Dec 19, 2018
The Wisdom of Lamentation
“Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11).1 Indeed we have, many of us, heard of the endurance of Job,2 otherwise called his “patience,” “perseverance,” or “steadfastness,” and we tend to think, along with the Apostle James, that the path to true happiness must somehow mean being able to endure trials with integrity.
Job’s trials are grave: although Job is an influential and righteous man, God allows a satan—an adversary, accuser, skeptic among the heavenly court—to afflict him, first with the destruction of his wealth and children and then with the misery of disease. In response, Job’s wife urges him to curse God; three friends try to convince him to stop complaining and admit he is worthless (or somehow deserves his suffering); and then a fourth, younger man pops up in frustration to lecture everyone about God’s greatness. But Job resists them all, expressing himself with intensity and eloquence, demanding to be heard, until, in the end, God speaks from the whirlwind and gives him back twice what he had lost.
When we suffer—when, for all our innocence and dedication, the goods of family, health, and prosperity are taken from us and even our friends criticize us—we also wonder, “What did I do wrong? Why does God hate me? Or are we, to the gods, ‘like flies to wanton boys,’ that ‘they kill us for their sport’?” We demand an explanation, and our instinct, if healthy, is not to settle for the lesser counsels, mere ideas and words, even if they come from sources we trust. We want a real experience of it all somehow making sense; the soul reaches out for a coherence in which the spirit can rest, and the mind for a justification in which we and the world make sense and are happy. And so, when we suffer, we are not silent: even if we do not speak or cry out in our confusion, our hearts and minds whirl with barrages of anguished thoughts. We are forced to reconsider the purpose of our lives, and maybe, whether there is one at all.
What do we tell ourselves to resolve our worries? That all is up to fortune or chance? That we will be rewarded later for what we suffer now? That what does not kill us only makes us stronger? That God afflicts us to help us grow and teach us obedience? That we need to accept our limits and recalibrate our happiness? That death is preferable, since it means rest from this wearied and beleaguered life? Or that, after all, life was good while it lasted, so why complain when it ends?
These are not utterly foolish notions; they arise from the long human experience of those true troubles that cannot be solved by reading Trollope in a warm bath or Wodehouse in an armchair.3 We have texts in our faith traditions that are meant to help us understand and respond to real trials, and among these, the Book of Job has an important place. This book guides its readers to consider these greatest predicaments and, dismantling typical platitudes, invites us to find resolution in an experience of God. Many scriptures do the same, but the Book of Job makes a more universal appeal than many: the figure of Job stands apart from particular historical narratives, and, though in the Hebrew scriptures, does not stand within the covenantal confines of Israel.4 Plus, it takes little imagination to enter into this challenging and enchanting book, for it addresses common human concerns so directly:
Do not human beings have a hard service on earth,
and are not their days like the days of a laborer?
Like a slave who longs for the shadow,
and like laborers who look for their wages,
so I am allotted months of emptiness,
and nights of misery are apportioned to me. (7:1–3)
Those who, in their suffering, turn to or are guided toward the Book of Job, often seem to find this lesson: God is so terribly great that my human suffering does not impeach His greatness, is bearable in this larger spiritual context, and can lead me to a fuller trust in His greatness. (Or at least the pastor’s manual might suggest that.) This lesson is founded upon the apparent wisdom affirmed early in the book. After the first trial, the loss of his wealth and children, Job reacts in this way:
Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing. (1:20–22)
After the second trial, the affliction of his own body and the challenge from his wife, Job again responds with a kind of wisdom:
Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (2:9–10)
This stoicism on the part of Job receives the direct approval of the scriptural author: Job did not sin in what he said. He does not speak of a return of his goods or of some reward for his reasonable willingness to take the bad; he does not appeal to some higher plan. His is a patient recognition of a human being’s essential emptiness or nakedness, of his status as a temporary receptacle for God’s gifts, a frame to be clothed or stripped. He lays no claim on God, and so does not curse or complain. Whatever comes, good or evil, is from God and should be received in willing acknowledgment of the giver. This wisdom is not a matter of moderation, of learning to accept a little less good than we might have wanted, a little more bad. This is total: an abandonment of the sense that one has any necessary claim to good. Perhaps implied is trust that God knows what He is giving, and so all will work out for the best. The deeper good, we learn, is holy indifference;5 the deeper evil the foolishness of lamenting.
This recognition might be heroic—a bold leap of the conscience past appearances and the opinions of one’s colleagues to land on the solid rock of faith. But this quick answer is also a dead end in some sense. The mind has no further step to take, and Job seems to abide in an unsatisfying, silent resignation. Or does he? The trouble with the “endurance of Job” is that when his friends come in chapter 2, he completely opens up on them, in chapter after chapter of lament and argument. How is this steadfast patience? “He’s not taking it well.” Apparently, endurance is not about keeping quiet and acting like everything is somehow okay.6
Yet the ending of the Book of Job does confirm this silent posture: Job responds to God’s theophany with “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further” (40:4–5). This is matched by the heavy therefores of 42:1–6, with which Job recognizes that he was speaking of what he did not understand and therefore despises himself and “repent[s] in dust and ashes.” Although resignation is the opening step and silence the point of arrival in the Book of Job, we cannot assess this resignation and silence rightly unless we face the vast middle of the book, the rounds of discourse that fill chapters 3 through 37.
