‘How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a great wind? Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right? If your children sinned against him, he delivered them into the power of their transgression. If you will seek God and make supplication to the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore to you your rightful place. Though your beginning was small, your latter days will be very great.
‘For inquire now of bygone generations, and consider what their ancestors have found; for we are but of yesterday, and we know nothing, for our days on earth are but a shadow. Will they not teach you and tell you and utter words out of their understanding?
‘Can papyrus grow where there is no marsh? Can reeds flourish where there is no water? While yet in flower and not cut down, they wither before any other plant. Such are the paths of all who forget God; the hope of the godless shall perish. Their confidence is gossamer, a spider’s house their trust. If one leans against its house, it will not stand; if one lays hold of it, it will not endure. The wicked thrive before the sun, and their shoots spread over the garden. Their roots twine around the stoneheap; they live among the rocks. If they are destroyed from their place, then it will deny them, saying, “I have never seen you.” See, these are their happy ways, and out of the earth still others will spring.
‘See, God will not reject a blameless person, nor take the hand of evildoers. He will yet fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouts of joy. Those who hate you will be clothed with shame, and the tent of the wicked will be no more.’
It is now Bildad’s turn to speak and, as with the whole cycle of speeches, we need to read each as a separate poem that rarely interacts directly with what has been said previously by Job or one of the other friends. Bildad simply disparages Job’s words as nonsense (a great wind) and declares as an incontrovertible truth that God never behaves unjustly. He uses the example of Job’s children as evidence of divine retribution at work – surely one of the most tactless sentences ever put into the mouth of a supposed friend of someone who has been bereaved! He goes on to say that if Job is pure and innocent, and he turns to God in prayer, then God will restore him back to his former situation. This, of course, in context is impossible as everything Job had has been annihilated.
So we recognise that it is Bildad who is speaking nonsense; but he appeals to tradition, the wisdom of the ancestors, as though this can never be challenged. He implies that everything about God and God’s ways was made known to the wise and that Job needs to learn from these teachers. He doesn’t appreciate that Job is fully aware of these traditions, has accepted this teaching in the past, but is now questioning its validity because it doesn’t ring true with his experience.
Bildad’s final words summarise his view of divine retribution and show that in his blinkered acceptance of this doctrine he has completely missed the point of what is happening to Job. It can be so easy to imagine that we know all that is needed about God, to accept the teaching of scholars, the traditions of the church, the wording of Bible translations that have been handed down and have become familiar to us. We can forget that ours is a living faith and that the Holy Spirit was given to lead us into truth. Greater understanding is surely something we should keep striving towards.
New situations also give rise to new questions and we need to be prepared to admit when the old answers are no longer satisfactory in the complexities of life. God’s truth may surprise us and make us rethink!
Living God, help me to be a questioning believer, ready to let go of old certainties when confronted by their inadequacy. Save me from offering trite or tactless responses that add to someone’s pain; and from speaking without first seeking someone’s own perspective on their situation. Holy Spirit, lead us into truth as more of God’s wonder is revealed as we walk the way of Jesus. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.