“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.
Job is having an experience of grief and torment that he has never known before. He is in anguish and so he laments and wails. His friends accuse him of sin and unrighteousness which he denies. This only creates a greater accusation from his friends that Job is in the wrong. They cite their beliefs, many of which we can find in the book of Proverbs, that those who do good receive good and those who do bad receive bad.
Job says in 12:4 and 5, “I am a laughingstock to my friends; I, who called upon God and God answered me, a just and blameless man, am a laughingstock. In the thought of one who is at ease there is contempt for misfortune; it is ready for those whose feet slip.” And then Job continues saying that he is innocent and that he will insist on that to God’s face.
We feel comfortable when we can confidently blame the victim of what has befallen them. It helps us to believe God is simple and that life is simple.
But Job has other things to say about that. He has learned that life and God are far more complicated. He also believes that others need to know about this as well. He says,
“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 forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last God 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!
Job is in the midst of a difficult lesson … the one that only experience can teach. In an earlier reading of this story we learn that Job used to be someone others came to with their problems. He was revered as being wise and sought out for inspiration. He did give counsel well. And he also helped folks find their footing and find their can-do spirit. The trouble was that Job had apparently been protected all his life. God baited the Accuser to consider Job and his righteousness. The Accuser indicted God of setting a hedge of protection about Job. Of course he acts righteous, is the inference, but is he really righteous? Take down the protections and Job will curse you, God.
But Job does not curse God. Instead he questions. He rails. He curses his own life but he does not curse God. Mostly, he learns. What he learns he longs to tell others. He longs for his words to be written in a book. Although throughout his life he was one considered wise and sought after for advice and inspiration he understands that now he truly knows what only experience could have taught him.
Experience is a hard teacher though. Even if he wrote down everything that he went through, as this story supposes he did, who could truly understand what he is talking about except those who have also experienced incredible loss, grief, pain, and hopelessness. When Job says in chapter 19 that he wants to write this down and that part of his testimony is that he knows his Redeemer lives he is saying this from a particular experience. It is not trite. It is not religion. It is the experience of the Presence who is God. Those of us who may not have experienced the devastation of Job might read these words and think, “of course God is present with us.”
The truth is that one doesn’t know hunger until there is no food to eat. One doesn’t know thirst until there is no water to drink. One doesn’t know grief until death has taken a part of you. The book that Job would write is one that we might read and then look back on after calamity and say, “ah … now I understand.” It is also a book to read and say to oneself, “Now I know that I am not alone in the world.”
The story is meant to slow us down, to make us think deeply, and to feel deeply. When we identify with one of Job’s friends we might pray, “O God, help me listen more fully and care more completely.”
When we listen to Job we might pray, “Divine Presence, help me remember that you are with me always and in everything. That you grieve with me and experience my plight in ways I will never understand. It doesn’t make the situation okay, but it gives me strength and hope. It also gives me determination to make a difference for the better in this big beautiful world you have given us creatures.”
God bless us … if not with a hedge of protection then with an indwelling Holy Presence. May we never curse God but instead learn. And God help us to never forget our learnings so that when we abound we will always remember those who are constantly in the grip of pain, hopelessness, and grief. Let that remembrance turn into love so that we might be a holy presence in the lives of others.