Holding Fast to Integrity
Holding Fast to Integrity
by William Klock
Sometimes things just seem to go from bad to worse and just when we think they can’t get any worse they do. On Friday a friend posted a meme on Facebook that was titled “May 2020”. It showed a nice country scene—with the Death Star in in orbit. Another was captioned, “Every day in 2020 be like” and it had a picture of Captain Kirk asking for a damage report”. Stock market crashes, oil market crashes, viral pandemics, unemployment, economic collapse…what next?
Maybe, just maybe, we have an inkling of what Job felt. He lost his livelihood and his family—none of us is there and I pray we never get there—but we still have this ongoing sense of things going from bad to worse. People are asking, “Where is God in all of this?” Others are asking, “Can my faith withstand the loss.” I’ve had a few calls these last several weeks from people who have driven by on a Sunday and saw we were meeting. A couple called to thank us for still being open and for praying for our community. A few have simply been looking for a lifeline. They were unchurched people finally reaching out to God. One just recovered from serious medical issues and was looking forward to life returning to normal—and then all of this. He was almost destitute, not being able to work. Now he can—and desperately needs to—but has no job to return to. I’ve seen posts on social media from people who are angry that God allows things like this to happen. People question his justice or his integrity. Others are, for the first time, reaching out for help. I’m reminded again of that scene of Jesus and his friends meeting the blind man in John 9. The disciples asked, “Who sinned? This man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They assumed that the Retribution Principle was at work—this idea that God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked. And Jesus sidestepped the question, not to be annoying, but because it was the wrong question to ask. Jesus responded, “He was born blind that the works of God might be displayed in him.” He was born blind to give others a reason for faith, a reason to believe, a reason to trust in the wise sovereignty of God. How do we, as Jesus’ people, use these difficult days to witness our faith, to declare the good news, and to bring the world to our Lord?
Brothers and Sisters, as I said last week, that’s what the book of Job is about. It strikes at this perennial problem, at our tendency to view God’s governance as mechanistic or to view him as a vending machine: do this and get that in return. It strikes at our tendency to question God’s justice, imposing our own limited and flawed standard of justice on him, rather than acknowledging that God is not subject to external standards of justice. His justice is perfect. It flows from his wisdom. And ultimately the real standard of justice flows from him.
But learning these lessons is rarely easy. Even when we know these things in our heads, it often takes suffering for that thinking to find its way into our hearts. It often takes suffering and hardship for the head knowledge to transform into real faith. And so we come back to Job. He’s lost everything. Now remember what I said last week, Job’s not the one on trial. What’s on trial, what’s being challenged by this Adversary character amongst the Lord’s councillors is the Lord’s policy for governing the world. The Adversary has questioned whether this policy of blessing the righteous is really what it seems. What if Job is only serving God because he knows he’ll get good stuff in return? If that’s the case, if Job’s really only in it for himself, isn’t his righteousness really unrighteousness? And so the Lord has allowed the screws to be put to Job to test his own policies. Will Job curse God and reveal that the Lord has been doing things wrong all this time? Or will Job maintain his integrity and prove the Lord to be in the right? And, of course, poor Job isn’t privy to any of this. The narrator of the story lets us in on the purpose for this test, but Job and his friends are in the dark—which, of course, is what makes it a valid test of God’s policy. So let’s continue with Chapter 2.
Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and [the Adversary] also came among them to present himself before the Lord. And the Lord said to [the Adversary], “From where have you come?” [The Adversary] 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 [the Adversary], “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)
Some time later the Lord’s council convenes again. In good storytelling fashion the scene is present as a virtually word-for-word repetition of the last council meeting. The Adversary is back and the Lord once again calls his attention to Job. “You’ve had your eye on Job. He lost everything, but he still blesses me. It looks like you were wrong about him.” And, of course, that implies too that the Adversary was wrong about the Lord’s policies.
