How to Comfort Those Who Are Suffering: A Meditation on Job 2:11-13

Shared at United Reformed Church of Clifton during the Mid-Week Prayer Meeting, Wednesday, July 24, 2020

Meditation #2a in a Series on the Book of Job: “What Good People Do When Bad Things Happen.”
To hear the sermon preached follow this link

11 When Job’s three friends,
Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite,
heard about all the troubles that had come upon him,
they set out from their homes and met together by agreement
to go and sympathize with him and comfort him.

12 When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him;
they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes
and sprinkled dust on their heads.

13 Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights.
No one said a word to him,
because they saw how great his suffering was.

Job 2:11-13

For the last couple of Sundays, I have thoroughly enjoyed preaching from the book of Job.  Unfortunately, the book has been so rich that I haven’t been able to share all that I have been learning.  Last Sunday, for example, I did not have time to cover the very end of Job chapter 2, where Job’s three friends came to comfort him. So I thought I’d take some time to discuss this short passage with you. 

Tonight I want to ask two questions

  1. How did Job’s suffering affect him?
  2. How did Job’s friends express their care for him?

How Job’s Suffering Affected Him

Job’s suffering affected him in two ways.  First it totally changed his physical appearance, his mental health and his personality.  Job 2:12 says, “When Job’s three friends saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him.”  Gerald Janzen commenting on this verse says,

Job’s suffering has rendered him all but unrecognizable. Many have had this experience, of visiting a familiar friend or family member and of being shocked at their altered appearance. It is not just the physical features that have altered, but something deeper. The other is no longer fully or even primarily in our familiar world, but inhabits a realm whose terrain is strange and foreign to us. We sense a chasm across between us from which we draw back in self-protective fear. But if we are courageous and caring enough, we will attempt to cross the chasm somehow through sympathetic identification, hoping to draw the other back with us into the familiar world.

L. Gerald Janzen, Job–Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching, p. 58, 1985, John Knox Press

Suffering and grief isolate us from ordinary everyday reality and change us into someone barely recognizable. 

Second, Job’s grief did not decrease with the passing of time.

Tremper Longman points out that by the time the three friends had arrived Job probably had been suffering for months.  In chapter 7 verse 3, Job makes this clear when he says, “I am allotted months of emptiness, and nights of misery are apportioned to me.”

By the same token, during that long period, Job’s grief was growing and not diminishing. Verse 13 says that Job three friends “saw that Job’s suffering was very great.”  Gerald Janzen points out that the verb that is translated as “great” is “ingressive in meaning, and properly signifies the process of ‘growing, becoming great.’ The verb shows that Job’s agony is not abating but is deepening in silent intensity with each passing day.”  (ibid., p. 60)

And that is the way with grief.  When we first lose someone to death we go into shock and feel numb.  This is God’s way of protecting us so that we have time for the loss to gradually sink in.  But with the passing of time the grief becomes more and more acute.  At 1 month we hurt more than at day 1.  At 6 months or a year, grief is often even more debilitating and all encompassing.  This means that we need not to rush people through their grief.

Years ago I knew a teenaged girl whose father died when she was 10 or 11 years old.  Now that she was 16, her friends didn’t understand it when she got sad and wanted to talk about her father.  They thought that she should be “over it” and didn’t want to listen to her heartache.  But the truth of the matter is that we never get over it.  Our grief is always there, sometime very sharp and intense, and at other times just a dull ache in the background. 

How Job’s Friends Expressed Their Care for Him

How did Job’s friends express their care for him? Let me suggest three things.

First, they surrounded him with a caring community. This was a team effort; the three of them worked together.  One of the things that suffering does is cut you off from other human beings.  Marilyn Short tells me that when Glen was dying of cancer some of his neighbors and friends stopped visiting him, because they didn’t know what to say, leaving him all the more isolated.

Not so, with these three.  Tremper Longman points out that they came from a long distance.  To use a contemporary example, they didn’t just cross the street, but it was as if one of them booked a flight from L.A., one drove the whole day from Cleveland, Ohio and perhaps there was one local guy who coordinated the joint effort. They made a concerted effort to surround him with a community of care and support.

Second, they gave him a significant amount of time. Verse 13 says they sat with him on the ground for 7 days and 7 nights.  They didn’t go to the Best Western every night to take a break; they sat with him day and night.  Longman also calls attention to the fact that these three friends stay with him for 7 days is an echo of the 7 sons and 3 daughters that Job had in chapter 1.  Remember I told you that in Hebrew thought 7 is a perfect number and that when you add his 3 daughters to his 7 sons, you get 10, another perfect number.  The same math applies here.  Three friends plus 7 days also equals 10.  So they were perfect in the time they spent with him.

Third, they totally identified with him in his grief.  Like Job, they tore their robes.  Like Job they put dust on their head as a symbol of grief and humility.  Like Job they sat on the garbage heap with him.

Gerald Janzen points out that even their body language mirrored Job’s. 

[The Hebrew word for “comfort” is the word] “nud” which in this context “refers to a bodily motion of shaking, moving to and fro, nodding the head. Theirs is a condolence so deeply felt as to be inarticulate, expressible only through those bodily movements by which one undergoes sympathetically the embodied sufferings of another. In their own way, like a spouse, these friends are bone of one another’s bone, flesh of one another’s flesh.”

ibid, p. 57

Fourth, and most importantly they sat with him in silence.  They didn’t feel any need to fix it.  They didn’t trot out any pious Bible verses to make him feel better. They were just there with him. To quote Janzen again, “The friends hope to enter deeply with Job into his condition and then to help him come out of it in a manner which enables him to go on with his life in a spirit other than that of perpetual bereavement.” (ibid, p. 57)

In short, when they first came to see Job they did everything right.  Unfortunately, in the following chapters they blow it and instead of remaining Job’s friends they become Job’s accusers. But that is another story for another day.

For today let us learn from their example so that we can walk with others in their times of suffering.  Then we will live into the words of the Apostle Paul

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. 

II Corinthians 1:3-5

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