My previous posts in this series have examined the mistakes of Eliphaz and Bildad in their first responses to Job’s laments. Now I turn my attention to Zophar (Job 11) and Job’s reaction to his “comfort” (Job 12-14).
Zophar is seething. He can’t stand it. Who does Job think he is that he can dispute with God? Zophar’s zeal for the righteousness of God demands that he “rebuke” this mocker. “Will no one rebuke you,” Zophar retorts, “when you mock?” (11:3b).
He hears Job’s lament as the assertion of Job’s own sinlessness. He puts words in Job’s mouth–words Job never spoke. Job never claimed his “beliefs” were “flawless” or that he was “pure” in God’s sight (8:4). But Zophar cannot hear Job’s dispute with God as anything other than unfaithfulness and anticipates that God will voice his displeasure if he ever does speak to Job.
It seems that “righteous” people tend to hear laments exactly as Zophar hears them. In fact, many read Job’s words exactly as Zophar read them. I think it is a dangerous thing to side with the friends against Job given God’s own response to the friends in chapter 42. Yet, we are so schooled to believe that honest, heart-felt, angry laments to God are so sinful that we can’t even hear Job’s righteous venting without condemning him in sympathy with Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar.
Unfortunately, Job’s condemnation is not sui generis. Many laments are condemned for their harshness and “irreverence.” The spirit of Zophar yet lives in the hearts of the “righteous.”
This rejection of lament is rooted in a misapplication of divine transcendence. Zophar rightly asks, “Can you fathom the mysteries of God?” (11:7). Of course not! Job confesses divine mystery and transcendence–he already has done so in the dialogues and will in his response to Zophar. But for Zophar this means that the divine court will imprison Job rather than release him because this is what God does with “deceitful men” (11:10-12). It does not, seemingly, occur to Zophar that Job is honest and that his cry to the transcendent one is the call of a wounded victim. It is almost as if Zophar’s understanding of transcendence renders God unapproachable and many lamenters have been rebuked on that basis.
Yet, Zophar hopes for Job’s repentance. “[I]f you devote your heart to him,” he pleads, “you will surely forget your trouble” (11:13a, 16a). Hope and security will return; darkness will become light; danger will turn into safety. And Job, Zophar promises, will no longer be afraid; his fear will dissipate. God will no longer terrify him (Job 11:13-19). Repent, and everything will be just fine…the same promise that Eliphaz and Bildad offered.
Job’s hope, then, is to renounce his own integrity and repent. If Job were to do so, this would give the accuser (“Satan” in chapte 1) the victory. For, then, the accusation would certainly be correct–human beings only serve God for profit, for the “stuff.” If Job is willing to deny his own integrity in order to get his “stuff” back, then he would serve God out of a profit motive rather than out of love. Unwittingly, Zophar asks Job to deny his faithful witness rather than uphold it.
Perhaps a good word to describe Job’s reaction is….incredulous. Did Zophar just say what he did? “Did I hear him right?” Job might have thought.
Job cannot convince his own friends that the tables have been turned on him. While once he “called upon God and he answered” and “though righteous and blameless [integrity],” now he is a “laughingstock” to his “friends” (12:4). At the same time “the tents of marauders are undisturbed,” like those who stole his property and killed his servants (12:6). And it is God who has done this! Who “does no know that the hand of the Lord (Yahweh!) has done this?” (12:9).
This is why Job must “dispute” with God. Though he knows “wisdom and power” belong to God, though he knows “counsel and understanding are his” (12:13), though he knows God builds up and tears down whatever he pleases him–and the series of divine actions in 12:14-25 are a testimony to God’s “wisdom and power,” Job cannot but dispute with the Almighty. He “desire[s] to speak to the Almighty and to argue [his] case with God” (13:3).
Instead of supporting him, the friends “smear [him] with lies” (13:4a). He would rather they just be silent–that would be true wisdom (13:5)! But they persist to defend God rather than empathize with their friend. They choose the seeming meaninglessness of God’s work over sitting with Job in his pain. They would rather lie and defend God than share Job’s suffering (13:6-12). Sound familiar to anyone? It does to me–it even reflects what goes on inside my own head at times.
So, why must Job speak? Why does he endanger himself with his honesty in addressing God? “Why do I put myself in jeopardy,” he asks, “and take my life in my hands?” (13:14).
This is the beauty of Job’s lament. On the one hand, he laments because he trusts God. On the other hand, he laments because he experiences life as so totally unfair. This, I think, is the circumstance all faithful lament. It is honest about the seeming injustice of life’s tragic course, but it nevertheless trusts in the “wisdom and power” of God over that life.
Job speaks–he disputes, laments, complains–because “though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (13:15). And he speaks–he disputes, laments, complains–because “man is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble” (14:1). With the former, Job knows he will be vindicated (13:18b), but with the latter he recognizes that the grave and suffering are the human condition (14:5, 10). This is the origin of lament–trust and trouble. Lament is a faithful response to God; it is not the cry of the arrogant, but it is faith mourning.
Job feels this same tension regarding sin. He does not claim perfection. He remembers the “sins of his youth” (13:26). He knows his “offenses” (14:16-17). But he does not understand why God prosecutes his own servant to this degree. Though he sins, he nevertheless trusts God and follows his steps. “Why,” then, “do you hide your face,” Job asks God, “and consider me your enemy?” (13:24). It seems that God has used every excuse–including his sin, even the sins of his youth–to imprison him and shackle his feet (13:27).
But this does not fit Job’s understanding of God; it does not fit what he would expect from his Creator. This is not the God to whom Job prays. Therefore, he will await the day of “renewal” when God “will call and I will answer,” when God “will long for the creature [his] hands have made” (14:15). In that moment, God will “count [Job's] steps but” will “not keep track of [his] sin” (14:16). God will, Job believes, seal up his offenses “in a bag” and “cover over [his] sin.”
Ultimately, Job hopes in his God; he trusts in God’s grace and healing. But in the midst of his lament it is difficult for him to see through the fog. On the trash heap, “he feels [only] the pain of his own body and mourns only for himself” because God has “overpower[ed] him” and “change[d] his countenance” (14:20,22).
This is lament. Trouble plus trust given voice. Sometimes the trouble overshadows the trust and sometimes the trust shines through the trouble.
Friends who would comfort need to understand this. Let us listen to the voice without critique, judgment or condemnation. Listen with mercy, compassion and sympathy, even empathy where possible.