Ye Have Not Spoken Rightly of the Lord

The Trials of Job and the Trial of God

The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. — GK Chesterton

As wiser pens than mine have written, the Book of Job is both an historical mystery and a theological mystery. It addresses the suffering of the innocent, or, closer to the mark, the suffering of the righteous. Job suffers when he deserves it not, because and only because he deserves it not.

The Book of Job raises questions never answered, or answers questions with questions, and yet, somehow, the words offer comfort without offering answers.

The Book of Job is placed by the fathers among the Seven Books of Wisdom, along with Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes (Qoholeth), Song of Songs, Wisdom, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). It is an oddity among its brothers, standing as a contrast and perhaps a contradiction of them.

Solomon is naturally taken as the author of most of the wisdom books, but no one knows who penned Job, nor whether it was by one hand or many. Some (yours truly among them) take it to be the oldest writing gathered to sacred scripture, the wisest of the wisdom books, hence most troublesome.

Where Uz was once is alike unknown, whether in Edom or Aram, or perhaps nowhere, as a literary invention. Nor are the lands and tribes of Job’s three friends known by name to modern lore. Much is lost, including, perhaps, parts of the text.

Nonetheless, whether a memory of a real event or a wholly invented parable, the tale of Job is clearly meant to be universal in the scope. Job is not of Abraham’s seed. No mention is made of the Laws of Moses nor anything of the covenant of Israel. Uz is the name of a child of Aram, the grandson of Noah who settled in modern Syria, hence alien to Abraham’s stock. Abrham hails from Ur of the Chaldeans, who settled in Sumer, sons of Arphaxad, another bloodline altogether.

Some opine Job to be a prince. The text calls him the greatest of all men in the East. He is, nonetheless, an everyman figure, speaking for all of us.

The Book of Job can cut for convenience into nine parts:

  1. Prologue (1:1–2:13)
  2. First Cycle of Speeches (3:1–14:22)
  3. Second Cycle of Speeches (15:1–21:34)
  4. Third Cycle of Speeches (22:1–27:21)
  5. The Poem on Wisdom (28:1–28)
  6. Job’s Final Summary (29:1–31:37)
  7. Elihu’s Four Speeches (32:1–37:24)
  8. The Lord Speaks from the Whirlwind (38:1–42:6)
  9. Epilogue (42:7–17)

Even those who never read the work know the tale:

Job is a man of perfect piety, blameless and richly blessed, living in the land of Uz, an eastern realm renowned for its wisdom. When the court of heaven meets, the Accuser charges that the faith of Job is false, due solely to worldly rewards of wealth and health. To answer this accusation, the Lord allows the Accuser to overwhelm Job with utter disaster: In a single hour of woe, Job suffers loss of children, servants, flocks, and all worldly goods.

Kith or kin, neighbor or crony visit him no longer, share no charity in his day of want, share no table in his time of solitude. He is bereft of his stature, status, and standing, not just lucre.

Prosperity gone, popularity gone, then Job is smitten with boils from heel to crown. He sits unsightly, diseased, and unclothed in the ash-heap, scraping his wounds with a pot shard. His wife vexes him to curse God and die.

Job’s three comforters arrive, and their comfort consists of the wisdom like that reflected in the works of Solomon, proverbs extolling the justice and grandeur of God. They ply Job with platitudes promising rewards for repentance. Evils are visited on men, so wisdom says, to punish transgressors, to curtail the proud, and to instruct the god-fearing to seek the Lord with greater singleheartedness.

This is, oddly enough, perfectly orthodox doctrine: parallel passages can be found threaded throughout the Proverbs and Psalms, and sacred writ elsewhere.

The problem is that Job has not transgressed, has nothing to confess, and cannot repent — for he has done nothing wrong. He is being punished for being perfect.

So a wealth of beautiful words is poured out to a man to whom they can mean nothing, offer no comfort, no instruction, no hope. Job grows vexed with their presumption, and they with his.

These lauds of the might and wisdom of the Lord, used both by the three comforters to accuse Job and by Job to accuse the comforters, occupy the main meat of the book. They are repetitive, for each comforter speaks thrice and is answered thrice, and the dialog ends on the same note as it began, wise words yet with wisdom winding their way into a circle. Neither side can stir the other, and yet, human wit is too weak to win a resolution.

