Three Responses to Suffering (Despair, Defensiveness, Engagement): A Sermon on Job Chapters 3, 4 and 7

Preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton
on Sunday, June 21, 2020 on Facebook Live.

Sermon #3 in a Series on the Book of Job: “What Good People Do When Bad Things Happen.”
To hear the sermon preached follow this link https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=194626648596559
William Blake, Job’s Despair, Linell Set, 1826

Let the day perish in which I was born,
    and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived. (Job 3:3)

We are continuing our sermon series in Job, “What Good People Do When Bad Things Happen.”  The last two weeks we have been hearing about Job; this morning we are going to hear directly from Job and his friends.  The last two weeks we have been watching Job slide deeper and deeper into pain, sorrow, and questioning.  This morning we will find Job sinking even deeper into despair until he gets angry enough to yell at God and begins to turn the corner. 

Today we will look at selections from three different chapters.  As we do so I want you to see three things.

  1. Talking to yourself will get you nowhere.  (Chapter 3:1-10)
  2. God doesn’t need your help to defend himself. (Chapter 4:1-9)
  3. God is big enough to handle your anger. (Chapter 7:11-21)

Talking to Yourself Will Get You Nowhere (Job 3:1-10)

Chapter 3:1 begins with these words. “After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.”  Notice that Job is not talking to his friends.  He is not complaining to God. He is speaking only to himself.  His friends can overhear what he is saying, but he’s not really talking to them or to God

As I mentioned last week Job has been slowly distancing himself from God. In chapter 2, he no longer addressed God with the personal name of Yahweh but instead used the generic name of Elohim. In chapter 3, however, he isn’t even talking to Elohim; instead he talks only to himself and sinks ever deeper into himself, so deep that he wishes he had never been born. Gerald Janzen says, “These words are addressed to no one but himself, and therefore they deepen his solitariness.”  They leave him more alone than ever (Commentary on Job, p. 61, 1985, John Knox Press).

In verse 3 Job says, “Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, A man-child is conceived.”

When cursing the day of his birth Job borrows ideas from the creation story in Genesis 1.  God said, “let there be light!” Job says, “Let that day be darkness.”  Each day God created something new, God took an appreciative look at it. As the scripture says, God saw that the light was good; he saw the heavens and everything that he made.  God looks at and appreciates his own handiwork.  But Job says “May God above not seek the day I was born.”  In other words, “Let God not see.  Instead of admiring the day of my birth let God ignore it because there is nothing good about it.”

He continues to borrow from Genesis when he curses the night of his conception.  In Genesis, God said to all his creatures, “Be fruitful and multiply!” Job says, “May that night be barren.”  He even goes so far as to add a sexual comment. “May there be no cry of joy on that night!” In short, while God always blesses his creation and calls it good, Job wants to undo God’s blessing and put his birthday under a curse. (I am indebted to Gerald Janzen for this analysis of Job’s curse.)

Notice that Job does not curse God; he’s still trying to hold on to a part of his faith, even if it has been shaken.  Instead, he curses what God does. What God meant as a blessing, Job sees only as a curse.  He’s not suicidal, but he really wishes he had never been born.

Job’s words ring true to anyone who has ever experienced deep suffering. Painful as these words are, I’m glad they are in our Bible because they give a voice to things that human beings often experience and feel. These words are a soliloquy as dark and eloquent as Hamlet’s famous speech, “To be or not to be.”  

However, though they ring true to his experience, these words are not very helpful to Job, because they are not shared with anyone but himself. 

Words are meant to forge connections with others.  But these words only serve to further isolate Job in his suffering.  These words shrink Job’s world until he is the only one inhabiting it.  What a lonely place to be.

Talking to yourself will get you nowhere.

God Doesn’t Need Your Help to Defend Himself. (Job 4:1-9)

In chapter 4, Eliphaz is so disturbed by Job’s words that he feels a need to defend God. He begins innocently enough in verse 1: “If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended?”  He is very polite and considerate.  He speaks quietly and hesitantly.  He appears to ask permission before proceeding. 

However, before Job has a chance to answer, Eliphaz jumps to the attack. Verse 1 continues, “But who can keep from speaking?”  In other words, Job, you are so wrong that I must set you straight.”  It seems to me that Eliphaz would be right at home on social media, where everyone is always outraged and indignantly tells even complete strangers why they are so wrong. 

I have to confess that I often channel my inner Eliphaz.  May God forgive me and change me.

Eliphaz attacks Job in two different ways. First in verses 3-5 he tells Job, “Practice what you preach.”

See, you have instructed many;
    you have strengthened the weak hands.
Your words have supported those who were stumbling,
    and you have made firm the feeble knees.
But now it has come to you, and you are impatient;
    it touches you, and you are dismayed.

In other words, he says, “Job you’re a hypocrite.  You’re great at giving advice to other people. You can dish it out, but you can’t take it.”

Second, Eliphaz accuses Job of being wicked.  In verse 7-8 he says

Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?
    Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity
    and sow trouble reap the same.

Now truth be told, Eliphaz doesn’t flat out call Job wicked; he just says you’re not innocent but ultimately it’s just a matter of semantics.  For as the story goes on, Eliphaz and his buddies will take their gloves off and angrily make false accusations against in Job. In chapter 22, Eliphaz

Is not your wickedness great?
    There is no end to your iniquities.
 You have sent widows away empty-handed,
    and the arms of the orphans you have crushed.

If you’re suffering, Eliphaz says, it because you’re guilty of some very awful sins.  So it would be best if you would just “fess up” and ask God to forgive you.

