The Limits of Conventional Wisdom
Topic: Affliction & Suffering Passage: Job 15:1–21:34
Like most parents and grandparents, we often read to our children and grandchildren. The book I most remember was entitled “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” It’s the story about a little boy named Alexander who is having one of those days when everything goes wrong. As he tells it, his day begins this way:
“I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair...and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”
And it only goes downhill from there. At breakfast, for example, he recounts:
(My brother) “Anthony found a Corvette Sting Ray car kit in his breakfast cereal box and (my other brother) Nick found a Junior Undercover Agent code ring in his breakfast cereal box but in my breakfast cereal box all I found was breakfast cereal.”
Things got no better for Alexander in the school cafeteria. at lunch time:
“There were two cupcakes in Philip Parker’s lunch bag and Albert got a Hershey bar with almonds and Paul’s mother gave him a piece of jelly roll that had little coconut sprinkles on the top. Guess whose mother forgot to put in dessert? It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”
And it didn’t end there. In fact, the day ended in much the same way as it began:
“There were lima beans for dinner and I hate limas. There was kissing on TV and I hate kissing. My bath was too hot, I got soap in my eyes. My marble went down the drain, and I had to wear my railroad-train pajamas. I hate my railroad-train pajamas...It’s been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”
At one point in the story, Alexander adds that he complained to everybody about his awful day, but “no one even answered.” I think the reason that Alexander’s story resonates with us because we have all had similar days. And if there is anything that compounds the misery beyond what it already is, it’s when no one takes the time to commiserate with us.
Job had hoped for “sympathy and comfort” (cf. Job 2:11) from his friends, but after sitting with him in silence for seven days and seven nights their words of counsel only added to his sad state. It wasn’t that they were thoughtless and uncaring in their responses to the extraordinary adversity which had befallen their friend...quite the opposite, actually. Their remarks were thoughtful and intelligent, In fact, we might even say that they presented the best wisdom that the world could offer.
But that was precisely the problem. Although what Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar had to say was reasonable and logical, it was also limited in its scope. It was conventional wisdom, to be sure, but Job needed more than generally accepted theories and beliefs. To these friends of Job God was able to be compartmentalized into a system we might label “retribution theology”...which, briefly defined, means: righteous prosper and the wicked suffer. Period. It’s as simple as that. End of discussion. That the righteous should suffer was inconceivable to them. Again and again, the three friends insist that suffering follows sin just as certainly as night follows day. The very fact that Job was suffering was proof-positive that some terrible and unconfessed sin lay imbedded in the heart of their friend.
As we enter the second cycle of discourses between Job and his three friends, we find the level of emotional tension rising. The more insistent Job becomes of his innocence, the less friendly and more fierce are the disputations and counter-arguments of his companions. No longer do they call on him to repent, but rather to acknowledge his guilt before God and accept his inevitable fate. Clearly, the battle line has been established between the wisdom of this world and that of a man who refuses to give up his hope in the Lord. In this second round, the order of the speakers remains the same. Eliphaz, apparently the oldest of the group, again speaks first. We find...
Eliphaz’ second speech (15:1-35)
...in chapter 15. His tone has changed dramatically from his first speech that we listened to in chapters 4 and 5. There he attempted to reason with Job and to persuade him to confess his guilt before God, something Job refused to do because he had done nothing to deserve the affliction he was enduring. Now here, Eliphaz applies more pressure.
In the first sixteen verses of this chapter he says in effect that Job is “full of hot air” and that his claims of innocence are nothing but empty boasts (verses 2 and 3). He charges him with “doing away with the fear of God” in verse 4 and “condemning” himself with his own words in verse 6. What’s more, Job is charged with arrogance when it is actually Eliphaz who is being arrogant.
For example, he sarcastically asks Job in verse 8 if he had “listened in the council of God”...as if Eliphaz had any knowledge of such a “council” even existed. This is where our knowledge of the background of the book helps us to understand something that neither Elpihaz nor Job could have known, which is that it was just such a “council” that spawned Job’s troubles to begin with (cf. chapters 1 and 2).
But the coup de grace arrives with Eliphaz’ statement in verse 16, when he accuses Job of being “one who is abominable and corrupt, a man who drinks injustice like water.” According to this first friend, for Job to claim that his suffering was undeserved was arrogant and unrealistic. Simply put, Job was getting what he had coming to him.
