Lessons from Job: Miserable Comforters

October 6, 2009

Job’s Friends: Eliphaz, Bildad, & Zophar

Naked Came I...            PLR '99

Naked Came I... PLR '99

“Tell me plainly, and I shall listen in silence; show me where I have been at fault. How harsh are the words of the upright! But what do your arguments prove?” The Book of Job 6:24-25

I personally think Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, get a bad rep. People talk of them as if they were the worst friends anybody could have, and they do get pretty brutal with Job, especially considering the horrible condition he was in, but I believe they were genuine friends. They just couldn’t understand or comprehend the situation. We need to look at the beginning of the matter to see this. First of all, these guys were probably business partners of Job from nearby provinces, and not just his neighbors down the street. They had to travel considerable distances to get to Job, and they were willing to do it. Even today, with the conveniences of planes, trains, and automobiles, people only travel to see a sick loved one if they are really important to them. When they finally got to Job, he was so deformed by a skin disease that they didn’t recognize him at first. During that time, sick people who had little hope of surviving were quarantined outside the town, especially for skin diseases; Job was probably living in the city dump so he could scavenge for food. When they found him, Job’s friends tore their clothes, threw dirt on their heads and wept out loud for him. That was how their culture expressed mourning for the dead; these guys were seriously upset for their friend. The next thing they did for Job also shows their genuine love for their friend. They sat in silence with him for seven days. The worst thing a friend can do when you are going through a tragedy is to try to justify it to you, or explain it away, or tell you to cheer up and try to make the best of it; when you are deep in the pit, you don’t want to hear any of that. These guys knew Job was in bad shape, and they knew there was nothing they could do for him except just be there. It was Job who broke the silence, and unfortunately, his friends’ replies to him were less then helpful and just continued to spiral downward and become more and more negative and vicious throughout their debate. What was the issue they were so concerned about? God’s justice. They just couldn’t believe that God would allow something like that to happen to Job unless Job did something terrible to deserve it. They were confident they knew the truth.

Job breaks the silence with an almost perversely beautiful poem about how difficult life is and how death is preferable to living. He wishes he was never born and he just wants to die so he can have relief from his pain; ironically, the one thing God will not allow Satan to do is kill him. Job ends his complaint with a statement that life is unfair, which is completely understandable in his circumstances. However, considering most of Job’s life was amazingly blessed, is it fair that he should imply it was not worth living? Rather than hearing the pain that Job is experiencing right now, Eliphaz jumps on Job’s “life is unfair” statements and is the first to speak up. One after another, Job’s friends increasingly accuse him of wrongdoing, blasphemy and foolish living as they hand out word blows. When Job continues to maintain his innocence of any sin deserving that level of punishment, they refuse to accept it. They all come to the same conclusion: Job sinned; therefore, God is punishing him. If Job would only repent, God would relent. Poor Job has already repented for everything he can think of, and nothing he‘s done is really that bad, so his logical conclusion: life is unfair; bad things do happen to good people and vise versa.

Each of Job’s friends represent a common stronghold of the mind among self-righteous and closed minded people even today. Eliphaz bases all his wisdom on experience. He tells Job: “Fools are destroyed by their own angry passion…I have seen it for myself: fools uprooted, their homes in sudden ruin…” Job 5:2-3. Eliphaz is the type of guy who only trusts what he has seen or what he knows. Unless you can prove it, he won’t believe it. It is good to find out for yourself the truth of things, but the reality is there are simply things in life that can’t be explained by personal experience. One person can’t possibility have a full understanding of all the possible experiences there are in the world. Additionally, there are things in this world that are beyond anyone’s understanding, things we can’t explain with science or philosophy. Eliphaz is unwilling to open his mind to the possibility that Job might be innocent of sin, even when Job pleads with him to trust in his past actions and proven character: “I beg you, turn and look at me: am I likely to lie to your faces? Think again,…for my integrity is in question. Do I ever give voice to injustice?” Job 6:28-29. But Job cannot convince his friend to trust him.

Next, Job’s buddy Bildad decides to speak up. Bildad’s problem is tradition. He states: “Enquire now of older generations and consider the experience of their forefathers…” Job 8:8, but he goes on to say absolutely nothing new, even though he says it very poetically: “Job, just admit you’re a sinner and repent, and God will chill out!” Bildad’s wisdom is better than Eliphaz. At least he’s open to learning from other’s trusted experiences from the past, but the problem with putting too much stake on tradition is that you can only see the world through the colored glasses that were handed down to you. You become unable, or unwilling, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and consider things from their perspective. If a new revelation that is truth comes along, you will miss it. Job responds to Bildad with: “Though I were to wash myself with soap and cleanse my hands with lye, you would thrust me into the miry pit and my clothes would render me loathsome.” Job 9:30-31. Job is saying to his friends that even if he could somehow prove his innocence, they would still slander him, and make him look wrong, just to prove themselves right.

