There is both pain and pleasure in reading these chapters of Job. There is the pleasure of pure poetry. Job comes from an era when the written and spoken word aroused as much interest, excitement and delight as do movies, video games and theme parks today, in part, because there were none of the latter before this last century. Songs, dance, drama and the recitation of epics, genealogy, stories and poetry were the entertainment of the age. Assonance, imagery, alliteration, proverbs, metaphors, etc., were the “special effects” of ancient media, made all the more internal, powerful, personal and democratic through widespread memorization and recitation. So Elihu can say, “The ear tests words as the palate tastes food (34:2).” Non-literate people often have amazing powers of retention and memorization, because they cannot rely on books or computers to store the information they need at hand. Not having nor going to libraries, they are often walking libraries.
The more we catch on to the poetry of Job, the more it is a pleasure to read. My hunch is that this would be even more true in Hebrew. Translations would naturally miss out on the pleasing poetic effects of the sounds, rhythm, alliteration and assonance.
What makes reading Job painful is that while the words are beautiful and true ( except for the false accusations against Job), the context makes a mockery of them, at least those of Job’s so-called “comforters.” While Job’s “friends” wax eloquent in defense of God’s justice, the astute reader is asking, with increasing impatience and vexation, “So when are you going to do the work of God, by giving Job some of your livestock, your servants, even some children, nieces and nephews to keep him company and help him get back on his feet?” Or at least, “When are you going to get off his case and stop adding false accusations and ostracism to all his other sufferings?” Those would have been wise and righteous responses. And they still are.
For wisdom is more about responding than it is about explaining. The need to explain, which comes across as pathological among Job’s “comforters,” is related to a need to control. If I can explain the causes of suffering, perhaps I can control my exposure to risk and suffering, goes the logic. That may be true up to a point: there’s a lot of suffering we can avoid by being faithful to our spouses and not stealing, for example. But “God causes his sun to shine and his rain to fall on the just and the unjust,” said Jesus, and the same seems true for darkness, hail and the cold north wind, sometimes. There are some sufferings that no one can avoid, and even some sufferings that befall the righteous, such as persecution. At such times, explanations only go so far in helping the sufferer. Signs of love and support, and the sharing of loss and risk, go much farther. Knowing when and how to do so are the substance of true wisdom.
PSALM 43 bears some elements in common with the preceding 42nd psalm, such as the words, “Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” and “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God (v. 5).” In both psalm 42 and 43, we are seeing hints or traces of the ways in which these laments, though personal, may have been recited collectively, in some sort of litany. Verses 2b and 5 may have been the responses of the individual, the priests or the congregation. The cause of suffering seems to have been persecution, by “an unfaithful nation.” The prayer is for deliverance and vindication. Psalm 42 shows us how to pray in times of such persecution and oppression. Jesus would later add the command to pray for the persecutor and oppressor (Mt. 5:44).