‘How long will you hunt for words? Consider, and then we shall speak. Why are we counted as cattle? Why are we stupid in your sight? You who tear yourself in your anger— shall the earth be forsaken because of you, or the rock be removed out of its place?
‘Surely the light of the wicked is put out, and the flame of their fire does not shine. The light is dark in their tent, and the lamp above them is put out. Their strong steps are shortened, and their own schemes throw them down. For they are thrust into a net by their own feet, and they walk into a pitfall. A trap seizes them by the heel; a snare lays hold of them. A rope is hid for them in the ground, a trap for them in the path. Terrors frighten them on every side, and chase them at their heels. Their strength is consumed by hunger, and calamity is ready for their stumbling. By disease their skin is consumed, the firstborn of Death consumes their limbs. They are torn from the tent in which they trusted, and are brought to the king of terrors. In their tents nothing remains; sulphur is scattered upon their habitations. Their roots dry up beneath, and their branches wither above. Their memory perishes from the earth, and they have no name in the street. They are thrust from light into darkness, and driven out of the world. They have no offspring or descendant among their people, and no survivor where they used to live. They of the west are appalled at their fate, and horror seizes those of the east. Surely such are the dwellings of the ungodly, such is the place of those who do not know God.’
Bildad has no fresh insights to contribute to the debate; but he clearly feels the need to say something. Perhaps he likes the sound of his own voice, or is unwilling to let others appear ‘wiser’ than him. He directs a few impatient words at Job, almost implying that he is destabilising the order of the universe by his ranting.
Then Bildad sets about describing the fate of the wicked through a series of graphic images. He doesn’t actually accuse Job of being wicked and his words are little different from ideas expressed throughout the book of Proverbs – standard wisdom traditions. However he refers to skin disease, the destruction of houses, the death of descendants, all things which have been part of Job’s recent experience; and it is as if Bildad is saying: ‘If the cap fits wear it’. The worst part of this speech is that it contains no possibility of redemption for anyone who is penitent.
The availability of God’s forgiveness for all who turn away from sin is central to our Christian faith and a call to repentance is a regular feature in the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible. The whole of scripture reveals God blessing humanity, inviting us into a loving relationship with God, calling us back when we stray from good pathways, and coming to find us when we lose our way. God never turns away from us; and the times when we feel totally alienated from God are when we are looking in the wrong places, or when God refuses to conform to our fixed expectations and so we simply don’t recognise God’s presence in our lives.
Bildad’s words reflect someone who has both lost sight of the nature of God and has no compassion towards a fellow human being who is suffering. He speaks with a misplaced confidence in his own wisdom and effectively condemns Job, his friend, to death.
I am reminded of an old adage: If you cannot say anything good, then say nothing. Bildad would have done well to heed this; but let us remember that Jesus came to proclaim good news to the world. We have something good to speak into every situation – that there is a way back to God for anyone who wants it irrespective of how they arrived in a place of darkness.
God of forgiveness, have mercy on me for the times when I have considered someone else to be unworthy of your love. Save me from being judgmental, or from weighing others against standards set by me. Renew me by your Spirit and may all that I say and do this day reflect your gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.