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Sermon by John Stahl
When we hear the words in Handel’s Messiah “I know that my Redeemer liveth…” we may feel a great sense of confidence in being resurrected into eternal life. The words are so familiar that we may have forgotten that they come from the Book of Job with its agonizing cry to God who seems to have unjustly dealt extreme punishment to a righteous man. In their context in chapter 19 of Job the words may speak of a tiny spark of hope in a situation that is without hope. We feel confidence because we believe in the resurrection of Christ but Job was staring into a blank wall of suffering, loss, despair and rejection. Even the text which we read so confidently in our common English translations does not do justice to the difficulty of the Hebrew, its unclear meaning and the fact that there is a great deal of uncertainty about the actual words in part of the text.1 Commentators can argue whether Job is seeking revenge or vindication by a way of a designated blood avenger since he seems to have abandoned any notion of justice2 or the righting of his wrong by way of redemption3or simple understanding.
Job is no simple book to understand, however, most commentators recognize it as great literature.4 It deals with the deep mystery of how there can be such evil in the world and yet God be considered a God of justice. The attempt to explain this mystery is called theodicy. Many books have been written on the topic and no doubt there will be many more since no one seems to have found a final solution. This sermon will not give you the solution, but perhaps we can hear the cry of Job’s heart and our own when we feel that we are suffering unjustly.
I cannot accept a theology of revenge, so I will look at Job’s cry as a desire for redemption. A perceptive commentator sees Job as the scapegoat for his society. His agony is like that of Jesus who went in a few short days from being lauded as the Christ the son of David to being abandoned by friends and suffering the taunts of the crowds that cried “Crucify him, crucify him!”5 Job lost his wealth, his health, his children, his status in society and his place in his home. He sat on the ashes of the city dump and scraped his sore itching body with broken potsherds. Where! Where! could he turn for help?
(In Job 19:1-12 there is a list of things from which Job cries for redemption.)
V 1-3 Job Wants Redemption from Tormenting Insults
We sometimes deride Job’s friends as miserable comforters, but they at least came and sat beside him on the dump in silence for seven days. I don’t know if I have that kind of friends. Do you? When the friends finally talked they thought they might be able to help Job by finding the cause of his misery. They believed in the justice of God but their belief was too superficial. They thought the cause of the problem had to be in Job since it could not be in God. They were like those who too quickly condemn a person and suggest confession for salvation without identifying with the person before trying to fix the person’s problem. They thought that confession would be an easy fix for Job. Their well meaning speeches for correction became bitter taunts to Job. He cried out for redemption. “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?” Some time or other in life we get blamed for something that we have not done. Accusers can appear to be smugly self-righteous as they seek to help us confess our sins. If this has happened to you, you may understand and identify with Job’s cry for redemption from undeserved reproach.
V 4-5 Job Wants Redemption from Undeserved Humiliation A scapegoat has the failings of others laid upon it. A human scapegoat is humiliated for something that is not rightfully his to bear. Job’s humiliation was used as an argument against him. I have heard of a church leader who got into financial difficulty, through no fault of his own, who was then stripped of his church office. It’s like being tripped and than being teased for being so clumsy. Job cried for redemption from his humiliation.
V 6-7 Job Wants Redemption from God Who Seems Unjust
Job’s friends had the simple and logical view that evil should be punished and goodness rewarded. In this view God is little more than the great candy dispenser in the sky, who will use a stick instead of give candy when we are out of line. I think that this is popular religion in America today. Job likely shared his friends view at first – don’t we all want an even handed God? Job’s experience shattered this stereotype of God. He cries out “… 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 here is no justice.” Have you ever cried for redemption when God seems unjust? Job cried to be redeemed from the very hand of God. If you know the Book of Job, you know that Satin put God up to testing Job. Job did not know this. I think there is something more truthful about Job’s recognition that God had ultimate responsibility than the too easy brushing off difficulty as demonic. Satin is our accuser, but we belittle God when we do not also claim with Martin Luther “One little word shall fell him.” Job cried out for a Redeemer that would give that one little word when God did not.