Now, one particularly important thing to note here is that the Lord takes responsibility for Job’s affliction. The Hebrew grammatical construct used here when the Lord says, “you incited me against him” is one we see in a number of places in the Old Testament and it makes it clear that while it was the Adversary who initiated this action, it is the Lord who is responsible. It’s common for people to take Job as promoting a sort of dualism, a battle between the devil and the Lord. As I said last week, there’s no reason in the text to understand the Adversary here as some kind of diabolical character. But even if he were, the Lord is fully in control. The Adversary acts within bounds established by the Lord and with the Lord’s consent. And, in the end, the Lord accepts the responsibility. The Adversary is working as his agent.
So Job’s affliction has, so far, not only vindicated Job’s integrity, but also the Lord’s policy. But the Adversary pushes further. Look at verses 4-8:
Then [he Adversary] 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 [the Adversary], “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.”
So [the Adversary] 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.
“Skin for skin,” says the Adversary. No one really knows what that means. It was probably a proverb, but the meaning has been lost. What it seems to be getting at is the idea that what’s most important to a man is his person and his physical well-being. Taking away his livelihood and even his children is one thing, but hurt him in his person and he’ll abandon his principles and integrity. In other words, Job might be able to withstand having his blessings taken away—losing his stuff, losing the positives in his life—but afflict his body, make him hurt, now you’re going beyond taking away his blessings, now you’re going beyond leaving him in that neutral state. Remember Job’s statement in 1:21? “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return”. Attack that body and now you’re moving him from that neutral state to something truly negative.
Once again the Lord’s policy is being tested and once again the Lord gives the Adversary permission to afflict Job—to test his integrity.
And so the Adversary afflicts Job with sores. Not just sore, but loathsome sores from foot to head. The text doesn’t give us enough information to diagnose Job’s affliction. The sores could be ulcers or boils of some kind. Some people have thought it was leprosy. Francis Andersen, in his commentary, collated all the bits of Job that reference his medical state and this is the summary he made of it. It’s a picture of utter misery.
“Some kind of acute dermatitis spreading everywhere and developing infections with darkened (30:28) and peeling (30:30) skin and constantly erupting pustules (7:5b) would manifest the pruritus and purulence highlighted in 2:7. Other symptoms may be the results of complications in the wake of such a severe malady: anorexia, emaciation (19:20), fever (30:30b), fits of depression (7:16; 30:15f.), weeping (16:16a), sleeplessness (7:4), nightmares (7:14). These and other general sufferings, such as putrid breath (19:17; cf. 17:1), failing vision (16:16b), rotting teeth (19:20) and haggard looks (2:12) are less direct clues. They add up to a hideous picture of a man tortured by degrading disfigurement (Isa. 52:14) and unendurable pain, a bleak reminder that a man is flesh, made out of soil from the ground.”
To add insult to injury, Job is forced to the ash-heap. This isn’t a sign of mourning. The ash heap is a reference to the city dump where refuse was burned. And it wasn’t just ordinary garbage. This is where human waste, the city’s sewage was dumped. No one knew whether Job’s disease was communicable or not and, in the ancient world, skin disease like this made you unclean, made you an outcast. So Job is forced to leave his home. He can no longer sit amongst the elders of the city at the gate, in his usual place of honour. Instead he sits alone in the smouldering garbage dump, his only companion a potsherd to scratch himself and to scrape the oozing pus from his sores.
To make matters worse, Job’s wife seems to have lost faith. We can only imagine how she must be grieving the loss of her children and the family livelihood. Has she been forced to move out of their home? It may not be wise to ask too many questions here. As I said last week, I think the best way to approach Job is as a piece of wisdom literature—as a “what if” thought experiment aimed at exploding simplistic views of God and of justice. Job’s children and wife—even his friends—are bit players in the story. They serve a purpose and then move on. Job’s wife seems to make the case for the Adversary. Presumably she was a righteous woman, but with everything having been taken from her, she’s lost faith. She comes to Job on the ash heap and says to him:
“Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.”