Now we know that Job is not a hypocrite and that he is totally innocent.  He’s not wicked by any stretch of the imagination. In the very first verse of the book the narrator tells us that Job is blameless.  And God also says, not once, but twice, that Job is blameless. So why does Eliphaz have the need to go on the attack?

Ray Ortlund, Jr., a well-known pastor and Christian leader, says this,

Suffering brings temptation both to the one suffering and to the observer.  The sufferer is tempted to give up on God.  The observer is tempted to point his finger at the sufferer with smug, self-serving thoughts and words: “This is all your own fault, of course.  If you’d just own up, everything would start getting better.” Our minds dredge up these thoughts not because we are confident in ourselves but because we are uneasy about ourselves and therefore threatened by the suffering of another: “If it’s happening to Job, it might catch up to me too.”   

Quoted by Dr. Peter Cockrell at the blog, Already Not Yet. https://pjcockrell.wordpress.com/2020/02/15/the-book-of-job-2/?fbclid=IwAR31oV3olNf1hgTD9RfhEMDulqDE8d_xGJA5njYlFcF-pjXk8rFoKC1ylvg

This “blame the victim” approach is currently evident in our national discussion of racial justice.  When George Floyd was killed, people began circulating stories about his criminal past as if to say that he was at least partially responsible for his own death.  Now to be sure, George Floyd was no Job.  Though to his credit, it should be added that he was a stalwart supporter of a Christian urban ministry when he lived in Houston (Kate Shellnut, “George Floyd Left a Gospel Legacy in Houston,” Christianity Today, May 28, 2020, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/may/george-floyd-ministry-houston-third-ward-church.html). However, to blame him for his own horrific death because he had a criminal record and was allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill is just wrong. 

When Eliphaz makes his accusations of Job, he is afraid for himself.  However, as long as Eliphaz can draw a line between himself and Job, so long as Job is on the wicked side of that line, and Eliphaz is not, then he is safe. And so in the name of “defending God,” he attacks Job. 

But as someone once told me. “God can take care of himself.”  God doesn’t need Eliphaz, or me, or you to defend his actions.  God needs us to sit with those who are suffering and to care for them, not judge them. As Craig Koester, a professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary says, “Eliphaz needs to shut up.  He should only say, ‘I love you and I’m here for you, buddy.’” Perhaps we should do the same in this time of Black Lives Matter.

God Is Big Enough to Handle Your Anger

Eliphaz’s false accusations had one good side effect, they infuriated Job.  So in chapters 6 & 7 Job stops talking to himself and angrily begins to argue with both Eliphaz and God.

In chapter 6, for example, Job goes after Eliphaz and basically says, “What kind of friend are you!”  To paraphrase verse 14-22 he says, “Those who withhold kindness from a friend are not God’s friends.  You are like a stream in a wadi in the desert.  In the spring you are full of ice cold water, flowing from the mountains, but now that I am parched in the summertime of my suffering, you have nothing give me. From your point of view it’s not about me; it’s about you. You see my calamity, and are threatened by me. But have I said, ‘Make me a gift? Rescue me?’ All I asked was for you to sit with me and show me some kindness and you can’t even do that!”

And all I can say is “You tell him, Job.”  Job is rightfully angry. The only good thing about his anger is that it has pulled him out of himself.  He’s no longer speaking in eloquent soliloquies.  Instead of he is angrily shouting at Eliphaz. It’s not a good relationship, but it’s better than no relationship.

But Job doesn’t stop there.  He also engages angrily with God.  In chapter 7, and this is very important, Job stops giving God the silent treatment and starts yelling at him. Let me read from Job 7:11-21.  I’m using the Message a modern paraphrase by Eugene Peterson because he puts it in language that we can better understand.  

God I’m not keeping one bit of this quiet,
    I’m laying it all out on the table;
    my complaining to high heaven is bitter, but honest.
Are you going to put a muzzle on me,
    the way you quiet the sea and still the storm?
    Let me alone! There’s nothing to my life—it’s nothing
        but smoke.

What are mortals anyway, that you bother with us,
    that you even give us the time of day?
That you check up on us every morning,
    looking in on us to see how we’re doing?
Let up on me, will you?
    Can’t you even let me spit in peace?

Now it looks like Job is telling God to get lost, but at least he’s talking to him.  And he will continue to talk to God throughout the remainder of this book. 

Can you imagine someone talking to God like this, and getting away with it.  Job did, and that tells us something very important about God: God can handle any anger that we have towards him. He’s not threatened by our anger; he wants to hear it.

At the end of the book, after all Job’s ranting and raving (which by the way goes on for another 30 chapters), God applauds Job for his honesty and his integrity.  In Chapter 42:7, God says to Eliphaz (the man who thought he was defending God, when he was really covering his own fear), God says to Eliphaz. “I’ve had it with you and your two friends. I’m fed up! You haven’t been honest either with me or about me—not the way my servant Job has.” (The Message). 

Tremper Longman, III, says, “God affirms Job for never breaking relationship with him. Job never curses God and dies. He never falls prey to the friends’ fallacious arguments. He never cuts and runs from God, but rather pursues him.”  (Commentary on Job, p. 65, 2011, Baker Academic) And for that, God commends him.  Not condemns, but commends.

Conclusion

What do good people do when bad things happen?  Today we have learned two things. First, sometimes good people bottle up their hurt by talking only to themselves and withdrawing from God.  But as we saw not talking will get you nowhere. You’ll just end up more alone and more isolated.

Second, good people learn that God can handle their anger.  In the end, God commended Job for his honesty and his vulnerability.

Faith is all about pursuing God even when we’re angry with him. And when we pursue God, he will meet us in all our rawness right where we are.

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