Wednesday, 14 September 2016

A Job for life

In the land of Uz there lived a man called Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil... 

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head... 

Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. Job 1:1, 2:7, 3:1

I must confess my heart sank... 

I am presently using a “through the Bible in a year” Bible, which means having to read lengthy passages every day. And my heart sank when I saw that next up was Job. I realised that I would be spending the next week or two ploughing my way through this strange, ancient text.

Well, I’m getting towards the end now - and feeling ashamed of my initial negative reaction. Yes, Job is a very long book; yes, it’s got all those big speeches; yes, it’s puzzling in places. But it certainly makes you think, and it certainly engages your emotions. I’m sure it’s done me good. The Holy Spirit didn’t make a mistake when he caused it to be included in our Bibles!

Before you read a book - any book, not just a Bible book - you need to understand what kind of book it is. You don’t read a novel the same way you read a car maintenance manual, or a poetry book the same way you read the telephone directory. (Well, I hope you don’t, anyway.)

So - what kind of book is Job? Is it fact or fiction? Is it history or parable? Or something else?

To me it reads like an ancient tale, based on the life of a figure now lost in the mists of time, which someone has worked up into a kind of dramatic poem. You could say it’s a bit like the Robin Hood story: no doubt there was a real human being called Robin Hood who became famous for “robbing the rich to give to the poor”. But pinning him down precisely is impossible.

Job barely figures elsewhere in the Bible. Ezekiel mentions him twice, in the company of Noah and Daniel (Ezekiel 14), and in the New Testament James famously praises his “patience” (James 5). But we know virtually nothing about him. He lived “in the land of Uz”, or Edom (1:1); he lived “among the people of the east” (1:3). He seems to know the God of Israel, but I don’t think he was actually an Israelite. 

He is a mystery man with a mystery background. His book certainly doesn’t belong with the main history books, like Joshua, Kings or Chronicles.

But this very fact is significant - it makes him a universal figure: he could be anybody living anywhere. He could be you; he could be me.

What can we as Christians draw from this book? I suggest three things...

First, bad things don’t happen to people as a punishment for bad behaviour - one of the ideas expressed by Job’s so-called “comforters”. Job was a good man, “blameless and upright”; yet God allowed him to suffer terribly. Even today you sometimes hear people say, as they try to come to terms with misfortune, “I must have done something awful!” But no! Go back, please, to the words of Jesus in John 9:1-3 or Luke 13:1-5.

Is this a word for you today?

Second, it’s not wrong to question God, even to argue with him. Job refuses to accept the trite words and stock arguments of his comforters. He insists that God “has denied me justice” (27:2). He virtually accuses God: “I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me” (30:20).

It’s true that at the end of the book God rather puts Job in his place - but not half as much as he does Job’s comforters!

God is to be respected and revered: yes, of course. But he understands and responds to those who cry out to him in anguish of heart, even if their words sometimes seem daringly bold.

Are you in need of a serious unburdening session with God? Do it!

Third, every story of godly people has a happy ending: “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first” (42:12). True, nothing could ever make up for the terrible suffering earlier on, especially the deaths of his children. But the fact is that God sees fit to bless his honest, argumentative, stubborn, fiery child after all the suffering is over. And so he will with us, even if not always in this life, if we remain faithful and true.

Job didn’t know Jesus in the way we do, yet even in the very depths of his pain he had glimpses of this great hope: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God...” (19:25-26).

May those defiant, majestic words inspire anyone reading this who is struggling with pain, suffering and injustice.  Amen!

Lord God, have mercy today on every Job known to me - and indeed upon every Job throughout this broken, hurting world. Amen.

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