Preacher: Jeff Davidson
Scripture: Job 19:23-27a
I have a soft spot for Job. Maybe it’s because a lot of us learn his story in Sunday School. Maybe it’s because so many terrible things happened to him and to people he loved and it really doesn’t seem fair. In college I was in a play based on the story of Job, called J. B. by Archibald MacLeish. The play’s written in blank verse, and it’s one of the most challenging scripts I ever had to learn. That could be it.
If I weren’t a Job fan before, I am now that I know Ayuba. In case you didn’t know, Ayuba is the Nigerian version of the name “Job.” Of course, Ayuba’s parents Jenn and Nate were Bible teachers in Nigeria.
I’m not the only one who thinks highly of Job or of his story. Alfred Lord Tennyson said that the book of Job was “the greatest poem of ancient and modern times.” Tennyson was the son of an Anglican pastor, and had likely grown up hearing Job’s story. Job’s influence isn’t limited to Judaism and Christianity, either. Islam teaches that Job was a prophet, and a somewhat different version of his story appears in the Koran. Mormon scriptures apart from the Bible refer to Job. In the Baha’i faith there is a
writing referred to as “The Tablet of Job.” There is something about Job’s story that resonates beyond Jewish and Christian teachings to touch people’s hearts across a variety of faiths.
There are so many different things in the book of Job to consider, and so many different things that we take for granted. I’m going to walk through Job’s story briefly this morning for those of you who may not have heard it or thought about it in a while.
The book of Job starts off introducing us to the man himself. He’s described as blameless and upright, and it says that Job fears God and turns away from evil. Then there’s a quick discussion of Job’s family and property. He has ten children, and he has over twelve thousand animals of various types, and he’s got a ton of servants, and he’s pretty much the richest guy around. As if often the case with wealthy people, Job’s children didn’t have quite the same work ethic as he did. They would go and party from house to house, and after all the parties the Bible says that although he didn’t go to these parties Job “…would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, ‘It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Job tried so hard to obey God that he would get up early to pray for his kids and offer sacrifices just in case his children had sinned.
The scene shifts to kind of a heavenly board meeting. The Bible says that all the heavenly beings, including Satan, come to present themselves to God. God asks Satan what he’s been up to, and Satan replies that he’s been walking around on the Earth a bit, just seeing what’s up. God asks Satan if Satan has looked at Job. After all, Job’s a good guy. He does what he’s supposed to do, he worships God, he keeps away from sinful things.
Satan’s not impressed. Of course Job worships you, Satan says. You’ve blessed him with all this money and all these animals and all this land. Who wouldn’t worship you? Take it all away from him, and let’s see how much Job loves you then.
God says it’s a deal. Satan can take away everything that Job loves, but Satan can’t touch or hurt Job physically. And so Satan gets to work. The story is told in Job 1:13-22. “One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said,
The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.’ While he was still speaking, another came and said, ‘The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.’ While he was still speaking, another came and said, ‘The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed
the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.’ While he was still speaking, another came and said, ‘Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.’ Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.
For most people, that’s pretty much the story of Job. God and Satan have a disagreement, bad stuff happens, Job says, “God gave it to me and God can take it away if God wants to” and let’s call it a day. That’s not the end of the story of Job, though. That’s just chapter 1.
The story goes on with God and Satan talking again. God repeats that Job remains blameless, and Satan says, “Yes, but that’s because you didn’t let me harm him physically. If I take away his good health, then he’ll curse you.” God says that Satan can do as he will, as long as Satan spares Job’s life. Job is then afflicted by terrible sores, and he goes and sits among the ashes and scrapes them. Job’s wife says that he should curse God and die, but Job rebukes her. He says, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”
Then Job has three friends who come to comfort him – Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. I probably should put air quotes about how these three
guys “comforted” Job. They meant well. They really did. It says at the end of chapter 2 that they didn’t recognize Job until they were right up on top of him, and when they saw how bad things were for Job they tore their own robes and threw ashes into the air, and sat with him in silence for seven days. Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar cared about Job enough to sit and suffer with him in silence for a full week. In pastoral care this is called the ministry of presence.
All this suffering is starting to get to Job, and he curses the day of his birth. He doesn’t curse God, but he does curse the day of his birth. It’s kind of cool that only when Job indicates that he is ready to speak do Job’s friends begin to talk with him. They let him set the pace. They wait for him to be ready. Even then, Eliphaz is cautious. At the beginning of chapter 4 he says to Job, “If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended?” He’s trying to be kind, supportive, sensitive to Job’s feelings and needs. Even though he ends up not offering very much comfort, it’s a very good way to approach people sometimes.
Now comes a dialogue between Job and his friends, and it’s in the midst of that dialogue that our passage for today comes up. Let me read it again, and then let me discuss the dialogue a little bit. This is Job 19:23-27a.
O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
Like I said, Job’s friends mean well. They love him. They care about him. They came from some distance to visit him. They sat with him silently for a week. They waited until he was ready to talk. Even then they began by seeking his permission to engage. They have been nothing but sensitive and caring and loving to Job.
