Opening The Old Testament
How Hard Life Can Be! Reflections on Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Yet, his desire remains to speak to this inexplicable deity. "If only I knew where to find God, to come into God's dwelling! I would then arrange my case before God, my mouth full of arguments! I would know the words of God's answer and (finally) understand what God is saying" (Jb 23:4-5)! Job here rejects completely the call of Eliphaz to repent. He will not repent, because there is nothing of which he needs to repent! Instead, he would finally confront God with a well-argued case (see chapter 9 for another legal scene) and would at last receive a reasonable response from God.
Also in chapter 9, Job has feared that God would not listen to him but would bluster and blow with unstoppable divine power (Jb 9:16-19). But here Job imagines that God would not "come to court with me in the vastness of power," but would this time "pay attention to my needs for justice" (Jb 23:6). At last, "an upright person could reason with God; I would be found innocent for all time by my judge" (Jb 23:8)! Far from repentance, Job seeks acquittal from God. In short, Job is convinced that this time God has made a mistake and upon hearing the true facts of the case will offer the sweet words of pardon. But the pardon will not be due to Job's admission of guilt but will come from God's recognition that Job is and always has been innocent of any crime or sin.
But soon this imaginative scene is swallowed up in the terrible reality of Job's inability to find God at all! "Look! I walk forward, but no God! Backward, but I cannot see God. God hides on the left so I cannot grasp God; God turns right so I cannot perceive God" (Jb 23:8-9)! Wild imaginings about a reasonable courtroom acquittal may sustain for a time, but the fact is that Job has misplaced God or God has forgotten Job. Or worse, God has turned into Job's enemy. He concludes this chapter of horror with these words: "God has weakened my heart; Shaddai has terrified me. I wish I could vanish into darkness, thick gloom covering my face" (Jb 23:16-17).
Any reader of these terrifying reflections of a lonely and abused person must ask the question that the author of Job must have asked many times: because such people do actually exist, people who can find little hope and solace in this life, how can the presence and purpose of God be understood at all? When the preacher Eliphaz bids us "be at peace, accept what we have been told," and what we have been told has failed to convince or to console or to comfort, just what are we to do? Statistics in our own century have made it clear that many who have been taught certain things about God have decided that those teachings no longer are persuasive. Indeed, the fastest growing group of believers in the USA are the "nots," those who claim no religious affiliation at all. Over the past twenty years, their number has doubled and doubled again until now fully 15% of those polled have joined Job and said, "I walk forward, but no God!"
Yet, Job refuses to join the "nots." Even at the very end of the dialogue, if one discounts the windy ravings of Elihu, Job is still demanding an audience with the Almighty (Jb 31: 35-37). And he will get one, despite Elihu's insistence that God would never in fact talk to some sinner like Job (Jb 37:19-24). God does finally speak to Job, not to the pious Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu, all of whom have all the truth there is to know about God, or so they think. God answers Job, the loud-mouthed one, the blasphemous one, the one who refuses to accept beliefs simply because others have held them. Perhaps there is a lesson we can learn from this man from Uz. We all must search for God in our own ways, not relying only on traditions long hallowed and loudly held. It just could be that God would far rather have an unpleasant and persistent demander than a self-assured, comfortably pious, well-spoken traditional preacher any day. It just could be.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.