Finally, Zophar says his piece, and he is the most harsh of them all, holding back no punches from the beginning. Job, speaking in his own defense, has stated that if God would speak, he would defend him and prove his innocence. This is too much for Zophar, who bases his wisdom solely on the law. He rebukes Job for speaking “irreverently,” in other words, putting words in God’s mouth that God would never say, and he concludes his rebuke with: “A fool will attain to understanding when a wild ass’s foal is born a human being!” Job 11:12. But then he spends the rest of his speech telling Job what God would really say. A bit hypocritical right? This how all legalistic people become. God has laid down a law that he expects us to follow, but the law is given for our good, and not to be a burden. As soon as God’s law is used to harm others, it becomes null and void through the distortion of a hardened heart.* Jesus later states that the law can be summed up in loving God with all your being and loving your neighbor as yourself, Matthew 22:37-40. In other words, love is the true law; without love, it is no longer God’s law. Religious people that have become legalistic lose the Spirit of Grace written in the law. Unable to live up to their own standards, they begin to justify their own behaviors and at the same time become increasingly judgmental towards all others. Job responds to Zophar with his own bit of sarcasm: “No doubt you are intelligent people, and when you die, wisdom will perish! But I have sense, as well as you; in no way do I fall short of you; what gifts indeed have you that others have not?” Job knows all about their experience, tradition and law. He knows their theology as much as any child or even any animal knows it. He is experiencing something different, something outside the scope of his society‘s knowledge of theology.

It’s hard to understand how Job’s friends could be so cruel and so stubborn with a man who lost everything to random disasters and became as sick as Job was (If you want to get grossed out, read some of Job’s often vivid descriptions of his symptoms!), but you have to consider what they were really afraid of. Job, we have established, was known to be the most righteous man on the Earth. That makes Job more righteous than all of them. These guys were stuck in a works mentality, they thought they had to earn God’s love and favor, and therefore, if you did something wrong, God would be angry at you and strike you with lighting and turn you into a spot of grease. To put it simply, all good fortune is the result of doing good, and all bad fortune is the result of doing evil, and therefore, punishment from God. The problem they had was that if Job really was as innocent as he claimed, what hope could they possibly have? Would they be next? Surely, all you have to do is say enough Hail Marys, or pray towards Mecca three times a day. Just follow the rules and you’ll be okay right? God couldn’t be that unpredictable, could he? Job’s experience broke the box they had neatly put their god into and crumbled the foundation of everything they based their hope for security on. If bad things can happen to good people, why be good? If God shows mercy towards those who are evil, why look for justice? It was simply too frightening and too confounding for them to accept the truth of Job’s innocence.

Two more cycles of speeches result from this original debate in which Job and his friends continually become more volatile and insulting with each other. They are like kids arguing in a school yard: You’re a sinner — No, I’m not — Yes, you are — No, I’m not — Yes, you are — No, I’m not;  and so on and so forth. It seems that a crowd has gathered to hear the debate because a young man, Elihu, steps up and states that he’s tired of their bickering and he can prove Job wrong, but he too is unsuccessful. Finally, God himself steps in. We will consider God’s full response at a later time, but it is sufficient here to note that Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were all wrong. God rebukes them for their misunderstanding of his character, for adamantly speaking wrongly about him, and for they way they treated Job. He even threatens to treat them the way they claimed he was acting against Job: “You’re going to slander my best man without proof? You’re going to kick a good man when he’s down? You better apologize to your buddy, Job, and ask him to forgive you and pray for you, or I just might dish out some of that punishment you say I’m so famous for!” God leaves their fate in Job’s hands; Job can forgive them and pray for them, or he can let God’s justice and judgment fall down on their sin. 


*NOTE: That is not to say that there are no painful consequences in God’s law. In fact, suffering the consequences of disobedience to his law is one way that God keeps us on track and seeking to live righteously, but we humans, in my opinion, do not have the right to usurp God’s authority and punish individuals for their sins except in the case of keeping order and relative peace in society, which God has ordained us to do. For instance, governments need to arrest criminals, and a parent can and should discipline their child for stealing or being disrespectful. However, if my neighbor decides to be a man-whore, I can only warn him about God’s judgment on promiscuity, and urge him to repent and accept God’s love and grace; ridiculing him in public or waiting late at night with a group of man-whore haters to jump him is out of our scope of authority. We cannot force or manipulate anyone to follow God, we are only called to be witnesses of the truth. Situations like the Crusades, the Inquisition, and any type of Jihad, are completely evil and outside of God’s law.  
  • All scripture references are from The Oxford Study Bible: Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha.

Peter L Richardson


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