Friday, April 4, 2014

The Scales of Justice

As we continue our journey through the book of Job, we come to the first speech of Job’s friends. The three of them have sat in silence for a week, and have waited for Job to speak. When he did, what they heard bordered on blasphemy, so one of them responded. Before you are too critical of his friends, imagine what you would say if you heard someone say the things Job said in the previous chapter, and if someone had experienced everything Job did. Would you start to wonder if maybe he had done something wrong? The challenging thing about Job is that all of his friends will mingle truth with error, forcing us to very carefully examine their words. Let’s look at Eliphaz.

Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered and said: "If one ventures a word with you, will you be impatient? Yet who can keep from speaking? Behold, you have instructed many, and you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have upheld him who was stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees. But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed.

(Job 4:1-5 ESV)


Eliphaz is very polite initially: “If I speak, will you become upset? But I must speak.” Eliphaz’s first point is that Job has been a genuine hero in the past. He has given good advice and has helped other people. He has led some to repentance and has kept some strong who were weak. But now, Job is experiencing the same thing he has helped others through, and he is ready to collapse. Eliphaz steps on my toes a little here; how many times have I failed to take my own advice? I know how I should think, what I should do and why, but these do not always translate into actually following through. When other people encounter temptation or need guidance in how to treat other people, I am usually aware of the best way for them to do it, complete with (if they are at a point to hear it) a Bible story or passage to back it up. When it comes to my own temptations, my insights are limited. Like Job, we get too close to a situation and do not see it rightly, so we make mistakes.

Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope? Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed. The roar of the lion, the voice of the fierce lion, the teeth of the young lions are broken. The strong lion perishes for lack of prey, and the cubs of the lioness are scattered.

(Job 4:6-11 ESV)


Eliphaz challenges Job on a relatively simple point: isn’t your faithfulness to God your hope? Innocent people don’t suffer, only guilty people do. Men who behave like animals (lions) will die like animals. The implication is plain. If Job is suffering like this, he must be being punished by God, because God is perfectly fair. Eliphaz now relates a vision he has had:

"Now a word was brought to me stealthily; my ear received the whisper of it. Amid thoughts from visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on men, dread came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake. A spirit glided past my face; the hair of my flesh stood up. It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance. A form was before my eyes; there was silence, then I heard a voice: 'Can mortal man be in the right before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker? Even in his servants he puts no trust, and his angels he charges with error; how much more those who dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed like the moth. Between morning and evening they are beaten to pieces; they perish forever without anyone regarding it. Is not their tent-cord plucked up within them, do they not die, and that without wisdom?'

(Job 4:12-21 ESV)


Whether this was a vision from God, Satan or his own imagination, we cannot tell. What he says is true, but irrelevant. At some point, Eliphaz was convinced that man is fundamentally too wicked to stand before God. Even the angels are impure before God, so feebly human beings are destined for destruction. In a moment, they are torn apart and forgotten, their whole lives leaving no lasting impact.

There is some truth to what Eliphaz said. This is the way of the world: you live for a season, fall short of the glory of God and die. But his theology, though accurate for what it is, is terribly out of balance. He has put his finger on God’s justice, but missed His mercy, His love and His fatherhood. You cannot understand God by looking at a small piece of Him any more than you can understand a human being by staring at a piece of skin. You need the entirety to have an accurate comprehension. This is where a lot of problems creep into people’s theology. They find one aspect of God they find compelling (maybe comforting, maybe terrifying) and look at everything else through that lens. Many people do this with the justice of God, and that is the thing Eliphaz is voicing here. God is just (true) and justice requires the punishment of wickedness (true) therefore whoever suffers is wicked (false).

"Call now; is there anyone who will answer you? To which of the holy ones will you turn? Surely vexation kills the fool, and jealousy slays the simple. I have seen the fool taking root, but suddenly I cursed his dwelling. His children are far from safety; they are crushed in the gate, and there is no one to deliver them. The hungry eat his harvest, and he takes it even out of thorns, and the thirsty pant after his wealth. For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground, but man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.

(Job 5:1-7 ESV)


He challenges Job to cry out, but he is confident that there will be no answer. His friend has obviously fallen into sin, so God has nothing but punishment for him. Every blessing he seemed to have from God before was all an illusion, a plant which looks impressive but with no real roots, ready to wither in the heat. A foolish, sinful man’s children would be unsafe because of his sin (what an attack on Job!) and he would be totally lost. Trouble, Eliphaz concludes, does not come from nowhere, but (as surely as sparks fly upward) from the nature of the man who is experiencing it.

You have sinned, Eliphaz concludes. There is no other explanation, and no recourse until you deal with that.

"As for me, I would seek God, and to God would I commit my cause, who does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number: he gives rain on the earth and sends waters on the fields; he sets on high those who are lowly, and those who mourn are lifted to safety. He frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success. He catches the wise in their own craftiness, and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end. They meet with darkness in the daytime and grope at noonday as in the night. But he saves the needy from the sword of their mouth and from the hand of the mighty. So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts her mouth.

(Job 5:8-16 ESV)


Eliphaz’s advice is to repent, and turn to the God who can provide, who quickly punishes the wicked. He lists many true things about God’s justice, but his basic assumption remains in place. Only wicked people suffer, and God only allows bad things to happen as punishment. If Job repents, his trouble will immediately end. Eliphaz lives in the comfortingly simple world we talked about before, where God is simply the distributor of karma and everything behaves predictably. Eliphaz’s explanation of this is incredibly beautiful:

"Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal. He will deliver you from six troubles; in seven no evil shall touch you. In famine he will redeem you from death, and in war from the power of the sword. You shall be hidden from the lash of the tongue, and shall not fear destruction when it comes. At destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth. For you shall be in league with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field shall be at peace with you. You shall know that your tent is at peace, and you shall inspect your fold and miss nothing. You shall know also that your offspring shall be many, and your descendants as the grass of the earth. You shall come to your grave in ripe old age, like a sheaf gathered up in its season. Behold, this we have searched out; it is true. Hear, and know it for your good."

(Job 5:17-27 ESV)


Again, there is truth here. The discipline of God is good, because it does not last. You may experience troubles, but God will deliver you and protect you. As David would later write:

For [God’s] anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

(Psa 30:5 ESV)


Trouble may last a little while, but God will ultimately deliver you from it. The problem is, again, not that what Eliphaz says is untrue. It is simply incomplete. Yes, God does deliver us from trouble. Yes, God does protect us. But Eliphaz is too short sighted, and does not realize that God has a much bigger plan in place than what we can see. He is working on an eternal timetable, changing lives and exploding the gospel of His Son. We may suffer up until we die, and our restoration may occur in Heaven. Christians may suffer, but God is using them for something greater, changing them to be more like Jesus. Remember what Paul wrote:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

(2Co 4:16-18 ESV)


There is a fascinating solution to the problem, if you can bear it. God is working on something infinitely greater than all that we can imagine. God is just, and the righteous will never be forsaken. But God is also accomplishing something fantastic beyond our wildest dreams, and He may not deliver us in the way we expect.

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