Sermon for March 16th, 2014
Eliphaz: I Would Still Seek God
Today's scripture passage is a long one, so instead of reading it prior to the sermon, I'm going to intersperse the reading with the sermon throughout. The whole thing is printed in your bulletin, so I'd encourage you to follow along as we go.
When my wife, Amy, was in the fourth grade, right around this time of year her best friend came up to her at the lunch table at the cafeteria, and casually informed Amy that she was giving her up for Lent. She was serious. I suspect that she heard somewhere that you give things up during Lent, and that it has to be something significant, something meaningful to you. So she decided to give up her friendship with Amy. I have heard this story many times, and even though Amy tells it jokingly, there's also a slight touch of annoyance and resentment in her voice...still...after all those years. Friendship is a delicate thing, and misunderstandings between friends (not to mention misunderstandings about the purpose of Lent!) are not at all uncommon. I'm sure most of you have similar stories of your own.
For this week and the next two, we'll be talking about Job's friends, who come to comfort him after the loss of his children, his possessions, and his health. In most popular re-tellings of the story, the friends are not really friends at all--they're portrayed as shallow, judgmental hypocrites who come to gloat over Job in his misfortune and blame him for his suffering. I'm just curious...how many of you have heard that version of the story before?
So where does this negative view of Job's friends come from? For one thing, Job himself has some pretty harsh words for his friends in his back and forth dialogues with them. And Job is the hero of the story, right? The book is named after him, after all. The other place I think this comes from is the fact that at the very end of the book, God rebukes the three friends, saying to them, "My wrath is kindled against you...for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has." So it seems here like God is siding with Job against the friends, and because of that, we assume we probably should too. And in the process we turn them into caricatures: flat, two-dimensional stereotypes that are easy to dismiss or ignore without actually considering what they have to say.
In a few moments we're going to do just that. But first I want to briefly address the rebuke from God. It's three verses long in the bible, and at the end of those three verses, God forgives them. But they're not the first ones to get rebuked. God rebukes Job before he rebukes the friends, and his rebuke of Job is...four chapters long, and then God forgives him. Let me ask you this: When you were a child, if you got a four-hour-long lecture from your parents, and your siblings got a three-minute-long lecture, who got off worse? And if the punishment fits the crime, who offended worse? Just something to consider.
Alright. Let's delve into the story.
11When the three friends of Job heard of all this misfortune that had come upon him, they came each one from his own place: Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite. They agreed to come together to console him and to comfort him. 12When they lifted up their eyes from afar but could not recognize him, they lifted up their voices and wept. They rent, each one his cloak, and sprinkled dust over their heads towards heaven. 13They sat down with him on the ground, seven days and seven nights, but no one said a word to him, for they saw that the suffering was very great.
Let's stop here for a second. I am always struck by that last verse: "They sat down with him on the ground, seven days and seven nights, but no one said a word to him, for they say that the suffering was very great." How many of you have ever dropped everything you were doing to sit with a friend for seven days and nights straight...in silence? A few hours, certainly. Maybe even a day or two at most. But seven entire days, never leaving his side and never speaking a word, just listening? In our assessment of Job's friends, how often we skip over this powerful little verse. If we have not done at least this much, let us not be too quick to judge them.
1Then Eliphaz the Temanite responded and said: 2If one ventured to speak to you, will you be unable? But who is able to hold back words? 3Behold, you have admonished many, And you have strengthened weak hands. 4Your words have lifted those who stumble, And you have steadied feeble knees. 5But now it has come upon you, and you are unable; it has touched you and you are dismayed.
Eliphaz speaks first, probably indicating he is the eldest of the three. His name means "My God is Pure/Refined" and this is worth remembering. Throughout his argument, Eliphaz goes to great lengths to defend the purity of God.
So why, after seven days and nights, does Eliphaz finally break the silence? Well, it hasn't been a complete silence. Job's friends have not spoken a word, but Job has been busy with quite a few words. You can find those words in chapter three--I'm not going to read them, but I'll summarize by saying that after two whole chapters of saintly patience (in a book of 42 chapters) Job finally proved he was a human being, broke down, and entered into the second stage of grief. Which is anger. He curses the day he was born, and (indirectly) accuses God of being wrong to have made him. These are dangerous words. What are his friends to do with this? Does a true friend just listen and nod, or does a true friend speak up?
Let me tell you a story from my own days in Junior High School. As you might easily guess, even back then (especially back then), I was a nerd. Junior High School is not kind to nerds; in fact it can be downright cruel. And for awhile, I was pretty unhappy. I even when through a phase where I openly talked about ending my own life. I think it was mostly a desperate cry for attention more than anything else, but they were dangerous words. And one of my friends heard them. His name was C.J. King. Some of you may know his father, Bruce King. Years later, while we were in college, C.J. died in a tragic motorcycle accident, and when I heard the news, this story came rushing back to my memory. Because back in Junior High, when C.J. heard me speaking those dangerous words, the one thing he did not do was just listen in silence and nod. He spoke up, and he spoke out. Ultimately, his words got me into the school counselor's office, and while I was angry and annoyed with him at the time, I know he did the right thing, and although I never had the opportunity to tell him so, today I am grateful to him. For his friendship. For speaking up.
When Eliphaz speaks up, he reminds Job of all the help and counsel that Job himself gave to others when the tables were turned. Job did not hold back his speech for others, and following his example, Eliphaz does not hold back his speech to Job.
