In this section of the book of Job, Eliphaz really lets it rip. Earlier in the book Job’s “friend” says to Job, “Your own mouth condemns you, and not I; your own lips testify against you” (15:6). Here we see the theology of this “miserable comforter” brought down on Job’s head—that all suffering comes from sin, and Job is chief among sinners.
[Right: Fresco from the Cathedral of the Annunciation depicting Job and his friends. Click image to enlarge.]
Eliphaz’s self-righteousness is palpable. Notice, too, the picture Eliphaz paints of God: a mechanical deity, judgmental and unconcerned with the particulars of Job’s life. Eliphaz is trying to make the law do what it cannot, that is, change behavior.
By fixating on Job’s alleged shortfalls, Eliphaz puts Job, not God, in the center of Job’s life. He effectively removes God entirely from intimate involvement with humanity. Job’s response is interesting; he still expresses a desire for fellowship with God, and a certainty that God could convince him of His goodness:
I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would know what he would answer me and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; he would pay attention to me. There an upright man could argue with him, and I would be acquitted forever by my judge. (23:4-7)
Job’s implicit belief in the Lord’s mercy gives Job the courage to question God about his mercy and to wait expectantly (if not patiently) for an answer. This is instructive for us. If we appropriate the truth of God’s sovereignty and love for us, we can approach him in prayer knowing that he is intimately involved in the details of our lives.
However, we are to approach in a posture of humility, and this is where Job gets it wrong. His confidence is in his own righteousness, as evidenced by his statement, “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold” (23:10). (Spoiler alert: This audacity will be shut down when Job finally gets his day in court!)
Proverbs 16 has some interesting tie-ins to Job’s defense of himself:
“How much better to get wisdom than gold!” (16:16)
“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (16:18)
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (16:25)
The only thing we should strive for is wisdom, which is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. All efforts to justify ourselves will fall short. The beauty of the book of Job, in fact of the whole Bible, is that we see examples of people who are redeemed by God in spite of their faulty theology and short-term memory of his provision.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth, . . . through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, p.815)