Job’s “Miserable Comforters” I (Job 4-7)

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’s Mistakes

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.

Job’s Despair

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.


11 Responses to “Job’s “Miserable Comforters” I (Job 4-7)”

  1.   dagwudandblondy Says:

    John Mark,

    You’ve done a marvelous job of helping us see the seven mistakes.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom from the ashes.

    Richard May

  2.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I believe if the comforter(s) would work not to make the first two mistakes, the five mistakes that follow the first two would most likely be avoided.

    Wonderful post!


  3.   richard constant Says:

    Concerning my last post John Mark on worldview and the interaction of the adversary and the call of the gospel and how the adversary is affecting the world seems to be changing the world is dead god and the church is to call a the world through the gospel the good news of the gospel.
    Have people that are suffering in the world are thinking that it is God that is bringing on the suffering that hardens them even more to the purpose of our Lord.

    Seems to be wrapped up in the first three or four verses of the interplay of the heaven lies and the testing of faith, love.
    In other words doesn’t seem to me like it’s got it’s got his hands on this world as much is as it is the evil one.
    This might seem to be off topic but to me it’s not this is what brought about these thoughts to me.
    Coming from Homer Hailey is much of my theology God interacting in the world for his purpose. I do see Jesus interacting in the world for his church.
    I’m getting a little boggled hear John Mark.
    If you have some answers it would help.
    I might be off on another study God help me.
    As always your brother in California rich.
    PS I hope this was enough to give you an idea what I am thinking about

  4.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I would suggest that the Evil One can only do what God permits him to do. Whether “satan” (the accuser) in Job is the Evil One or not is an open question, but in the story of Job God empowers and defangs the accuser at his own discretion and will. Further, in Job 40-41 Yahweh declares his control and mastery of the Behemoth and Leviathan (which I regard as ancient symbols of chaos and evil).

    In effect, I don’t blame Satan for the permission God has given him. He is only acting according to his interests, agenda and nature. My problem is with the God who gives Satan that freedom and power. So, I ask God my questions rather than Satan. God is ultimatley responsible for his world.

  5.   richard constant Says:

    thanks i will think on this today at work
    i do aferm your answer al though…
    thanks john mark helped me

    wish i could do more for your plight if that is a good word.
    my blessyngs and prayers to you my brother.
    Remember my friend prayers of a righteous man availth much
    at least we all know the light at the end of the tunnel is not a train.

  6.   dagwudandblondy Says:

    John Mark,

    In the past few weeks, I grieved with my wife’s best friend whose mother died two with four years of her brother dying, her father dying; and within three years of her 19 year old son dying.

    You and I have both grieved with John because of the death of John Robert.

    Two weekends ago I was at another graveside with dear friends. The remains of our missions deacon and friend were finally release following the May plane crash in OKC that killed him and four others.

    I presided at the funeral of another Christian grandmother yesterday who died from cancer. She was the primary guardian for two teenage granddaughters.

    My studies in Job and Ecclesiastes that I did for classes that I taught and OC, and the classes in those books that I took from Glenn Pemberton, help me deal with my frustration with how heaven works things out here.

    I recall the words, and sometimes scream the words of Bruce Nolan in Bruce Almighty, “The only one not doing his job around here is you!”

    But like Job, while I scream those words, I realize that God is the only one to whom I can scream. If I am to find any relief – indeed, if I am to offer any relief, God is the one to whom we must scream and the one to whom we must turn.

  7.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    That is a alot of pain, Richard. The biblical materials, past experience, listening to others, etc., prepare us for them…but in some ways they do not. Our journeys through the valley are the real teachers and yet we pass through the valley with hope because others have gone before us, including believers in Scripture. Thanks for the comment.

  8.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Richard said, “[A]t least we all know the light at the end of the tunnel is not a train.”

    Indeed it is only hope that keeps the suffering holding on.


  9.   richard constant Says:

    You know the Lord hears this and I do feel empathy for you I do know that you will pull through and know that you are in the way to resolve the or at least come to terms with the depth of loss I can’t imagine.
    I know my wife is spoken of the loss of one of her children and so devastating for her to go there.
    If we can only all get together and and cry.
    And find the strengths and the members that we have and the synergistic faith of our combined numbers that could help you through the healing I know for one I feel that such a loss for you all.
    I know John Mark is a wonderful man and at one time or another John Mark God grant you the epiphany that you are trying so desperately to find so as to communicate to those that are feeling so much pain God be with you all my brothers I am so saddened tonight for you.
    God be glorified in his Christ I know there is an answer…
    blessings all may God continue to give us of our sins and give us insight into these deeper meanings of his creation it brings about the loss of those that are so much a part of our being.
    We shall overcome in Christ
    blessings rich in California

  10.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Richard, I appreciate your care. It is good to feel the sadness. I am not in despair; at least not today, now at this moment. 🙂 But there is a need to feel. Too often I have avoided feeling the hurt. It has hurt me and I am determined not to proceed in that fashion any longer.

    What I am learning by meditating on Job again–this time paying attention to the emotional world of the poetry–is to feel and express the emotion that is present. I think this is healthy and it is ultimately healing–at least I sense healing in my own soul. It was also surely healing for Job. I am simply trying to walk in his footsteps.

  11.   richard constant Says:

    May God grant you the continuing diligence not to miss a step John Mark, also John Mark just by way of a reminder, there is only so much time in a day, and don’t forget you do have a wonderful life. If we can at least strive to find some balance. There is that nasty word for you and me again.
    Don’t forget to kiss the dog and then tell the wife to fetch the paper.
    There is balance there somewhere John Mark

    Blessings my brother enjoy the weekend

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