6Surely your fear is your confidence, Your hope the integrity of your ways. 7Think now, what innocent person perishes, And where have the upright been obliterated? 8As I have seen, those who cultivate trouble And sow misery will reap the same. 9At the breath of God they will perish; At the wind of his fury they will be finished. 10The roar of the 'aryeh-lion, the growl of the sahal-lion, Yea, the fangs of the kepir-lions will be removed. 11The layis-lion perishes for lack of a prey And the cubs of the labi-lion will be scattered.
That's a lot of lions. The book of Job is part of what's called "Wisdom Literature" in the bible, and wisdom teachings often appeal to nature as an example. Eliphaz, with his catalog of different lion species, is doing this. But his larger point here is that anger (roaring like a lion), while understandable, ultimately gains you nothing. Especially if that anger is directed at God.
Wisdom teachings in the Bible are drawn from nature, but also personal experience. Citing his own experience, Eliphaz says that "those who cultivate trouble and sow misery will reap the same" and that they will "perish at the breath of God." This is important. It would be easy to interpret those words as "Job, you brought all this on yourself." In fact, that may be exactly what Job heard. It's a common teaching that is found in the Bible. Throughout the book of Proverbs we read that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. But while this is a legitimate biblical teaching, I don't think it's what Eliphaz is getting at. I think Job misses his point, and often, so do we. We have to keep reading...
12Now a word was spirited to me,and my ear received a whiff of it. 13Amid the anxieties from visions of the night, when deep sleep falls upon people, 14Dread befell me, even trembling, Causing the mass of my bones to shudder. 15A wind passed me by, A storm-wind made my flesh prickle. 16One stood still, but I did not recognize its appearance, A form was before my eyes – a lull, then I heard a voice. 17“Can a human be in the right before God, Or can a mortal be pure before his maker?” 18If he puts no trust in his servants, And charges his intermediaries with contrariness, 19Surely, those who dwell in houses of clay, Whose foundation is from dirt, may be crushed before the maker.
Eliphaz has appealed to nature and his own experience, and now he appeals to divine revelation--the words of God, whispered directly to him in the night. It is these words that form the crux of his theology, and explain just who "cultivates trouble and sows misery." Is it the wicked? The righteous? Who? It's a poetic answer: those who dwell in houses of clay. Remember Adam, made from clay? And all of his descendants? Basically, everyone. Eliphaz is not saying that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. He's saying there's no such thing as good people, and that none of us deserve the good things that happen to us. IF we were to look at life's tragedies as cause and effect then all of us have done more than enough bad things in our lives to bring endless catastrophe as a result. God is pure, but we are not. Fortunately, in Eliphaz's view, life does not always work this way. We don't control, through our actions, the good or the bad that happens to us. "To Eliphaz, the issue is not whether or not one can escape suffering, for no one can, but how one should respond to it" (Seow, 415).
Job 5:6-9, 17-18, 27
5:6Surely trouble does not grow out of dirt, Nor does misery sprout from the ground. 7But rather, human beings generate misery, And the offspring of pestilence soar. 8But I, I would seek God, And present my word to God 9Who performs great things that are inscrutable, Wonders that are innumerable. 10Who gives rain on earth, sends water on the fields. 17Behold, how fortunate is the one whom God reproves! So do not reject the discipline of Shaddai. 18For he injures, but he binds, He smites, but his hands heal. 19Amid six adversities he will rescue you; Amid seven, no harm will touch you. 27Behold, this it is what we have searched out; This is what we have heard. But as for you, consider!
This is the conclusion to Eliphaz's first speech to Job. It is his best speech, as both a friend, and as a wisdom teacher. He speaks two more times later in the book, but by then the misunderstandings on all sides have escalated, and the conversation (again on all sides) has deteriorated into frustration and wounded feelings. This happens sometimes, even to the best of friends. Remember that all is forgiven in the end. But this speech, and especially its conclusion, is almost a textbook example of how to be a friend to someone in need. If you ever find yourself in this position, here are some things worth noting:
- First, remember there is a time to listen in silence, and a time to speak. Don't rush the silence, but don't neglect to say what must be said. People often regret hasty words, but they also regret words of love that went unspoken until it was too late.
- Second, Eliphaz does not tell Job what to do in response to his tragedy. He probably did not tell Job what to do in his prosperity, either. Instead, he shares his own approach to life. In my experience, yes, bad stuff happens. The King James renders this famous verse as "Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward." But I, I would seek God, and present my word to God. My word of praise, my word of faithfulness. This is what I would do. But as for you, consider. In other words, when advising a friend, leave your friend room to disagree or come to a different conclusion.
- Third, Contrary to popular opinion, Eliphaz does not offer any trite, simplistic answers, and neither should we. In fact, he doesn't really offer answers at all, just perspective. I would seek God. "Seeking" God implies that we don't always find God, we don't always understand God, or why things happen the way they do. God's ways are mysterious, inscrutable, but still we continue to seek. Eliphaz concludes his speech not by saying, "This is true," or "You know that I'm right" but rather by saying "This is what we have searched out; this is what we have heard." Humility in friendship goes a long way.
I'd like to give Eliphaz the last word in today's sermon, but in song. For the past five or six years, I've been writing a folk-musical based on the book of Job--you've already heard three of the songs, last year and also during my internship here several years ago. This song is the words of Eliphaz. It's called, of course, "I Would Still Seek God."
- All scripture passages are from C.L. Seow's Commentary on Job (Eerdman's, 2013)