Yet there’s a reason I said that we should probably put air quotes around the word “comforted” in their responses to them. Because here’s the gist of what they say: Job, you deserved it.
They aren’t nearly that crude or direct. It’s all couched in beautiful poetic language, but that’s the bottom line of their message. They believe and say that suffering is punishment for sin, and that therefore Job should repent and seek God’s mercy. They take a lot of words to say it, but that’s what they say.
Job isn’t having any of it. Normally I’d say that Job needs to get over himself, because we all sin whether we know it or not. I can’t say that here, though, because you know who else says Job didn’t sin? God. That’s where this thing started, with Job being that unicorn of humanity, a man who was totally blameless. What’s more, Job knows it. And that’s where we are with our passage today – Job defending himself against his friends and as things go on defending himself against God and God’s judgment.
Job’s angry at what’s happened, and as he talks with his friends he drops the quiet, meek acceptance that we saw in the first couple of chapters. Job’s mad, and at various points Job sounds a little like some of our political leaders today. Job says that God is intrusive and overbearing and unforgiving. Job says that God is obsessed with destroying a human target. God is angry, hostile, destructive, fixated on punishment. God, says Job, has let the wicked take advantage of the needy and the helpless and that God does nothing about it.
The more his friends talk with him the angrier Job gets with them and with God, and in the opening verses of our passage Job’s so angry that he says he wants his words of accusation to last forever. He means accusation in the sense of a lawsuit, or a criminal case. First he just wants his case against God to be written down on a papyrus or something. Then
he says no, it should be written in a book. Wait, says Job, that’s not enough. My case, my words should be written on a rock with an iron pen so they will endure forever. As, to be honest, they have.
In verse 25 Job refers to the redeemer. This was a literal person in Hebrew society, often a relative, established in Leviticus 25:25. The redeemer’s job was to offer financial support to poor people who had sold what they owned to pay their debts. Job has no one like that in his life, so he’s thinking of something different here. Some theologians say that this is the first appearance in the Bible of the concept of Christ as the capital R Redeemer, Christ at the end of history, Christ at the end of the Revelation. That idea gets reinforcement from Job’s statement that the Redeemer will stand on the Earth after Job’s skin has been destroyed, and that then he will see God at his side.
It’s a powerful and a hopeful image in the midst of so much desolation and anger and sorrow.
Job’s story continues after our reading, with a poem about wisdom, a new comforter named Elihu who says that wisdom comes from God to prophets in dreams, and more responses from Job including a demand that God answer him.
You know what? God does answer Job. God doesn’t answer Job’s questions directly, and the tone of God’s answers depends on how you choose to read them. Maybe God is being a little arrogant and distant in chapter 38 verse 4: (sarcastically) “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” Maybe God is being realistic in those words about the limits of Job’s knowledge. (Read same verse again, gently and kindly.)
You can read a lot of God’s response a few different ways, but the bottom line is that God says that Job’s understanding is too limited to grasp all of this, a theme that we see many, many times in the Bible. Even Jesus found the disciples’ understanding too limited for lessons he tried to teach them each and every day.
At the beginning of Job 42 is Job’s final response to God. Job says that he has uttered what he did not understand, and that he now repented in dust and in ashes. God rebukes Job’s three friends for failing pastoral counseling 101 and restores Job’s fortunes, and Job lives out a long and happy life.
Normally I like to read a passage and figure out something that we can or could or should do after reading it. Go out and help the poor. Feed
the hungry. Pray more. Sin less. Be kind. You know what I mean. This passage doesn’t really lend itself to that. Go out and write your grievances on a rock with an iron pen.
I had a church member at a different congregation who was convinced he was going to hell when he died. He thought he had done something so offensive to God that he couldn’t be forgiven. I never knew what it was he did that touched him so deeply and caused him so much guilt. I don’t know if I ever got through to him about God’s forgiveness or not.
Whatever he did it’s hard for me to believe that it’s any worse than what Job does in our reading today. Job is in a rage at God. You heard Job accuse God of terrible things. You read where Job is so serious he wants it all written on a rock to last forever. In our reading Job is angry, and he’s not going to back down and from my perspective I don’t blame him.
God takes the worst that Job can offer. God accepts it. God doesn’t strike Job dead. God doesn’t punish Job eternally. God doesn’t do a lot of things that God could have done. I confess that I don’t get it all the way that it’s presented here in Job, but Job gets it. Job understands at the end, and he repents.
I find comfort in knowing that God will work with me when I am angry, when I am enraged. God will listen when I think I’ve been treated unfairly. God will let me pour out my feelings, whatever they are, and will come to me in a way that I can understand to work through them. Other people may not understand, but that’s okay. I will understand. God can approach those other people in ways that they understand.
God can deal with whatever we bring. God will meet us where we are. God will help us understand what we need to understand, to know what we need to know, to do what we need to do. We can know that our Redeemer lives. We can learn from and be like Job. Amen.