Monday 4 July 2022

Job Reflection 6

Today, we return to the story of Job and his sufferings. It's quite some time since we considered these pages of scripture. It’s scripture that was written thousands of years ago in an attempt to deal with what we now know as ‘the problem of suffering', or ‘the problem of evil.’ Why do bad things happen to good people if as we claim our God is a God of justice and mercy? However, we do get a glimpse of the mind of God through the teachings of Jesus who said that we should love our enemies and pray for those that persecute us. He effectively said that through this practice of unconditional love that we too would be acting in a god-like way:


For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. (Matt 6:46).


This is the standard of required Christian behaviour.


For you are to be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect, (6:48)


And so, we see through these words that Jesus revealed an aspect of God we don’t often think about and that is God's apparent impartiality, or more accurately is his unconditional love.  What does he do?  He sends the rain and the sunlight to both the just and the unjust, to the righteous and the unrighteous.  It makes me think of a kind person who is generally loved because they are always to be kind to others whoever they are. And then we have the other sort of person who has a ‘reputation’ and is known to be rude and insulting.  Sometimes we might say of that person, he doesn't discriminate - he's rude to everyone! Not that I'm talking about God in the same breath, as these two very human examples. I'm just saying that the blessings of God, on this earth are visited upon everyone. We all have the privilege of life and as surely as we are all different in our own ways, we all experience life as individuals and as individuals we will surely be judged.


Admittedly, some people are born into enormous privilege while even today some people are born into slavery.  Yes, terrible things do happen to all kinds of people, even to the rich and powerful.  The sun shines and the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and we wonder where God’s justice actually is.  But Jesus said:


'If you are kind only to your friends, how much different are you from anyone else?'  Even pagans do that but you are to be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (5:47-48) 


So here Jesus is pointing to a level of holiness, a standard of perfection that we will all find difficult to achieve, but difficult also to understand. We know that at a common-sense level that negative behaviour should not be rewarded.  For example, we can’t expect the judge in the law courts to sentence Burglar Bill to a two week all paid expenses holiday in Majorca!


We know that we live in a world of cause and effect.  Night follows day, the tide comes in and goes out.  We know that the universe is subject to certain unwavering rules.  And when we look at the world and creation, we can either believe that that in itself proves that there must exists a creator God or perversely we may conclude that there is no God.  Either way, we are left with the same problem – if God does exist, why do we suffer? Or, God cannot exist because we do suffer. 


Having made that little detour, let’s get back to Job and his sufferings.  You will remember that not only did Job lose all his worldly wealth, including his servants, but also his seven sons and three daughters who were also killed.  And you’ll remember also that Satan had him covered from head to foot with boils.   Memorably, his wife had said ‘Curse God and die’, and that his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights, so great was his suffering that no one spoke to him. 


In my last sermon on Job, I covered this last point of how Job’s friends who saw how much he was suffering, sat with him in a silent vigil for seven days and seven nights. With this in my mind, my last sermon on Job was in part a celebration of friendship pointing out how important friendship is to each one of us.  But as I also said, that I think it’s important to understand the limitations of friendship, and that’s how I left it.  But it’s worth considering those words of Professor Edward Musgrave Blakelock, who in spite of the negative connotations traditionally ascribed to Job’s friends, that is ‘Job’s comforters’, reminded us that,


“They wept and took their places by Job’s side and sat for seven days in silent sympathy, struggling with their thoughts.  Here surely was fellowship, more real than some friends gave.


I have to say, that is undoubtedly true. However, what I’d like to do now is to draw your attention to a key verse almost right at the beginning of the story of Job. In fact, having thought about it, it is essential to our understanding of the whole story and in that key verse Job’s character profile was laid out for us when God said:


Have you noticed my servant Job?  He is the finest man in all the earth.  He is blameless – a man of complete integrity, he fears God and stays away from evil. (1:8) 


What did God say of Job? Again, what did God say of Job? He said, ‘He is the finest man in all the earth’ – God didn’t say, ‘He is one of the finest men in all the earth.’  He said Job ‘is the finest man in all the earth.’  And he said this to Satan, who in this story (Job 1:6) is Satan the Accuser.  Satan the fault finder.  Remember that Satan is a fallen angel who always opposes God and always seeks to replace good for evil.  We see his work in the world today. How evil gets a grip, how rational and how reasonable evil can appear to be, how innocent it can appear to be. How easy life could be if only you would bow down and worship me, says Satan. And in the face of all his suffering how easy it would have been for Job to have done just that. To give in to despair and to give up on God.