When we suffer, we are not silent: even if we do not speak or cry out in our confusion, our hearts and minds whirl with barrages of anguished thoughts.
The author of the Book of Job does not present a rational, step-by-step argument about theodicy7 here but instead offers three swirling rounds of discourse, framed by Job. After Job’s initial lamentation and questioning (chapter 3), the three friends speak in turn, each followed by a response from Job—thus Eliphaz/Job, Bildad/Job, Zophar/Job.
La Solitude du Christ, Alphonse Osbert, 1897
There are two rounds of such exchanges, and it looks as if a third might follow, except that only two of the friends speak in the third, making way for Job’s closing monologue (chapters 29 through 31)8 and the arrival of a young man, Elihu, who gives his own four discourses with no responses from the others (chapters 32 through 37). This is not a Socratic dialogue: the interlocutors do not always respond to one another’s specific notions and words, and the style is acutely poetic. For this is not a contest between two sides of an argument but an interplay between a set of ideas and a desire that goes beyond them. On the one side is the wisdom tradition, which Bildad speaks of as the marsh in which papyrus should grow, the water in which reeds should flourish (8:11)—namely, the obligatory belief that the just will be rewarded by God and the wicked abandoned, contrary appearances notwithstanding. Although the Book of Job does lead us through an intellectual engagement with this tradition, Job’s side of these rounds of discourse raises a deeper issue: the very need and desire to think and speak further than this tradition allows. Does Job have the right to speak, to be discontent, to be unsatisfied by the friends’ wisdom? The inner pressure to speak is not eliminated by an imposed wisdom, and the need to address that speech even to God Himself urges Job not merely toward deeper thoughts but toward direct experience. Thus, the Book of Job compels its readers to see that the wisdom of faith is less a stable resolution in thought than a longing to see and know that is connected to our longing to speak.9
So the beginning is a tense and painful silence. When his friends came to him, “They did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (2:12–13). The greatness of his suffering has not only withered Job but also reduced him and his friends to silence. Their inarticulate weeping resolves into the silence of grief; of the recognition that borders on shock; of not having even one word with which to begin communing with each other, one word to express or explain the problem. If we will move from suffering to wisdom, what first step must we take? Job reveals that the step is not to attempt an answer but to articulate a question. Lamentation is this original question, and so Job begins: “Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul? … Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in?” (3:20, 23). Life should be beautiful and good, and the light of life should bring joy and clarity, but all Job has is the bitter awareness of pain and misery.
His friends’ main concern in the discourses that follow is to get Job to stop talking like this. They are trying to silence him by reasoning and force of words. More important than any particular answer or explanation is their failure, in the end, to shut him up or make him confess some wickedness. As we read the beautiful text, we are drawn ever more deeply into Job’s desire to speak, and to speak with God, while at the same time, we are confronted by the friends’ attempts to drive Job—and us—back into silence. Consider Zophar’s first chance to strike at Job:
Should a multitude of words go unanswered,
and should one full of talk be vindicated?
Should your babble put others to silence,
and when you mock, shall no one shame you? (11:2–3)
Zophar’s goal is to outspeak Job, to shame him into silence; and if Zophar cannot do it, he goes on to hope that God Himself will (11:5–6).
Bildad’s first speech opens in a similar way—“How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a great wind?” (8:2)—yet Bildad founds his critique of Job on the authority of a tradition of “bygone generations” he proudly channels (8:8–10). Job’s desire to speak so much in his own defense is a refusal to submit to a tradition that has, for Bildad, already explained the issue (8:20: “See, God will not reject a blameless person, nor take the hand of evildoers”), and thus, to Bildad, Job is a papyrus with no marsh, a reed with no water, one who trusts in gossamer and leans on a spider’s house. Job’s thoughts and words, unlike Bildad’s, have no sure foundation in received tradition.
Eliphaz, too, reprimands Job for presuming to speak his own original wisdom and then identifies himself with the authoritative wisdom of tradition (here in his second discourse):
Are you the firstborn of the human race?
Were you brought forth before the hills?
Have you listened in the council of God?
And do you limit wisdom to yourself ?
What do you know that we do not know?
What do you understand that is not clear to us?
The grey-haired and the aged are on our side,
those older than your father. …
I will show you; listen to me;
what I have seen I will declare—
what sages have told,
and their ancestors have not hidden. (15:7–10, 17–18)
So all three of Job’s friends contest his right to lament and to demand an explanation from God, motivated perhaps by the natural anger involved in debate yet principally inspired by their underlying concept of God. To the friends, God is so great that, at first, man is ultimately irrelevant and therefore has no right to address God. Early on, Eliphaz manifests this view gloriously in the second part of his first discourse, where he recounts a dream:
Now a word came stealing to me,
my ear received the whisper of it.
Amid thoughts from visions of the night,
when deep sleep falls on mortals,
dread came upon me, and trembling,
which made all my bones shake.
A spirit glided past my face;
the hair of my flesh bristled.
It stood still,
but I could not discern its appearance.
A form was before my eyes;
there was silence, then I heard a voice:
“Can mortals be righteous before God?
Can human beings be pure before their Maker?
Even in his servants he puts no trust,
and his angels he charges with error;
how much more those who live in houses of clay,
whose foundation is in the dust,
who are crushed like a moth. …”
Call now; is there anyone who will answer you?
To which of the holy ones will you turn? (4:12–19, 5:1)