Our summer series on Great Prayers of the Old Testament comes to a conclusion today with a look at the book of Job. While I would guess that many of you, Mr. Bill and myself included, are looking forward to a return to the lectionary and the gospel readings, I hope that you have been able to join me in appreciating our look at some of the less studied and less preached passages in our Holy Scriptures. This morning, as with the other prayers we studied, let us begin with a look at the larger context behind the prayer in order to better understand what occasioned Job’s conversation with God.
I am going to guess that most of us have some knowledge of Job’s story. Job was a wealthy and righteous man, with ten children, numerous flocks and herds, and many servants. In fact, we are introduced to him in the first chapter of the book that bears his name as “the greatest man among the people of the East.” He was so righteous and essentially sinless that God held him up as an example of how righteous a person could be. Unfortunately, Satan took that as an opportunity to challenge God, and offered an experiment in which he might get Job to turn against God. The challenge was accepted, and Job was stripped of everything in catastrophe after catastrophe – his wealth, his health, all that he owned, and even the lives of all ten children. According to the culture of the time, and his three so-called friends who attempted to help and explain his suffering, one would think that all this was the consequence for Job’s sins; yet Job was blameless. Nevertheless, despite the undeserved punishments, he refused to turn away from God.
In Eugene Peterson’s introduction to the book of Job, he comments, “Job suffered. His name is synonymous with suffering. He asked ‘Why?’ He asked ‘Why me?’ And he put his questions to God. Throughout the book that bears his name, he asked his questions passionately, persistently and eloquently. He refused to take silence for an answer. He refused to take clichés for an answer. He refused to let God off the hook.
Job did not take his sufferings quietly or piously. He distained going for a second opinion to outside physicians or philosophers. Job took his stance before God, and there he protested his suffering and he protested it mightily.
It is not only because Job suffered that he is important to us. It is because he suffered in the same ways that we suffer – in the vital areas of family, personal health, and material things. Job is also important to us because he searchingly questioned and boldly protested his suffering”. Job is also important to us because he “went to the top” to get the final answer, which we can take as a model for our personal prayer.
While both Job and God expound eloquently throughout the forty-two verses that make up the book, our reading focuses on the final response to the divine rhetoric. What makes this so-called prayer unique is that it is not a prayer in the traditional sense, but a multi-pronged response to a word from God, while still containing the classic elements of prayer. Previously, in their dialogue, God has pretty much ignored Job’s complaints. So here, Job addresses God once again, in a prayer that consists of three responses to God’s words. He begins with a doxology, acknowledging the wonder, splendor and power of God, whom he knows as YHWH. He acknowledges that God has the capacity to do whatever God intends. Here he is reinforcing his deeply held conviction that God is beyond limitation, explanation and accountability. His next statement includes a sense of confession, as he concedes that he has perhaps gone beyond the boundaries of humankind in regards to the omnipotence of God. His final statement is an admission that he has now learned what he did not previously know. What he had learned by conventional instruction, he now sees by direct confrontation. In other words, we might say what he has read in a book, he has now personally experienced. What he knew in his head, he now knows in his heart.
Finally, he utters what seems to be a pious statement of humility, “Therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes”. Theologian Walter Bruggeman takes issue with the traditional understanding that Job has conceded everything to God and is retracting the challenges to God that have characterized the book. He suggests otherwise that we might take this verse to mean that Job is not a creature, destined by God for groveling and submissiveness, but rather a creature willed by God for boldness, fierceness and freedom and anything but docile submissiveness. And that God honors us in the same way when we approach God.
Bruggeman continues to say, “...even our own prayer, we are not single-minded and simple in our relation to God. At the very bottom, [our] faith is a mix of glad submissive trust and defiant self-respect that will not easily yield, even in the face of holiness. Job has said too much, lived too long, suffered too deeply to yield himself to a God who is powerful but less than trustworthy. He is able to give himself to God because he trusts God. He is able to speak openly and honestly with God because he can trust God.
Perhaps stated more simply: the story of Job contains several important lessons we might briefly consider. In the New Testament book of James, Job is commended for his perseverance. The example of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar warn us of the dangers of trying to "help" or "fix" our friends when they suffer, despite our best intentions. Even though he wore his heart on his sleeve and fully vented his emotions, God affirmed that Job "spoke rightly," which is a reminder that there's no need to sanitize our feelings before God. Job also teaches that we should not make a direct or necessary connection between rewards and punishments in this life with a person's sin or righteousness. Encountering the majesty and mystery of God, Job confessed that he "surely spoke of things I did not understand", and it was precisely his admission of ignorance and embrace of modesty that led him from second hand knowledge about God to a direct and personal experience with God: "My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you" (42:5) as we heard in our reading this morning.
In addition to all of these, though, one preacher has said the primary lesson of this ancient story includes a most contemporary application. Many television preachers and books teach that God wants you healthy, wealthy, and wise (if you send them your money). Job categorically exposes that lie for the self-serving idolatry that it is. In his book Forty Acres and a Goat author Will Campbell derides such contemporary teachers as "electronic soul molesters." Genuine faith does not manipulate God for material gain, fear of punishment, or avoidance of unjust suffering. Genuine faith is, as the writer of Hebrews points out, “… the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. We have this hope because we can trust in a faithful God.
I've always appreciated how the Lutherans of the Reformation made this point. They distinguished between earthly "security", the presumption that no one should expect an entitlement or reward for faith, and "certitude", the unfailing promise of God's presence whatever comes your way. While we may not find our lives enriching us with financial security for our good deeds, we can indeed live with the certitude and the certainty that God is and will be with us, whatever challenges come our way. And for this, we give thanks to God. Amen.