Actually, I’m more interested in Job’s journey of faith than I am his “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2), but for the present I want to take a closer look at these “comforters.” I have decided to do this as an exercise for my own spirituality over the next few weeks because sometimes, in the midst of my grief, I actually tell myself some of the things that friends told Job. In other words, I end up beating myself up rather than lamenting and seeking God’s mercy.
I’m not quite sure how this will proceed. I’m doing this “on the fly” and I’ll see where it goes; where the Spirit might lead as I meditate on the Job’s dialogue with his friends. Depending on my own meditations, I will move back and forth between posts on hermeneutics and posts on Job’s dialogue with his friends
There are three cycles of dialogue. The first one is found in Job 4-14. [We could begin the cycle with Job 3 but I don’t think Job intended any “response” from his friends. Rather, it is a “why” lament with God in the third person rather than as a direct address to God.] It is the longest cycle. Eliphaz speaks (4-5) then Job responds (6-7), then Bildad (8), then Job again (9-10), then Zophar (11) followed by Job’s final response (12-14). Job says more as the dialogue proceeds and the friends say less! [On the whole structure of the book see my notes on Job.]
I think the basic theme of this cycle is “Job, repent and God will return it all to you!” Good advice to a sufferer, huh? Or, another way of putting it is, “get your life together and God will bless you again.” Or, “God does this on a quid pro quo basis–you do your part and God will reward you!” Here is a quick snapshot:
Eliphaz (4-5): Offers hope in discipline (5:17-27).
Job (6-7): Friends are dry streams (6:15-21).
Bildad (8): God will yet deliver you if you repent (8:6-20).
Job (9-10): Who am I, even if I am blameless (9:20).
Zophar (11): Job is self-righteous (11:4-5), so repent (11:13).
Job (12-14): You are telling me nothing new; just listen (13:1-2, 13).
For this post, I will concentrate on Eliphaz and Job’s response (Job 4-7).
Eliphaz, to his credit, does attempt to be conciliatory, gentle and hopeful. Apparently, however, Job did not think he tried very hard. Despite the best of intentions and with even a small amount of insightful theology (e.g., 5:8-17), we can do more harm than good.
Mistake One. The friends thought they had to speak. They could not bear to hear Job’s heart-rending lament in chapter 3 and stay silent. Eliphaz cautions Job about impatience, insinuates that perhaps he should just listen “but who can keep from speaking,” he says (4:2).
Lesson: Be present and be silent; when in any doubt, choose silence. Don’t speak because the silence is uncomfortable.
Mistake Two. The friends cautioned Job about his words. “Call if you will,” Eliphaz taunts Job, “but who will answer you?” (5:1) Job’s words are dangerous, edgy, and cross the line with God. Eliphaz thinks Job is insolent and impatient.
Lesson: Listen to their lament. Don’t judge it and don’t critique it. Let it flow and let it go. Listen, listen and then listen some more.
Mistake Three. The friends reminded Job how God takes care of the righteous. “Consider now,” Eliphaz says, “who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright every destroyed?” (4:7). What is Job supposed to think about that? If Eliphaz is right, Job can’t be upright or innocent (but the reader knows that the Lord himself declared him such in Job 1-2).
Lesson: “Cheer up, my brother; live in the sunshine!” “God will take care of you; trust him!” Such platitudes are meaningless when you’ve been crushed. They have an opposite effect than what is intended. Such words may turn the sufferer away from trust because now it appears that God has not considered them worthy of his protection.
Mistake Four. The friends plead with Job to accept the Lord’s discipline for his sins. God will rescue him from his calamities and secure him against future ones (5:18-26) if only he will “not despise the discipline of the Almighty” (5:17). There may be a place for this if sins are the cause of the circumstances–which sufferers often need to recognize for themselves. But in Job’s circumstances–tragic events unrelated to his actions, tragedies beyond his control–the advice rings hollow.
