never forget that God is at work even in our worst suffering, doing something good. “But he knows the way that I take (even when I don’t know the way that he takes); when he has tested me (that’s what this is about, even though I hate it), I will come forth as gold.” (Cf. I Peter 1:6,7 and Romans 8:28-30). Let us not use this lovely passage to stifle heartfelt lament and even rebellious challenges to God. But let us not allow our bitter complaint to drown out the joyful sound of the Gospel either.
After this tiny flicker of hope, Job returns to his bitter complaint and (incongruously right after verse 10) his terror of God. In verses 11-12, he answers the scurrilous accusations hurled at him by Eliphaz in Job 22:5-9. I am innocent, damn you! No, he doesn’t say that, but I’m guessing that he feels it.
But then Job bends the knee before the sovereignty of God in verses 13-14. He knows that God is in absolute charge of everything, even his terrible suffering. “He carries out his decree against me.” Here his knowledge of God doesn’t bring him the kind of relief we heard in verse 10. Now he is back in the darkness of his suffering and the darkness terrifies him. No, God terrifies him in the darkness. And why not? In spite of his residual faith, Job has been mangled by God (he thinks). Why not be afraid of God?
Well, here is a place where Job should have learned a lesson from the error of his friends. They assumed that their knowledge of God’s justice gave them an easy answer to the problem of Job’s suffering. And they were wrong, dead wrong. Job assumed that his knowledge of God’s sovereignty gave him an answer to the problem of his suffering. It was God’s will. God did it to me. But Job was wrong, dead wrong. Yes, God is sovereign. Yes, he does what he pleases. Yes, he has decrees. But no matter how much correct doctrine we know, we can’t assume that we understand the ways of God with us. It is more complicated than the smartest of us can ever comprehend. As Rick Morley puts it: “Every time life collapses in front of us and we’re left sitting in the dust, it isn’t time to blame ourselves or to blame God.” The fear of the Lord that is the heart of wisdom is not terror in the face of God’s sovereignty; rather, it is reverence before the covenant God whose ways are always good, but often mysterious.
I like the way the NIV translates verse 17, because it encourages us to speak even when the darkness envelops us. “Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.” Job does keep speaking in chapter 24 where he questions the seemingly unjust way the world is organized.
How can we speak to our people as we consider Job’s bitter complaint? Two approaches suggest themselves to me. First, we can legitimately use this text to encourage our people to utter their lament. Job’s words here are the very words some of your folks will bring with them into worship this week. It is helpful, indeed, profoundly moving to discover that the depths of our despair are found in God’s Word. Even if we are impertinent to the point of rebellion, God has heard it before.
What’s more, God did not reject his servant Job, even when Job’s mouth uttered words close to blasphemy. Were some of Job’s words sinful? Probably. And God did confront Job in such a massive way that Job finally put his hand on his mouth and repented in dust and ashes? Yes, indeed. But God did not reject his hurting child. Rather, he held him gently, albeit invisibly, as Job flailed and howled in his pain. That’s encouraging.
Second, and even more encouraging, is the fact that God himself has flailed and howled in his pain. The comfort we receive from this painful book is not just the “misery loves company” theme that humans know so well. Even more we are comforted by the Gospel message that “misery has company” in the person of God Incarnate. Job’s cry about God’s absence in the midst of great injustice was a foretaste of Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross. No matter where Job looked, he couldn’t find God. Neither could Jesus. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The great difference between Job and Jesus is that Job could never have guessed why he was the victim of such apparent injustice. From an early age, Jesus knew that he was about his Father’s business, the business of demonstrating and satisfying justice. Jesus was “a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate God’s justice, because in his forbearance God had left sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did this to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justified those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:25,26).”
That is God’s response to Job’s bitter complaint about God’s absence as Job experienced what felt like injustice. God is always just and he is the justifier even of those who accuse him of injustice. God could do such a counter-intuitive thing because in his sovereign love he sent his Son into the darkness that so terrifies us.
At the heart of Dicken’s classic novel about the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, there is a story that resonates with the stories of both Job and Jesus. Doctor Manette is imprisoned in the Bastille for reasons he cannot understand. For 18 years he was confined to a dark dirty cell with nothing to do, except make shoes. He eventually lost his mind.
As the French Revolution begins, his former servant, DeFarge, secures Manette’s release from prison at the request of his daughter, Lucie, and family friends. (DeFarge and his fierce wife become leaders in the Revolution.)
Safely back in England, Manette gradually regains his mind and his position as a respected doctor. In spite of his intense dependence on Lucie, he blesses her marriage to Charles Darnay, who, it turns out, is the son of the cruel aristocrat who had Manette committed to the Bastille. Darnay does not know of that connection and has, in fact, renounced his title and property. But when a former servant is arrested by the revolutionary forces, Darnay goes to France to rescue him.
He is promptly arrested himself as one of the aristocrats who made life so hellish for the peasants who are now in charge. Upon learning of Darnay’s arrest, Manette races off to France to rescue him from the Bastille and the guillotine. That’s when he learns that he is a legend among the Revolutionary forces. His imprisonment gives him immense power and authority in the Revolution. And he awakens to the fact that his terrible, unjust suffering has now equipped him to save his son in law. What seemed so meaningless and cruel has made him an agent of redemption.
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