Thoughts on the Book of Job

Thoughts on the Book of Job October 21, 2023

Dearly beloved, let us ponder for a moment the frightening realism of Holy Scripture.  In what other sacred literature, presumed to come from the breath of the Almighty Himself, do you find statements like this:

“God!  Please leave me alone!” (Job 10:20)

The Bible takes the most clear-eyed view of the human condition ever written, and does so using the strongest, starkest, most violent and graphic terms imaginable.  Man is said to be

“abominable and filthy, who drinks iniquity like water.”

Your sainted mother’s womb is described as “unclean”.  Even before birth you were shaped in sinfulness.  We are told that God puts no trust in His saints, and even Heaven is not pure in His sight.

It is against this background that the Book of Job rolls out its astounding imagery and its breathtaking pessimism.  It is like a massive prolegomena to the study of human misery we are going to come across in the Book of Ecclesiastes, which will put the despairing capstone on a vision of useless vanity already adumbrated in Job 15:31 (where the word futility is used twice in a single verse).  As in Ecclesiastes, the brevity of mortal life is hammered home relentlessly:

“Man decays like a rotten thing, Like a cloth that is moth-eaten” (13:28).

Again and again we are informed ruefully that a man’s life vanishes like a faded flower, like a shadow fleeing away; we are like grass that springs up and then vanishes utterly, so that no one left behind will ever see us again.  Job – in a particularly poignant moment – says that after a man dies he will never know if his sons rise to a position of honor in life, or if they are brought low by misfortune.  This is especially touching coming from a father who has lost all seven of his sons.  (Also, I find something peculiarly moving in Job’s plainfaced statement that the dead man “shall never return to his house” [7:10].)

Anyone who has undergone a terrible adversity will immediately echo Job’s outcries to God, one of which (verse 3:13) gives voice to every sufferer’s desire to sleep endlessly, so as to avoid dealing with the adversity.  He speaks for all who are wrestling with disaster when he exclaims something close to “I knew this was going to happen!  It’s exactly what I feared would happen, and sure enough!” (3:25).   Every sufferer knows the feeling of overwhelming weakness Job describes (6:12).  And what of the delusion that seems so inevitable and real in the time of distress – the sensation that all well-being is gone forever?  Job succumbs to the falsehood of that delusion when he cries out: “My eye will never again see good” (7:7).  The universality of his all-too-human emotions rings true, of course, and the temporary bitterness of those feelings throws a light on our own misapprehensions.  In other words, our lives may be fleeting, but so are the mirages we suffer from in our own minds when affliction strikes.

Whereas elsewhere in the Bible God’s constant presence in our lives is a blessing, to Job it is an endless tribulation.  He complains that the Lord keeps a constant watch on him, ever faithful and inventive in afflicting him.  This, too, is a delusion.  Unbeknownst to Job, and unbeknownst to so many of us today, God is here, now, in our lives, not storing up indictments against us, not devising torments for us, but energetically writing down and recording every act of ours on behalf of His Kingdom.  No proud father was ever so industrious in keeping track of his young son’s baseball statistics.  We cannot give a cup of cold water to someone in His name without that “busybody” Father of ours jostling our elbow, as He assiduously jots it down in His eternal notebook.

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