Preaching From Job

M. Vernon Davis  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 14 - Fall 1971

While many people make commendable statements about Job and the book that recounts his story, relatively few know him very well. This, at least, is the basis on which almost every author justifies a new book about the enigmatic experiences of this Old Testament character.

The typical Christian may cite with admiration and awe Job’s idealized patience. He may also be able to quote, “I know that my redeemer lives” or “If a man die shall he live again?” Yet, his image of Job as a paragon of patience and a visionary of an eternal life that ultimately rectifies the unjust suffering of human existence is distorted.

Seldom is the total struggle of Job presented with clarity. Only infrequently are his questions and impatience afforded equal time with his affirmations. To know Job’s patience without his protest and his affirmations without his agonizing struggle for meaning is not to know Job at all. Job’s questioning of the value of faith and his search for the reality of God are the points at which contemporary man can most readily identify with him. His struggle affords the Christian preacher a rich source of material for sermons that speak to the basic issues of life.

One obvious reason for the neglect of Job in preaching is the difficulty in understanding the book. Other than the prose prologue and epilogue the book is written in the form of poetic speeches. The ancient Eastern imagery is difficult for the twentieth century western interpreter to grasp. The movement is in the realm of theological argument rather than dramatic action. Laymen need the assistance of solid exegesis and lucid illustration to find the maximum help in Job.

Another reason for the neglect of Job in preaching is the paucity of his answers to the problems he raises. Question marks overshadow exclamation points in his encounter with God. Nevertheless, the questions Job raises are basic to the meaning of life. They depend for final solution upon the revelation of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, for the insight which Job ultimately receives is valid but partial.

To preach effectively from Job requires time both in preparation and presentation. A series of sermons based upon the key questions raised in Job’s struggle may be a productive approach. The pastor will select the questions with which to deal from the many that present themselves in Job in light of the felt needs of his own community of faith. Such a series may be preached profitably in conjunction with a systematic study of the book.

The sermon series summarized below was developed to meet the concerns of one congregation. For over a year the relatively small church experienced the shock of a series of tragedies at the heart of its life. One of its young men was killed in Vietnam three weeks after going into combat. A family of five who were key leaders in the congregation died as their plane crashed on Thanksgiving. A nine year old girl died of encephalitis two days before Christmas. A student leader was killed in an auto accident. A faithful member took his own life. Several of the elderly charter members died.

In the throes of tragedy the church sought to discover the meaning of its faith. The series of experiences raised, the inevitable “Why?” and the struggle with the persistent problem of evil and suffering. It also raised more serious questions for many persons: What is the worth of faith? Are there any resources in religion to help us through this? Is there any meaning to life?

Preparation for the sermon series began with an intensive search for Job’s questions and the way he pursued them. Inevitably the affirmations were sought in the New Testament. The congregation was informed of the series and encouraged to live with the book of Job for several weeks. The people were asked to share their own questions and insights with the pastor as the series progressed. The series, as all preaching, was not to be the last word but a first word to guide the congregation in study and reflection and to open the way for honest dialogue. The series was begun in February and concluded on Easter Sunday.

 

THE WORTH OF FAITH IN TIMES LIKE THESE

The initial sermon in a series on Job can present the congregation an overview of the story and clues to the insight one can expect to find in the book. The first verse of the book provides a summary description of Job’s faith at the outset of the struggle. The question of the sermon is what is the value of this kind of faith in difficult times? Job “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” The test of Job’s faith came not in the days of prosperity but adversity. It made sense to say to an affluent Job, “You must be living right.” But how could you explain his trouble, if his religion were real?

The contemporary Christian can readily identify with Job’s experience. What good is religion when (1) the external symbols of success are stripped away? (2) When the memorized theological explanations fail to fit experience? (3) When friends let you down? (4) When suffering is out of proportion to any cause or any lessons learned from it? (5) When life itself seems meaningless?

The shift to the positive in the sermon can come rather quickly, for the problems need no elaborate illustration. The crucial question now becomes: Did Job’s religion help him in his experience, and if so, how? The answer may be seen as fourfold:

Job’s faith enabled him to see through false answers that were presented to him. Though Job did not have all the answers his faith made him sensitive to explanations that did not ring true in relation to this experience.

