Job’s Lament (and What’s in it For Me?) (RJS)

Job’s Lament (and What’s in it For Me?) (RJS) November 27, 2012

The poetic portion of the book of Job begins in Chapter 3 with Job breaking the silence and cursing the day of his birth. Translation below from Tremper Longman III (Job (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms))  (p. 96-97)

Let the day on which I was born perish,
and the night (on which) he said, 'A boy is conceived.' Let that day be dark. Don't let God above seek it. Don't let a light shine on it. Let darkness and deep darkness redeem it, let a cloud settle over it. Let blackness overwhelm the day. That night, let gloom overtake it. Don't add it among the days of the year; among the number of months, don't let it enter. Indeed, let that night be barren. Let no shout of joy enter it. Let those who curse the day damn it, those prepared to rouse Leviathan. May the stars of its day be darkened; let it hope for light and get nothing. Let it not see the flash of dawn. For it did not shut the doors of my mother's womb; it did not hide trouble from my eyes.

Job’s grief is deep indeed – a grief most of us cannot even begin to fathom. While he does not curse God neither is he passively untouched by deep and despairing grief. Having finished cursing his day, Job continues on to wish he had died at birth, or even before birth in the womb and concludes by wondering why life is given at all. He cursed the day of his birth and he now laments the day of his birth. Death would provide the peace he has lost in this life. Small and great are there together, the stillborn infant and the king, the servant and prisoner are free from taskmaster.

In all of this Job does not curse God – or accuse him of wrong doing. But Longman suggests that he is grumbling, along the lines of the grumbling of the Israelites in the desert following their escape from Egypt. This grumbling causes his friends to begin their challenge.

John Walton in his commentary (Job (The NIV Application Commentary)) has a somewhat different take and emphasis. He does not suggest that Job’s response in any way justifies the response that follows from his friends.

Distress over one’s circumstances is normal; therefore we can hardly blame Job for his response. Though God is sovereign and Job must therefore hold him responsible, this is not the same as questioning God’s rights. More importantly, even if Job were to question God’s actions, this would not indicate that he counted benefits more important than righteousness. Notice that he does not say that his righteousness was useless or that he wishes he had never bothered, nor does he demand his benefits to be returned. (Walton p. 119)

Death preferred to life of suffering. In the last section of Job’s lament he turns to the question of the value of life over death. Again the translation is from Longman’s commentary verses 20-23:

Why does he give light to the one who toils,
     and life to the depressed, 
to those who wait earnestly for death, but it does not come. 
     They search for it like a hidden treasure. 
Those who rejoice with rejoicing, 
     they celebrate when they find the grave. 
(Why does he give light) to a man whose way is hidden, 
     whom God has placed a hedge around.

The hedge is not a hedge of security but of obstruction. It prevents a man from seeing what will come and acting accordingly. There is no clear direction or goal to life – no aim or path. According to Walton (p. 134) “God’s hedge,” Job complains, “limits human knowledge so that one cannot comprehend God’s ways.” As such it is a hedge of oppression – in the absence of knowledge expectations, rewards and punishments, life itself loses focus and meaning for Job.

What does death bring? Walton includes a long discussion on Israelite views of death, afterlife, Sheol, and future hopes in his commentary. This discussion would be worth a post on its own. The full Christian view of death, hell, and judgement reflected the New Testament did not begin to develop until the intertestamental period. Walton’s discussion is fascinating – and no doubt only touches the surface. But an understanding of the Israelite view of death – and the impact this had on their view of their relationship with God – is important to a proper understanding of the message of the book of Job. If we read a full Christian view of resurrection into the book of Job, as say Thomas Aquinas did, we will likely no, make that stronger, certainly, miss the depth of the message of the book.  The depth of Job’s lament and his questioning the value of life is only fully appreciated when we understand his hope and expectation for the future.

Walton makes two key points on p. 134:

1. The Israelites did not construct their relationship with God around a hope of heaven. People often convert to Christianity because of fear; with heaven to gain and hell to avoid conversion is logical. … To put it bluntly, our Christianity can be all one way: What’s in it for me? This is precisely what the Challenger had claimed about Job’s perspective. The dynamics of the Israelite faith operated on a totally different level. With no eternal gain in sight, their faith was inclined to be more focused on God and less on self; this element also made their faith more concerned with the present than the future. …

2. We can now understand the Israelite’s struggles with God’s justice and recognize the importance of the RP. While they had no hope of heaven in eternity, their faith offered possible gain in the form of prosperity and long life. … For the Israelites, then, God’s justice was a day-to-day concern.

Perhaps one of the most important messages of the book of Job (and we’ll see if this bears out) is that we are not to be in “it” for me. Rather we must trust in the wisdom of God. The fear of hell and even the hope of resurrection can provide a motivation for “righteousness” as distorted as that arising from the retribution principle, there the emphasis was material reward for righteousness and punishment for wickedness in this life.

What do you make of the lament of Job?

What best reflects the depth of his despair?

Is Walton right to compare the accuser’s claim that Job was “in it for himself” through material reward for righteousness with Christians “in it for themselves” through focus on the hereafter?

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  • Stephen Weaver

    As one who has only waded in grief and not nearly drowned, I hesitate to comment much on Job’s lament, even though I am paid to.

  • AHH

    recognize the importance of the RP (#2 under Walton).
    Am I dense for not knowing what the acronym RP means? Is it the “retribution principle” mentioned later in the post?

