Sermon for March 13th, 2022

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Job 18:1-21

Today's scripture reading is Job 18:1-21. It's a long one, so I'm going to incorporate it into the sermon itself. You can follow along in your pew Bibles on page 466. As we prepare to hear God's word and message, let us pray...

Other Voices in Job: Bildad

Most Sundays I stand up in front of you and talk about God's love, God's mercy and forgiveness, how we are all created in God's image, and therefore precious in his sight. We like to be reminded of that, and we like to believe it. It's good theology. But any truly good theology must also be able to answer the question: Well..what about Jeffrey Epstein? What about Derek Chauvin and Vladimir Putin? What about Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler, and (insert your favorite evil villain here). Today we're going to talk about evil, about God's justice, and about the fate of the wicked.

Before you jump to any conclusions, we are not going to talk about hell or eternal damnation in the afterlife, because surprisingly, those concepts did not exist in the Old Testament world where our story takes place. But the idea of divine justice did exist, and it shows up powerfully in the Book of Job, in a conversation between Job (the main character) and his friend Bildad the Shuhite, which is our text today. By the time we join that conversation, it has been going on for about sixteen chapters. Job has lost everything, and three of his closest friends have arrived to comfort him. Only there's not much comfort in Bildad's speech to his friend, which is probably why most of you have never heard of Bildad, and why most biblical scholars through the ages have viewed him as a "bad friend."

I disagree with that characterization, mostly because I have friends who sometimes tell me things I don't want to hear, but need to hear. Things that are not at all comforting, but entirely true. I usually don't take it so well, either. Most of us don't. And Job is no exception. In fact, he's been throwing himself a pity party for the previous two chapters, when Bildad harshly interrupts him at the beginning of chapter 18, verse 1:

1 Then Bildad the Shuhite answered: 
2 How long will you hunt for words? Consider, and then we shall speak.
3 Why are we counted as cattle? Why are we stupid in your sight?
4 You who tear yourself in your anger—shall the earth be forsaken because of you, or the rock be removed out of its 


Now before you rush to judgment, please note that Job's friends (including Bildad) sat with him for three days and nights without saying a word. And in Bildad's first speech to Job he has plenty of comfort and encouragement for his friend. But right after that speech, Job went on a passionate tear about how God destroys both the innocent and the wicked alike--there is no difference between the two, so why even bother? It is this point that Bildad (after waiting patiently for another eight chapters) is responding to. Verse 5:

5 “Surely the light of the wicked is put out, and the flame of their fire does not shine.
6 The light is dark in their tent, and the lamp above them is put out.
7 Their strong steps are shortened, and their own schemes throw them down.
8 For they are thrust into a net by their own feet, and they walk into a pitfall.
9 A trap seizes them by the heel; a snare lays hold of them.
10 A rope is hid for them in the ground, a trap for them in the path.

There are some important things I want to point out here:

  1. Nowhere in this speech (or anywhere else) does Bildad ever implicate that Job himself is wicked. He acknowledges what we all know--that wicked people do exist--and implicates that their path is quite different than the path of the righteous. This idea of two paths is a recurring motif throughout the Bible. Proverbs uses it, and so does Jesus.
  2. Job has said that God destroys the innocent and the wicked alike, but notice who is doing all the destructive things on the path of the wicked: "their own schemes throw them down . . . they are thrust into a net by their own feet . . . they walk into a pitfall." In other words, God loves you, God forgives you, but sometimes you are your own worst enemy.
  3. The consequences we bring upon ourselves for bad behavior are described as "traps." Traps, by nature, come suddenly, as a surprise. You may have created the trap for yourself, but you can't see it because you are distracted by all the wrong things you are pursuing down that path. You can get out of a trap, but if you don't change your behavior, there will be another one waiting for you, and another, and another. Pretty soon, getting in and out of traps becomes a pattern, and that's where things begin to take a turn for the worse. Verse 11:
11 Terrors frighten them on every side, and chase them at their heels.
12 Their strength is consumed by hunger, and calamity is ready for their stumbling.

Those little harmless behaviors that once gave you a competitive advantage--things like deception, callousness, greed, selfishness--quickly turn into terrors. What used to propel you down the path now chases you and consumes you. When you reach this point, what's at stake? First, your health, then your life. Verse 13:

13 By disease their skin is consumed, the firstborn of Death consumes their limbs.
14 They are torn from the tent in which they trusted, and are brought to the king of terrors.

I don't think Bildad is saying that anyone with a disease (poetically referred to as the "firstborn of Death") must be guilty of wickedness. But I do think he's saying that a lifetime of wrongdoing takes a physical toll on the body. Fear, paranoia, always "covering your tracks" and "looking over your shoulder" have a way of manifesting themselves in stress, poor health, and mental instability.

The "tent" in which we trusted is a metaphor for our safe havens, all that we have built up for ourselves in this life, and all that we jeopardize with poor choices and bad behaviors. The "King of terrors" is probably a poetic way of saying death itself--a reminder that everyone, good or bad, will ultimately die. As a pastor, I have sat with many people in the last moments of life. Some look back on a life filled with love and kindness, and are not afraid. Some look back with regret and remorse, and are often anxious about God's mercy. Still others, a few I have known, are so isolated by their choices and behaviors that no words from a pastor provide comfort, nor does any success or notoriety they achieved in life. They usually face the inevitability of death with anger or terror. Choose your path carefully, because someday it will come to an end. And when that happens... Verse 15:

15 In their tents nothing remains; sulfur is scattered upon their habitations.
16 Their roots dry up beneath, and their branches wither above.
17 Their memory perishes from the earth, and they have no name in the street.
18 They are thrust from light into darkness, and driven out of the world.
19 They have no offspring or descendant among their people, and no survivor where they used to live.

Notice that even here, in the end, there is no mention of an afterlife, of eternal reward or punishment. The punishment for the wicked is simply this: All you worked for, all you gathered to yourself, all that you enjoyed at the expense of others, your name, your reputation, will all come to nothing. The people who were deferential to you in life will not continue that deference when you are gone. Your survivors, your children, and your community will not honor you or remember you long if your relationship was built on fear, power, or position. The secrets you take with you to the grave have a way of coming out into the light when you are no longer around to hide them. Verse 20:

20 They of the west are appalled at their fate, and horror seizes those of the east. (in other words, everyone!)
21 Surely such are the dwellings of the ungodly, such is the place of those who do not know God.

Like I said at the beginning of the sermon--most Sundays, I stand up here and remind you about God's love and forgiveness. Most Sundays. And we'll get back to that soon enough. But sometimes we need to be reminded that God's justice is real, that there are consequences for our choices, and that small choices lead to larger ones. Sometimes, like Job, we need a good friend to paint a dire picture and remind us that "there, but for the grace of God, go I." This why we instinctively like to watch scary movies, or read tragic stories, or (sometimes) even just the daily news. We see that evil is out there, but we also know that it's in here. We need God's grace and forgiveness, but we also need God's guidance, and the wisdom of all those who have walked this path (either one) before us.