The Book of Job: (not so?) Friendly Advice

Contents

What does the Book of Job say about counselling our friends?

A key message of the Book of Job is that, when someone is suffering, there may be things going on that we are unaware of. Rather than badger the person to amend their behaviour, or drag them into a theological debate, we should comfort them.

Pray for them

If there is anything active at all we should do, it is to sit with them and cry out to God on their behalf, earnestly pleading for relief. Job suffered terribly. Throughout, he was referred to tenderly by God as “my faithful servant”. Had Job’s friends simply prayed for him they would not have been called foolish and ignorant by an angry God (Job 42:7-8).


Not everyone gets it

I recently encountered a sermon which touched on the Book of Job, and some of the inferences it drew from that book stunned me. I questioned the preacher, and it turns out they were relying on a very famous, but somewhat outdated, Middle-Ages commentary by Matthew Henry. This serves as a reminder that the Scriptures have not always been understood in the same way throughout history.

The errors

In this case, there are assumptions that Henry was making which are no longer possible to make. This is mainly because of what we have learned in archaeological finds and associated research in the 20th Century. It is now possible, with better clarity than ever, to discern what this and other Scriptural documents are saying. Not that we must conclude that the modern opinion is finally “right”, but we certainly can show that Matthew Henry had some things plain wrong.

In short, I noted from the sermon that the preacher was saying:

  • That Job was a man who was in error, because he was praying in “bitterness” (Job 7:11)
  • That Elihu was a good friend, equivalent to a church colleague, who gave good advice to Job and prompted Job’s repentance of this bitterness.
  • That God appeared as a result of Job’s repentance following Elihu’s rebuke, and also rebuked Job after Elihu’s lead.
  • That God commanded Job to pray for his friends as some kind of reward for their faithful friendship.

The truth

and to the contrary, I know that:

  • Job’s prayer was appropriate and righteous, in line with the tradition of the psalmist’s sometimes bitter laments.
  • Job was introduced as being “blameless” (Job 1:1), and the story never says that his status changed.
  • Elihu was, along with the others, exactly wrong, incorrectly blaming Job for his misfortune.
  • God revealed himself to Job, not as a rebuke for sinfulness, but as a rare and special revelation to which Job finally responded appropriately, settling God’s dispute with Satan and vindicating God’s faith in Job.
  • God commanded Job to pray for his friends as an act of grace towards them, despite their error (“you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” – Job 42:7).
  • Job’s friends comprehensively failed Job, judging and accusing him when they ought to have comforted him.
Far from a recommendation that church friends ought to pull aside their bretheren for rebuke when their life doesn’t seem to be rosy (as was being suggested in the sermon), the story of Job calls such an approach, “folly” (Job 42:8). On the contrary, we are to conclude that we cannot necessarily know the reason for another’s misfortune. In Job’s case it was a deal between God and Satan, about which none of the people in the story could possibly have known. We should take the role of comforter instead of judge, precisely because we cannot know all the divine facts.

Matthew Henry’s Commentary

Henry criticises Job for praying in bitterness

Job prayed a very long complaint through chapter 7, the notable parts of which are:

Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath;
    my eyes will never see happiness again. – Job 7:7

 

 

“Therefore I will not keep silent;
    I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit,
    I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. – Job 7:11

These, we might note, indicate a cry to God in the confidence of being heard. They bring the surrounding awful, groaning, agonised complaints before God, where they belong.

 Matthew Henry writes:

When we have but a few breaths to draw we should spend them in the holy gracious breathings of faith and prayer, not in the noisome noxious breathings of sin and corruption. Better die praying and praising than die complaining and quarrelling…

We are very apt, when we are in affliction, to complain of God and his providence, as if he laid more restraints upon us that there is occasion for; whereas we are never in heaviness but when there is need, nor more than the necessity demands. (Henry, Job 7, P3)

To the contrary

Is Job’s prayer any more “the noisome noxious breathings of sin and corruption” than this, from the psalmist?