V 8-10 Job Wants Redemption from Uprooted Hope
Job cry to be redeemed from God’s apparent unjust action was not his only plea against God. He says: “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.” Job was accustomed to leadership. He led others to the right way. The power of his prayers was fabulous. Now he was stripped from the symbols of status and had become the scapegoat. He could no longer find his own way, let alone have anyone seek him out for advice. He was broken worse than a tree that has been cut down, but may sprout again. His hope was uprooted. It could not spring up again. He needs to be redeemed from hopelessness.
V 11-12 Job Wants Redemption from the Siege on His Integrity
He sees God as setting His troops in siege around himself. Picture large siegeworks built to lofty heights as against an imposing wall of fortifications. Then you may grasp Job’s biting irony when all he can think that God has his mighty army encamped around is his one little tent. Through most of the book, Job is protesting and protecting the one thing that he has left, his integrity. Few of us have lost everything but our integrity. It is the tent for his spirit. No wonder that he is crying for its redemption.
(In Job 19:13-22 Job reviews a list of possible redeemers but there are none.)
V 13-14 Job Searches among Family and Friends
A blood avenger is usually next of kin who is appointed by a person’s tribe to take vengeance for the wrong or injury done to one of its members.6 This may be part of what is happening in Iraq between Shiite and Sunni factions with no end to the avenging. A redeemer like Boaz, the near kinsman to Ruth and Naomi, restores one’s heritage or possessions. Job’s first place to look is the logical group of extended family and friends. Job finds his family and friends estranged – relatives and friends have failed him. What could he have expected? He is their scapegoat. They need to keep their distance so as not to get marked for sacrifice. Why do you think that the disciples left Jesus when he was taken in the garden at night? Job could not expect a redeemer from this group.
V 15-16 Job Searches among Guests and Servants
Next Job looks among house guests and servants. Perhaps a guest like Nicodemus would take his side because he is not so easily identified with Job. Nicodemus was safe because he came to Jesus by night but Job didn’t have such a redeemer. Nor would a servant assume this role for they no longer paid attention to Job.
V 17-19 Job Searches among His Closest Loved Ones
Job may have wished to spare his closest loved ones, but now he turns to them. Surely his wife would help. He finds that he is repulsive to his wife. Is it his bad breath? Possibly, because that is one meaning of the Hebrew word rūhī. But rūhī also means spirit.7 She was likely tired of his complaining. She even told him to curse God and die. She is no redeemer for Job. Ironically Job thinks of the little ones in the family. His own children might have been dead but wouldn’t some child accept him. To his chagrin he finds that children despise him and talk against him. His search for a redeemer seems to be utter failure. All his intimate friends abhor him.
V20-22 Job Searches within His Own Flesh
All others have failed no wonder he begins to think about his own body. Surely his own flesh has been his comfort and support in times past. To his horror he realizes that he is but, as we put it, “skin and bones.” He realizes that he has barely escaped death. Then we have in most English translations what has become a well known idiom “I have escaped by the skin of my teeth.” He finally cries “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?” Job finds no redeemer.
(In Job 19:23-29 Job makes three requests of a redeemer even though he hasn’t found one.)
V 23-24 His Redeemer should Write a Just Eternal Record
What would you want in the final extremity of life? What would you want when all expected redeemers of your life had failed you? Job wanted a permanent just record. He wanted his words to be an eternal record like that engraved on a rock monument. If that was not secure enough he may be asking for lead to be filled into the engraved letters like King Darius’s had done on the Behistun memorial.8 Most of us long for significance to our lives. We want them to count for something. Presidents in their final days in office are said to be concerned about their legacy. Why else have presidential libraries become such mammoth depositories? I expect that we Christians have a strong need for the sense that our own “good” records are kept safe in God’s eternal book. I do not begrudge Job’s cry “O that my words were written down! … O that . . . they were engraved on a rock forever!” Job wanted his need for justice to be known even if he never experienced justice. Of course, Job needed more than that.
