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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Long Night


A few days ago, we were introduced to a man named Job, caught in the middle of a cosmic drama. He was a righteous and wealthy man (the way we expect things to be, where good things happen to good people) and was quite content in his life. Then, behind the scenes, we come into contact with a God who does not always behave the way we expect Him to God challenged Satan, who had been out tempting people in the world: “Have you tried my servant Job? He is a righteous man who fears me and hates evil.” Satan, convinced that the world works on a me-first mentality, told God that Job’s worship was only because of the good things which God allowed Job to enjoy. God gave Satan permission to use his power against Job’s possessions and household, as long as Job’s own life was not touched. Tempting greedy men and using explicitly supernatural powers, Job lost the entirety of his wealth and all of his children in a single day. Crushed, but with a heart well trained to follow God, Job got up, shaved his head and tore his clothes in the oriental display of grief, and fell back on his face to praise God. Despite having everything he had ripped from him too quickly for him to process, Job refused to curse God. He continued to trust his Lord, no matter what happened.

If this response seems too wonderfully unrealistic, I hope you get to meet some godly people, because I know some who have responded exactly this way to trouble, and others I am sure would. One example from more recent history is the writer Horatio Spafford, who lost his business to a fire, and then his four children to a shipwreck. When his own boat was situated over the place where his children had drowned, Spafford went into his cabin and wrote the hymn It Is Well With My Soul, with the first stanza: “When peace like a river attendeth my way/When sorrows like sea billows roll/Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say/It is well/It is well with my soul.” People close to God will respond in a godly way. Imagine mourning your children by praising God like that.

Already, we have learned some things about God and Satan. Both of them are people, neither is an impartial force, so they behave in complicated ways. Satan is powerful, and can control the weather or influence people, but requires God’s permission to act. God allows Satan to tempt people, at least partially, to put His power on display in the righteous lives of people. This is a similar thought to that of Ephesians 3:10, where Paul writes that God entrusted him with the gospel “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” In ways which we cannot understand, our actions are being used by God to accomplish some heavenly purposes. We also see that God is intimately involved in the lives of His people. The fact that bad things can happen to good people is initially very difficult to come to terms with, but is ultimately very rewarding – we are not purely victims of cause and effect, but everything which comes our way goes through the filter of our loving Father. God will never allow anything to happen to you which is beyond your ability[1] and will use everything you experience will be used by God to make you into who He intends for you to be[2]. Isn’t Job a complicated book? Things are not as straight forward as we would like for them to be, and a God who makes decisions is less comfortable than a god would could predict, but so much better.

Job has passed the test, which takes us back to the heavenly throne room.

Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. And the LORD said to Satan, "From where have you come?" Satan answered the LORD and said, "From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it." And the LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason."

(Job 2:1-3)

 

Satan presents himself to God again, and God gives the same description of Job as before: he is righteous, respects God and hates evil. He has gone through trials, and God looks at his reaction the way that any proud father would. Even though there was no reason for him to allow Satan to attack Job (God speaks as if He did it in the last verse, but this is just a reference to His allowing it), Job still stood firm in his convictions.

Then Satan answered the LORD and said, "Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face." And the LORD said to Satan, "Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life."

(Job 2:4-6)

 

 Satan, still convinced that Job must be self-serving, decides that they had simply not gone far enough. Job had lost all of his possessions, but he still did not curse God because he feared that God would kill him for it.  His motivations, the accuser was convinced, were still quite selfish. When we are consumed with a sin, we usually assume that its hold over everyone else is just as strong as it is over us. This helps us to justify to ourselves why we just can’t help it, and conveniently helps us judge others who are tempted differently. God, again violating our expectations, tells Satan to go ahead: destroy this man’s health like you have his property and family, then he will curse you. This third attack will go directly at the man – he has struck at a distance through his property, he has struck closer through his family, now he will directly attack his health, and break him.

So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.