Why serve God when he’s afflicted you this way? She’s the devil’s advocate here. That’s her purpose in the story. Job isn’t privy to the Adversary’s challenge of God’s policy, but Job’s wife makes sure that at least the temptation to curse God is brought to his attention—that at least he has to face the temptation. And so she says to Job, “How do you still hold onto your integrity? How do you still devote yourself to God after he has done all this to you? Get it over with.” She sees no out. She sees no chance of things changing course. She knows Job’s integrity better than anyone and so she knows better than anyone that Job doesn’t deserve this. Is the God who would do this worthy of worship? Worthy of faith? No, she thinks. “So just curse God and die!” Get it over with. Be done with it. But Job’s wife also serves to spur Job on to express his continuing faith. He responds in verse 10:
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.
Sitting there in abject misery, scraping his sores with a potsherd in the garbage dump, Job still holds onto his faith. The word he uses is important. Shall we receive good and evil from God? To receive or to accept something implies some involvement on our part that goes behind passively submitting ourselves to the will of God. Job may not have a choice in the matter, but his attitude isn’t one of resignation and that’s important. To quote Andersen again,
“Such positive faith is the magic stone that transmutes all to gold; for when the bad as well as the good is received at the hand of God, every experience of life becomes an occasion of blessing. But the cost is high. It is easier to lower your view of God than to raise your faith to such a height. We shall watch the struggle as Job’s faith is strained every way by temptations to see the cause of his misfortune in something less than God.”
And that’s just it. Job isn’t privy to the scenes we’ve been shown in the divine council chamber. He’s left to wonder and to speculate. Why would God do this? Is God not as just or as righteous as I thought he was? Is he worthy of my faith and my worship? And that’s where Job’s friends come into the picture. God has been now been vindicated in his council chamber. Job has maintained his faith, he’s maintained his integrity and proved the Adversary wrong. But what about the scene back on earth? How does a person trust as Job has trusted in light of such suffering? What’s the basis for our faith. And we’ll get a sense of just how important this question is, because even Job struggles and doubts. Now, enter Job’s friends. They become the author’s means of exploring this problem. Look at verses 11-13:
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.
At one point in time the places from which these three friends came were known. Today we know only that Teman was in Edom and that’s enough to suggest that these friends are known for their wisdom. As I said last week, the East—and particularly Edom—were known as centres of wisdom. Some have suggested that the three friends represent North, South, and East, the collective wisdom of the East coming to comfort Job and to help him sort all of this out.
As the dialogue unfolds we’ll get a sense that these three men represent three different perspective. The writer presents them as each representing one of the traditional ancient Near Eastern approaches to wisdom. Eliphaz is something of a mystic who argues his point from his own experience. Bildad stands firmly on tradition. He’s studied the wisdom of the ages and he argues his case from that. And Zophar has developed a systematic approach to wisdom from which he argues—sort of like a modern rationalist. And whereas Job’s wife assumes that the best Job can hope for is death, his friends operate with the assumption that this problem can be set right. Somehow, if they can figure out what’s gone wrong, Job can be made whole again. And that brings back to that idea of the Retribution Principle I talked about last week.
Back in 1966, Matitiahu Tsevat of Hebrew Union College wrote a wonderful paper on the meaning of Job and came up with a helpful diagram for understanding the dialogue between Job and his friends. He uses a triangle. At one point of the triangle he places God. At the second he places Job. And at the third he places the idea of retribution or justice—the Retribution Principle—this standard of justice that says the righteous must be blessed and the wicked punished. There’s a tug of war as Job and his friends try to hold all three points of the triangle together. In the end they fail. Job’s friends defend both the righteousness of God and the justness of the Retribution Principle, but the only explanation for Job’s situation that leaves them is that Job’s must not be as righteous as he claims. He must have some secret sin. Confess that sin and repent, they urge him, and God will restore you. And this angers Job, because he knows that he is blameless. Of course, Job also assumes that the Retribution Principle is just and that it is how God governs, and so he’s reluctantly driven then to question the righteousness, the justice of God, because God has rewarded his righteousness not with blessing, but with cursing. Back and forth they go for twenty-five chapters. That’s the heart of the book.
