The Curse Causeless?
Last week we stressed the importance of putting ourselves in the position of Job, at least to whatever degree possible. In one sense, it shouldn’t have been that hard, because we’ve all been there; that is, to some degree we’ve all found ourselves immersed in suffering that so often seems to make no sense and certainly doesn’t seem fair.
While in the rest of the lesson we should try to keep that perspective, we also need to find the perspective of the other people in the story, the men who come to mourn and grieve with Job.
And that shouldn’t be so hard either. Who among us hasn’t seen the suffering of others? Who hasn’t sought to console others in their pain and loss? Who doesn’t know what it is like to try to find the right words to speak to those whose grief cuts at our own hearts, as well?
In fact, so much of the book of Job really is taken up with the dialogue between Job and these men, as they all try to make sense of what so often seems to make no sense: the endless parade of human suffering and tragedy in a world created by a loving, powerful, and caring God.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, November 5.
Most of the action in the book of Job takes place in the first two chapters. Here the veil between heaven and earth is lifted, and we are given a glimpse into a whole aspect of reality that otherwise would remain hidden from us. However far our telescopes can peer into the cosmos, they haven’t come anywhere near revealing to us what we have been shown in this book, written thousands of years ago in a desert that is most likely located in today’s Saudi Arabia. Job also shows just how closely connected the supernatural realm, the realm of God and angels, is with the natural world, the earth and those of us upon it.
After the first two chapters, much of Job consists of what is called in the TV business “talking heads”; that is, just dialogue. In this case, the talking heads are Job and the men who come to discuss the heavy issues of life: theology, pain, philosophy, faith, life, and death.
And why not, considering all that has happened to Job? It’s so easy to be caught up in the mundane things of life, the business of just living day by day, and to forget what the big and important questions are. There is nothing like a calamity, either our own or that of others, to shake us out of our spiritual lethargy and get us to start asking the important questions.
The psalmist was able to see the good that arose from the trials that afflicted him. At times, trials can certainly be blessings in disguise, in that they either lead us back to the Lord or bring us to Him in the first place. Who hasn’t heard stories of those whose lives came to a crisis point, and only then did the person either come back to God or surrender to Him for the first time? Sometimes trials, however horrific and tragic, can be used for a good that, over time, we can see. Other times they appear arbitrary and meaningless.
Having heard about what happened to Job, these men made “an appointment” (Job 2:11, NKJV); that is, they planned to come together and see their friend. The texts convey the idea that they were stunned at what they saw, and they began the process of mourning with him.
According to the text, they sat silently, never saying a word. After all, what do you say to someone in a position such as Job’s? However, once Job first spoke, uttering his complaints, these men had plenty to say.
Perhaps a good opening for a book on grief counseling could feature Eliphaz here. The opening chapter could have been titled “What Not to Say to a Grieving Soul.” Though obviously these men sympathized with Job, that sympathy went only so far. It seems that for Eliphaz, theological purity was more important than basic consolation. It’s hard to imagine someone coming up to a person going through all that Job was going through and saying, basically, Well, you must have deserved it, because God is just, and only the wicked suffer like this.
Even if one thought that this was the situation in Job’s case, what good did it do to say it to him? Suppose a speeding driver got into a car accident and lost his entire family. Can you imagine someone going up to him, amid his grief, and saying to him right away, God is punishing you for your speeding? The problem with Eliphaz’s words isn’t just the questionable theology; the bigger issue is his insensitivity to Job and all that he is going through.
Eliphaz wouldn’t exactly win any awards for tact and sympathy with his opening lines. Basically he was saying that it was easy for Job to be a light and comfort to others when things were going well. But now that evil had befallen him, he was “troubled.” Yet, shouldn’t he be? Eliphaz said that God is just, and so the evil that comes upon us is deserved.
There are many fascinating things one could look at here, including how these men understood the nature and character of the true God, even before the rise of the nation of Israel. This whole book shows us that, indeed, others besides the patriarchs and then eventually the Israelites knew something of the Lord. Here, in fact, we see Eliphaz seeking to defend the character of God.
