Job: a Righteous Man
A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist
October 14, 2012
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Today we continue a four-week journey through the Old Testament book of Job.
Last week I asked you to imagine a world where righteousness is
always rewarded and wickedness is always punished.
I said that’s the kind of world Job lived in, or at least that’s the
way it would appear. Job was a
righteous man. As the author
says on more than one occasion, he was “blameless and upright, a man who
feared God and turned away from evil.”
He was also a wealthy man.
He had 7,000 sheep and 3,000 camels; he had 500 donkeys, 500 yoke of
oxen; he had 7 sons, and 3 daughters.
He was, as the author says, “the greatest man in the East.”
But that didn’t keep him from being righteous.
He would regularly offer sacrifices on behalf of his children, just
in case they had committed some secret sin.
“And this is what Job always did,” the author says.
He was a righteous man.
He was a rich man. You could
easily assume that those things went together, that he was rich
because he was righteous, and in
fact, that’s what everybody seems to assume.
Satan assumes it.
When God says, “Have you considered my servant Job, a blameless and
upright man, one who fears God and turns away from evil?”
Satan says, “Well, why wouldn’t he?
You’ve rewarded him for it!
Every time he says his prayers you give him another camel or donkey.
Who wouldn’t be righteous under those circumstances?
But I’ll just bet that if you took all that away from him he would
curse you to your face.” And, as
you will recall, God gives Satan permission to do it, to take everything
away from Job except his life and health.
Satan does, and he does it all at once.
In a single day Job loses everything, and yet he said, “Naked I came
from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return there.
The Lord gave. The Lord
has taken away. Blessed be the
name of the Lord. “In all of
this (the author says), Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.”
Job’s wife assumes it.
When Satan comes before the Lord the next time the Lord says, “Have
you considered my servant Job, a blameless and upright man, one who fears
God and turns away from evil? He
still persists in his integrity even after all that you have done to him.”
But Satan says, “Skin for skin!
A man will give almost anything to save his own life.
Let me hit him again, harder, and he will curse you to your face.”
And God gives him permission, and almost overnight Job is covered
with loathsome sores, from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.
He ends up sitting on an ash pile, scraping himself with a piece of
broken pottery, the most wretched picture of humanity you can imagine.
And although we don’t really know what is going on in his wife’s
heart when she says, “Curse God and die,” you get the feeling there’s not a
lot of sympathy there, that she assumes Job must have done something to
deserve all this.
Job’s friends assume it.
When they hear about his
troubles Job’s friends—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar
the Naamathite—come to see him, and when they see him sitting there on that
ash heap their hearts break. Job, the richest man in the East, has
been reduced to almost nothing. At first they do not even
recognize him. They raise their
voices and weep. They tear their
robes and sprinkle dust on their heads. And they sit with him on the
ground seven days and seven nights, and no one speaks a word to him, for
they see that his suffering was very great.
That was the best thing they could have done, actually. It's
the best thing almost anyone can do when confronted by grief and pain—not
try to make everything OK by our words, but to sit in silence with those who
are hurting, to remind them by our own presence that God is present, and
that they are not alone. For seven days that's what these friends did
for Job, but eventually the silence was broken. Job himself says that
he wishes he had never been born. Which gives his friends an opening
to respond and, one by one, they do, reminding Job that they live in a world
where the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer.
But maybe that’s not what this story is trying to teach us.
Maybe it’s trying to teach us just the opposite: that we don’t live
in a world where righteousness is always rewarded and wickedness is always
punished, but a world where the righteous sometimes suffer, and the wicked
often live like kings. In fact,
as you read through the arguments of Job’s three friends the irony becomes
more and more pronounced. There
they are at first, trying to suggest that maybe, just maybe, Job has
committed some small sin and that’s why he’s suffering.
Eliphaz the Temanite starts off by saying, “If one ventures a word
with you, will you be offended?”
But twenty chapters later he’s saying, “Is not your wickedness great?
There is no end to your iniquities!
For you have exacted pledges from your
family for no reason, and stripped the naked of their clothing.
given no water to the weary to drink, and you have withheld bread from the
hungry.” In other words, Job, you are getting exactly what you deserve.
And that’s when we come to our text for today, from Job 23:1-9,
Then Job answered:
also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
Oh, that I
knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay
my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer
me, and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the
greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason
with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.
“If I go forward, he is not there; or
backward, I cannot perceive him;
the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I
cannot see him….
has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me;
only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face! (NRSV).
Back in 1981 Rabbi Harold Kushner published a little book that became an
overnight bestseller. It was called, "When Bad Things Happen to Good
People." A title can make all the difference, can't it? Notice
that he didn't call it, "When Bad Things Happen to Bad People," or, "When
Good Things Happen to Good People," or even, "When Good Things Happen to Bad
People," but, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." There's
something about that title that makes you want to snatch that book right off
the shelf. It stirs up your sense of justice, makes you say, "That's
just not right!" Because on some level we all believe that good things
should happen to good people and bad things should happen to bad people and
when they don't we don't know what to believe. What's at stake here,
in a very real sense, is our faith.