In verses 17 through 35, Eliphaz provides a description of the miseries that the wicked can be expected to face. Although he doesn’t mention Job by name, the implication could not be clearer. He lists as many as fifteen fateful outcomes to reinforce the point that all three friends have been making: no one reaps trouble without first sowing trouble. Certainly the righteous do not suffer such a fate. After all, look at them!
So what will...
Job’s response to Eliphaz (16:1-17:16)
...be? It can be summarized in five words: disgust, distress, desire, disclaimer, and despair.
In the first place, his disgust with his friends is expressed in verses 1 through 5. He calls them “miserable comforters” in verse 2. No doubt, those “seven days and seven nights” of silence when they first arrived (cf. Job 2:13) were looking pretty good about now. Would that they might have been prolonged!
His distress is described in verses 6 through 17, and is directed toward God. Notice the descriptive phrases that he piles up: verse 7, “Surely now God has worn me out”...verse 8, “he has shriveled me up”...verse 9, “he has torn me in his wrath and hated me”...verse 12, “he broke me apart; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces, he set me up as his target.” You get the point. Job is experiencing the felt hostility of God.
Beginning in verse 18 and extending into the next chapter, Job’s desire is expressed, and here we find another ray of hope coming from the sufferer’s lips. Look at verse 19: “Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven, and he who testifies for me is on high.” Even as his life ebbs from his afflicted body, he longs for vindication. But even more than a hopeful desire, he feels certain that—either in time or beyond time—that he will yet be vindicated.
Therefore, he lays down a disclaimer in verses 3 through 5 of chapter 17, once again denying that he is personally culpable for the level of suffering he is enduring. In fact, verse 3 seems to be a call for God Himself to intervene on His behalf against his friend’s accusations.
And yet despite the ray of hope that his words contain, Job is still a man in despair. It is only when one has suffered greatly that he or she can begin to identify with what Job is going through. In verses 6 through 16, his future hope returns to present reality. He again rehearses his pitiable condition, but even in the gloom there is anticipation, and perhaps even confident expectation. I say that because those who have no hope fall silent in their despair...and Job was far from being silent.
It was Thoreau who wrote that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” suggesting that most of us live just trying to get through another, another day, another week without having any real understanding of where it is all leading. Job was not that way. He sensed that there was more to his existence than what he was presently experiencing. Not only did he have in his heart the universal longing for comfort and rest but, as verses 4 and 5 seem to indicate, he wanted others to share in that comfort as well. I cannot read these verses without thinking of Paul’s introductory words found in his second letter to the Corinthians:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
Job was in the process of learning that his trials were not meaningless excursions into the dark unknown. And like Job, every Christian must learn that our suffering inevitably serves a threefold purpose: to sanctify us, to comfort others, and to glorify God. Please mark it down, my fellow believer. Nothing that you suffer in this life will ever be in vain.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Job is not there yet...and certainly neither are his companions. The second friend is about to answer.
Bildad’s second speech (18:1-21)
...comes in chapter 18. Apparently, Job’s response to Eliphaz touched a nerve with Bildad because he appears to react with anger. One writer calls Bildad’s speech “an outstanding sermon on hell.” It is a very pointed message that relates to the man who does not know God (cf. verse 18). The only problem is to be found in its misapplication. It simply didn’t apply to Job!
As we read through this speech, we would have to give Bildad high marks on his description of hell and the fate awaiting those who are sentenced there. In verses 5 and 6, we learn that it is a place where “the light of the wicked is put out.” In verses 7 through 10, we are told that the wicked “by his own schemes” will be “thrown down.” In other words, he is entangled by his own devices...he will have no one to blame for his eternal separation from God but himself.
What’s more, as verse 11 reveals, hell is a place where “Terrors frighten him on every side, and chase him at his heels.” In other words, the evil deeds committed by him in life will “dog his steps” throughout eternity. Ponder that for more than a moment.
Even more frightening perhaps, verses 12 through 14 suggest that unbearable suffering—greater even than what Job was presently experiencing—will forever consume those who are consigned to its chambers.
As for the legacy of the wicked, Bildad adds in verses 15 through 21, that his home will be desolate, his friends extinct, and his name forgotten. Verse 17 says that “His memory perishes from the earth,” which is another way of saying that it was a life lived without meaning or purpose. Recall with me the saying of Augustine that, “We were made for you, O God; and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” Bildad’s words describe the person who will be “restless” throughout eternity. The portrait he paints of hell is graphic, accurate, and persuasive.
