Everything as Loss
Everything as Loss
by William Klock
This morning we’re returning to Job and the age-old question of suffering. Why do we suffer? Where is God in our suffering? And what’s the place of faith in the midst of suffering? These aren’t easy questions, but we should have answers. Probably not pat, easy answer, but we need a biblical framework to work from—a biblical framework through which we can evaluate the unique specifics of a situation, whether ours or another’s, and offer at least the beginnings of what will be a helpful way to approach trails and sufferings in faith. Frankly, Christians are often really bad at this. We often give answers that are too easy and answers that ignore the uniqueness of each situation. Often we pitch the gospel with false promises that Jesus will make all of our problems go away if we only have faith. And when the problems don’t go away, people get angry with God, they question his faithfulness, and they often abandon the faith.
In my years as a Christian and in ministry I’ve seen a troubling number of people walk away from the faith, mainly because they were brought to Jesus, not really by the gospel, but with the expectation of material blessing and benefits. Rather than preaching the glory of God and the love Jesus manifested at the cross, rather than hearing the message that to follow Jesus is to sacrifice everything, but that he is imminently worthy, they were drawn in with promises of the good life. The Prosperity Gospel is the most prominent example of this sort of thing, but we still do this to a large degree when we twist the gospel from being the royal summons to the King into a message that’s mostly about therapeutic benefits.
So, last time, before the Ascension, we looked at a rather long passage running from Chapter 4 through Chapter 14. That was the whole first cycle of speeches. You’ll remember that Job’s friends had arrived and were in such shock at his state that they simply sat in silence. After a week of that, Job finally spoke and it was a long lament. Finally, then, his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar spoke and Job responded to each in turn. Job repeatedly insisted on his righteousness and integrity. His argument boiled down to: “I don’t deserve this. I’m being done a great injustice.” But Job’s friends argued that he wouldn’t be in this sad state if he were as righteous as he claimed. “Confess, Job,” they urged him. “Confess, repent, and God will restore the blessings.”
Two things to remember. First, is the theological framework or the worldview from which all of them—including Job—are working. Bible scholars call it the Retribution Principle. It’s the idea that God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous. And, of course, the corollary of that as we see in the arguments of Job’s friends, is that those who are suffering must have done something wrong to deserve it. Remember I talked about a triangle to help visualise the discussion in Job. The triangle has three corners. God’s justice is at one, the Retribution Principle is at another, and Job’s righteousness is at the third. But given Job’s suffering something has to give. Job’s friends are affirming the righteousness of God and the Retribution Principle, therefore Job is the problem. Job affirms the retribution principle, too. But Job also knows he is righteous and that means, as far as he is concerned, that God is being unjust.
Second, remember that for Job’s friends the issue is the blessings, the stuff. They urge Job to admit his sins so that God will bless him again. But as miserable as Job is, for him it’s not about the material blessings. For Job it’s all about integrity. He refuses to compromise. This is important to remember, because this is the key to the whole book. Remember that all of this began with the Adversary challenging the wisdom of God: “God,” he said, “If you reward people for righteousness, they’re only going to be righteous for selfish reasons—because they want material blessings.” That’s exactly how Job’s friends are thinking. But Job is the star witness for God’s wisdom and he’s proving that, at least for him, he’s interested in righteousness for the sake of righteousness and God for the sake of God.
Now, let’s move into the second series of speeches. Eliphaz makes his second speech in Chapter 15. We get a sense of just how much the rhetorical stakes are increasing when Eliphaz begins by basically calling out Job as a windbag. It doesn’t get any better. In verses 5-6 he says:
For your iniquity teaches your mouth,
and you choose the tongue of the crafty.
Your own mouth condemns you, and not I;
your own lips testify against you.
Eliphaz is saying that Job has so rationalised his sin that he’s become oblivious to it. His iniquity has taught his mouth and now all he can speak are these crafty rationalisations. But somehow Eliphaz and the others can see right through it. Job’s mouth condemns him, he says.
Job is arrogant, he says. Instead, Job should listen to the “comforts of God”—that’s verse 15. This is a call back to the supposed prophetic vision that Eliphaz appealed to in his first speech. But Eliphaz is a false prophet. Job knows his own innocence. Eliphaz isn’t calling things right.
But the focus of Eliphaz’s speech this time round is on the wicked in verses 17-35. Here’s how he starts:
“I will show you; hear me,
and what I have seen I will declare… (v. 17)
And jumping down to verses 20-21:
The wicked man writhes in pain all his days,
through all the years that are laid up for the ruthless.
Dreadful sounds are in his ears;
in prosperity the destroyer will come upon him.
And verse 24:
distress and anguish terrify him;
they prevail against him, like a king ready for battle.