There is very little to differentiate the three friends. In a way, they represent the opinion of the world, the received wisdom of the complacent. It is noteworthy that the three hail from different parts of the compass (albiet all these locations are uncertain, befogged with scholarly dispute).

The first, Eliphaz (“God is golden”), is from Teman in Edom, later called Idumea, now southwestern Jordan, between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea. Teman is a city known as a home of sages (see Jeremiah 49:7). Edom was settled by the descents of Esau, son of Isaac.

Eliphaz quotes a mystic vision of the night, a heavenly voice he heard in a dream, to confirm that all men are sinful, therefore none, including Job, should dare protest innocence. He belittles Job’s self-justification by appealing to the transcendent serenity of God. He concludes that Job’s suffering is proof of wrongdoing — whereupon Eliphaz invents absurd accusations against Job as a cruel oppressor of the poor, of widows and orphans.

The second, Bildad (“God is beloved”) is of the line of Shuah, son of Abraham and Keturah whom Abraham had wed after the death of Sarah. The Shuhite lands were east of Bashan, which lay northeast of the Jordan.

Bildad appeals to the tradition from elders and forebears, to argue that God does not punish the innocent. He browbeats Job to admit hidden sins. He ends curtly by confirming all men to be as maggots before the greatness of God.

The third, Zophar (“uplifting”) is of Naamah (“pleasant”), is ironically named for he is neither. The Septuagint calls him king of the Minaeans, where Yemen now is, in Southern tip of Arabia. According to the Table of Nations in Genesis, the area was settled by various sons of Joktan son of Eber, from whom the Hebrews allegedly take their name, but, again, none of the three comforters, nor Job himself, is of the line of Israel. All are gentiles.

Zophar is direct, stating sharply that suffering is the inevitable reward of evil hence protests of innocence are in vain, even sinful. Zophar is more vituperative than his two friends, and he makes no third speech.

We break for a psalm to wisdom, which seems out of place. It is put in the mouth of Job perhaps due to the deliberate irony, or due to scribal error or interpolation.

After, Job gives a lengthy restatement and summation of his case, and, indeed, the case of the sorrows of mortal man.

Unexpectedly, a youth named Elihu, not mentioned before or after, interrupts the proceedings to wax furious for four chapters. He is offended with Job for justifying himself rather than God, and offended with the three friends for failing to answer Job adequately.

The proud young man claims to be inspired by God rather than by his own wisdom, hence to be answering Job’s wish to confront a spokesman of God who is not too terrifying to address.

He offers, first, that suffering is instructive to warn men back from damnation; second, that to doubt divine justice merely encourages the wicked; third, that God is transcendent, neither requiring human righteousness nor harmed by human iniquity; finally, that God is both perfectly just and perfectly supreme, the maker and ruler of all creation, hence above human judgment, opinion, or reproof.

Job offers no answer to Elihu, for in the next chapter, almost without a break, the Lord himself, in all his divine majesty, takes up the exact same theme in similar words.

The Lord answers Job out of the whirlwind, with all the majestic wonder of creation as his voice, from the folly of the ostrich to the pride of the leviathan.

The Lord now cross examines his cross examiner. Job, who well realizes that he knows nothing of why innocent mortals must suffer, now also realizes he knows precious little of himself or the world.

This is the climax of the poem, and, arguably of all ancient poetry: we see a world is filled with the beauties and quirks and monsters made by the Creator, which serve not just as signs of the power of the Almighty, who can put a hook in the jaw of the sea-monster, but also as signs of his providence and care: for even the raucous ravens are fed, and the eggs of the ostrich hatch out chicks despite the disregard of their mother.

As an aside, one line in the King James Version is a favorite of mine. When describing the diabolical sea-monster Leviathan, a figure akin Tiamat or Typhon, or may be the Devil himself, the words run:

By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning

Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out.

Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron.

His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth.

A neesing is a sneeze. The poet is saying sparks come from Leviathan’s nose, sunlight from his eyes, flame from his jaws. I demur from those who interpret the Leviathan to be a poetical depiction of a crocodile, or the behemoth to be a hippopotamus: these are dragons and monsters with bones of iron and breath of fire. It is worth recalling that the Hand that painted the butterfly wing and the rosepetal and made man of dust also made fallen angels out of light, the clothed in brightness before their fall. All things great and small, stormcloud to mustard seed, are His handiwork.