What Eliphaz heard in “visions of the night” was in many ways very sound theology (see Ps. 103:14; Isa. 64:7; Rom. 3:19, 20). We as humans are clay, we are so temporary, and we can be crushed as easily as a moth. And, of course, what man or woman can be more righteous than God?
On the other hand, his words were trite and beside the point. The issue with Job wasn’t whether Job was better than God. That was not Job’s complaint. He mostly talked about just how miserable he was, how much he was suffering, not that he was somehow more righteous than God.
Eliphaz, however, seems to have read all this into what Job said. After all, if God is just, and evil comes only upon evil, then Job must have done something to deserve what he was going through. Therefore Job’s complaints were unfair. Eager to defend God, Eliphaz starts to lecture Job. Even more than just whatever collective wisdom he believed he had about God, Eliphaz had something else as well: a supernatural revelation of some kind to buttress his position. The only problem, however, is that the position he took misses the point.
In chapter 5, Eliphaz continues with his argument. It’s mostly the same as what he said in the previous chapter: evil happens only to evil people. Imagine how this must have felt to Job, who knew that it couldn’t be right and that he didn’t deserve his present situation.
However, there is a problem here: not all that Eliphaz is saying here is wrong. On the contrary, many of these same thoughts are echoed in other parts of the Bible.
1 Cor. 3:19
Much of what Eliphaz said to Job was correct. That is, he made many valid points, points that we found were expressed later in the Bible. And yet, something still was terribly wrong with his response to Job. The problem wasn’t so much with what he said; the problem was more the context in which he said it. What he was saying, the truths he was uttering, just didn’t apply to the specific situation. (See next week’s lesson.)
Our world is a complicated place. It’s easy to look at a situation and then toss out a few clichés or even a few Bible texts that you think apply. Maybe they do. But often they don’t. Look at this statement from Ellen G. White about how we often bring upon ourselves the things that happen to us. “No truth does the Bible more clearly teach than that what we do is the result of what we are. To a great degree the experiences of life are the fruition of our own thoughts and deeds.”—Education, p. 146.
This is a profound and important truth. But could you imagine some well-meaning saint going up to someone in a situation like Job’s and reading to that person the preceding Ellen G. White statement? (In some cases, unfortunately, we can imagine that.) How much better would it have been for the well-meaning saint to have followed this counsel instead? “Many think that they are representing the justice of God while they wholly fail of representing His tenderness and His great love.
Often the ones whom they meet with sternness and severity are under the stress of temptation. Satan is wrestling with these souls, and harsh, unsympathetic words discourage them and cause them to fall a prey to the tempter’s power.”—Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing, p. 163.
The fact is, as is so often the case, there’s much more going on here than Eliphaz and all the others, including Job, knew. So, Eliphaz’s rush to judgment, even with all his correct theology, was hardly the right thing to do, given the circumstances.
Even if Eliphaz had been right, and Job brought this suffering upon himself, his words were imprudent and ill-timed. Job stands as a symbol for all humanity, for we all have been caught up in the great controversy, and we all suffer in it. And we all, at some point, need compassion and sympathy, not sermonizing. Sure, there’s a time and place for getting lectured. But when a man is sitting on a pile of ashes, his life ruined, his children dead, and his body full of sores—that is not the time.
Further Thought: As we have seen, Eliphaz was not without sympathy for Job. It’s just that his sympathy took second place to what he saw as his need to defend the character of God. After all, Job was suffering terribly, and God is just; therefore, Job must have done something to deserve what happened to him. That’s what God’s justice is all about, Eliphaz concluded. Therefore, Job was wrong in his complaining.
Of course, God is just. But that doesn’t automatically mean that we will see His justice made manifest in every situation that happens in this fallen world. The fact is, we don’t. Justice and judgment will come, but not necessarily now (Rev. 20:12). Part of what it means to live by faith is to trust God that the justice so lacking here will one day be revealed and made manifest.
What we see with Eliphaz also appears in the attitude of some of the scribes and Pharisees toward Jesus. These men were so caught up in their desire to be “faithful” and religious that their anger at the Lord’s Sabbath healings (see Matthew 12) trumped what should have been their happiness that the sick had been healed and had had their suffering relieved. No matter how specific Christ’s words were in the following text, the principle is one that we who love God and who are jealous for Him must always remember: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (Matt. 23:23).