‘Listen carefully to my words, and let this be your consolation. Bear with me, and I will speak; then after I have spoken, mock on. As for me, is my complaint addressed to mortals? Why should I not be impatient? Look at me, and be appalled, and lay your hand upon your mouth. When I think of it I am dismayed, and shuddering seizes my flesh. Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? Their children are established in their presence, and their offspring before their eyes. Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them. Their bull breeds without fail; their cow calves and never miscarries. They send out their little ones like a flock, and their children dance around. They sing to the tambourine and the lyre, and rejoice to the sound of the pipe. They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol. They say to God, “Leave us alone! We do not desire to know your ways. What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? And what profit do we get if we pray to him?” Is not their prosperity indeed their own achievement? The plans of the wicked are repugnant to me. ++++++ Will any teach God knowledge, seeing that he judges those that are on high? One dies in full prosperity, being wholly at ease and secure, his loins full of milk and the marrow of his bones moist. Another dies in bitterness of soul, never having tasted of good. They lie down alike in the dust, and the worms cover them. ++++ How then will you comfort me with empty nothings? There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood.’
This response from Job engages directly with all that his friends have argued. He makes no direct reference to his own situation but instead points to the evidence of human experience that totally refutes what they have said. He is quite calm as he demolishes Zophar’s most recent words by describing the prosperous, joyful life enjoyed by some who are wicked. He doesn’t suggest that this is true for all but in vv.23-26 simply points to the fact that the fate of the wicked seems to be arbitrary, from a human perspective. The only certainty that they all share is death. God isn’t being just in Job’s eyes and he ironically asks if the friends presume the right to teach God ‘his own business’ (v.22). The chapter ends as Job dismisses all their arguments as false.
In the cycle of dialogues we have seen the relationships between Job and his friends becoming strained, we have recognised many heated words being spoken and seen intransigence on all sides. Here, although Job begins by taunting his friends, saying that the only ‘comfort’ they can offer is to keep their mouths shut, Job is the one who sees the need to calm things down.
He has the ‘wisdom’ to behave differently. He de-personalises the debate. He could have continued to assert that everything said by the friends about the fate of the wicked was irrelevant because he was innocent; but this line of argument was leading nowhere. So he changes direction. I think this affirms what the prologue attested: Job is an upright man who ‘feared God’.
It is the sign of a mature faith when a Christian is able to steer a debate in a way that offers the hope of constructive dialogue and a good resolution that everyone can live with. This may mean stepping back from what seems like a position of strength when discussing an issue that really matters to us. Nothing will be gained by winning an argument if the consequence is a breakdown in relationships and disunity in the church.
Big theological issues frequently threaten to cause division in the church; and they should never be avoided for the sake of an easy life! When the heat rises let us pray for a Job among us who can help us continue the discussion from a different angle in a measured, Christ like, way.
Gracious God, look upon us kindly when we struggle with some of the issues on which Christians disagree. Help us in the pursuit of your truth; and teach us how to debate with personal integrity and mature faith.
Forgive us for past failures and any breakdowns in relationships; and lead us in ways that lead to reconciliation. In the name of Christ, Amen
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.