Satan, when confronted with the example of Job, reminds me of certain men. Men, who when shown an example of a successful man, a man worthy of admiration, of emulation even - will simply dismiss him as a fool.  And that conveniently ends the argument, doesn’t it!  Because such men are evil and they cannot bear to be shown that another man is in fact an altogether better man than they are.  And when it’s pointed out to them, how others who live closer to God live better lives than they do, they see it as an affront.  How galling then must it have been for God to say to Satan ‘Have you seen my servant Job – he is the finest man in all the earth’.  And so, bearing this in mind I have to conclude that God had a very definite purpose in saying that to Satan. For reminding that fallen angel, Satan, of the virtues of integrity and holiness.  And so, Satan affronted, acted predictably in a like negative manner, really wishing to destroy Job because for him it was easier to curse than to bless.


Turning to Job’s friends, we now consider Eliphaz (in chapter four) who was the first to speak because it’s thought that he was the most senior and the most learned of the three.  So, in effect, I suppose that what Eliphaz had to say was the best shot that this threesome were going to have at finding a rationale, a cause, a reason that might lie at the root of Job’s suffering.  Like Job, none of his friends were privy to the deliberations of the heavenly court, and the exchange between God and Satan, but once again I remind you of Job’s approval in the eyes of God, who said of Job that he is the finest man in all the earth.  And I really want to emphasise this point, because if God said so, then Job at the time was the saintliest man on earth. Again, on the authority of God’s word, in the context of this story Job was indeed the world’s number one spiritual superstar.  Even so, he was still not perfect and he had certainly been brought low by the curses that Satan has heaped upon him. 


Now Eliphaz, as I have said, the most senior of his friends, had been placed in a privileged position through his friendship with Job, and really, his role was to comfort Job and to counsel him. But, as the story unfolds, Eliphaz proved he was not up to the task.  Right from the start we can see that Eliphaz carried away by his own egotism, totally misreading the situation. Eliphaz was unaware, that Job even in the depths of his misery and new found poverty in every respect was still by far superior to him. But Eliphaz was so buoyed up by a newly found sense of his own importance that he rudely broke into Job’s monologue saying “Will you be patient and let me say a word?  For who could keep from speaking out?” 


The Bible tells us that that Eliphaz the Temanite replied to Job. He certainly did reply to Job! But the overriding tone that his words convey was a tone of irritability and a barely concealed irritability at that.  I would say that if there was any sympathy with Job’s plight that may have been existent in the silent vigil of the past seven days and nights, then that sympathy was not evident in these opening words “Will you be patient and let me say a word?”  And that is certainly confirmed in the next three verses:


Then Eliphaz the Temanite replied to Job:

“Will you be patient and let me say a word? For who could keep from speaking out?

In the past you have encouraged many people; you have strengthened those who were weak. Your words have supported those who were falling; you encouraged those with shaky knees. But now when trouble strikes, you lose heart. (4:3-5)


In these words, there is an assumed superiority, a great man has been brought low and Eliphaz we can be sure on the evidence of such language spoke to Job with such disdain. He didn’t even treat him as an equal. I’m sure Eliphaz seeing Job reduced to such a wretched state whilst he himself remained untouched, must have thought that his day had come, that he was the one now justified before God, believing without a doubt that Job must definitely have committed a sin for all those disasters to have fallen upon him.


The real question at the heart of the story of Job, is ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ and that question wasn’t even a consideration by Eliphaz because he thought he knew all the answers. In short Eliphaz’s dogmatic pronouncements can be seen for what they were; a mixture of complacency, arrogance and pride.  But what is the most hurtful in the initial utterances of Eliphaz is his blind ruthlessness in feeling that he was justified in accusing Job of practicing double standards. Basically, saying to Job, you were pretty good at handing out advice to others in their distress when things were going all right for you, but when it happens to you can’t handle it:


But now when trouble strikes, you lose heart. (4:5)


In another age, the words of Oliver Cromwell with much justification could have been directed at Eliphaz:


I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.


I believe that Max Ehrmann brought us all a lesson in personal humility when he wrote these words:


If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.


Such wisdom applicable to Eliphaz, we too should take to heart.

We don’t know it all and neither did Eliphaz.


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