  • RJS


    Yes, RP =retribution principle. I just left Walton’s quote with the abbreviation, but I should have defined it for clarity. This was talked about extensively in one of the earlier posts and is a major theme in Job.

  • Percival

    RJS’s question about motivation is an interesting one. Speaking personally, I am a person of faith because of my extreme beneficence and unselfishness. I serve God only for the benefit I can bring Him and His kingdom. I’m not in this for myself. Anyone with less pure motives than my own is suspect. It is understandable, I suppose, that some people are in it for themselves. If they think that what they receive from God is so much more significant than anything they contribute, I pity them. I guess they don’t understand what it means to be God’s co-worker.

  • Job gives us an insight into a wisdom and love of God that can only be known (or be told) by someone who has underwent gratutious suffering while still maintaining their faith on the other side of that suffering. His lament is humbling because it shows us that even the most moral and disciplined among us will still succumb to bouts of distrust and doubt regardless of what knowledge and religious bravado they went into the trial with.

    Good summation, RJS.

  • In the sense of thought experiment, it seems within the potential of most persons to imagine undoing creation, to consider the nihilistic possibility. That’s chapter 3 of Job – de-creation, a direct response to Genesis 1:3. As such it is directly answered by Yhwh in his speeches, even balancing the phrase ‘eyelids of dawn’, and the character of ‘Leviathan’. Job expresses ultimate defiance. I have never met a child who was not able to be defiant. Such strength is ultimately commended. I recommend Ticciati on Job. She gives a careful reading of the role of referee, how the friends cannot do it, Elihu likewise, and Job refuses, so Yhwh must be the one who governs between God and the human.

  • Craig Wright

    I have been leading a Bible study of Job on Monday mornings to about 25 men. Although I had studied and taught Job previously, because of this blog I bought Walton’s book and appreciate his scholarship and insights, especially weaving in the personal story of Kelly Lemon Vizcaino.

    Some reactions from the men are that this is refreshing to see raw emotion expressed towards God. Since we are going through the book verse by verse, several fellows have expressed that there is no other venue in church to get the full expression of this book, with its cries and groans This kind of stuff often gets white-washed.

    I’m still convinced that James had never read the whole book (Js. 5: 10-11).

  • RJS


    I perceive, I believe, that your comment is to be read somewhat less than literally if one wishes to discern meaning. But the issue of course is that it still has “self” front and center filling the field of view.

    Perhaps the idea is neither what I bring nor what I get, but rather that God is God.

  • Did you cover the dating of the Book of Job at all? I have heard some claim it is the oldest book in the Bible but similarities between Israel and Job would put it at a later date. Any thoughts?

  • Dana Ames

    I think Job is expressing his grief. This is totally appropriate. I think the depth of his despair is best reflected in the irony of God calling him to life, and then the sense of God placing hedge about him, making that life seem cut off and so absurd and pointless. As for the rest of it, we need to start with what the Jewish hearers of Job would have understood. Then we need to look at it again through the death and resurrection of Christ.

    In the Vespers services of Holy Week in the Orthodox Church, readings from the book of Job are meant to point us to Job’s faithfulness through suffering and thus to Jesus’ faithfulness through suffering, and how the “fortunes” of Job were then restored and thus to Jesus then becoming King and receiving his inheritance in abundance.

    Brahms wrote a wonderful 5-voice motet based on Job’s lament (which I got to sing with a German choir in my college days). Notice the cry, “Warum, warum?” (Why, why?) first loudly then softly, 4 times in the first section. The middle sections interweave the musical themes among the voices and is very typically Brahmsian. The final chorale sounds just like Bach, a fitting setting for the words by Luther.

    Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul; which long for death but it cometh not; and dig for it more than for hidden treasures; which rejoice exceedingly and are glad, when they can find the grave? Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, and whom God hath hedged in? (Job 3.20-23)
    Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens (Lamentations 3.41)
    Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord, that the Lord is very pitiful and of tender mercy. (James 5.11)
    With peace and joy I go forth in the will of God; my heart and mind are comforted, gentle and still. As God has promised me, death but becomes sleep to me. (Martin Luther – 1524)


  • I think a comment (mine) must have gone into spam. I like the link to the Brahms – thanks Dana.

  • Percival

    Yes, you perceived my intent correctly. I figured the extremity of the expression was enough of a clue that It was satirical.

    Yes, God is God, but how does that speak to intention or motivation? No one follows God for unselfish reasons. We either submit to Him because we find Him gracious or because we find Him scary (or both). If the path becomes hard and doesn’t seem to pay off in this life, then it is foolish to abandon faith because it no longer works for us. That only shows that our faith was short-sighted and was for this world only. It shows that we considered God to be our servant and when it didn’t work out we fired Him. In essence, we never really submitted to Him. We submitted to Santa.

    Can we ever get to the point where we are motivated only for God? Would we at some point say, “If it is to your glory, I would be happy for You to destroy me forever.” I doubt it. Or if we did feel that way, I would name that insanity, not altruism or unselfishness.

  • The observation that we tend to impose our notions of heaven, hell and judgment on the text, (even though those would have been foreign to original audience) resulting in a distortion of the meaning intended by the author is a very good one. Of course this is commonly done to much of the Bible, old and new testaments.

    I was just watching video of Zizek discussing Job on Mike Morrell’s blog ( and he has a fascinating perspective. Here’s a short clip from the video of Zikek’s take on Job: (the quality of the video is better on MM’s blog, but you’d have to watch it in 15 minute blocks).