Suffering and affliction are the lot of the wicked, argues Eliphaz. Justice always catches up with them. “It’s what I’ve seen—what you’ve seen—with your own eyes,” he says. And why? Look at verse 25:
Because he has stretched out his hand against God
and defies the Almighty…
Eliphaz clearly aims this right at Job, who in the last cycle of speeches, was voicing his anger with God, questioning God’s justice, and demanding a hearing before him. Notice, Eliphaz sort of twists things around when Job protests his innocence, on the one hand arguing that Job really is a sinner, but that he’s so rationalised his sins that he can’t see them anymore. But, of course, even Job’s best friends here can’t pin any specific sin on Job, so Eliphaz turns to lumping Job in with the wicked based on his protestations of innocence. It shouldn’t be a surprise at all that Job responds with frustration and anger. On top of that, Eliphaz still doesn’t understand just what it is that Job wants. Eliphaz, in verses 30-35, talks about the wicked being barren, dried up, and empty. He still thinks that Job just wants his blessings back, but what’s important to Job is his integrity. Whether God blesses him or not, Job wants his integrity and righteousness acknowledged.
So in Chapters 16 and 17 we read Job’s response. We don’t have time to read Job’s entire response this morning, which is a pity. Chapter 16 gives a sense of just how deeply Job feels he’s been wronged by both his friends and by God. In 6-12 he says:
“If I speak, my pain is not assuaged,
and if I forbear, how much of it leaves me?
Surely now God has worn me out;
he has made desolate all my company.
And he has shriveled me up,
which is a witness against me,
and my leanness has risen up against me;
it testifies to my face.
He has torn me in his wrath and hated me;
he has gnashed his teeth at me;
my adversary sharpens his eyes against me.
Men have gaped at me with their mouth;
they have struck me insolently on the cheek;
they mass themselves together against me.
God gives me up to the ungodly
and casts me into the hands of the wicked.
I was at ease, and he broke me apart;
he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces;
he set me up as his target…
Job sort of affirms what Eliphaz has said, at least so far as the Retribution Principle goes. He’s basically become God’s punching bag—his “target” he says at the end there. So, yes, if it’s true that God punishes the wicked, then Job looks like a wicked man—not because of what he’s done, but because God is punishing him. But that’s just it. That’s why Job is so frustrated and angry. He doesn’t serve this. And so Job calls again, as he called in the first cycle of speeches, for a hearing before God. Job wants someone to argue his case. Look at verses 18-21:
“O earth, cover not my blood,
and let my cry find no resting place.
Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven,
and he who testifies for me is on high.
My friends scorn me;
my eye pours out tears to God,
that he would argue the case of a man with God,
as a son of man does with his neighbor.
Job cries out that his blood—his trials—not be forgotten that his cry find no resting place until it comes before God. Job calls on one of the members of the divine council to testify on his behalf before God. The idea here is that maybe if God will not hear Job’s cry, one of his councillors will and will bring Job’s case before him. Of course, the irony is that it was just one of those councillors, this Adversary character, who brought all of this on Job by challenging God’s policies. Now, Job doesn’t know that. We, the readers, were let in on that scene in the divine council at the beginning of the book, but Job doesn’t know that. At the end of the day, the last thing Job needs is someone else calling God to account on his behalf.
In Chapter 17 Job expresses his hopelessness again. In verse 1 his spirit is broken, his days are at an end, and the graveyard waits for him. He just wishes death would come and make an end of his misery. But we find the key part of Chapter 17 in verse 9. Job tells us here what’s important to him and it’s not what his friends think is important:
Yet the righteous holds to his way,
and he who has clean hands grows stronger and stronger.
Integrity and righteousness are the most important things to Job. Again, his friends keep telling him to confess his sins and God will restore his blessings, but Job knows that he’s got nothing to confess. He’s not going to compromise his integrity for the sake of “stuff”. I’m sure Job would have liked to have all his material blessings restored, but material blessings were never why he served God. For Job, God himself was enough and righteousness was its own reward. So, once again, even as Job cries out in anger and frustration to God, he maintains his integrity and makes the case for God’s wisdom against the accusations of the Adversary. Remember, the Adversary’s charge was that people are only righteous because they want the blessings that come with it, but Job is proving him wrong.
Now, in Chapter 18 Bildad speaks again. Whereas Eliphaz is the mystic, the guy who thinks God has given him words and visions, Bildad is sort of the traditionalist. Bildad draws his speech from the wisdom of the ages. And, again, that wisdom says that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, ergo, Job has done something to deserve his predicament—or at least that’s the logic of Job’s friends. So Bildad continues the discussion with a litany describing the fate of the wicked. In many ways what he says sounds like it could have come straight from the book of Proverbs. He says things like:
The light of the wicked is put out,
and the flame of his fire does not shine. (v. 5)
A trap seizes him by the heel;
a snare lays hold of him.
