‘Can a mortal be of use to God? Can even the wisest be of service to him? Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous, or is it gain to him if you make your ways blameless? Is it for your piety that he reproves you, and enters into judgement with you? Is not your wickedness great? There is no end to your iniquities. For you have exacted pledges from your family for no reason, and stripped the naked of their clothing. You have given no water to the weary to drink, and you have withheld bread from the hungry. The powerful possess the land, and the favoured live in it. You have sent widows away empty-handed, and the arms of the orphans you have crushed. Therefore snares are around you, and sudden terror overwhelms you, or darkness so that you cannot see; a flood of water covers you. +++++ ‘Agree with God, and be at peace; in this way good will come to you. Receive instruction from his mouth, and lay up his words in your heart. If you return to the Almighty,[b] you will be restored, if you remove unrighteousness from your tents, if you treat gold like dust, and gold of Ophir like the stones of the torrent-bed, and if the Almighty is your gold and your precious silver, then you will delight in the Almighty, and lift up your face to God. You will pray to him, and he will hear you, and you will pay your vows. You will decide on a matter, and it will be established for you, and light will shine on your ways. When others are humiliated, you say it is pride; for he saves the humble. He will deliver even those who are guilty; they will escape because of the cleanness of your hands.’
This will be the last we hear from Eliphaz; but he has no intention of being conciliatory towards Job. Quite the opposite, he is downright hostile. Although he ends (vv.21ff) with an appeal to Job to return to God, suggesting that he can still be rehabilitated, this is only on the basis that Job renounces both his wickedness and his wealth (totally ignoring the fact that Job has already lost all of this!).
Eliphaz talks about God’s transcendence and self-sufficiency, unaffected by human behaviour. Since God is just, he argues, the harsh treatment that Job has received from God must result from a life of exceptional wickedness. Any protestations of innocence by Job only compound his wickedness in Eliphaz’s eyes. Having reached this monstrous (and seriously flawed!) conclusion Eliphaz then sets about ‘manufacturing’ the facts to support his theory.
The speed at which Eliphaz has turned from being a true friend arriving to comfort someone who has suffered misfortune, into a false accuser is frightening. It is a salutary reminder of the fragility of bonds of friendship, unless we work at strengthening them through loving words and deeds. The spurious crimes of which Eliphaz accuses Job are all social ones forbidden in the law codes and frequently denounced by the prophets. Crushing the arm of an orphan goes even further as this represents an act of gratuitous violence that would deprive the victim of any hope of independence. It is akin to some of the horrors of modern slavery that are in our news.
However these verses remind me of the parable in Matthew 25:31ff about sheep and goats. In Jesus’s mouth these words challenge us to examine our own social responsibility against the kingdom values he came to reveal. Our communities contain many who are impoverished, hungry, thirsty, prey to loan sharks; many who are homeless while luxury housing continues to be built as investment property for the rich.
Many churches and individual Christians do great work to alleviate suffering and to support the needy as they strive for social justice; and we thank God this faithful Christian witness. But is there more that we should be doing, in the name of Christ, to transform the structures of society that perpetuate such ‘wickedness’ in our world?
Righteous God, I have so much to learn as I travel through Lent, about you and your ways, and about me and my shortcomings. Preserve me from speaking falsely and from turning away from anyone in need when I have an opportunity to act kindly. Fill me with righteous anger towards the structural injustices that exist and teach me what is possible for me to accomplish in the work of transforming this world into your kingdom. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.