Job 4-5: Eliphaz Responds to Job’s Lament

Eliphaz feels compelled to speak. “Who can keep from speaking?,” he asks. Job has cursed the day of his birth and questioned why God has permitted him to live. Eliphaz perceives him as “impatient” (4:5; same word as “offended” in 4:2, NRSV) and “dismayed” (perhaps terrified). He reminds Job that Job has helped the weak with words himself in times past, and now Eliphaz wants to help Job with some wisdom (4:3-4).  Job is not responding well to his situation, according to Eliphaz. He needs some advice…and some “hope.”

What must Job do? Job should rest in the “fear of God” and in Job’s “integrity” (4:6). How ironic! This is how the Prologue characterized Job–a person of integrity that feared of God (exactly the same language). One wonders what Job was thinking at this moment, but given the Prologue we know Eliphaz is barking up the wrong tree.  He might be right about fear God and maintain integrity, trust and obey–but he is preaching to the choir in the case of Job.

Job’s lament in the previous chapter was not a repudiation of that life orientation. Nothing he said entailed that hehad given up either his integrity or the fear of  God. Rather, it was a emotive, heart-rending questioning of why trouble has come to him though he was a person of integrity and the fear of God. Eliphaz is missing the point.

Eliphaz’s Speeches

So, where does Eliphaz go with this? He first appeals to shared traditional wisdom (4:7-11) and then he appeals to his own personal encounter with divine revelation (4:12-21).

Traditional wisdom says that whoever “sow[s] trouble reap[s] the same” (4:8). “Trouble” is the word Job used in 3:10, 20. The troubled are in trouble because they sowed trouble, according to Eliphaz, and the righteous live while the wicked perish (4:7). But Job is righteous–Eliphaz uses the same word that the Prologue used in 1:1, 8; 2:3; Job is not a troubler. Eliphaz has misjudged the situation.

Eliphaz backs up his perspective with his own encounter with God. Eliphaz has “heard [the] voice” of a spirit in a dream or night vision (4:13, 16). The voice said:  “Can mortals be more righteous than God? Can human beings be more pure than their Maker?” (4:17.) But who would deny that in any ultimate sense? Job does not.  But Eliphaz says more. If God does not trust his own servants (angels?), he notes, how would he ever trust those who live in houses founded on dust? (4:18-19). Would God ever trust a human being? And, again, the irony–this is exactly what God did in the Prologue…God trusted Job. Moreover, he entrusted the cosmic witness of faith to Job.

Because of this revelation, according to Eliphaz, Job should listen to his wisdom. Job has puffed himself up with his own righteousness as though he could approach God with his venting. This is, according to Eliphaz, foolish (offensive to God), and fools live in cursed dwellings where “trouble” (same word as in 3:10, 20; 4:8) sprouts up. Their children, Eliphaz says, are unprotected (5:1-7).

Such language must have broken Job’s heart even further. Had he not tried to protect his children through sacrifices and a life of wisdom in the fear of God? But his children are dead. Eliphaz links this to a cursed dwelling due to the trouble that Job sowed. Job is the blame for the death of his children.

After reaching that low point, Eliphaz turns positive. He states his own credo, his own approach to life (“as for me,” 5:8). He offers a praise of God (5:8-16) which is a traditional doxology and applies this to Job’s situation (5:17-26).

The theology in this section is lofty. God reigns over the creation–God sends the rain, lifts up the lowly, frustrates the designs of the wicked, and saves the needy. Consequently, “the poor have hope” (5:16). One could have lifted this out any number of the Psalms. It is almost as if he is quoting a Hebrew liturgy that praises God for creation and divine justice. Eliphaz offers Job hope–God may yet reverse his circumstances.

Job, however, must recognize the “discipline of the Almighty” (5:17). Eliphaz  applies the previous doxology to Job’s circumstances. God will bind up the wounds and heal the strikes, even protect Job from seven “troubles” and bless him abundantly (including having more children, 5:25) if Job will submit to God’s rebuke.

The centerpiece of this application is a beatitude:  “Blessed is the one whom God reproves,” and “therefore,” Eliphaz says, “do not despise the discipline of the Almighty” (5:17). This is traditional wisdom and it may have links to Psalm 94:12 and Proverbs 3:11-12 (which is quoted in Hebrews 12:5-6). There is substantial truth in this saying, but it is lost in Eliphaz’s misapplication. If Job will repent of sowing trouble, according to Eliphaz, then God will return his children, prosperity and health. A little theology is a dangerous thing. God may be discipling Job, but God is not punishing him and there is no promise of children, prosperity and health embedded in God’s testing.

Eliphaz thought he had been helpful. He shared wisdom with Job; what he has said is “true” and if Job  listened well, he would recognize the truth (5:27).

Eliphaz’s Mistakes

Eliphaz, to his credit, does attempt to be conciliatory, gentle and hopeful–he approaches his friend with rhetorical questions.  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–like Eliphaz–can do more harm than good.

Below I have noted several Eliphaz’s pastoral mistakes.

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 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, so they think. 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, (3) use language that opens up the wounds (“children”), or (4) make promises about the future.

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.

One Response to “Job 4-5: Eliphaz Responds to Job’s Lament”

  1.   johnkking Says:

    Everyone who goes into pastoral ministry should be required to work through Job with you, John Mark. Thank you for being so bold and addressing this so directly. Too many wounded souls have been beaten down by people with “a little theology” and too little humility! I hope this material is much studied and greatly applied.

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