After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. Job said:
‘Let the day perish on which I was born, and the night that said, “A man-child is conceived.” Let that day be darkness! May God above not seek it, or light shine on it. Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let clouds settle upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it. That night—let thick darkness seize it! let it not rejoice among the days of the year; let it not come into the number of the months. Yes, let that night be barren; let no joyful cry be heard in it. Let those curse it who curse the Sea, those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan. Let the stars of its dawn be dark; let it hope for light, but have none; may it not see the eyelids of the morning— because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb, and hide trouble from my eyes.
‘Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? Why were there knees to receive me, or breasts for me to suck? Now I would be lying down and quiet; I would be asleep; then I would be at rest with kings and counsellors of the earth who rebuild ruins for themselves, or with princes who have gold, who fill their houses with silver. Or why was I not buried like a stillborn child, like an infant that never sees the light? There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest. There the prisoners are at ease together; they do not hear the voice of the taskmaster. The small and the great are there, and the slaves are free from their masters.
‘Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures; who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad when they find the grave? Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in? For my sighing comes like my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water. Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes.’
The prologue has set the scene and now the theological debate can begin; and we get a dramatic outburst from Job expressing his extreme anguish. He wishes he had never been born! The depth of his suffering, his inner conviction that he doesn’t deserve it, his bewilderment at what has happened – and so suddenly – all pours out in a torrent of words.
The amazing thing is that Job’s tirade is directed at God; but he neither curses God, nor accuses God of causing his suffering. Instead he appeals to God to eradicate the day of his birth from history – to wipe away his life altogether. It is a cry born out of faith in God; but in a God who isn’t behaving justly, from Job’s perspective.
As he continues to unleash his emotions, Job’s words turn to lament and he wishes he was dead, for then he would be at rest with all the rich and poor, good and bad, alike who had gone before. (No-one believed in resurrection when this book was written.) As he cries out ‘Why?’ he starts to align himself with the weak and the oppressed in society, people for whom death comes as a merciful release.
It is easy to see why, at the darkest moments in life someone might imagine that everyone else would be better off if the sufferer hadn’t existed, if they hadn’t been around to cause pain and sorrow to others. Such feelings are understandable because pain can prevent us from seeing all the positive things that have also been part of life. It can be the same whenever we receive negative criticism, even if only one such point is made alongside much praise and affirmation. It gets out of proportion in our mind and we begin to undervalue ourself; or we wallow in a sense of guilt and become unwilling to do anything, in case we get it wrong.
It is healthy to lament before God in heartfelt ways and to permit anyone who is suffering to do the same. For to paraphrase some words of Peter in John 6, where else can we turn? We may not get the answers we want but we will discover that our cry has been heard by a God who cares about us.
Loving God, there is so much suffering in this world and many people live in despair. Draw near to them and let them know that their cries are heard. Help me to keep a proper perspective when things go wrong in my life and to trust in your good purposes at all times. Amen
The Rev Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.