Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered: ‘If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended? But who can keep from speaking? See, you have instructed many; you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have supported those who were stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees. But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed. Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope? ‘Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.
‘As for me, I would seek God, and to God I would commit my cause. He does great things and unsearchable, marvellous things without number.
‘How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he binds up; he strikes, but his hands heal. He will deliver you from six troubles; in seven no harm shall touch you.
Eliphaz feels obliged to speak, to reprove Job for his lament and initially his words are a gentle rebuke to a friend. He then voices one of the doctrines of traditional wisdom, as though this will comfort Job: that an innocent person has never suffered a premature death.
It is hard to imagine that anyone today could believe this, let alone voice such ideas to a friend who is saying they want to die. But sometimes we fail to think about the impact our words will have and, more dangerously, fail to consider whether received wisdom, or long held beliefs, are actually true. As Eliphaz continues his speech he is obliged to concede that Job has never appeared to be a wicked person and deserving of his fate. However he still can’t bring himself to reject the idea that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.
It might seem that if God exercised justice in such a neat binary way the world would be a better place; but it only takes a moment’s thought to realise that people are neither completely righteous nor totally wicked. It is also evident that corrupt practice can certainly bring material rewards, status and power, while good people are often downtrodden and living in poverty. Life is messy and we often discover unintended negative consequences follow an initial decision that seemed like a good idea.
If we claim to understand how God’s justice works we are deceiving ourselves. Personally I also find the idea of God’s justice being delayed until an ‘end time’ when some will be saved and others condemned equally unsatisfactory, because I believe that the incarnation demonstrates that God cares about this world and the importance of justice in the here and now. Exactly what justice means and how it is exercised demand serious, ongoing, consideration, because circumstances and context have a bearing on it.
Eliphaz rubs salt into Job’s wounds by suggesting that he should be happy to receive God’s discipline (5:17); and he simply doesn’t appreciate how his own blinkered dogmatism is adding to Job’s pain. Let’s take care that we don’t do the same.
O God, preserve me from thinking that I have the answer to someone else’s problem. Help me to listen, to discern what the real needs and questions are, before saying anything.
Help me to be a conduit through which someone can draw nearer to God, instead of claiming to be God’s mouthpiece.
Grant me wisdom and fill me with compassion for all who are in turmoil or any kind of pain.
Teach me what it means to be a real friend as I walk the way of Jesus. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC, Cambridge.