‘A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last. Do you fix your eyes on such a one? Do you bring me into judgement with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one can. Since their days are determined, and the number of their months is known to you, and you have appointed the bounds that they cannot pass, look away from them, and desist, that they may enjoy, like labourers, their days.
‘For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant. But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep. O that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come. You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands. For then you would not number my steps, you would not keep watch over my sin; my transgression would be sealed up in a bag, and you would cover over my iniquity.
This part of Job’s speech is more reflective and sombre in tone. It focuses on human mortality and the brevity of a person’s life in the grand scale of the universe. Job admits that every human being is ‘unclean’ in comparison with God but prays that God might at least let someone live out their allotted span in peace. Verses 7-12 are recognised as a short poem that contrasts the inevitability of human death with the possibility of renewal and reinvigoration that follows even the harshest acts of pruning in the case of plant life.
Right until the end of the Old Testament period there was no hope of a meaningful afterlife for humanity. Sheol, an underworld place of shadowy non-existence, beyond the reach of God, was believed to be the destiny of everyone at death. Job wonders why God has ordained things this way and forlornly wishes that, in his case, Sheol might be a place where God granted him temporary protection. But the ludicrous notion of God protecting Job against God’s own wrath brings such flights of fancy to an end.
Thoughts such as these, as God’s people began to think seriously about God’s purposes for humanity and about the bigger problem of evil, may represent the earliest beginnings of a doctrine of resurrection. However it didn’t really begin to emerge until later times of persecution under the Greek empire when remaining faithful to God could mean losing one’s life. If the faithful were being killed, what was the point of faith if it was hastening the end of ‘Israel’ and there was nothing beyond? As Christians we live in hope of resurrection to eternal life through the work of Christ on the cross; but there are countless millions around the world who still struggle with the questions that confront Job without any such hope. Fatalism and despair, or narcissistic self-interest at the expense of anyone else’s situation, are alternative responses to living in a world that seems to lack justice.
Our world urgently needs to hear a message of hope and as disciples of Jesus we have been given an imperative to make known the good news of God; and to live out our faith in ways that proclaim the hope that is in us.
God of life, fill me with hope and grant me a deeper understanding of your promises of life eternal. Make me sensitive to all those who struggle to make sense of what is happening in the world; and ready to engage with them no matter what kinds of answers they advocate. As I follow Jesus may my faltering acts of love and expressions of hope be transformed by your Spirit into a revelation of you and your loving purposes for all creation; for in you alone is the world’s true hope. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Susan Durber is the minister of Taunton URC.