When we were children we were taught to pray: "God is great, God is good,
and we thank him for our food," but when bad things happen to good people we
begin to wonder: "If God is so great why doesn’t he do something? If
God is so good why doesn't he seem to care?" Theologians call this
"The Problem of Evil," and Frederick Buechner frames it in an unforgettable
way. He says: "God is all-powerful. God is all-good.
Terrible things happen." He says we can reconcile any two of those
propositions with each other but not all three. When terrible things
happen we can either conclude that God is good but not very great, and
therefore can't do anything to stop them, or that God is great but not very
good, and therefore may, himself, be the cause of them. Or we can do
what some people do and simply deny the existence of evil altogether, but
that doesn't really work either, does it? Is there another answer?
Last week I asked you to imagine a world where the righteous are always
rewarded and the wicked are always punished.
This week let me ask you to imagine another kind of world: the world
you would create if you were God.
British philosopher John Hick used to say that when most people do
this they tend to think of a “hedonistic paradise” (like some of those
all-inclusive resorts you can go to in the Caribbean).
That’s the kind of world they would make: a place where it’s all
pleasure and no pain. And to the
degree that this world doesn’t meet those expectations they assume that God
is either not loving enough or not powerful enough to create such a world.[i]
The Scottish philosopher David Hume used to imply that God—as an
architect—was not a very good one.
He said, “If you lived in a house where the windows, doors, fires,
passages, stairs, and the whole economy of the building were the source of
noise, confusion, fatigue, darkness, and the extremes of heat and cold, you
would have no hesitation in blaming the architect.”[ii]
I have to say: I like the idea of
a hedonistic paradise, and if I were creating a world for myself that is
almost certainly the kind of world I would create.
But if you had asked me 25 years ago to come up with an ideal world
for my children it wouldn’t be
that kind of world at all. I
wouldn’t want them lounging by the pool all day, drinking fruity cocktails
out of coconut shells! I might
dream up something that was a cross between a Christian academy and Scout
camp. I would want my children
to be smart, and to have skills!
Or, think of it like this: a playpen is a good place for a baby.
It’s safe and comfortable.
You can fill it with her favorite toys.
It’s fine when she’s 21 months, but not when she’s 21 years!
It’s certainly not what I wanted for my girls.
Even though it was hard for me to let them grow up, even though some
part of me wanted them to stay tiny and adorable forever, when they crossed
the street for the first time by themselves I was proud.
I watched, with my heart in my throat, while they waited for the
green light, looked both ways (twice!), and then started across the
intersection. When they got
safely to the other side I nearly burst with pride.
“Look at that!” I said.
“My little girl is growing up!” Imagine that what I wanted for my girls then
is what God has always wanted for us: he wants us to grow up.
And so, instead of putting us in the world’s safest playpen, he has
put us in a world like this, where bad things can and sometimes do happen to
You might argue that it didn’t start that way and it won’t end that way.
The Bible tells us that life began for man in a kind of paradise, and
Jesus tells the thief on the cross that that’s where it will end.
But in between those two extremes we find ourselves in a world the
poet John Keats described as “a vale of soul-making.”
This is the kind of world where souls can be made, where character
can be formed. If what God wants
us to do, ultimately, is “grow up in every way into him who is the head,
into Christ” (Eph. 4:15), then this is the kind of world where that can
happen. And if all we ever saw
was a little suffering—just enough to build some Christian character, enough
to make us better people—we could probably accept that answer.
But more often than we care to remember we have seen suffering that
goes way beyond that, and Job is a good example.
Do you really have to crush a man to teach him a lesson?
Do you have to take away everything he has?
I’ve watched people struggle with cancer—good people, godly people.
They were already mature Christians when they were diagnosed.
If we assume that God inflicts suffering upon us to help us grow up
these are not the kind of people he would choose to inflict.
I have to believe something else.
I have to believe that we live in a world that has cancer in it, and
it’s not that God inflicts some people with cancer and not others but simply
that cancer happens, and that it
can happen to anyone, and that when it does you begin to see very quickly
what those people are made of.
They are made of flesh and bone, first of all.
They are mortal, which means that they are “subject to death.”
But they are also made of stronger stuff—of faith and hope and
courage that defy the circumstances of their lives.
They keep on believing even when their loved ones tell them to “curse
God and die,” even when their best friends ask, “What did you do to deserve
this?” They might come to a
place where they give up believing that God is going to make them well but
they don’t give up believing in God.
And when you’ve been in the presence of such people—wow!—there’s
something holy about it, as if they had already been to the other side, and
caught a glimpse of how things are going to be, and somehow found peace with
it all. Their faces begin to
shine. They start comforting you
instead of the other way around.
That’s the kind of world we live in.
It’s not a world where the righteous are always rewarded and the
wicked always suffer. Sometimes
it seems to be just the opposite of that.
And it’s not a world designed for our hedonistic pleasure—a tropical
paradise where we lie by the pool sipping fruity cocktails forever.
It’s a world where we can grow up, where souls can be made, and maybe
that’s the point of it all.
Maybe what God wants for his children even more than pleasure is joy.
And maybe he knows that the way to joy is not
around suffering, but through
it. This is the way the author
of Hebrews puts it: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter
of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured
the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand
of the throne of God. Consider
him…so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” (Heb. 12:2-3).
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Jim Somerville, © 2012
John Hick, Evil and the God of
Love (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1966, 1977), p. 257.