But we’re not quite there yet. Right now we see Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar arriving to comfort their friend. They arrive in the city and are directed, not to Job’s fine house, but to the garbage dump. And there, surrounded by smouldering dung and garbage, sits poor Job. They know it’s him, but the text says he was unrecognisable. And as they approach they wail in mourning and throw ashes on their heads. They came to comfort Job, but apparently they weren’t prepared for just how horrible his situation is. Instead of offering Job comfort, they engage in a sort of funeral rite. Their friend is as good as dead. In fact, they don’t even say anything to him. They weep, they cover themselves in ashes, and sit with him in silence for seven days. These wisest of the wise arrive to comfort Job, but they find themselves speechless and their wisdom drives them to silence. Sometimes it’s all you can do. It takes a speech from Job after seven days of silence to get them to start talking.
Job is alone, even with his friends present. It may have been that the wisest thing they did was to sit in silence. When they do speak, they offer no comfort. As the wisest of the wise apply their wisdom to the situation, they offer only false accusations. All the wisdom of the world only served to make things worse for poor Job. And while none of us have ever known the depths of suffering that Job did, I think that most of us can identify with his loneliness. Only the sufferer knows his suffering. As friends we can often identify with that suffering, but we can never know the full personal cost of that suffering to another. And so we often try to commiserate, to sympathise, to explain, or to cheer and in the end only make the suffering worse. We’ve all been on both the receiving and the giving end of that conundrum. We inject some humour into the situation—the Death Star arrives in orbit in May—but it doesn’t fix the job that was lost in April or the dismal prospects of finding another one in future. It’s hard to know what to do. It’s often even harder to hold onto our faith. It’s hard to trust God, especially when we think we deserved something better or when we think that justice hasn’t been served. And when we struggle to trust in God, when our faith falters, we draw away from the one who—when everything and everyone else has failed—still cares for us, the one who knows the number of hairs on our heads and cares even for the fallen sparrow.
Brothers and Sisters, we’re not the first to know that loneliness and despair. Job—and especially so in his persistent faith—points us to Jesus. Think of the night, after supper, when Jesus took his friends with him to pray in the garden. Jesus knew what was going to happen. He knew that he had to die. And he knew it would not be an easy death. He was, says the evangelist, “greatly distressed and troubled”. He left his friends to pray while he went some way apart and prayed himself “with loud cries and tears”. But when he went back, he found his friends asleep. At least Job’s friends sat vigil with him seven day and seven nights. Jesus’ friends couldn’t pray with him for one short hour.
The next day Jesus was abandoned by his friends. Naked and alone he was nailed to a cross and left to die. In his agony—not just the agony of his physical suffering, but the agony of utter loneliness in his soul—he cried out to God, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus descended into the abyss of loneliness and, Friends, he did it for our sake. He did it to restore us to the presence of his Father. He did it so that all things might be made new, so that one day he might wipe away every tear. As I said last Sunday, in light of his death and resurrection we need never question the justice, the righteousness, or the wisdom of God. But in the same way and for the same reason, we need never know the depths of loneliness that we see in Job—or in Jesus, for that matter—because if we are in him, if we have passed through the waters of baptism in faith, we have been united to him, we have been plunged into God’s own Spirit. Brothers and Sisters, in Jesus we have been united with the one who has suffered loneliness for our sake and who has joined us forever with God who reveals his goodness, his love, his righteousness, and his faithfulness in the incarnation and in the cross of Jesus.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, in today’s collect we prayed for the light of your truth to reveal our errors. May the light you’ve given us in Job’s story lighten the darkness of these difficult days and may the truth of your righteousness revealed in the cross flood our darkened hearts that we might know you better and that our faith in your faithfulness might be strengthened. Through our Lord Jesus, who died and rose again, we pray. Amen.
 1 Samuel 26:19; 2 Samuel 24:1; and Jeremiah 43:3
 Job, TNTC (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 1976), epub version.
 “The Meaning of Job” Hebrew Union College Annual 37 (1966): 104-105.