Here’s my Job journal through Chapter 20.
The inadequacy — or adequacy? — of speech: Over and over again, Job’s friends chastise him for his words. Some examples:
- “How long will you say such things? Your words are a blustering wind.” (Bildad, 8:2)
- “Are all these words to go unanswered? Is this talker to be vindicated?” (Zophar, 11:2)
- “Your sin prompts your mouth; you adopt the tongue of the crafty. Your own mouth condemns you, not mine.” (Eliphaz, 15: 5, 6)
Job gives it right back, complaining bitterly that they are mere speech-makers:
- “If only you would be silent! For you, that would be wisdom.” (13: 5)
- “Will your long-winded speeches never end?” (16: 3)
- “How long will you torment me and crush me with words?” (19:2)
It becomes the predictable opener for each person’s speech, and it’s so bitter I can almost imagine a few punches thrown. The frustration rises as the words increase. No one’s soliloquy is satisfying; no one’s “angle” on the problem seems to be bringing either comfort or understanding. As single speech-makers, they’re spinning their wheels.
However, the conversation as a whole is accomplishing plenty. We’ve moved from the silent agony of the opening chapters to a debate that probes ever more deeply into the real questions at stake. The book seems to be making a point about the need for dialogue. (Among the points of discussion, by the way, is the wisdom of the ancients. Several times Job’s friends tell him to read what the old books say. Reading is another form of dialogue.) God lets this discussion among the clueless go on for quite some time, and though it’s not arriving at an ultimate resting place, it’s getting somewhere.
Cut his friends some slack. Their wisdom isn’t perfect, but neither is Job’s. Theirs is no better or worse than the book of Proverbs, actually. We can’t have it both ways, extolling Proverbs and despising these verbose comforters. Their words don’t give final answers, but they do what they’re supposed to: keep Job engaged in his own search.
“I am not inferior to you.” What’s emerging to me is not the story of Job as a static good guy, but of Job’s coming of age. The temptation is to see him as an innocent victim, and to ignore the book’s opening emphasis on “testing.” But as Job endures his trials, he is changing and growing. At the beginning of the book, he is someone who’s nice, prosperous, well-liked, and who does the little extras, just in case — making sacrifices for his children, for instance, just in case they’ve sinned. He’s eminently observant and lives safely. But as the story proceeds, he moves to the margins and edges of his faith. He wants an audience with the Almighty, and will settle for nothing less. “My eyes have seen all this, my ears have heard and understood it,” Job complains to his friends. “What you know, I also know; I am not inferior to you. But I desire to speak to the Almighty, and to argue my case with God” (13:1-3). Several times he expresses doubt that God will answer (9:16, for instance), but ultimately he gets his wish. (How different my experience of the book would be if I didn’t know what was coming.)
Justice vs. mercy. I’ve keyed into this theme in my own life this year, as my husband has been under Job-like attack at work. I want to pray for justice, but something always stops me. Do we really want God to give us justice? Are any of us blameless enough? We need mercy, and we need God to credit our good intentions where we’ve sinned unknowingly. Amen to Job when he says, “How then can I dispute with him? How can I find words to argue with him? Though I were innocent, I could not answer him; I could only plead with my Judge for mercy” (9:15).