A rope is hidden for him in the ground,
a trap for him in the path. (vv. 9-10)
The wicked end up caught by their own snares, in other words. But in verse 13 Bildad strikes closer to home for Job. Does this sound familiar?
It consumes the parts of his skin;
the firstborn of death consumes his limbs.
Bildad says this to a man sitting on a garbage heap, scraping his open sores with a potsherd. He goes on saying, “He is torn from the tent in which he trusted.” He speaks of his branches withering and his memory perishing.” Hitting really close to home for Job, he says in verse 19:
He has no posterity or progeny among his people,
and no survivor where he used to live.
And then in verse 21 he verbally slaps Job across the face:
Surely such are the dwellings of the unrighteous,
such is the place of him who knows not God.”
So Bildad takes the accusation another step. Now Job doesn’t know God.
Job responds in Chapter 19. He begins by asking how long his friends plan on keeping up their torment. They came to comfort him and now they’re accusing him of being a wicked man who doesn’t know God. He’s already disgraced and they’re just heaping it up.
In the main part of the chapter, Job laments what God had done to him. God has put him in the wrong, has made his paths dark, has stripped way his glory, has pulled him up like a tree, has cast siege ramps against him. God has pursued him and now so are they. He cries out for mercy. Then in verses 23-27 he cries out in one of the best-known passages from the book:
“Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
Oh that with an iron pen and lead
they were engraved in the rock forever!
For 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.
My heart faints within me!
“Oh that my words were inscribed in a book or carved in stone,” Job cries. He still wants to plead his case before God, but Job’s got the sense that he’s not long for this world. If only his words were recorded for posterity, maybe future generations hearing his story would remember his integrity even if his friends won’t. The rest of this passage has been made difficult because past generations of both Jews and Christians have read into it ideas that the rest of the Job’s statements rule out. They may be true, but they’re out of context in Job. Job expresses his hope in what the ESV translates as a “redeemer”—it even capitalises it as a reference to Jesus. While many Jews took this as an affirmation of Job’s hope in being vindicated in the grave—which can easily be ruled out as Job clearly says many times that there is no hope to be found the other side of death. This also rules out the common Christian reading of this as a sort of messianic passage. Job has already made it clear—and we know that this was the normal understand of the Jews until very late in the Old Testament—that this life is all there is. Over and over the Old Testament saints appealed for the Lord to set things right in this life, not at some point after death or in the far future. They may have been wrong. The messianic hope hadn’t yet been revealed to them. But that doesn’t mean we can read things back into the text that aren’t there. Rule No. 1 of Bible reading is that the text means what it means in its original context.
The word Job uses is go’el. The best known go’el is Boaz in the book of Ruth—the kinsman redeemer who rescued Ruth from destitution. The idea of a go’el is one who recovers a loss and who also restores the dignity of the one who suffered the loss. Again, think of Boaz rescuing Ruth. Job expects such a rescuer here—not to restore his material blessings, but to affirm his integrity and to restore his reputation. And Job expects this go’el to make his appearance right here on his ash heap before he dies. Job doesn’t expect that day to be far off. He sits daily with his potsherd, scraping his skin raw, but he has hope: before he’s scraped himself to the bone, his go’el will appear. And if we look at the argument Job has made, the only person who makes sense as Job’s go’el is God himself. So what Job is getting at here is that as futile as it may seem, he expects that he will get his audience before God and, as he’s said, if he can only plead his case before God, God will restore his favour and his reputation.
So, again, for Job’s friends it’s all about the stuff—about Job finding a way to get his material blessings back. But Job isn’t interested in that. Again, he’s interested in righteousness for righteousness’ sake and he will not compromise his integrity.
Now Zophar speaks. He’s the theologian of the three friends and he says essentially the same thing that Bildad has said. He reminds Job of the fate of the wicked and, also like Bildad, he points his finger right at Job as he speaks. In verse 15, the wicked man swallows down riches and then vomits them up. In verse 23 Zophar reminds Job that God rains down his burning anger on the bodies of the wicked. In verses 28 the wicked man’s house is carried away—all things that have happened to Job. In verse 12 Zophar accuses Job of hiding his sin:
Though evil is sweet in his mouth,
though he hides it under his tongue…
Chapter 21 is Job’s final speech in this second cycle. In verses 7-33 he points out the giant flaw in his friends’ arguments. Again, they’re affirming the truth that God punishes the wicked, but from that truth they’re drawing a false corollary: That someone suffering must therefore be suffering the wrath of God. And now Job goes on at some length to remind them that this simply isn’t true. They know it, but it’s not convenient to their arguments. He says in verse 7:
Why do the wicked live,
reach old age, and grow mighty in power?