Lesson: “God is teaching you something; listen to him, repent and get your life straight.” Never, ever attribute the suffering to some defect in the sufferer. Sufferers may do that for themselves, but it is not the place of the comforter to connect the dots for them if there are any dots to connect.
Mistake Five. The friends interpreted Job’s suffering and alluded to elements of his pain. Eliphaz does this twice in two sections in Job 5. From one angle he describes the fool whose house was “suddenly…cursed” and whose children “are far from safety” (5:3-4) but from another angle describes how the Lord will protect the property and children of those who penitently accept his discipline. “You will know your tent is secure; you will take stock of your property and find nothing missing. You will know that your children are many, and your descendants like the grass of the earth” (5:24-25). Unmitigated gall!
Lesson: While the sufferer may talk about the tragedy and give any details that they may like–and we should listen to whatever they want to say about it, comforters never ever (1) interpret the meaning of the suffering, (2) compare past and present, or (3) use language that opens up the wounds (“children”).
Mistake Six. Eliphaz projects a future for Job that is “rosy” and filled with blessing, healing and restoration. The condition of this future is Job’s repentance, but if he will repent, then God will give it all back tohim (5:18-26). Eliphaz talks about the future with such certainty. I suspect he intends to build hope within Job.
Lesson: Don’t promise more than you know. “It will be okay; it will be for the best; everything will turn out alright”–and the almost infinite variations of those “nice” platitudes. We don’t know the future; we don’t know if it is for the best; we don’t know what good, if any, will arise out of the circumstances.
Mistake Seven. The friends are so confident, so arrogant, so sure of their advice. “We have examined this,” Eliphaz says, “and it is true. So hear it and apply it to yourself” (5:27). Sufferers hate such egotistical, self-centered and self-promoting jibberish.
Lesson: Comforters need a strong sense of inadequacy, humility and powerlessness. Comforters cannot fix it. They can only sit in it with the sufferer. They have no magic words, interpretations or explanations.
Is this how you react, Job asks, to a “despairing man”? (Job 6:14).
His Speech. How can I remain silent? Of course my words are “impetuous”–“my anguish…my misery” weighs more than the “sands of the seas” (Job 6:2-3). Why should I have patience–from whence does the hope arise that “that I should be patient” (Job 6:8). His patience is finished; he has none. “Therefore, I will not keep silent” (Job 7:11).
His Powerlessness. He must speak because words are all that are left him. He is neither made of “stone” or “bronze” that he would have “power” to help himself (6:12-13).
His Isolation. “A despairing man,” Job announces, “should have the devotion of his friends, even though he forsakes the fear of the Almighty” (6:14). Where’s their loyalty? Where is the compassion, the sympathy, the consolation? These friends are fair weather friends; they are like streams fed by “melting snow” in the Spring but are dry beds “in the heat” of summer (6:16-17). Like an oasis that has dried up, Job’s friends are of “no help” (6:21). They treat Job like those who “cast lots for the fatherless;” they “barter” away his friendship (6:27). They make their deal with God to keep their own blessings and treat Job’s words like “wind” (6:28).
His Lament. After responding to the friends, he addresses God beginning in 7:7. He is hopeless; he has no future. His “days have no meaning” (7:16). His lament is filled with frustration–why is God so intent on picking on him, testing him. “Why have you,” O God, “made me your target?” (7:20). How can human beings be so significant to God that he would busy himself with meddling in their lives? Why does not God just forgive and be done with the lot?
His Comfort. Job has not denied the words of the Almighty. He speaks out of anguish but his “joy in unrelenting pain” (Job 6:10; see previous post) is his refusal to curse God and his commitment to trust the One who seems, at the moment, so much like an enemy.
Sit with Job, my friends. Listen to him; listen with your heart as well as your mind. Meditate on them. Feel your way through them. If you are a sufferer and you empathize, make them your words. Hear in his words the pain of millions of others. His words are their words; his words are often my words. His words are my daily meditations and prayers for the next few weeks.