‘I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. Have windy words no limit? Or what provokes you that you keep on talking? I also could talk as you do, if you were in my place; I could join words together against you, and shake my head at you. I could encourage you with my mouth, and the solace of my lips would assuage your pain.
‘If I speak, my pain is not assuaged, and if I forbear, how much of it leaves me? Surely now God has worn me out; he has made desolate all my company. And he has shrivelled me up, which is a witness against me; my leanness has risen up against me, and it testifies to my face. He has torn me in his wrath, and hated me; he has gnashed his teeth at me; my adversary sharpens his eyes against me. They have gaped at me with their mouths; they have struck me insolently on the cheek; they mass themselves together against me. God gives me up to the ungodly, and casts me into the hands of the wicked. I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces; he set me up as his target; his archers surround me. He slashes open my kidneys, and shows no mercy; he pours out my gall on the ground. He bursts upon me again and again; he rushes at me like a warrior. I have sewed sackcloth upon my skin, and have laid my strength in the dust. My face is red with weeping, and deep darkness is on my eyelids, though there is no violence in my hands, and my prayer is pure.
My spirit is broken, my days are extinct, the grave is ready for me.
The opening verse of chapter 17 expresses the essence of Job’s long monologue through both these chapters. He has nothing else to say and piles up a range of metaphors to convey how he feels about the harsh ways in which God has treated him. His ‘comforters’ have brought him no comfort either. The speech indicates someone worn down by all that’s happened to him and all that’s been said as well. He’s hit rock bottom and he’s lost the will to fight back any more. There’s just the hint of a cry to God for pity; but it’s couched in the language of a defeated man pleading with an assailant to stop hitting him any more.
Yet Job still maintains his innocence (16:17) and, although the final verses of chapter 16 are virtually impossible to translate from the Hebrew with any certainty about their meaning, it appears that Job believes that God knows this too. Nonetheless he’s lost hope and is waiting for death.
It would be quite easy for someone as desperate as Job to admit they were in the wrong and deserved to be ‘punished’. It might make the friends feel better; but it would do nothing to alleviate the pain and suffering being endured. Nor is it possible for Job to admit he is ‘guilty as charged’ because he has absolutely no idea what it is that he has allegedly done. Consequently there is no obvious way out of the impasse where Job and his friends find themselves.
I don’t know what it is to be in such despair; but I am aware that others will have known such times in their lives and some will be struggling in its depths today. It can strike anyone; and some of those living on our streets, or in prison, are in its grip, believing themselves friendless too.
Let us be mindful that we can never fully know why someone is their current circumstances; and that their own attempts to explain it may be flawed. Let us be mindful of offering ‘solutions’ when we have no idea what the real problem is. Let us commit, though, to walking beside anyone in despair as a rock on which they can lean for rest, as a shield to protect them from further harm, and as a sign that they are not alone.
Compassionate God, draw near to any who are in despair and lift them out from their darkness. Grant them a vision of fresh possibilities and the hope of new life. Bring them to a point where they can contemplate the future as an adventure to be enjoyed. May we, and all your people, be ready to act as trusty companions along the way. In the name of Christ, Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.