Job is a man in the midst of an overwhelming ordeal of loss and pain. At first his friends were a comfort, when they sat silently beside him in sympathy for his misery. But after seven days Job’s distress frightens his friends, and they begin to seek explanations for Job’s troubles. They assume Job has done something wrong, for they believe it is possible to avoid suffering by keeping to good behavior.
This is a familiar point of view—when something goes wrong, we are quick to search for a cause to explain our suffering. We want to believe that we really do have control over what happens to us, to have the solace of thinking that we could have controlled the outcome, even if we failed this time.
Living like this leads to checking our behavior incessantly, with excuses and blame in hand. And it leads to looking down on those who do suffer, including ourselves, since we are convinced that such trauma must come from bad deeds.
In today’s reading Zophar, the third friend, takes his turn to speak [right]. Like the other two he assures Job that all will be well as soon as Job confesses whatever he has done that has brought on God’s punishment.
Zophar is a friend of Job; he has traveled far to come alongside Job in his ordeal; but now Zophar turns to treating Job with contempt. So Job is not only suffering grief and pain, he must also bear accusations of wrongdoing from his friends. And yet, Zophar believes he is speaking for God! Treating a fellow pilgrim with contempt is not from God.
Job knows that God controls everything in creation, saying, “In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind” (12:10). He knows that God is the source of perfect justice, and Job also knows that throughout his faithful life he has done nothing to deserve the troubles that have come to him.
To assume that there must be some hidden sin is a misdiagnosis that is incompatible with Job’s honesty and with God’s love. Job has faith beyond anything his friends can imagine, for they see God as an impersonal power who requires placating and platitudes, while Job has long ago given his life and heart to God; and, in spite of all the torment, he can never let go. God is all and in all, and Job looks only to him, no matter what.
And so Job desires to argue directly with God, in spite of fearing that he might die in the presence of the Lord, for he takes comfort in remembering that the “godless shall not come before him” (13:16). Job has such perfect confidence in God that he is determined to find out why God is afflicting him so. Others might try to explain God, but Job wants to meet him.
As he plans his argument Job mourns that death is the end of everything for human beings. He is in agony from the futility of life. And he is telling the truth! He grasps the tragedy of the separation of men and women from God, the fears and power struggles that defeat our best efforts, which all end with death anyway.
This is truth that the friends prefer to whitewash with excuses and blame, maintaining their illusion of being able to predict and even control God. It takes much courage to admit our helplessness in the face of calamity, to hold to the belief that God has allowed the destruction but to have no idea why. Job has grasped that mankind can never be perfect enough to earn the love of God, for which he yearns so much.
Job cries out to God in words of utmost longing:
“If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my service I would wait, till my renewal should come. You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands. For then you would number my steps; you would not keep watch over my sin; my transgression would be sealed up in a bag, and you would cover over my iniquity” (14:14-17).
From the depths of Job’s being, through his suffering that will not let go of God, has come a vision of the work of Jesus Christ, who will know firsthand the tragedy of life through his death on the cross.
By his own death the Son of God will cover our iniquities, and he will call us to him. Mankind will see God face to face in his Son, and will receive the promise of redemption and eternal life, which Job so desires and expresses for us all.