V 25-26 His Redeemer should Stand Visibly with Him on Earth
This is the most difficult passage to be translated. This is where Christians find the most to be at stake in how the interpreter handles the text. We like Handel’s rendition and it represents a long standing Christian tradition. “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at last he will stand upon the earth…” We immediately see the resurrected Christ and are ready to think that Job is shouting “hallelujah!” We feel this is confirmed and made secure to us by the common translation of the next words as “… and after my skin has thus been destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God…” This is also the resurrection that we believe in – our own physical resurrection. We easily make Job into a good Christian. We forget the words of Peter that prophets and angels were mystified by prophetic words related to Christ. “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours made careful search and inquiry … when it [the Spirit] testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ and the subsequent glory . . . – things into which angels long to look!” (1Pet 1:10-12) It is safe to say that Job spoke more than he understood. I think that he spoke his real desire to have a redeemer who would identify with him, stand beside him and that he could see with his own eyes. This is certainly the kind of Redeemer that I want. How about you?
V 27-29 His Redeemer should Make His Persecutors Fear Judgment
Job also had a desire that his redeemer would make his persecutors desist or be punished. Some interpret this as well deserved punishment.9 Others see it as a warning to his friends.10 He does want them to be afraid of punishment by the sword and to know that there is a judgment. Consistent with the fact that he later prayed for their forgiveness I only see these statements as a warning for their salvation and desire for them to stop tormenting him. It is to be understood that when we are trapped by the scapegoating of others that we desire redemption that will end the problem for ourselves. It is like Christ to pray for the forgiveness of our persecutors.
The Book of Job and Job’s words in chapter 19 do not encourage us to accept surrender to an intractable problem. We may too often accept that these situations are the stuff of which life is made. “But the Book of Job does not say ‘You have to grin and bear it.’ It says that in the end, God will act in the situation. The solution may not be what we expect. It may come, as for Job, out of the whirlwind. But it is wrong to give up hope of an answer.”11 God can take our anger and suffers with our anguish. God is there whatever our life situation. We should not accept becoming the scapegoat. God is our Father. We may be sure that God does not want us to be suicide bombers but may think God delights in our becoming martyrs. Some Christians have even desired martyrdom. But Job had the courageous faith to protest wrong to himself. God accepted his courage to stand against his friends’ false justification of God in their condemnation of Job for his problems. They had to come to Job for forgiveness.
We will never solve all of life’s mysteries of injustice but we can and should hope and fight against them. We should do this both for ourselves and for others. In the end Job redeemed his friends by praying for their forgiveness and he in turn was redeemed. Yet God never answered his questions about apparent injustice.
This side of eternity, if not beyond, we have work to do for justice. As Christians we know Christ as our Redeemer but we are not excused from the battle for ultimate justice in which he is still engaged. Like Job we can fight to redeem our suffering and the suffering of others.
Girard, René. Job: The Victim of His People. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.
Good, Edwin M. In Turns of Tempest: A Reading of Job. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.
Gordis, Robert. Job: The Book of Job. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1978.
Grabbe, Lester L. Comparative Philology and the Text of Job: A Study in Methodology. Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press University of Montana, 1977.
Habel, Norman C. The Book ofJob. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1985.
Janzen, J. Gerald. Job, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985.
Job, John. Where Is My Father. London: Epworth Press, 1977.
Kidner, Derek. An Introduction to Wisdom Literature: The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes. Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1985.
Murphy, Roland E. The Book of Job: A Short Reading. New York: Paulist Press, 1999.
Wharton, James A.Job. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.
Wolfers, David. Deep Things out of Darkness: The Book of Job. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.
J. Gerald Janzen, Job,John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1985, pp. 135-150.
Edwin M. Good, In Turns of Tempest: A Reading of Job, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1990, pp. 257-259.
Norman C. Habel, The Book ofJob,The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1985, p. 304-305.
Roland E. Murphy, The Book of Job: A Short Reading, Paulist Press, New York, 1999, pp. 103-108.
René Girard, Job: The Victim of His People,. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1987, pp. 4-9.
James A.Wharton, Job, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 1999, pp. 89-90.
Norman C. Habel, The Book ofJob,The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1985, p. 291.
Habel, p. 292.
Robert Gordis, Job: The Book of Job , The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, 1978, pp. 207-208.
Good, p. 260.
John Job, Where Is My Father, Epworth Press, London, 1977, P. 122.