Solidarity (Job 2)
We all like to have a ready word for every situation, don’t we? The Bible says as much:
“A person finds joy in giving an apt reply – and how good is a timely word!” (Proverbs 15:23)
It can make us look witty and sophisticated, make others think well of us and generally boost our egos. More altruistically it’s good to be able to offer a word of encouragement to someone in need. A well-placed word can really build someone up, dispel lies and help release a person’s potential. Words are powerful. As a writer, and as someone whose ‘love language’ is words of affirmation, I know that more than most.
But they’re not always needed. There are some situations where words don’t help, or aren’t appropriate. That’s something my wife has taught me. When she used to pour out her heart to me I was sometimes so focused on coming up with a good reply that I didn’t really hear what she was saying. Or I would be so keen to try and fix the problem for her that I didn’t validate where she was in that moment. Rushing too quickly to a solution can be greatly disempowering for someone who wanted to get there themselves, and an over-quick response, however well-intentioned, can be detrimental.
This isn’t just another case of wifely wisdom. This also comes from the Bible. As this series goes on it’ll become abundantly clear that Job’s friends weren’t particularly helpful. They belittled, they insinuated, they besmirched and they misled. They were often more concerned with reinforcing their own world-view or with apportioning blame than they were in helping their friend. But, they started off on the right note.
This is what it says in Job 2:11-13:
“When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”
Consider what has just happened. In a calamitous first chapter Job has lost his oxen and donkeys to marauding Sabeans (vv.14-15), his sheep and servants were consumed by fire from heaven (v. 16), his camels were stolen by raiders (v. 17) and all his children were killed by a collapsing building (vv.18-19). As if that wasn’t all bad enough, in chapter 2 he is afflicted with sores all over his body (v.7) and his wife turns against him (v.9). Try picturing the modern-day equivalent: a man’s business goes bankrupt, his house is burgled, his children die in a car-crash, his wife files for divorce and he gets diagnosed with cancer. Horrible misfortune in every aspect of life.
When his friends find him, he is sitting in an ash-heap covered by sores, having lost everything. It sounds like Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar have come a long way to comfort him, which straightaway shows that they cared. It’s one thing to comfort a neighbour but quite another to travel for hours to be with a friend. And they did just what he needed from them. They sat with him and kept him company. They identified with him and showed love through solidarity. No words were needed; the situation was well beyond platitudes. In short, they did exactly what the New Testament teaches us we should do: “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).
Nor did they just sit with him for a bit and then get up and go as soon as something more pressing came along. They sat with him, wordless, for seven days and seven nights. Granted, that might be a Biblical euphemism for ‘a long time’, so it might not have been a full 168 hours, but it was still a significant period of time. In such a fast-moving culture, are we too quick to rush off when friends really need our company? Are we willing to give a situation just as much time as it needs?
Words couldn’t fix this situation. What do you say to someone who has suffered this horribly, and this inexplicably? Job is the one who breaks the silence, taking up all of chapter 3 to pour out his hurt and pain. That’s fair enough, sometimes we need to vent. Sometimes we need others to just listen. When the first friend responds, they do so hesitantly: “If someone ventures a word with you, will you be impatient?” (4:2), but that reticence quickly dissipates as a torrent of mis-guided advice and reproval fill chapters upon chapters of the book. If only Job’s friends had maintained their silence, or limited their replies to expressions of sympathy and assurances of support, then the good start they made wouldn’t have been ruined.
In upcoming posts we’ll look more closely at what they and Job say in the ensuing debate, but for now I think it’s really important to recognise that true friendship involves a sacrifice of time and effort. It sometimes calls for silence, or just being ready to listen. Validation is such a crucial thing for all of us, and it comes from solidarity and being listened to.