My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, Lord, how long?
Turn, Lord, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love. – Psalm 6:3-4

… and what about some bargaining with God thrown in (something Job never did)?

Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave? – Psalm 6:5

 

The psalmist was evidently not aware of Henry’s observation that “When we have but a few breaths to draw we should spend them in the holy gracious breathings of faith and prayer” when writing:

I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes. – Psalm 6:6-7

In fact, Henry is quite happy to defend the psalmist’s prayers, but not Job’s. It is even so in Psalm 137, where we find:

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks. – Psalm 137:8-9

In this case Henry rightly concludes, “far be it from us to avenge ourselves, if ever it should be in our power, but we will leave it to him who has said, Vengeance is mine” (Henry, Psalms 137, P3). And yet he is denying Job the right to pray, crying out to this same God, in the same confidence, asking to be vindicated.

Elihu Accuses Job

Elihu makes two key accusations against Job:

He keeps company with evildoers;
    he associates with the wicked.
For he says, ‘There is no profit
    in trying to please God.’ – Job 34:8-9

 

To his sin he adds rebellion;

    scornfully he claps his hands among us
    and multiplies his words against God.” – Job 34:37

The accusations are false

He doesn’t do those things, Elihu, that’s slander. Job never “keeps company with evildoers”, etc., the so-called “rebellion” is just Job defending himself against his rude friends, which he would not have to do if they would just leave him alone, and as for the quote, one can only assume it refers to this:

Who is the Almighty, that we should serve him? What would we gain by praying to him? – Job 21:15

Gee, that sounds bad, doesn’t it…? But in fact, this is Job talking about WHAT WICKED PEOPLE SAY. He certainly did not say it as his own idea!

… or perhaps this:

Since I am already found guilty,
    why should I struggle in vain?
Even if I washed myself with soap
    and my hands with cleansing powder,
you would plunge me into a slime pit
    so that even my clothes would detest me. – Job 9:29-31

But again, although this might seem damning out of context, it should be noted that Job is not speaking about God here, but about HIS FRIENDS, who would “plunge me into a slime pit”, and have found him guilty “already”!

In fact, the NIV Bible includes these two passages as cross-references for Elihu’s slanderous accusation, as if they are somehow support for it. The ESV has several other references, all of which are similarly grossly out of context and do not constitute support for Elihu’s statement. Are our translators trying to justify Elihu’s lie, too…?

Henry defends Elihu’s lying about Job

Henry concedes that Job didn’t do the things that Elihu accused him of, but rather than conclude that Elihu is wrong, Henry sets out to make the slanderous lie ok, by saying that Job might as well have done those things:

As walking in the course of the ungodly, and standing in the way of sinners: He goes in company with the workers of iniquity (v. 8), not that in his conversation he did associate with them, but in his opinion he did favour and countenance them, and strengthen their hands. If (as it follows, v. 9, for the proof of this) it profits a man nothing to delight himself in God, why should he not lay the reins on the neck of his lusts and herd with the workers of iniquity? (Henry, Job 34, P2)

Henry’s logic fails here. Verse 9 is not “proof” of the accusation in verse 8, but a subsequent false accusation. Henry is grasping at straws here, to prop up Elihu’s straw man argument against Job.

Henry credits Elihu for Job’s repentance

Quite remarkably, without any support from Scripture, Henry represents Elihu as the one who brought Job to repentance. The Bible says it was God, but Henry says it was Elihu:

And now, at length, God does speak, when Job, by Elihu’s clear and close arguings was mollified a little, and mortified, and so prepared to hear what God had to say. It is the office of ministers to prepare the way of the Lord. That which the great God designs in this discourse is to humble Job, and bring him to repent of, and to recant, his passionate indecent expressions concerning God’s providential dealings with him (Henry, Job 38)

No wonder the preacher I was listening to was using Elihu as a shining example of how to rebuke a fellow Christian when their life falls apart, but that’s not what we are supposed to understand from this passage at all! Elihu said a few things, and did foreshadow the things that God would say, but Job was not convinced by Elihu, and had never made “passionate indecent expressions” about God.

