‘Those who withhold kindness from a friend
forsake the fear of the Almighty.
My companions are treacherous like a torrent-bed,
like freshets that pass away,
that run dark with ice,
turbid with melting snow.
In time of heat they disappear;
when it is hot, they vanish from their place.
The caravans turn aside from their course;
they go up into the waste, and perish.
The caravans of Tema look,
the travellers of Sheba hope.
They are disappointed because they were confident;
they come there and are confounded.
Such you have now become to me;
you see my calamity, and are afraid.
Have I said, “Make me a gift”?
Or, “From your wealth offer a bribe for me”?
Or, “Save me from an opponent’s hand”?
Or, “Ransom me from the hand of oppressors”?
‘Teach me, and I will be silent;
make me understand how I have gone wrong.
How forceful are honest words!
But your reproof, what does it reprove?
Do you think that you can reprove words,
as if the speech of the desperate were wind?
You would even cast lots over the orphan,
and bargain over your friend.
I loathe my life; I would not live for ever.
Let me alone, for my days are a breath.
What are human beings, that you make so much of them,
that you set your mind on them,
visit them every morning,
test them every moment?
Will you not look away from me for a while,
let me alone until I swallow my spittle?
If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity?
Why have you made me your target?
Why have I become a burden to you?
Why do you not pardon my transgression
and take away my iniquity?
For now I shall lie in the earth;
you will seek me, but I shall not be.’
Job isn’t persuaded and renews his lament, wishing that God will end his life because he isn’t sure how much more he can endure without sinning against God. The only point on which Job agrees with Eliphaz is that God is all powerful and free to act in whatever ways God chooses. He denounces his friends for failing him and regards them almost as enemies, even though he has acknowledged God as his tormentor (6:4). The Hebrew of verse 14 is ‘broken’ and cannot be translated but it is clear that it includes the words friends and loyalty and probably implies that being loyal to one’s friends is the essence of true religion. There is a degree of irony in the way Job asks how he has offended them.
In chapter 7 he turns back to address God and expresses a sympathetic understanding for human beings everywhere who live in misery – something he had failed to understand when his own life was good. He asks God to remember the mortality of humans and then, in anguish, accuses God of persecuting him for no reason. His patience is ended and he demands that God justifies what is happening to him. It would be bad enough if God was ignoring him in his misery; but in Job’s eyes it seems as though God is out to get him!
In verse 17 we find one of many allusions to the Psalms that the writer of Job incorporates in these dialogues. Familiar words from Psalm 8 (vv.4-5) which accord a high status to humanity in God’s creation and loving purposes, are here parodied to question why God has singled out humanity – and Job in particular – in a relentless, tyrannical way. Job ends up by arguing that even if he had sinned – which he insists he hasn’t – what’s the point of God constantly watching him, he’ll be dead soon and out of God’s reach.
What I like about Job is the willingness to engage with God head on; and the fact that we see his self-awareness and understanding of the human condition subtly changing as he grapples with all that is happening and keeps asking questions. He hasn’t received any answers from God; but that won’t stop him believing that God is the only one who can provide them.
help me to turn to you in every situation,
seeking to understand more
of your nature and your purposes.
Help me to realise that
through the honesty of my prayers
you will bring about change in me;
and that I cannot influence you
to do my will.
Grant me the courage
to keep asking you difficult questions
and the faith to say ‘Your will be done’
when I don’t discern your answers.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.