Within the mysteries of heaven and earth adumbrated in the cross examination of the Creator, are also minor mentions, as if unconscious asides, hinting at greater depths and heights unseen: Job is sarcastically asked where he was at when the world’s foundations were laid, in the hour when all the sons of God shouted for joy. One is awed at the gladness of the angels, and wonders what they saw or foresaw with eyes of spirit, not flesh. Again, when listing the treasures in heaven, the arsenal of the Lord is mentioned, armaments of storm and snow and hail, prepared against a day of battle — as if to hint some Armageddon to come will overthrow all darkness and sorrow.

Yet, to be fair, none of this is an answer to the question posed by Job. It is, perhaps, an answer to the deeper question of man’s place in the universe, but it does not say why the innocent suffer.

The prologue and epilogue are prose, perhaps added later to explain the setting of the songs of lamentation and accusation forming the main mass — but, if so, added by one inspired by the same spirit as the original, and setting the startling terms of the discourse. For it is the thanks to the prologue that we know beforehand the accusations of the three comforters to be vain. Job is perfect and upright. We know beforehand that the Accuser did not afflict Job for his guilt, but for his innocence.

The epilogue tells us of the happy ending, where the wealth of Job is redoubled, and he has sons and daughters to replace those lost — something of a lapse on the part of the poet, as if the sadness of a child’s death could be undone by the joy of a new birth.

The epilogue also contains the sole remark spoken by the Lord out of the whirlwind addressed not to Job. God tells Eliphaz:  My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.

This is what authors call a surprise ending, a plot-twist, or a sting in tail.

It is left as an exercise for the reader to determine in what respect Job, the Lord’s faithful servant, while railing against God, spoke rightly, while the wise and orthodox comforters did not. In the three thousand years or so since the composition of the work, several answers of various consistency, insightful or less so, have emerged, but the question is not closed, and perhaps never will be.

Yet it seems clear enough that the sin of the three friends, at least in part, is a violation of the selfsame command later written on the Tablets of the Law: Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of the Lord in Vain.

While often taken as being a prohibition against pointless oaths and cusswords, the deeper meaning is a prohibition against misuse of the authority of God for one’s own purposes: to claim that the Lord has blessed or has ordained some enormity, massacre or massive falsehood, does more to drive the innocent away from heaven than nearly any other work of man.

Why is this commandment so significant? It immediately follows the prohibition against worshipping and serving idols and images of earthly things. That commandment forbids the faithful to subordinate the heavenly to the earthly, as when the heavenly Lord is depicted as a golden calf. Likewise here, to take the name of the Lord in vain is the same as elevating the earthly above the heavenly, using divine things for mundane gain.

Consider that no atheist has ever walked the earth who fails to regard God as a tyrant, as an enslaver — despite that, of all stories and accounts in myth and history, no other god is ever depicted as freeing an enslaved people from the house of bondage, save only He. In history, no people abolished the slave trade, save for the men of Christendom.

Hence for any Holy Emperor or Grand Inquisitor to commit a crime allegedly in the name of the Lord will prompt any honest onlooker to abhor that name. Recall that in the Gospels, the Savior does not upraid the harlots and publicans, but the pharisees and scribes, that is, the very man tasks with teaching the truth in the name of the Lord — a name they abuse.

Here, the three comforters claim to know the purposes of the Lord, namely, the Job committed some hidden sin, and the calamities befalling him are punishments meant to correct him.

When He speaks out of the whirlwind, the Lord says very much to the contrary, that man knows nothing of the secret works of the Lord, neither in the works of nature, nor in the moral government of the cosmos. If the tearful questions of Job are presumptuous in the face of the transcendent majesty of the divine, then how much more so are the somber and smug answers of the three friends.

More to the point, the Lord demands of the three friends a costly sacrifice, seven bullocks and seven rams, to be offered by Job on their behalf — meaning that the three must make peace with Job before the Lord makes peace with them. A useful intervention, considering what bitter words were spoken.

The whole paradox of Job is entangled in the fact that, despite that the three comforters speak not aright about the the Lord, they did not speak wrongly either, only foolishly, that is, on matters beyond their ken.