Henry is surprised that the friends are rebuked

Despite a very clear statement in Scripture that Job’s first three friends were precisely wrong about God (Job 42:7-8), Henry has been so busy trying to make the friends into some kind of example of good pastoral support that he is quite surprised that God rebukes them at all!

This illuminating commentary shows just how poorly this book was understood in the Middle Ages:

In the judgment here given Job is magnified and his three friends are mortified. While we were examining the discourses on both sides we could not discern, and therefore durst not determine, who was in the right; something of truth we thought they both had on their side, but we could not cleave the hair between them; nor would we, for all the world, have had to give the decisive sentence upon the case, lest we should have determined wrong. But it is well that the judgment is the Lord’s, and we are sure that his judgment is according to truth; to it we will refer ourselves, and by it we will abide. (Henry, Job 42, P3)

Henry can’t find any place where Job’s friends had got it wrong, and was waiting for Job to be finally condemned by God, and for the friends congratulated! Henry was just as wrong as the friends, but doesn’t have the excuse of being ignorant of God’s deal with Satan, which is something the friends didn’t know but Henry did.

New Information

What Henry didn’t have at his disposal was the more recent research, informed by some wonderful archaeological discoveries particularly in the last 100 years. This research allows us to comprehend the historical and literary context of the Book of Job in terms that Henry could not possibly have imagined.

The three friends are from foreign places: “they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite” (Job 2:11), and although we can’t precisely say which places, it seems that each has brought the philosophy of his own region, and is trying it out on Job’s situation. There are thematic and stylistic differences between the three.

Job is a righteous man who is suffering. This was difficult to reconcile with the contemporary proverbial wisdom, which essentially stated that the righteous will prosper, and the wicked will not. Such proverbial wisdom was common around the Ancient Near East, and there was a lot of cross-pollination between people-groups. The Book of Job is included in the Bible precisely as an exercise in examining the sufficiency of such wisdom, in the face of the very real suffering of the righteous, and the prosperity of the wicked! The Book of Ecclesiastes is similarly concerned with this theme.

Each of the friends brings his philosophy, each concluding that Job is somehow guilty of sin, purely because he is suffering.

Elihu is an Israelite: “Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram” (Job 32:2). Although he has a better understanding of the character of God than the foreigners, he is still trapped in the proverbial wisdom by which a righteous man cannot possibly be suffering. He is forced to conclude the Job is guilty, if of nothing else, of accusing God of wrongdoing. Elihu insists that he should repent:

Far be it from God to do evil,
    from the Almighty to do wrong.
He repays everyone for what they have done;
    he brings on them what their conduct deserves. – Job 34:10-11

But Job has not actually sinned! To repent would be duplicitous, and would make Satan right in characterising men as being ready to sacrifice their integrity to escape affliction (Job 2:4). Therefore when Elihu accuses Job, “you refuse to repent” (Job 34:33), he is actually bearing witness to Job’s upright character.

Ultimately, in the English translation, Job appears to “repent” (Job 42:6), but the word here more precisely means, “recant”. In other words, Job withdraws his complaint on the basis: “I spoke of things I did not understand” (Job 42:3). He does not “repent” in the sense of acknowledging unrighteous behaviour.

James get’s it

As an indication that 1st Century Jewish readers had less trouble than Henry in understanding this book, consider the Book of James, in the New Testament:

As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. – James 5:11

Job = Good. Friends = Bad.

Job did nothing wrong. He persevered and was vindicated by God. His so-called friends were effectively devil’s advocates by their hollow accusations. May we never follow their example, but the example of Job instead.

That’s what the Book of Job has to say about that.

 

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