Job’s faith provided him with a freedom for honest dialogue with God. Note the contrast between Job’s openness with God and the attitude of his friends who seem to want to protect God.

Job’s faith served as a basis for growth into a deeper understanding of God. Job changes in his encounter with God. He grows in his grasp of the mystery and meaning of life. He moves from faith to deeper faith.

Job’s faith led to a profound relationship with God that overcame his bad experiences. The problems Job faced were not simply intellectual but existential. They could not be an­swered by rational explanation but only by more meaningful experiences. The answer Job found did not come in an explanation of his experience of emptiness and pain but in a new experience of fullness and joy in relationship to God.

 

THE MOTIVATION OF TRUE RELIGION

Many interpreters of Job see the question, “Will a man serve God for naught?” (1:9) as the key issue of the book. As Samuel Terrien concludes: “Here is the starting point of the discussion, the nerve of the drama, the basic verse in the whole book . . . Is not Job pious, as any other man, in exchange for his privileges?”[1]Samuel Terrien, “The Book of Job: Introduction and Exegesis,” The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: abingdon Press, 1954), Vol. 3, p. 913.

A sermon, “Will a Man Serve God for Nothing?” can focus on the motivation of religion. Does man serve God because he is God or because of what he can give man in the bargain? Does man worship God because of what he can get out of it or for what he can become by it?

The question brings the immediate observation that many do practice a form of religion for reasons other than “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Historically in America to be a member of the church is to have certain social benefits. For some there have been economic considerations. Others have seen affiliation as essential to respectability. Many pursue more psychological benefits such as peace of mind and the security of belonging.

Contemporary life is challenging this motivation for religion. Secularism has eroded the economic and social advantages of being a member of a church. The church has not effectively met the physical, social, and emotional needs of many. In its own way the last half of the twentieth century is shaking religion to its basic motivation: Will a man serve God because of God or because of what we can get from him?

Another observation is that the church stands judged because it has often appealed to the self-interest of men in its presentation of the gospel. Obvious prostitution of the gospel is evident in the appeals of the radio preacher who promises physical health, peace of mind, and material prosperity in re­ turn for “keeping me on the air.” He promises to cure everything from corns to cancer if “faith” is expressed by generous donation. The twentieth century has its own Tetzels who make religion a mechanical transaction by which a man gets what he wants from God.

The same basic appeal appears in more subtle ways and in more respectable places, however. The proclamation of a “cheap grace” rather than a “costly grace” is an example. Bonhoeffer’s classic Cost of Discipleship is painfully helpful at this point. There is a kind of evangelism that stresses salvation in the future with no real demand on life in the present.

The purpose of the emphasis is not to deny the blessings that follow in faith’s train. It is rather to sound the warning that men can love God’s blessings more than God. Men, like the prodigal son, can desire what the Father has without relationship to the Father.

The drama of Job, then, turns on the question: Is there a faith in God that is real-independent of our affluence or poverty and not threatened by our pleasure or pain? The risk of God, the test of Satan, and the response of Job all seek the answer.

The test serves to purge religion of its superficial or selfish motivation. It reveals the possibility of a faith whose value lies in the personal relationship it creates rather than other benefits that come from it. The test of Job pushes the preacher toward the New Testament, especially to the hard sayings of Jesus in Luke and his rejection of the adulation of the crowd after his feeding of the 5,000.

The affirmation is that some men will serve God for nothing as society counts nothing. Some men find that in relationship to God they discover the meaning of their lives to be deeper than the accidentals of pleasure or pain. They find inner strength and integrity which they would not trade for anything else. This is illustrated by Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning: “Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who has invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who has entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”[2]Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Washington Square Press, 1963), p. 213f.

 

HOW CAN A SUFFERING MAN REMAIN FAITHFUL?

Job 2:1-10 presents a dramatic setting for dealing with the way a suffering man can retain his trust in God. Every pastor has seen suffering threaten the faith of his people. For some the experience is devastating, while for others it is the occasion for maturity in their faith.