(Job 2:7-8)

 

Satan gave Job a disease, covering his body in painful, seething ulcers. Due to the highly infectious nature of diseases like leprosy, Job was probably forced out of town and to live alone, where he sat on a pile of ashes and scratched himself with a broken piece of pottery. He has lost his wealth and his children, now he was in constant physical pain and was isolated from the city, sitting in ashes as a sign of his grief. While we can’t tell it from the second chapter, we will find out later that this continued for months, with no relief. Constant pain, near isolation and the continuing grief of so much loss must weight heavy on a human being. For a long time, with the dreadful anticipation of a hanging guillotine over your neck, Satan does nothing.

These are some of the most horrible times of temptation. Sometimes you will lose faith when bad things happen. Sometimes you will give into sin as a means of distraction when life is hard. But when everything stops, and there seems to be no change, for good or for ill, you feel so alone and helpless, and the sin of despair is ready to consume you. In all of the quiet anticipation of what else can go wrong and in the absence of a clear response from God, doubt starts to eat you alive. It is in this context that we meet Job’s wife, the last of his family.

Then his wife said to him, "Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die."

(Job 2:9)

What a charmer. Job’s wife asks why he is still so holy. Since it is obvious God intends to kill him, he should just curse God and incite God to finish the job. We should pause with an eye of pity on this woman, who had lost her wealth and her children, and now couldn’t stand to see her husband suffer anymore. If you have ever stood with a grieving wife over a dying husband, you may have whispered a prayer to God to hurry the process along, and this is probably at the core of her heart here. The problem is that she is willing to have her husband sin to bring it about, a sort of suicide-by-cop, where the police are replaced by God himself. Sin is not the proper response to suffering. Briefly here, I will mention the value of a godly spouse, who will keep you strong when you are weak, and who you keep strong when they are weak.

It appears Satan predicted that she would serve his purposes better alive than dead, which is why she did not die with the children. Her distance and her bitterness weigh heavier than Job on even her death would have, because now he is stung by sharp betrayal, as his own wife no longer has confidence in him or his future. It is hard to emphasize with the sheer magnitude of Job’s tragedy, but try to remember that this is the actual record of what a real man experienced.

But he said to her, "You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

(Job 2:10)

In spite of this, Job passes again. He says she is speaking like a foolish person would, because it is wrong to accept the good from God, and not accept it when he sends trouble. In all that he endured, he never spoke an ill word.

Now when Job's three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. 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.

(Job 2:11-13)

After his wife’s breach of confidence, Job was met with another group of people. Months into his suffering, word of this great man’s fall had spread to his friends far and wide, and a group of them came to comfort him. When they saw his despair, and didn’t recognize his boil covered body, they sat on the ground outside with him for a full week, never saying a word to him, but patiently waiting in silence. Solidarity is sometimes the best that a friend can provide.

The interesting thing about friends is that they can either be very good, or very bad. A good friend’s kind words will rescue you from despair, while a bad friend’s kind words will push you on to destruction. In the Bible, David’s friend Jonathon comforted him when his heart was breaking, but David’s son Amnon’s friend convinced him it would be okay to rape his sister. Like a good spouse above, friends are so intimately connected to you that they have the potential to be of great help or great hurt. So far, like the rest of Job’s life, these friends seem promising. According to the New American Commentary: “If the identification of [Eliphaz’s home] and Job’s location is correct, it meant for Eliphaz a journey of over a hundred miles.[3]” The other two friends are from cities which we cannot locate, but they probably all came a long way and travelled for several days to reach Job in his time of need.

Before we saw that Job did not give up on God when terrible things overwhelmed him; now we learn the harder lesson: Job did not give up on God in the face of long silence and gradual decline. Job continued to endure and trusted God. His life was a piece of artwork which God had not yet completed. The preliminary strokes did not yet make a picture, but Job trusted that they would soon enough. In our next section, we will see his friends break their silence, and that conversation will comprise the majority of the book.  



[1] 1 Corinthians 10:13
[2] Romans 8:28.
[3] Robert L. Alden, Job, vol. 11, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 69.

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