Job’s “Miserable Comforters” III (Job 11-14)

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’s Counsel

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.

Job’s Reaction

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.

3 Responses to “Job’s “Miserable Comforters” III (Job 11-14)”

  1.   richard constant Says:

    Thank you so much John Mark, when you use the word schooled.
    It reminded me of an old song by Simon and Garfunkel.
    When I think back on all the things I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.

    Kodachrome, gives us all the bright colors bright and a bright shining Shining day.

    Pardon the senior moment a long time since I’ve heard that song.

    Rich in California.

  2.   richard constant Says:

    This morning while driving out and getting coffee, I just thought I would let you know John Mark and everyone else, even using the word hermeneutic is strange to me it sounds a bit pretentious.
    That’s just for me,
    I know John Mark knows what I’m talking about I have explained to him my vast education.
    In other words I’m self-taught.
    So please if I use a word not quite right i would appreciate
    it. I really do love to learn
    To be called and the correct definition.
    Thank y ou my brothers.
    In fact I type in spell so well, as John Mark can attest from last November.
    That I went out and bought a voice activation software system for my computer, so that I could at least communicate in some respects, the knowledge I have gained through my studies,and prayer. In the hopes of furthering my understanding and be more faithful to our Lord.
    Blessings all rich in California

  3.   richard constant Says:

    I apologize self-taught not quite true statement
    as a young man I did learn from what I consider some very knowledgeable men, Pete Wilson for one, Floyd Thompson for another one in California, and also Homer Haley who when he came into California or Southern California. I lived in orange county. If he would be in Los Angeles County I would be there with my tape recorder if he was in Orange County I would be there with my tape. Over a few years I accumulated a lot of very good teaching. And listen to them over and over again.
    I did get to know him well enough to call them at home in Arizona and say hello and asking how he was doing I truly did love that man.
    Blessings all.
    And now I get to be taught by John Mark.
    I am one fortunate fellow.

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