‘Should a multitude of words go unanswered, and should one full of talk be vindicated? Should your babble put others to silence, and when you mock, shall no one shame you? For you say, “My conduct is pure, and I am clean in God’s sight.” But O that God would speak, and open his lips to you, and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom! For wisdom is many-sided. Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.
‘Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? It is higher than heaven—what can you do? Deeper than Sheol—what can you know? Its measure is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea. If he passes through, and imprisons, and assembles for judgement, who can hinder him? For he knows those who are worthless; when he sees iniquity, will he not consider it? But a stupid person will get understanding, when a wild ass is born human.
‘If you direct your heart rightly, you will stretch out your hands towards him. If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and do not let wickedness reside in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure, and will not fear. You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away. And your life will be brighter than the noonday; its darkness will be like the morning. And you will have confidence, because there is hope; you will be protected and take your rest in safety. You will lie down, and no one will make you afraid; many will entreat your favour. But the eyes of the wicked will fail; all way of escape will be lost to them, and their hope is to breathe their last.’
The third friend, Zophar, now enters the fray and he introduces the concept of wisdom into the debate saying that Job lacks the wisdom to appreciate that he is not wholly innocent, as he claims. However Zophar misrepresents Job in verse 4, since the Hebrew more accurately reads ‘my teaching/doctrine’ rather than ‘my conduct’. He is accusing him of intellectual arrogance, which is not a stance Job has taken. In any case the prologue has established that God regards Job as innocent, so this is a moot point.
Zophar speaks rather like a hostile witness in a legal trial but his statement that God is actually being lenient towards Job (v.6b) is exceptionally harsh. He adds insult to injury by piously appealing that God would speak and reveal this ‘wisdom’ to Job, which is exactly what Job wants of God. Zophar continues, presenting himself as God’s spokesman, and expounds the limitless extent of God’s power in traditional ways culminating in the standard doctrine of retribution. It is as if he believes that he is telling Job something new!
Zophar assumes Job’s guilt yet holds out the hope that Job could be restored to his former happy state if he turned towards God and renounced his wicked ways. But Job has always ‘feared God’ and ‘turned away from evil’ (1:1) and this hasn’t saved him from his current plight. Zophar’s rigid beliefs lead him to conclude therefore that there can be no escape for Job.
I hope that I never encounter a ‘friend’ like Zophar and that I will never speak to anyone in such an unfeeling, superior way.
One thing that his speech reveals, though, is the difference between learned knowledge and wisdom. We can all acquire knowledge and sometimes we focus too heavily on the pursuit of certificates to demonstrate our learning. We also live in a world where some advocate ‘alternative facts’ in support of a personal agenda if the truth threatens to undermine their status or power base. Wisdom has little to do with the amount of information stored in our heads, or readily accessible in electronic format through a search engine. Wisdom is about discernment, and about employing true knowledge to fulfil God’s purposes. Wisdom is something that can only be received as a gift of God’s grace.
Gracious God, thank you for opportunities to learn and for enabling us to access so much information about the world and its inhabitants.
Grant us wisdom to discern truth from falsehood and the courage to name falsehood for what it is.
Save us from using our knowledge to belittle others. Save us from using eloquent words oblivious of the hurt they may cause. Give us grace so that all our speaking is directed towards building up Christ’s kingdom and the glory of your name. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.