A sermon on how to work through suffering as a person of faith can be most relevant. Those who have suffered and have felt themselves a good distance from God in the experience will appreciate help but will be skeptical of easy answers. Many are able to say, “I don’t know what I would have done without prayer.” Others, however, would honestly confess, “In this crisis I did not find any help in my religion.” Thus, the sermon must identify the preacher with the sufferer in the pew and be­ gin with the admission that it is not easy to remain faithful in the experience of suffering. The story of Job documents this more than adequately. The preacher may wish to identify the feelings that suffering usually brings to anyone-shock, loneliness, anger, frustration, questioning, bitterness. Job experienced them all.

How does one find perspective in the grip of these feelings? Job had little help from others, yet he found a way. He reminded himself of the gains he had experienced as well as the losses. He attempted to place his suffering in perspective by remembering the gifts of life as well as the suffering. His affirmations in 1:21 and 2:10 reveal a man who knows the therapy of thanksgiving and receives life as God’s gift.

Another insight that comes from Job’s experience is the positive value of expressing one’s honest feelings. While Job did not “curse God and die,” as his wife counseled, he did express his questions and agony to God freely. As his suffering intensified and despair deepened, he is able to verbalize his emotions, and this is a step toward resolving his problem.

Perhaps another profitable insight into dealing with suffering as men of faith can come from something Job did not do. Job talks to God and his friends, and his friends talk to Job about God. The cycles of speeches go around the issue many times, but no one does anything. Talking about one’s problems without acting can intensify the feelings of self-pity. While it is understandable that Job would be preoccupied with his own problems, he may still have neglected the healing that comes from getting off the ash heap of self-pity and despair and moving toward another in caring.

A young lady in deep depression found nothing meaningful and despaired of life itself. The pastor searched for anything that would seem to arouse a glimmer of interest in life. He discovered it in her willingness to become involved in meeting some basic needs of children in the ghetto. After two weeks in a work project she wrote to the pastor: “I have learned to give myself to people who have it worse than I do. If I am good for them, perhaps I am not bad for myself.”

The drama also demonstrates Job’s conviction that if the answers were not found in God they could not be found anywhere. The problem of evil and suffering is the intellectual bane of every religion or philosophy. Easy intellectual solutions only reveal that all of life has not been considered seriously. It is no final answer to say “Turn to God because no one else can answer the questions.” Yet it is a first step. To turn from God in the attempt to find a more satisfactory intellectual ex­planation is to turn from the source of the experiential solution of the problem of suffering. Ultimately, the solution to Job’s problem of suffering was not given in an explanation of it but in a deeper experience with God because of it.

 

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE WHO NEEDS ENEMIES?

Job 2: 11-13 introduces the characters who play major roles in the remainder of the book. At the outset the friends of Job are seen sympathetically, but the longer they talk the morn they are revealed as antagonists. Job’s evaluation of their contribution is seen in 13:5, 12.

A case could be made for Job’s friends. It would include the fact they cared enough to come. Also, at least in the beginning, they were sensitive enough to be silent. There is a powerful witness in silent presence that is often negated by the bromide offered in defense of God. When they spoke, they were honest in their expression. Certainly they were not just saying what they felt would make Job feel better. Yet they did not help. They appeared as an oasis in the desert of man’s suffering, but their help turned out to be a mirage.

Why did the friends of Job fail and how can understanding their failure help others who would stand by in the presence of a suffering friend? Help f ails when it is unwilling to let experience expand theology. The God of Job’s friends was too small. They were determined to press Job’s experience into the mold of their accepted theology. Job, on the other hand, was determined to use his experience to expand his understanding of the ways of God with man. He was not to deny God, but he could not accept an image of God that was not compatible with what he had experienced. He would not twist his experience to fit his theology.

Help fails when it expresses the right words in the wrong spirit. The speeches of Job’s friends contain many true words. For example, in Zophar’s speech, 11:7-12, there is an eloquent statement of God’s transcendence. Yet, it is offered in harsh attack on Job’s attitude. One gets the feeling Job was more distressed by the judgmental attitude of his friends than by the theology they spoke. They simply revealed an insensitivity to him as a person. In their speeches they revealed they had not sat where he sat. Often one may come to accept a word as having truth in it at the end of an experience, even though this truth could not be heard in the initial stages of a life struggle. The answers of Job’s friends simply sounded too much as if they had looked them up in the back of the book and had not struggled with the problem. There is too much of a self-righteous tone in their speech for Job’s friends to provide comfort to a sufferer.

Help fails when it offers only fatalism instead of hope. Job needed no assistance to help him toward fatalism. He already felt that the course of life was out of his hands. His friends, exasperated with his protests say in effect, “This is God’s will. You can only accept it.” Why could they not have found the few sparks of hope that appear in Job’s speeches. Instead, to protect the sovereignty of God they crushed the spirit of a man.

 

IS LIFE WORTH LIVING?

Job 10:18-22 reflects Job’s repeated questioning of the meaning of life and his frequent desire for death (Cf. also 3:11-19; 6:8-13; 14:13) . “Why didst thou bring me forth from the womb?” (10:18) is a question everyone must face. William Barclay begins his study of The Mind of Jesus with the assertion that “there are two great beginnings in the life of every man who has left his mark upon history. There is the day he was born into the world, and there is the day when he discovers why he was born into the world.”[3]William Barclay, The Mind of Jesus (New York: Harper and Bros., 1961), p. 3. For Jesus there was a confident assurance of why he was born that enabled him to move redemptively through the most difficult circumstances and unjust persecution. For Job, however, there was no such inner confidence that could withstand what life brought him. He asks his questions at this point in his life not with any confidence of finding an answer but in despair over the absurdity of life. He sees no purpose in his life, and therefore voices his desire for death.

Contemporary man often finds it easy to identify with Job’s cry that life has no purpose. Psychiatrist Rollo May concluded from his work that in the middle of the twentieth century the chief problem of people is emptiness. Some men of today, like Job, conclude that life is absurd because of unjust suffering, or the inanity of war, or the inhumanity of man to man. Others, however, find emptiness at the pinnacle of success. Surrounded by all the symbols of the good life, they yet are haunted by the question “Why didst thou bring me forth from the womb?”

A preacher may deal with the serious problem of suicide, citing the more than 20,000 who take this ultimate form of escape from this question each year. He may cite the statistics that reveal suicide to be a problem of the affluent as well as the down trodden, the educated as well as the poorly trained and the young as well as the old. From the statistics of suicide it becomes obvious that the answer to the question of the meaning of life cannot lie in circumstances but within man himself. Rollo May reflects man’s need “to find a center of strength within ourselves, and as far as we can, to point the way toward achieving values and goals which can be depended upon in a day when very little is secure.”[4]Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself (New York: New America Library, 1967), p. viii.

How does one get from Job’s question of despair to May’s “center of strength within ourselves” and the “values and goals which can be depended upon”? Viktor Frankl, who developed logotherapy as a contemporary option in psychiatry says: “According to logotherapy we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) By doing a deed; (2) by experiencing a value; (3) and by suffering.”[5]Viktor Frankl, op. cit., p. 176.

The Christian preacher is pulled toward Jesus’ affirmation: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 RSV). Consider how Jesus implemented this purpose in light of Frankl’s findings. He called men to tasks in the service of others. He called men to experience himself as the personal embodiment of truth. He called men to identify with him in redemptive suffering. For the Christian preacher the answer to Job’s question is found in identifying with Jesus as he acted out a life of purpose in the face of difficult circumstances.

 

HOW CAN MAN REACH GOD?

Job 9 raises the basic religious question: “How can a man be just before God?” (v.2). At the conclusion of the chapter Job points toward the answer to the question he has raised: “There is no umpire between us, who might lay his hand upon us both” (v.33). Job 9 eloquently develops the argument that he is helpless to plead his case before God. He cannot stand up to God in terms of power, knowledge, or goodness. Job sees this as an impossible mismatch, and there is no way man can relate meaningfully to God. The only hope would be that a third party might become involved.

Job’s plea is for an umpire. In two other places this plea takes the shape of a faith in Another who might plead his cause. In Job 16:19 he affirms: “Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven, and he that vouches for me is on high.” In Job 19:25 perhaps the strongest affirmation of faith in the book is found: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth.”

The preacher can lift up the fact that the mediator plays an essential role in contemporary life. Whether it be in international crises, in labor-management disputes, in marital conflicts, or in many other areas, the “umpire between us” is often necessary to bring reconciliation. Even in popular song we look for a “bridge over troubled water.” What is true in human relationships is true in man’s dealings with God. He needs an advocate or arbiter-someone who understands both sides and can bring the two together.

Rewarding insight can come from the study of Job’s use of “redeemer” in 19:25. The Hebrew word “goel” is often translated “kinsman redeemer” and in the heritage of the Hebrew this was the person who had a role to play for someone else who could not accomplish something for himself. He looked after the estate and family of his brother or some close relative who died. The most dramatic illustration of someone fulfilling this role in the biblical record is found in the story of Ruth. When Ruth’s husband died; Boaz being next of kin cared for Ruth and took her as his wife.

The term grew in meaning and began to be applied to anyone who went to the aid of another who was oppressed or weak. In time it became a concept of the nature of God’s own function for man.

What Job pleaded for in desperation and affirmed in hope, the Christian preacher declares as glorious fact. God has provided the Redeemer to speak in words we can understand and act in a place we can identify. The umpire, or witness, or redeemer Job needed has a name—Jesus Christ. The New Testament word in response to Job’s search is found in Jesus’ statement: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). Paul affirmed the same truth, which forms the heart of the Christian gospel: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5).

 

WHAT LIES BEYOND DEATH?

Job 14 contains Job’s conclusion to the first cycle of speeches with his friends. In the chapter the basic question concerning the meaning of life in light of death is raised. Job affirms the mortality of man and briefly entertains the thought of eternal life. His answer here to the question, “If a man die, shall he live again?” is obviously in the negative. He longs for a life beyond that would rectify the injustice and answer the absurdity of life. Yet, he is certain only of death.

Job reflects on the process by which the created order is renewed. He sees a kind of continuity in nature and perpetuation in plant life that he cannot see in man’s experience (14:7-10). Through beautiful and memorable figures Job asserts the frailty of human life and the inevitability of death. Yet, he dares to hope. Why?

Job’s experience convinced him that life is meaningless if death is the end (14:1-13). Why create if death destroys? Why live in righteousness if death knows no morality? Why order life if it is inevitably cut away? A student attempting to escape from the ennui that held her reflected a mood that pervades many young people today: “Everyone I know has a doomsday feeling about everything. Why plan? Apathy is so real here.” When one believes that death gets everything in the future, he comes to feel the cold breath of death even on the present.

Job’s brief hope revealed the possibilities of the present if the future life were real (14: 14-17). The passage reflects the freedom of life lived in hope. Job dares to entertain a belief in eternal life, feeling that it would be an incentive to his work, a basis for enduring suffering, and an evidence of the forgiveness of sin.

With suddenness Job retreats to the theme of despair (14:18-22), but must man leave the matter there? Is there a basis for hope? The Christian preacher will want to mine the Old Testament for glimpses of hope. He will find them in David’s affirmation after the death of his child, in Daniel 12:3, Isaiah 25:8, and in varied Psalms. He will find much confidence in God’s fulfillment of his ultimate purpose for Israel and some hope for personal life beyond death. Yet, the evidence is not enough to satisfy, and the Christian preacher looks forward to the New Testament.

The real answer to Job’s question lies in the resurrection of Christ. He said: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25, 26). The basis of the Christian hope lies in the reality of Christ’s resurrection. Job raised the question of life after death because of the absurdity of existence without it. The Christian believes in life after death because he is convinced Christ has demonstrated it.

Preaching from Job can bring the preacher strangely paradoxical feelings. He can feel a sense of accomplishment because he has sought to deal with some of the basic issues of life in light of the biblical revelation. He can also feel, however, a sense of frustration over an unfinished task, for the questions raised in Job are persistent and they defy the simplistic answer. He will perhaps feel the need to preach from the book again and again, yet he may feel a reticence to do so. His people, however, can profit immensely if they sense in his approach to Job an honest desire to identify with their struggle and a confident witness to the greater light found in Christ.

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