Text For The Month / Monatsspruch
Texts for the months of October and November 2011
Can a mortal be more righteous than God? Can a man be more pure than his Maker? Job 4.17
For all who believe in God, the answer to these two questions can only be an emphatic “no”, and their conduct in life towards God and their fellow men should reflect this realisation. And that could be the end of the interpretation of this text.
But if I bring these questions back into the context in which they were originally asked, namely the Old Testament book of Job, then there is much, too much to explain. The little word “no” seems to come to the fore; so a few examples on these lines:
No – we do not know who wrote the story of Job and when it was written. It is one of the most celebrated writings of the whole Bible and today one of the least known. The Christian Mystic Sören Kierkegaard and the Poet Rudolf Alexander Schröder, amongst others, wrote thought-provoking essays on the theme.
No – people of our time do no longer read whole books of the Bible and the praise of this particular literary masterpiece is lost on them: “Magnificent and sublime as no other book of Scripture” (Luther); “Single and unparalleled in the sacred volume” (Lowth); “The greatest poem of ancient and modern time” (Tennyson).
No – the book of Job is not a historic account, but based on ancient, international folk tales, a legend of wisdom, in which the hero is a wise man. His piety has the approval of God. Job is innocent of all possible crime; he is a truly good man. His godliness is nevertheless tested to extreme limits. And after he has lost everything and finds himself mortally ill and estranged from God, he can still say in worship: “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away, may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1.21).
No – Job does not follow his wife’s advice: “Curse God and die”. A curse would provoke the wrath of God and result in Job’s death. He holds on to his faith, but this does not diminish his anguish and rebellion: “Let the Almighty answer me!” (Job 31.35).
No – when Job is visited by his friends, they do not bring him any comfort. “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows” (Shakespeare). They fail, bound in their religious understanding, to give real pastoral care. It is at this point that the questions of our text are introduced. The friends have no concept of God’s grace, that his mercy is no reward for good deeds, that righteousness is a gift from the Almighty, that can never be earned.
No – Job does not need to be told that a man cannot be purer than his Maker. The claim of his friend, that this insight came to him in the night as a vision, a heavenly revelation, is entirely unnecessary. Job himself acknowledges that man cannot be just before God (Job 9.2). Before God, mortal man is silenced at once.
No – Job’s friends are not right in their insistence that Job must have sinned to be so severely punished. And he does not need the reminder, nor do we, of the frailty of men’s nature, our mortality, that we “dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust”, “are crushed like a moth”, and when “they perish for ever”, no one really cares (Job 4.19f). “One knows well from experience that men deceive themselves and run to ruin when they imagine… that they will always remain on this earth” (Calvin). Job knows that something is being held against him – his misfortune makes that self-evident, but he has no way of knowing what it is. The relentless probing of his friends more than irritate him in his present state. But is it not a habit of people at all times, that for any misfortune in the life of others we suspect or are even convinced, that it is the result of a wrong-doing, that an affliction is a just reward, deserved for a fault? It is an attitude, which prevents us or excuses us from giving help, in matters small and large.
No – the legend of Job, preserved for us, for our instruction from ancient oral tradition, does not give us a rational answer to the problem of suffering, which confronts us daily. “Only the thoughtless could wish that Job were not with him… to remind him of what he tries to forget, that there is horror and fear in this world… Only the selfish could wish that Job were not with him, so that the conception of his suffering… does not interrupt his fragile happiness…” (Kierkegaard).
No – the whole Bible does not give us the answer we seek. “The author of the book of Job holds us at the edge of the understandable… For a Christian, all attempts to bring the incomprehensible in line with what man can understand, is absurd and not frightening realisation. He has faith in God’s free grace. Anyone who is stuck in the question ‘why’, is not willing to accept God as his Maker” (Rudolf Alexander Schröder). “That I praise him in sorrow, that is God’s wish” (Jochen Klepper in his diary).
No – God does not abandon Job to his fate. He grants him the divine audience, that Job had repeatedly asked for (Ch 38-41). Job recognises the might of God and confesses: “I have uttered what I did not understand… things too wonderful for me, which I did not know”; and he repents (Ch 42).
The might of God
“Look at the behemoth, which I made along with you…” – the hippopotamus (left).
“Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook…” – a crocodile-like sea monster (right). The poet describes these creatures of the Lord in a playful and humorous way.
Job, chapters 40/41
The Lord is good, a stronghold in the days of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him. Nahum 1.7
The book of Nahum (around 600 BC) is a long poem. The prophet begins with a description of God, who creates and sustains the world. Interpreters find this better portrait repeatedly in the Psalms, like Psalm 46, so well known through Luther’s great hymn “A mighty fortress is our God”. We are also referred back to the book of Job, especially chapters 38-41. The whole book is a poetic commentary applicable to the text of this month. Job does not let go of God in his days of trouble and learns that the Lord is good.
Archive / Archiv
Feb - Mar 2017