‘As God lives, who has taken away my right, and the Almighty, who has made my soul bitter, as long as my breath is in me and the spirit of God is in my nostrils, my lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit. Far be it from me to say that you are right; until I die I will not put away my integrity from me. I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.
‘May my enemy be like the wicked, and may my opponent be like the unrighteous. For what is the hope of the godless when God cuts them off, when God takes away their lives? Will God hear their cry when trouble comes upon them? Will they take delight in the Almighty? Will they call upon God at all times? I will teach you concerning the hand of God; that which is with the Almighty I will not conceal. All of you have seen it yourselves; why then have you become altogether vain?
‘This is the portion of the wicked with God, and the heritage that oppressors receive from the Almighty: If their children are multiplied, it is for the sword; and their offspring have not enough to eat. Those who survive them the pestilence buries, and their widows make no lamentation. Though they heap up silver like dust, and pile up clothing like clay— they may pile it up, but the just will wear it, and the innocent will divide the silver. They build their houses like nests, like booths made by sentinels of the vineyard. They go to bed with wealth, but will do so no more; they open their eyes, and it is gone. Terrors overtake them like a flood; in the night a whirlwind carries them off. The east wind lifts them up and they are gone; it sweeps them out of their place. It hurls at them without pity; they flee from its power in headlong flight. It claps its hands at them, and hisses at them from its place.
Again there are difficulties with the text. Verse 1 suggests that Job begins a fresh speech, despite the fact that the book presents him as the speaker of the previous chapter; and the latter half, vv.13-23, sounds like something Zophar might have said. Verse 13 is virtually identical with 20:29, the conclusion of his second speech; and many consider this to be Zophar’s third. It repeats ideas put forward by all the friends.
The opening section of this chapter clearly belongs in Job’s mouth, although vv.7-10 (which are very reminiscent of Ps.35) interrupt the flow. This is Job’s final response to the friends and it is couched in the language of the law court. He makes the strongest possible claim that he is innocent of the alleged wickedness through two solemn oaths, both made in the name of God. He still maintains that God is responsible for all his suffering; but God is also the one who keeps him alive.
Job insists that he is in the right, that his friends have been wrong. All that they have tried to teach him about God’s justice has been in error; Job is the one who has things to teach his friends, if only they were willing to listen and learn. It is as though Job is saying to them, ‘Look at the evidence in front of your eyes. Why can’t you see the truth?’
Through his oaths Job is effectively giving formal notice to God that he is ready to defend himself, whatever the outcome. If Job is wrong and he has sworn falsely in the name of God it would mean automatic death. The stakes couldn’t be higher and everything rests on Job’s integrity.
Swearing oaths or making vows, are not understood as life and death matters in today’s world; and sadly they are sometimes treated casually. Prenuptial agreements, whereby marriage breakdown is anticipated before the vows have even been taken, are fairly common. Telling lies in court won’t be prosecuted as perjury unless the lie was about an issue ‘material’ to the case. Gone are the days when saying ‘my word is my bond’ would be accepted as evidence of good faith.
I accept that it can be impossible to keep a promise when relationships have broken down; but let us never make a promise without the sincere intention of fulfilling it. It is a matter of integrity.
Faithful God, the Bible is full of stories of your promises being fulfilled and we know that we can trust you to keep your word.
Help us to consider carefully the costs that will be involved before we make any commitment; and help us to keep any promises we have made.
May our lives reflect your faithfulness as we take a stand for truth in the world. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge..