The story of righteous Job is an amazingly insightful account of repentance offered by a man who, ostensibly, had no need of repentance. He starts off in the story as a man righteous before God and richly blessed, but almost as soon as we are introduced to him in the first two chapters, his world collapses. The instigator of his misery is Satan, the devil. The devil is an old cynic of course. He believes in sin too much because that is all he knows and he thinks therefore that all humans are tarred with the same brush. So, he comes before God and hatches his little plot to undermine Job’s faith. This is from the first chapter of Job verses 6 to 12.
Now on a certain day, when the sons of God came to stand before the Lord, Satan also was present among them. And the Lord said to him: Where are you coming from? And he answered and said: I have gone round about the earth, and walked through it. And the Lord said to him: Have you considered my servant, Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a simple and upright man, and fearing God, and avoiding evil? And Satan answering, said: Does Job fear God in vain? Have you not made a fence for him, and his house, and all his substance round about, blessed the works of his hands, and his possession has increased on the earth? But stretch forth your hand a little, and touch all that he has, and see if he bless you not to your face. Then the Lord said to Satan: Behold, all that he has is in your hand: only put not forth your hand upon his person. And Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:6-12)
Now, it may surprise you … well at least I hope it does … that Satan is allowed into the Presence of God, that is heaven, to make his case. We are so used to seeing the devil as being incarcerated in hell that his appearance in heaven is rather shocking. However, Job is part of that great strand of Tradition called Wisdom or Sophiology in the Greek.
In Sophiology, revelation consists either in a long chain of wise sayings (such as we find in the book of Proverbs) or in an imaginative narrative such as here in Job. In the latter case the theology lies not in the literal aspect of the story’s detail but in the overarching theme and conclusion, for which the story is an engaging and inspiring vehicle. Of course, sophiological narratives are often, albeit loosely, based on historical events and real persons, but that is hardly the point. It’s the theology we are supposed to get into here! Back to the story then …
Job’s first misfortune and trauma is to lose his children, his livelihood and his wealth. Satan thinks that this will cause him to curse God and lose his faith, but he grossly underestimates Job’s piety and depth of commitment to God and His will - which not even disasters such as these can shake. This is Job’s response to the bad news brought to him by a messenger who himself narrowly escaped the family disaster, as recorded in verses 20 to 22 of Ch. 1:-
Then Job rose up, and rent his garments, and having shaven his head, fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, and said: Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away: as it has pleased the Lord, so is it done: blessed be the name of the Lord. In all these things Job sinned not by his lips, nor spoke he any foolish thing against God.
But Satan has finished with him yet. He goes back before the Lord and demands more in the following words …
Skin for skin; and all that a man has, he will give for his life: But put forth your hand, and touch his bone and his flesh, and then you shall see that he will bless you to your face. And the Lord said to Satan: Behold, he is in your hand, but yet save his life. So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and struck Job with a very grievous ulcer, from the sole of the foot even to the top of his head: And he took a potsherd and scraped the corrupt matter, sitting on a dunghill. (Job 2:4-8)
Even Job’s wife then calls upon her husband to curse God and die; but of course, he does not; although in his great grief and agony both physical and spiritual, he does curse the day that he was born.
The greater portion of the remainder of the book is taken up with what have been called “Job’s comforters,” his three friends, themselves kings, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. What these three men share is a facile and shallow response to the challenge of Job’s suffering couched in terms of rewards and punishments from God. In common with most men of that time (and indeed this) they suppose that Job is suffering justifiably on account of some grievous personal sin. God is just and would not allow such great suffering without some culpability on Job’s part. Yet for all this Job protests his innocence of such alleged great crimes and instead seeks wisdom to understand his pain and loss. After these three leave Job he is joined by Elihu, who, although a younger and more impassioned man, has his own ideas about Job’s state. Elihu is more moderate and nuanced yet nonetheless challenges Job to repent of impugning God’s sovereignty and love. The dialogue between the Lord and Job immediately follows and in many ways Elihu’s speech is a curtain raiser for that.
The beautiful and powerful aspect of the closing section of the book of Job is that it insists on repentance being fathered by a deep sense of the mysteries of God and life. It measures man according to his correct scale in the scheme of things and does not seek to resolve life’s problems in terms of rewards and punishments or a shallow theology of “do this and you will be alright; do the other and watch out!” Moreover God is unique as Creator and Sovereign over all. His ways and thoughts are not like ours and we cannot call Him to account in terms of our own sense of fairness and justice. This extract is typical:-
And the Lord answering Job out of the whirlwind, said: Gird up your loins like a man: I will ask you, and you tell me. Will you make void my judgment: and condemn me, that you may be justified? And have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like him? Clothe yourself with beauty, and set yourself up on high, and be glorious, and put on goodly garments. Scatter the proud in your indignation, and behold every arrogant man, and humble him. Look on all that are proud, and confound them, and crush the wicked in their place, hide them in the dust together, and plunge their faces into the pit. Then I will confess that your right hand is able to save you. (Job 40: 6-14)
Job realises that his faith has to go deeper than questions of innocence and guilt, rewards and punishments. The mystery of suffering has taught him a deeper conversion to God that, through a more profound humility, revolutionises his life. Indeed, he ends up a more blessed man than at the start of the story. This then is true repentance, a change of heart and mind whereby Job acquires a direct and personal knowledge of - and relationship with - God. In Job’s own words:-
I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.
In our own lives we experience suffering and loss just like Job, although usually not as extremely as he. We can learn from Job what it means to repent in such circumstances. It is certainly not to tie ourselves up in knots about our own sinfulness or to wonder why and how we experience such things and whether or not we deserve them. Nor will it do us any good to speculate whether or not we ourselves are the authors of our misfortunes or perhaps Satan or even God. Repentance is not about writing out a blame sheet and then sitting in judgement on the outcome. There is but one Judge and Lord of all and it is the purpose of our repentance by His grace to get ourselves closer to Him … or to paraphrase the conclusion of the Book of Job – to man up and get personal with God. Until that happens the weeping of repentance can merely show it to be merely the ruinous tears of self-pity. The tears that save on the other hand are the tears of joy in discovering anew the true and living God who desires that “all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4). This then is true wisdom; the wisdom of repentance.