“Surely such are the dwellings of the unrighteous,” Bildad concludes in verse 21, “such is the place of him who knows not God.” Although he was not directly named, Job understands that his friend’s message was aimed at him. So he does not hesitate to answer in chapter 19.
Job’s response to Bildad (19:1-29)
...begins with an exclamation of frustration. In a very real sense, Job was experiencing a taste of hell on earth. In a manner of speaking, there is application here for every believer. All of Christ’s disciples are called to live in world that is destined to be judged by a holy God. Although our spirits have been made new through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf, our bodies remain yet unredeemed. Therefore, to a lesser degree but no less real, we have been called to drink the cup of Christ’s suffering until He calls us out of this life and into the next.
Job’s speech in chapter 19 is a “high-water mark” in this book. His words rise far above the conventional wisdom of his friends. Yes, they spoke of God as if they knew him, but their knowledge was intellectual and at times superficial. There was only one in that group who demonstrated an experiential knowledge of God, and that was Job himself.
“Is God for me or against me?” This was Job’s deepest question. And it is a question that we all must inevitably face. On the basis of observation and objective reality, the Lord would seem to have been Job’s enemy. But, far from it! As the writer of Hebrews (11:1) reminds us, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Job is intensely lonely and he is being intensely honest. In verses 1 through 12, he freely admits that God is treating him as one might expect Him to treat His enemies. In verse 8, he testifies that the Lord “has walled up my way, so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths.” And in verse 11, he adds, “He has kindled his wrath against me and counts me as his adversary.”
The depth of his lonely state is expounded from verse 13 through 19. These words are painful to listen to, but listen we must:
“He has put my brothers far from me,
and those who knew me are wholly estranged from me.
My relatives have failed me,
my close friends have forgotten me.
The guests in my house and my maidservants count me as a stranger;
I have become a foreigner in their eyes.
I call to my servant, but he gives me no answer;
I must plead with him with my mouth for mercy.
My breath is strange to my wife,
and I am a stench to the children of my own mother.
Even young children despise me;
when I rise they talk against me.
All my intimate friends abhor me,
and those whom I love have turned against me.”
These are the cries of a terribly lonely man. Every relationship in his life has been destroyed because he has become so afflicted. Therefore he asks for mercy from his friends in verses 21 and 22 because, as he puts it, “the hand of God has touched me.” But let’s pause to reflect upon that statement for just a minute. Was it the hand of God that struck him and caused his affliction? While it no doubt seemed that way to Job, you and I know from having read opening chapters of the book that there was another “hand” at play.
In chapter 1, verse 11, Satan attempted to incite the Lord against Job, saying “Stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” So did God take the bait? No, He didn’t, for the Lord answered Satan in the next verse, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand.” We find a similar scene in verses 5 and 6 of chapter 2, where the Lord says to the adversary, “Behold he is your hand.” As Christopher Ash correctly writes,
“The hands and fingers that destroyed Job’s possessions and killed Job’s children and wrecked Job’s health were the hands of Satan, not the hands of God. Yes, it was the hand of Satan acting with the permission of the Lord and within the strict constraints given by the Lord; but it was Satan’s hands and not God’s that actually did these terrible things.”
Lest we consider this to be a theological technicality, to the one called upon to endure such intense suffering, it is a critical part of the story. God is not the monstrous ogre inflicting needless pain and affliction on those who are His. The culprit is Satan! Could God have prevented Job’s pain? Yes, of course; but the fact that He didn’t tells us that He had a greater purpose in view, one that was foreordained in ages past. Satan did these things to harm Job, but God ordained them for His own glory and, as we shall see, ultimately for Job’s good.
Job cannot yet see that with certain clarity, but by the time we get to verse 23, we catch another glimpse of his faith in the unseen God in the midst of the darkness. Perhaps hoping that his words will one day prove him right, he longs for them to be “written... inscribed in a book...engraved in the rock forever.” The book of Scripture that is open before us this morning is an answer to that plea. But it is what follows that makes this one of its most significant passages. Follow along as I read verse 25 through 27:
“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!’
Here in these three verses, Job jumps from a longing to a faith-filled hope. So what is it that Job “knew?” He knew, first of all that he had a living Redeemer...a “goel,” one who would surely vindicate him. Though he would not have realized its full ramification, Job has given us a foreshadowing of the One who would come to ransom us from sin’s penalty by giving His own life so that we might live. God’s grace would assuage God’s wrath. Conventional wisdom could never have foreseen that!