Even had the Lord speaking out of the whirlwind answered and said that the sorrows of Job were not a punishment of wrongdoing, but rather a test by the Adversary to prove Job’s exemplary piety and righteousness, this would have been no answer: for why must Job’s piety be proven? Why is the world so made that proving one’s piety in days of woe by patience in suffering is inevitable, in the hour of want, in the hour of lamentation, in the hour of death?

In this poem, the answer which is no answer is the same as the answer nature, in her mute glory, in her strangeness and wonder, also utters: we look at the sun and stars, wind and rain, hailstorm and thunder, the wide wastelands, the raven and ostrich, the mighty steed, the wild unicorn, the hippopotamus and sea-monster, and we know little or nothing of their works and ways, nor why they are made as they are. We do not know why the Sons of God shouted for joy when the light first broke into the darkened chaos before creation, despite that songbird choirs, in their milder way, recall that first song every dawn.

It is the senselessness of the calamity that befalls Job which provokes his cry.

An adulterer struck with a loathsome disease, or a murderer beheaded on the scaffold, or a liar who finds himself mistrusted even when he speaks the truth, all these can clearly trace the steps of cause and effect whereby their own iniquity recoils on them. And indeed, a man who has done no wrong but whose footsteps are winding ever closer to the pit can be shocked out of complacency to seek shelter in a humble heart by the scourge of suffering.

But Job, like the Savior many generations later, is tortured not for any wrongdoing or shortcoming, but because he is perfect. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”— the cry of the psalmist, and one of the seven last words of Christ, could have been voiced by Job with equal poignancy.

Senseless calamity is demoralizing in part because our morale depends on whether we understand the causes that brought it on. It gives us hope that we can, by our own efforts, avoid the wrongdoing that created the calamity. This applies to things within human power.

But Job is the larger case, concerning things beyond our power, where no wrongdoing created the calamity ergo not even perfect righteousness could have prevented it. In that case, our hope can only be in the Lord, seeing that all of nature bespeaks of the wonders beyond our power, whose roots we can never know, but whose order and glory is undeniable.

If our morale rests on this, even if our reason is unsatisfied, the senselessness instead of demoralizing, may become a wellspring of hope beyond reason, a peace that passes understanding. The only other option is nihilism.

For the psalmist quoted by the Savior at his death did not halt his poem with the line of anguish.

The psalm continues to a surprising conclusion of joy, as unexpected as an Easter Sunday following the woe of Good Friday: For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard.

The miseries of Job are not unending, and he is rewarded in due time after his long, dark night with a daybreak of gladness. As the text reads, And the Lord turned the captivity of Job.

This phrase would remind ancient men in synagogues hearing the Book of Job recited of the return of their captive ancestors out of Egypt, out of Babylon, out of Persia, and the rebuilding of their shattered walls and temples, and might remind moderns of the reestablishment of Israel as a nation after world wars. Future generations might likewise contemplate the promise of the Messiah to return and end the reign of Antichrist.

The Book of Job is a riddle, one where suffering springs from causes unknown, but leads to joy.

That this theme is so clearly reflected in what may be the most ancient writing in the scripture testifies to the unity running through the many books, as if one sovereign spirit, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, inspired all the many hands of many generations to the same end.

Let us end with the ending.

…the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.

Then came there unto him all his brethren, and all his sisters, and all they that had been of his acquaintance before, and did eat bread with him in his house: and they bemoaned him, and comforted him over all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him: every man also gave him a piece of money, and every one an earring of gold.

So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning: for he had fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, and a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she asses.

He had also seven sons and three daughters. And he called the name of the first, Jemima; and the name of the second, Kezia; and the name of the third, Kerenhappuch. And in all the land were no women found so fair as the daughters of Job: and their father gave them inheritance among their brethren.

After this lived Job an hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, even four generations. So Job died, being old and full of days.

For the record, Jemima means “dove”; Kezia refers to the cassia tree, which gives shade and bears a sweet spice; and the name of the third, Kerenhappuch means “child of beauty” or “exulted in beauty.”

Ending one’s days with long life, beautiful daughters, many sons, surrounded by abundant wealth and generous friends is not the worst of fates.