Job’s friends were certainly at their best in chapter two. “And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (2:13). Here we see Job’s friends entering into the anguish and suffering of their friend. They entered into this fellowship of suffering perhaps the best way any of us can; they spoke not a word. Seven days is a long time to share in the silence of suffering. Truth be told, I’d probably be speaking by the evening of day one.
It is with caution, therefore, that I unload my guns on the friends of Job and their bad counsel. They sat with him in silence for seven days. The sheer exhaustion of such an encounter overwhelms when any thought is given to it. Not to mention the fact that Job speaks first in chapter three. Still, Eliphaz clears his throat in chapters four and five, steps to the microphone, and unloads his “wisdom” on Job.
A troubling fact remains about the speeches of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. They sound so good and true. Little wonder Gregory the Great (7th century) identifies the three friends’ speeches as typical of heresy. Truth mingles with error in a way that beguiles the hearer or reader. Nor, Gregory claims, does this “heresy” have anything to do with the intentions of the friends/heretics. Their intentions may, in fact, be good. We have no reason to think the three friends were seeking to lead Job astray. [Right: Job Rebuked by His Friends by William Blake, click to enlarge]
We have the perspective of the whole book, looking in on the developing scenes and speeches as outsiders. Our perspective as readers is a good fortune. I’ve often wondered if these speeches were read in a lectionary setting without the requisite knowledge of their biblical provenance how quickly we’d be as a church to offer our hearty “Thanks be to God.” I would. But we know that by the end of the book, Job offers sacrifices for these friends and the error of their counsel. What they said was wrong.
Here is the other sticking point. Much of what the friends say can be found in the Bible. Gulp. I don’t have to look far in Psalms or Proverbs, the latter especially, to find texts that affirm the prosperity of the righteous. Little wonder prosperity preachers of our day are so popular; the message never gets old. And, they have some Bible verses on their side. All heretical teachings do!
The books of Job and Ecclesiastes exist within the wisdom literature of the Old Testament to highlight the limits of human wisdom. As helpful and truthful as human wisdom can be, its claims should remain modest when giving an account of God’s actions in the world and with people. In Job we see wisdom being applied in an unwise way. Human wisdom is never exhaustive, though we can see in Job’s friends that it can be exhausting.
It’s a good thing our bad counsel is atoned for as well. Who can count the ways I’ve spoken into people’s lives from an immodest standpoint, claiming a knowledge beyond the reaches of my “wisdom”? Next time I say “Thanks be to God” after hearing the speech of Eliphaz, Bildad, or Zophar, I should probably follow it quickly with, “Kyrie eleison.”
In fact, I should do that now.