Having a Point but Missing the Point (Job 11)
Job’s friends have a lot to say. For people who spent the first few days in silent solidarity with their hurting friend, they go on to be quite voluble. So much so, in fact, that they get more than a little repetitive and it’s easy to get bored listening to them. More than bored. Angry. It’s natural to view Job as the hero and take his side. How dare they say some of these things to him? How insensitive can they be, how uncaring? At times they basically seem to be kicking a man when he’s down.
Consider what Zophar the Naamathite says in chapter 11:
“Are all these words to go unanswered?
Is this talker to be vindicated?
Will your idle talk reduce others to silence?
Will no one rebuke you when you mock?”
A little stuffily, he stands on his right to have his say. Somewhat ironically he thinks Job has been talking too much, doing excessive complaining. He’s not prepared to let Job go unanswered. He feels that Job is mocking God with some of what he says, and that he merits a rebuke. Ok, fair enough, Job has been complaining. A lot. But is that any wonder? I complain over the tiniest setbacks and inconveniences, so I think Job has the right to complain in such adverse circumstances.
A little earlier, Bildad says:
“But if you will look to God
And plead with the Almighty,
If you are pure and upright,
Even now He will rouse himself on your
And restore you to your rightful place.” (Job 8:5-6)
On paper Bildad is right. God does rouse Himself on behalf of those who follow His ways, He does restore those who look to Him. Yes, such restoration is reserved for those who are sincere and turn from their wrongdoing. But notice how his statement assumes that Job is a wrongdoer by saying ‘If you are pure and upright’, insinuating that currently he’s not. But we already know that he is – God said so at the beginning – and he hasn’t sinned in the time since. So Bildad is correct in his knowledge but wide of the mark in his application. Biblical truths must be applied wisely – not every verse is true for every person at every time. Moreover, there isn’t a simple equation between purity and restoration. Upright doesn’t necessarily = perfect life of ease. Good people go through hard times, for reasons understood only by God, perhaps for the development of their character, the testing of their faith, or because of the general fallenness of the world. God’s truth, or life itself for that matter, doesn’t conform to the neat little boxes that Bildad supposes in his mind.
A third example comes from Eliphaz, formerly the most sympathetic of the three. He says:
“But you even undermine piety
and hinder devotion to God.
your sin prompts your mouth;
you adopt the tongue of the crafty.” (Job 15:4-5)
Harsh, very harsh. What a word to put upon someone who is suffering. God charges Job with no sin, so by what right does Eliphaz do so? It is unjust to say that Job undermines piety, even if he’s not totally correct or justified in all that he’s been saying. Like in the previous examples, Eliphaz kind of has a point somewhere in the mass of words: sin does prompt the mouth – that’s why James urges us so forcefully to control the tongue (James 3:1-12). But this is a generalised truth, and not applicable here. Job is speaking out of hurt and frustration, not because of sin. His attempts to come to terms with his situation do not warrant labelling him as ‘crafty’ (that word, by the way, being much stronger in his context than in our own).
So we see from these examples, and scores of others I could name, that Job’s friends are technically correct in much of what they say. They’ve got a fairly sound grasp of morality in a general sense, even if their worldview is quite limited, but they don’t understand what’s going on. If they had witnessed the scene in heaven at the beginning of the book, they would never have said any of these things. Their knowledge is good, so far as it goes, but the application is rotten. In short, they have a point, but miss the point.
But isn’t it interesting that at the book’s end Job gets commended by God whilst the friends are rebuked? Yes, Job may have been complaining; yes, Job has been speaking a little out of turn and in ignorance about God, but he is still commended. He ends the book as he began, as a righteous man in God’s eyes. That means he never sinned by cursing God throughout the whole book. In all his discourse, he never crossed that line. He was foolish, ignorant and depressed, but not sinful. And he was vindicated.
His friends, on the other hand, get much sterner treatment from God. They have not ‘told the truth’ about Him, as Job has (42:7). For all his faults, Job has a much clearer picture of God than the friends do. While they may have had a point at times, and been technically correct at times, they missed the overall point. They approached the whole subject of Job’s suffering with a catalogue of false assumptions and what amounted to a legalistic view of God.
We can learn from both Job and his friends. From the one we learn that it’s ok to be honest and real with God, to express our true feelings, even if they are ones of anger and frustration. Much better that than trying to pretend everything’s ok and fool God with a fake façade. Nor do we have to perfect in God’s eyes in and of ourselves. We can complain and ask hard questions, and yet still be commended. Job was commended by God despite voicing some pretty bitter thoughts; how much more will we be commended, despite our negativity, given that we are covered by Christ? So when you’ve asked those wild questions, vented those angry thoughts, don’t think you’ve blown it, that God has now given up on you or condemned you. He didn’t with Job, and He won’t with you.
From the friends we can learn the dangers of legalism, the idea that God’s favour can be bought by doing and saying the right things. This is a dull, transactional and hopeless approach to something that is really a relationship, complete with ups and downs, successes and stumbles. More than that, how often in conversation are we more interested in being proved right than in doing the right thing? How often does winning the argument or having the last word trump being a good friend and showing compassion?
We can learn from Job’s friends by doing the opposite, by being patient and understanding, and valuing the person more than the principle. Definitely not always easy – it’s easy to get angry with the perpetual moaner or despair of hope for the person who goes through seemingly unending troubles – but God never gives up on us, so we should never give up on others. True friendship sticks it out. Even if there are occasional harsh words, as is only natural, what matters is that we keep caring to the end, rather than retreat into a doctrinal dugout for theological warfare.
In short, let’s learn that it’s possible to have a point, but still miss the point. Sometimes what we fixate on is not what’s important. Maybe we have to let go of certain things in order to concentrate on the bigger picture. We should all ask God for wisdom in how to do that in the situations coming our way.
(this post is part of my blog-series on the book of Job. Read the previous post ‘Blameless Sinner‘ here. Next up: ‘Where Words Fail’)