Then Job answered: ‘How long will you torment me, and break me in pieces with words? These ten times you have cast reproach upon me; are you not ashamed to wrong me? And even if it is true that I have erred, my error remains with me. If indeed you magnify yourselves against me, and make my humiliation an argument against me, know then that God has put me in the wrong, and closed his net around me. Even when I cry out, “Violence!” I am not answered; I call aloud, but there is no justice. He has walled up my way so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths. He has stripped my glory from me, and taken the crown from my head. He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone, he has uprooted my hope like a tree. He has kindled his wrath against me, and counts me as his adversary. His troops come on together; they have thrown up siege-works against me, and encamp around my tent.
‘He has put my family far from me, and my acquaintances are wholly estranged from me. My relatives and my close friends have failed me; the guests in my house have forgotten me; my serving-girls count me as a stranger; I have become an alien in their eyes. I call to my servant, but he gives me no answer; I must myself plead with him. My breath is repulsive to my wife; I am loathsome to my own family. Even young children despise me; when I rise, they talk against me. All my intimate friends abhor me, and those whom I loved have turned against me. My bones cling to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth. Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me! Why do you, like God, pursue me, never satisfied with my flesh?
‘O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock for ever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me! If you say, “How we will persecute him!” and, “The root of the matter is found in him”; be afraid of the sword, for wrath brings the punishment of the sword, so that you may know there is a judgement.’
In this speech by Job two very well-known sayings appear; both of which are difficult to understand in their context. We all know what ‘escaped by the skin of my teeth’ (v.20) means, even though we are well aware that teeth do not have any skin! Job has been describing how isolated he has become, how everyone recoils from his presence; and so this can hardly be an expression of relief that his life has been preserved. More probably it implies just how close to death he feels himself to be.
Thanks to Handel’s oratorio Messiah the words of v.25 are widely associated with the resurrection of Christ and many suggest that vv.25-27 are the earliest expression in the Hebrew Bible of the hope of an afterlife. This seems highly improbable in light of the frequency with which this book has already rejected the possibility of any return from the realm of the dead.
The Hebrew text of this section is notoriously difficult to translate, as indicated by the copious footnotes offered in many Bibles. The Revised English Bible offers an alternative reading: ‘But I know that my vindicator lives and that he will rise last to speak in court; I shall discern my witness standing at my side and see my defending counsel, even God himself, whom I shall see with my own eyes, I myself and no other’. This wording accords with Job’s desire to have his day in court, to present his defense, in the firm belief that he would then be exonerated of all charges. Even so it is quite remarkable that Job can imagine God speaking on his behalf since Job consistently claims that God is his accuser. Added to this Job regards God as the only one with the authority to pass judgment despite the fact that he also argues that God is behaving unjustly. So we end up with the bizarre picture of God performing every possible role in this imagined courtroom.
Bizarre? Yes. However when we reach the end of Lent we will encounter God as the accused put to death on the Cross, as the vindicator who passes judgment on the ‘principalities and powers’ of this world, and as the risen Christ. Faith in God cannot always be expressed in simple, straightforward language!
Holy God, words fail me when I try to explain who you are and how you behave in the world. Forgive me when I tie myself in knots in the foolish belief that I can encapsulate the wonder of you in nice neat doctrines. Continue to surprise me as you reveal ever more facets of your amazing love; and grant that my life, rather than my inadequate words, may be a true reflection of your glory. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.