Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Sermon: Job 4-27 With Friends Like These... - Job's Comforters
What do you say to someone who is suffering? That’s the question which the book of Job asks us tonight. When you meet with someone who is going through a hard time, what do you say?
Tonight we’re thinking about the contribution of Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. They say that a friend in need is a friend indeed, but I wonder is that what Job thought of these three. At the start, they were friends in need and indeed. They came together, they sat with Job, and they kept quiet. True friends. It’s only when they open their mouths that they start causing problems.
In our readings, we heard a little bit from each one of them, but it might be useful to remember how the book of Job is structured. Chapters 1&2 give us the split screen of heaven and earth - in heaven, God and Satan’s conversation about Job, and Satan’s permission to test Job’s faith, by unleashing disaster after disaster - taking away his wealth; his children; and his health. On earth, we see how Job responds, with faith and confidence in God. Chapter 3, which we looked at last week brought Job’s lament, the cry of suffering, and it’s that which prompts the three friends to intervene, to begin speaking. And the pattern continues - Job speaks, then one of the friends, then Job, then the next friend, round and round until chapter 31, Job’s final defence.
So what we’re looking at tonight is just a bit of what they say. But even that little bit is quite shocking. They get worse, the more they go on. Can you imagine sitting down with someone at a wake and telling them to their face that they’re only getting what they deserve? That they have no right to complain, and should just suck it up?
Yet that’s what they do. In terms of pastoral sensitivity; in terms of decency, it’s ridiculous. You want to squirm in your seat. You can’t believe that they’re coming out with it. That’s shocking of itself. But as I read what they said, there was a bigger shock. I found myself agreeing with quite a lot of what they said. They talk about universal sin, about the need for repentance, and God’s great mercy for the one who turns to him. Those are all things that we sign up to and agree with and preach.
So what’s going on? How can we grasp what’s happening? And how can we discover the truth from what’s being said?
I think it’s helpful to remember a couple of things before we dive in to look at chapters 4-5. The first is that God’s word is true, but not everything in the Bible expresses truth. What we have here in these speeches are the opinions of the three men. They’re recorded in the Bible, but they may not be true, in the way the words of Jesus are absolutely and perfectly true. God’s verdict of these speeches is found in chapter 42: ‘My anger burns against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of my what is right, as my servant Job has.’
The second thing to remember is that Job is blameless. God has affirmed it several times. Now that doesn’t mean that Job has never sinned, but it does mean that this suffering is not linked to his sin. He maintains it throughout, but his friends don’t believe him. They reckon there must be some serious secret sin for him to suffer in such a way.
With that introduction, let’s look at Eliphaz’ first speech. With truth and untruth mixed together, let’s see how not to speak to the sufferer. First of all, he accuses Job of hypocrisy and inconsistency (1-6). Job had been a counsellor and advisor to other people (3) but now that bad times have come to his own door, he has changed his tune. Now he’s impatient and dismayed. Yet he should have confidence and hope, because of his integrity and his fear of the Lord.
Eliphaz’ worldview is summed up in verse 8. You reap what you sow. (7-11). So, Job, if you’re suffering, it must be your own fault. If you’re reaping trouble, then you must have sowed it. After all, ‘who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?’
He then turns super-spiritual with his night vision asking that question: ‘Can mortal man be in the right before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?’ In other words, we’re all sinners, so we deserve to suffer. That observation carries him through to 5:7 - ‘man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.’
So what does Job need to do? ‘As for me, I would seek God, and to God would I commit my cause.’ See this as a warning, as discipline, as an opportunity to repent, so turn now while you still can. Then you’ll know God’s blessings. The end of chapter 5 sums it up: ‘Behold, this we have searched out; it is true. Hear, and know it for your good.’
Do you see what I was saying? It sounds right. There’s much that we would agree with. In other contexts it would be right, except, here it’s not. He’s too quick to take a general principle, the observation you reap what you sow, and turn it into a universal principle. Eliphaz wants to see life as black and white, as clear cut, when it’s a lot more grey, a lot more messy. Job is not suffering for his sin.
When it’s Bildad’s turn to speak, he majors on history and ancient wisdom. He affirms God’s justice, but then applies it insensitively by saying that maybe his grown up children got what they deserved. He then looks to the learning of the past, the lessons of long experience, which show that reeds wither without water, and that’s what happens to people who forget God. That must be what has happened to Job, he’s like a suddenly snapped spider’s web. He just needs to return to trust in the just God - ‘Behold, God will not reject a blameless man, nor take the hand of evildoers.’ (8:20).
Zophar goes even further. He says that Job deserved even worse! (11:6) Job needs to realise that he can’t know himself deeply, that God really knows what he is really like, and that therefore he needs to repent. And so the cycles go on. Job maintaining his innocence, his friends calling him a liar, calling him to repent, and so on.
Well, with friends like these, who needs enemies? It’s no wonder that Job calls them miserable comforters (16:2). So what can we learn from them? How can we speak to those who are suffering?
We need to learn to speak the truth (the whole truth, and nothing but the truth), but to do it, as Paul says in Ephesians, in love. Speak the truth in love. Ask, is this helpful and upbuilding and for their benefit? Ot am I using truth like a hammer or machine gun?
We need to acknowledge that we can’t know everything perfectly. The friends have their particular worldview, and everything must fit into how they see things. But as we hear (rightly) of God’s majesty and power, we need to be aware that we aren’t God; that we can’t know everything perfectly. As someone said, the best thing the friends did was to keep quiet!
We need to also see God at work in our world - not as the God of karma who waits for you to do something good or bad and then to pay it back to you; but the God of mercy and grace, who intervenes in our world, who takes the initiative to rescue sinners. Job’s comforters couldn’t have got their heads around the cross - an innocent man suffering in the place of sinners. The answer to Eliphaz’ question: ‘who that was innocent ever perished?’ Jesus.
As RC Sproul said, ‘why do bad things happen to good people? That only happened once, and he volunteered for it.’
We who are aware of our own sin, who recognise that we do indeed deserve the wages of sin - death - in the face of Jesus Christ and his death for us; how can we pontificate about what other people deserve? In the face of grace, we bow down and worship. Let’s be slow to speak; slow to judge; and swift to offer the grace we have received to others as well. Let’s pray.
This sermon was preached in the Out of the Storm series at the Lent Midweek service in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 24th February 2016.