Sure, we all know of the wicked who get caught in their own snares. We all know of the wicked who end up caught and punished. But we also know of the wicked who seem to get away their schemes and even to prosper. Job goes on in 13-14:
They spend their days in prosperity,
and in peace they go down to Sheol.
They say to God, ‘Depart from us!
We do not desire the knowledge of your ways.
The system is broken, cries Job. Yes, God is supposed to punish the wicked and reward the righteous, but look around you. The wicked prosper and I, a righteous man, have lost everything. And in the end, he says in verse 26, we’re all, good or bad, just food for worms:
They lie down alike in the dust,
and the worms cover them.
And yet Job holds on to his faith. Yes, he’s questioning God and his justice. He’s frustrated and angry. Something’s gone wrong and he doesn’t understand why. But Job holds on to his integrity. Even as his friends encourage him to compromise, to admit to some sin that Job knows he hasn’t committed in order to get back on the right side of this system of rewards and punishment, Job refuses. Righteousness is too important. And so is God. Even as Job pours out his frustration to God, he still trusts. It’s still to God he appeals.
So what’s the lesson here? Well, as I’ve said before, the book of Job is ultimately about the wisdom of God—and trusting in that wisdom even when we don’t understand. Job and his friends made the mistake of making it all about the justice of God—and then they imposed on him a standard of justice they’d cobbled together themselves from half-truths and of misapplied truths taken out of context. Yes, God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous—but not according to some mechanical system. And, too, God is under no obligation to do either. God is God. We can’t apply our limited standards of justice to him. Instead, we’ll learn that justice flows from him and out of his infinite wisdom. As we see his justice flow, that’s where we learn these principles like “God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous,” but God’s justice is more complex than this.
But specifically here in this second cycle of speeches, what should get our attention is Job’s righteousness. The Adversary challenged God, arguing that righteous people are just in it for the reward and Job is proving him wrong. Truly righteous people value righteousness for the sake of righteousness. They value integrity for the sake of integrity. They value God because he is worthy, not because they can get stuff from him. In the end, when Job is pushed to the breaking point, it’s not about the rewards and the stuff. It’s about integrity. This is important.
But what about the benefits. Job was blessed for his righteousness. As Christians we know the benefits and the blessings of being God’s people. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus we know forgiveness of sins and we live in hope of the age to come and of life with God himself. Because of the power of the gospel, we know the benefits of being restored to God’s fellowship and we know the benefits of restored relationships and of hearts and minds sanctified by the Spirit. How do we think about these things in light of the warnings in Job?
Well, the issue isn’t whether or not there are benefits to being in Christ. Instead, Job should prompt us to think about our motivations. Are we in it for the blessings or are we in it for God? Is righteousness its own reward or are we looking for more? Are we doing all this, are we going to church, are we praying, are we reading our Bibles, are we being charitable to others because we expect a return on our investment? Is there a point where the cost outweighs the benefits and we drop out? This is what we need to think about.
Brothers and Sisters, Jesus is not a way to cash in or to turn a profit. Our faith in Jesus is about more than escaping hell or finding heaven. It’s about more than knowing someone who will hear our prayers or make us rich. If we’re following Jesus for the benefits, we’re not really following him. That’s like marrying your husband for his money or marrying your wife for her looks. What happens when the money runs out? What happens when looks fade? Now, God’s blessings aren’t going to run out, but what I’m getting at is the fact that Jesus promises us that life in him is not an easy road. To be holy in a fallen world is a difficult thing. The easy road leads to destruction, he says. To follow him in faith is to walk the narrow and difficult path. It’s to sacrifice. It’s to take up our crosses as we make a conscious choice to follow him each day. Yes, to gain Jesus is to know real life, to know forgiveness, to know restoration. But to follow Jesus we also have to count the cost and to follow him anyway. We do this not for the benefits, but because we know that he is worthy of our faith and our worship. He is the God who, out of love, gave his own life for our sake. He died that we might know his fellowship and his life. Friends, that’s the motivation: to know the God who has loved us so much that he sacrificed his own life that we might be restored to his friendship. In light of that we can say with St. Paul, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, teach us to ponder and to marvel at the depths of your love and the wideness of your mercy. Remind us of our sin that we might look to the cross and truly know your grace: that in Jesus you died for our sake. As we follow Jesus, risen from the grave, into the life of the age to come, may it not be purely out of a desire for a better life, but because we’ve known your love, your mercy, your grace, your goodness, and your wisdom and know that you are worthy of our faith, our worship, and our allegiance no matter the cost. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.