The narrator provides the frame of mind with which to read this magnificent and stunning poem—rather than cursing God (which is what the satan expected), Job curses the day of his birth. The narrator’s introduction underscores that the satan was wrong about Job. At the same time, Job wishes he had never been born or at least that he had been stillborn. The poem is a complaint, a lament that culminates in Job’s description of his own miserable situation (there are many similarities between this complaint and Jeremiah 20:14-18).
The poem is organized into three strophes: (1) the curse in verses 3-10, (2) the contrast between life and Sheol in verses 11-19, and (3) Job’s desire for Sheol in verses 20-26.
The poem is striking for what it says and what it does not say. There is no repudiation of his earlier confessions of faith (1:21; 2:10). It does not address God directly and lays no blame on God. There is no reflection on the idea of divine retribution and no admission of guilt. Many of the themes that will fill the dialogue between Job and his friends are absent from this opening lament.
Instead, Job is wholly focused on his feelings, and they will emerge again and again throughout the Dialogue. There is no theological reflection, no ideological agenda. It is a dramatic, violent, and harrowing declaration of feelings centered on two points: “I wish I were dead” and “Why am I still alive after such trouble?”
“I wish I were dead.” Job wishes he had never been born or at least stillborn. He calls for the reversal of creation (Genesis 1:3-5) itself when it comes to the day of his birth. He even summons the chaotic cosmic powers of the Leviathan to destroy his birthday (cf. Psalm 74:14; Isaiah 27:1). That day should sink back into darkness, into nothingness, “because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb and hide trouble from my eyes” (3:10).
“Why am I still alive after such trouble?” The “why” question fills the second and third strophes. Five times (in the NRSV) Job asks “why” in the space of sixteen verses (3:11, 12, 16, 20, 23). The question expresses a depth of feeling that only those who have experienced tragedy can fathom. Why was he born? Why did he not die at birth? Why does he yet live to experience the bitterness of the soul? Why did he not die with his children?
These feelings and questions resonate with those who have wished they were dead (and I have been among them at times). We understand the question “why?” and we resent those who piously object to asking the question. Sometimes we are told to ask, “Well, why not me?” But the question still remains, “Why me? Why this? Why now?” These questions express our feelings and they probe divine wisdom. “Why,” Job asks, “is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in?” (Job 3:23.)
At the same time, Job’s language and conceptual scheme seems dependent upon his responses in the Prologue. (David Herbison, one of my students at LU, alerted me to this.) Job remembers that he came from his mother’s womb (1:21) and Job here wishes he hadn’t (3:10-11). Job remembers that Yahweh gives and takes away (1:21) and Job here acknowledges that God gives light to him when he doesn’t want it (3:20) while at the same time Job wants the darkness to seize (same verb as “take away”) the night of his birth (3:6). But what is missing is any note of praise in this poem that is present in his earlier response: “Blessed be the name of Yahweh” (much like it is missing in the lament of Psalm 88). Job, in this poem, is focused on lament, complaint and his misery. There is no room for praise now though he does not abandon the praise of God as the dialogue will demonstrate (cf. Job 12:7-13). Sometimes we don’t feel like praising or quoting Psalm 23.
Sheol looks inviting from where Job sits on the dung heap. [The Hebrew term sheol is not actually used until Job 7:9.] At least Sheol is quiet and restful (3:13)—restful not only for kings and princes (3:14-15) but also for the wicked as well as the weary (3:17-19). All earthly distinctions are obliterated there; we are all equals there, all dead. Given Job’s present “trouble” or misery (3:10, 20), Sheol is desired above life itself. He longs for it like a hidden treasure (3:21-22). His experience of trouble is analogous to the hardships of Egypt (Deuteronomy 26:7) and the anguish of the servant in Isaiah (53:11), as he uses the same word those authors use.
Job’s embrace of Sheol as a place of rest stands in contrast with his later characterizations (such as Job 10:21-22) as a place of gloom and darkness. Nevertheless, it is better than his present life. What characterizes this life now is “trouble” (3:10, 20) and “turmoil” (3:17, 26). Trouble or misery is one of Job’s favorite words to describe his situation (Job 7:3; 16:2). It is also the word his friends will use to describe what evil people do and receive (Job 4:4; 5:6,7; 11:16; 15:35; 20:22).
The conclusion of the poem is stunning. The last word in Hebrew is “turmoil” (or trouble; also in 3:17)–a word that expresses horrifying emotional distress (cf. Isaiah 14:16; 23:11; Joel 2:11). The term expresses a raging, a protesting, a rumbling (see the literal use in Job 37:2; 39:24). Job is distraught, angry and ready to protest. There is no wimpy acceptance here but a protest, a thunderous rumble from the bitter depths of his soul.
This is Job’s lot at the moment. There is no rest; there is no quiet. His fears have been realized and his food/drink is lament. It makes no sense to him; it makes no sense why God gives life to those who sit where he sits. Why does God continue to fence or hem them in? God would be gracious if he would just snuff out his life and send him to Sheol, but God continues to hedge him in. What was once a divine protection in 1:10 is now perceived as a divine hindrance—the encircling hedge bars Job from Sheol where he wants to go. God has shut the door on death just as he shuts the door on the sea (Job 38:8).
Death seems better than this life. While Job does not choose suicide, he would prefer death to his present existence. That feeling is not uncommon for sufferers. What we hear in Job 3 is an authentic protest against a life filled with “trouble.” Death is better than that kind of life, at least it looks that way from the dung heap.
This is how Job feels. Let Job sit in it; and when I feel that way, let me sit in it. Sometimes we simply need to grieve—without advice, without correction, without platitudes. Sometimes we simply have to say what we feel and that is the way sufferers grieve, mourn and endure.
Unfortunately, sometimes friends cannot sit with us and they find it hard to “hear” us. Instead, they are “compelled” to speak when it would have been better if they had never said a word.