Secondly, Job knew that this Redeemer would “stand upon the earth”...or literally, “upon the dust,” which may be a reference to Job’s grave. The word “stand” refers to a witness stand in court. It is where one bears testimony. Speaking for Job, one commentator has put these words in his mouth, “Better than a fading tombstone inscribed with my vindication, there will be an eternally living vindicator standing on my grave, attesting my genuineness and my right relationship with God.” Amen!
And then third, Job knew that in the end he would “see God” with his own eyes. As we noted last week when we were in chapter 14:14, Job foresaw a day of resurrection. What a challenge Job’s insight should be to us...we who have not only a greater and more comprehensive revelation of God, but are able to look back with hindsight to the cross where our Redeemer died. Job’s testimony here is an amazing expression of faith.
And yet his tremendous declaration falls on deaf ears, as we see in...
Zophar’s second speech (20:1-29)
This will be Zophar’s final contribution to the story and the last time we hear from him. Job will certainly not miss him, and neither will we. He adds nothing new to the argument. Instead his words become less-compassionate and more direct. Like Bildad before him, he paints a hopeless picture of the fate that awaits the wicked. For example, in verse 7 he says that the sinner “will perish forever like his own dung.” Similar descriptions fill the chapter. “Deny as he may,” Zophar contends, “Job’s sin will find him out.” Verse 29 concludes, “This is the wicked man’s portion from God, the heritage decreed for him by God.”
As we have noted, the fault of the friends’ messages is less in their content than in their misapplication. Conventional wisdom cannot find any purpose for the righteous to suffer any more than it can find for the unrighteous to prosper. Life isn’t supposed to work that way. But what neither Zophar or his friends are able to see—and what many today still cannot see—is that when God’s people feel their lives “poisoned” (to use a word that Zophar employs in verse 16) by the fruits of an evil world, they are actually walking in the footsteps of Jesus. Listen to what Peter wrote in his first epistle:
“If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 1:20-21).
Job’s response to Zophar (21:1-34)
...is, in effect, an attempt to refute the doctrine of retribution. “The wicked are not always punished,” Job declares, “At times they are quite prosperous.” In fact, they may go through life and make it to their graves without facing any major adversity.
But what does that prove? Anyone can see—assuming they are paying attention—that sinful people often prosper and are rarely punished in this life. In fact, it is pretty shallow to suppose that we are able to deduce from someone’s situation in life the true state of his or her heart toward God. A bad person may enjoy a good life, and a good person may suffer the pain of a bad life. Job was able to understand what his friends could not see—or refused to see—and that is that only the end will reveal the heart.
Throughout this second round of speeches, Job’s friends have made no advances. They have simply repeated the same stale arguments. On the other hand, Job has progressed. Not only is he beginning to better understand God’s sovereignty, but that His sovereign ways serve a purpose that we may never fully understand this side of heaven.
As we proceed toward the climax of this book, we are starting to understand that suffering is part and parcel of the missio Dei, the mission of God. What that means is that God’s will and purpose for the redemption of mankind and the glory of His name is advanced through the afflictions of His people.
Job is in the process of learning that none of us have been placed on this earth merely to satisfy our desires or to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. We are here to be changed...to be transformed...to become more like Christ. And like Jesus, we too must “learn obedience through what we suffer” (cf. Hebrews 5:8). It is a mysterious pattern, to be sure: pleasure sometimes emerges against a backdrop of pain...evil may be transformed into good...great suffering may produce something of great value.
The plan of God often runs counter to conventional wisdom. From the Scriptures we learn that God speaks to us through our suffering...or, if you prefer, in spite of it. Philip Yancey has written, “The symphony He is composing includes minor chords, dissonance, and tiresome fugal passages. But those of us who follow his conducting through early movements will, with renewed strength, someday burst into song.”
Granted Job entered this story as a man who was called “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (cf. Job 1:1), but there is no doubt that his experiential knowledge of God grew as he meditatively “sat in the ashes” (Job 2:8), enduring the flames of affliction. At this point in the story, he is still striving to understand “why.”
By now Job has become to his friends like “road kill,” and they are all too eager to pick at his bones. And yet, he tenaciously holds to his innocence. Though their reasonings were logical, they were not theologically sound. The God he was learning to know through affliction was bigger than the God of whom they only spoke. And even if he had to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4), he would do so aware that, even in the midst of darkness, his God was with him.