Truth can be difficult to handle.
The context of our passage immediately follows the great, keen clarity Job was given towards the end of the previous chapter (quoting Handel quoting Job): “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another”). One can almost imagine Job using himself as Exhibit A, pointing to his “loathsome sores” as he speaks of his skin being destroyed, throwing his lot in with the inscrutable will of God.
In chapter 20, one of Job’s three friends (Zophar) is quick to speak soon after Job’s confession. And what does he say to it? Bad people won’t get ahead because they are bad. The joy of the godless will be short; the wicked will eventually see their wayward and selfish ways; and what has been hoarded greedily as treasure will eventually be carried away and distributed to those in need. In short, Zophar lobbies for karma: what goes around will come back around, and visible justice will set things aright.
The truth spoken by Job at the end of chapter 19? Difficult for Zophar to handle. Confronted and turbid with the reality of Job’s confession, he falls back to the most natural religion of all, to try to make things tolerable, manageable, and comfortable once again. Call it what you want (“a rose by any other name …”), karma is at the root of nearly every natural religion, philosophy, or system of understanding: An eye for an eye; you get what you pay for; what goes around comes around; he’ll get it in the end—it is hard-wired in our flesh to see things basically as having a fair return. (This is true until I am the one at the root of the transgression. Then I do not want fairness, but understanding, mercy, or grace. “You see, in my situation, it was complicated…”)
In a way that makes us uncomfortable, Job will have nothing of Zophar’s common wisdom and replies in chapter 21. All too often, the wicked do not implode and see their towers of Babel come crashing down: they live in prosperity and wealth, “reach old age, and grow mighty in power,” and “their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them.”
Job continues for the entire chapter, stating the uncomfortable truth that many whom we know live far from God (at least in terms of any awareness or desire of him) and do quite well, thank you very much. The Man comes out on top and often gets to stay there; the house wins; the forgotten are not remembered; family conflict does not resolve itself in sixteen minutes as it does on TV; and those who need continue to go without, while those who have continue to amass more.
So what gives? Is there justice? Will things be set aright? Did not the Lord say, “vengeance is mine”? Two brief thoughts:
First: Before we leap ahead, let’s just hear Job and watch Zophar. In chapter 19, Job is given laser-like, incisive truth in speaking of his Redeemer and his last day. Zophar’s reflex is all too much like yours and mine: deflect, redirect, minimize the truth and make it manageable. Do something and say something to make the seeming inscrutability of God somehow palatable.
As the foolish wisdom and folly of Zophar are revealed for what they are, they can convict us of our autonomic reflex. Importantly, we hear in Job’s response that he does not waver to Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and stands to call a spade a spade.
Second: Let us run from the inscrutable God to the revealed God, to the one we know is for us. Let us run to the Crucified One and resolve with Paul to know nothing among one another except Christ and him crucified.
Let us run to the one who loved us and gave himself up for us – a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. While questions may yet remain, to be sure, from that position (in the one for us) we are at least well placed to ask those questions and hear the Word.