11When the three friends of Job heard of all this misfortune that had come upon him, they came each one from his own place: Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite. They agreed to come together to console him and to comfort him. 12When they lifted up their eyes from afar but could not recognize him, they lifted up their voices and wept. They rent, each one his cloak, and sprinkled dust over their heads towards the heaven. 13They sat down with him on the ground, seven days and seven nights, but no one said a word to him, for they saw that the suffering was very great.
This month we’re in the Book of Job, and we’re giving Job’s friends a closer look, listening to their words, and giving them the benefit of the doubt as true friends and comforters. Since we’re also talking about friendship, I have a story to share:
As many of you know, my mother was in the Army, so when I was in the third grade, our family moved overseas to Belgium, where she was stationed. My parents enrolled me in the local Belgian school, which was a French-speaking school. I didn’t speak a word of French. It was a scary, lonely, isolated time for me, but for one bright spot: There was another American student from a military family enrolled in the school. Her name was Mari. For about two months, Mari translated for me, and I clung to her words (and her friendship) gratefully. And then one day, out on the playground, Mari came up to me and said, “You’re not learning French this way. Not only am I not going to translate for you anymore, I’m not even going to speak to you in English anymore either.”
I was devastated. I was angry. What kind of unsupportive friend says something like that? What kind of friend abandons you in a strange place among strange people? Well, as it turns out, a pretty good one. It didn’t take me long to learn fluent French after that, and when I did, I made plenty of friends—many of whom I’m still in touch with today. But at the time, Mari’s words were far from comforting, and I judged them pretty harshly.
As I noted last week, we tend to do the same with Job’s friends. This week we come to friend number two, Bildad. I’d like to start with two pictures:
- Eeyore and Tigger: An unlikely friendship!
- Job and Bildad: Drawing by Caitlin Foehse of an Illustration found in a 12th Century Greek Bible.
- Same picture, but with color added for emphasis. Note Bildad pointing out to Job the plants growing from the dung heap. Clearly, Bildad is an optimist!
1Then Bildad the Shuhite responded and said: 2How long will you speak these things, And will the utterances of your mouth be a mighty wind? 3Does God pervert justice, Or does Shaddai pervert what is right? 4If your children sinned against him, Then he has dispatched them because of their transgression. 5If you look to God, And make supplication to Shaddai, 6If you are pure and upright, Surely then he will watch over you, And restore your rightful habitation. 7Though your beginning be small, Your end will be very great.”
At first glance, Bildad’s reference to the death of Job’s children may seem harsh. It seems like he’s saying “Your children got what was coming to them.” But before we judge, let’s read more closely, and let’s remember that we don’t know Job nearly as well as Bildad does.
As a parent, I am responsible for my children. I’m responsible for their health, their well-being, their education, their happiness, pretty much every aspect of their lives. I take that responsibility seriously. And that sense of responsibility probably won’t go away when they become adults and move out on their own. The problem is, sometimes we can take that sense of responsibility too far. When unthinkable tragedy strikes, at the loss of a child, the first person that a parent will blame is himself or herself. I was responsible, and I failed. What could I have done differently? How could I have prevented this? Most often, the answer is, “you couldn’t have.” But the cycle of guilt and second-guessing sprials out of control, ultimately consuming the life of the parent as well as the child.
We are told in the very beginning of the story that Job is “blameless and upright.” But we don’t know whether or not his adult children followed in his footsteps. In fact, the text hints at just the opposite. We’re told that Job offered sacrifices every day on behalf of his children just in case they had “sinned and ‘blessed’ (cursed) God in their hearts.”
I think what Bildad is trying to communicate to Job in verse 4 of today’s passage is that, ultimately, we can only be held responsible for the consequences of our own actions, our own thoughts before God. No matter how hard you work, no matter how hard you try, you cannot “save” other people from their own choices, their own lifestyle. But you can be a positive example. You can, in the words of Bildad, “look to God, make supplication to Shaddai” and work to be “pure and upright” in your own life. So Bildad’s first move in his encouragement of his friend is to say, “Whatever happened to your children is between them and God. You loved them. You did everything you could possibly have done for them. You are not to blame.” His next move goes to the very heart of the wisdom tradition in the Bible, and forms the core of his approach, the heart of his comfort.
8Indeed, inquire of the previous generation; Make a determination about the search of their predecessors. 9For we are yesterday and ignorant; For our days on earth are but a shadow. 10Surely they will teach you, speak to you, And bring forth words from their heart.
Most of the Bible takes a top-down approach. God spoke to Adam and Eve, and said, “Do this. Don’t do this.” God spoke to Moses, then Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Here’s the law; obey it.” God spoke to Jesus; Jesus taught the people, saying, “Here are my teachings; obey them and teach them to others.”
Wisdom literature in the Bible, however, takes the opposite approach. It is a ground-up approach. Where does wisdom come from? It comes from the previous generation, from the collective teachings and traditions of our ancestors. It comes from nature and creation, and everything we observe all around us.
We are yesterday, and ignorant. There are two ways to understand this phrase (and I think both are right): We are yesterday, as in we come from the past, it shapes us and informs us. The other way of understanding this is that we are recent, we only have limited experience on our own. The saying “I wasn’t born yesterday” means I’ve been around longer than that, I’m not naive. Bildad is saying, actually, we ARE naive, we WERE born yesterday, and that’s why we need to seek out the wisdom of previous generations.
Grief and loss are very personal experiences—but they are experiences we share with countless people throughout history. This gets to the even larger point I think Bildad is making here, and it’s a point about community. The poet John Donne is famous for his observation that “No man is an island.” And yet, often in our grief, that’s what we try to be: Alone. Job faces his loss by going off to sit alone in his ashes, his dung heap. He does not go to his friends; his friends come to him. He rejects their words because he wants to be alone in his grief, but they persist. I think there’s a good lesson in that. In fact, Bildad points this out, using (since he is after all a wisdom teacher) an example from nature.
11Do reeds grow lofty where there is no marsh? Do rushes thrive without water? 12While yet in their shoot and not picked, They would wither—before any grass. 13So are the paths of all who forget God; Yea, lost is the hope of the miscreant 14Whose confidence is flimsy, Whose trust is a spider’s “house.” 15He relies on his “house,” but it will not stand; He grabs it, but it will not hold. 16As for a well-watered (plant), it is before the sun. Its shoot grows out beyond its garden. 17Over a heap its roots are entangled; It (even) looks within stones. 18If one should destroy it from its place But disclaims it—“I did not see you!”— 19Behold, that is the joy of his way; From the dirt others will sprout.
Last week marked the first official day of spring, so I hope all the gardeners out there can especially appreciate Bildad’s metaphor of two very different plants. The first is the un-watered plant: it quickly withers and dies, while the second plant—the well-watered plant—thrives and grows beyond its garden. The un-watered plant is those who forget about God, and the implication here is that you forget about God…when you travel on your own. In other words, when you are not part of the faith community, part of the wisdom that comes from tradition and generations. In our faith communities, we are watered and nourished so we can grow.
As a side note, for some reason, when people find out I’m a pastor, they often feel a need to tell me things like “Well, Pastor, I don’t go to church, but I worship God out there in creation all by myself…on the Golf course, or with a walk in the park.” That’s nice, and Bildad would certainly affirm that you can learn a thing or two from God’s creation, but what you are likely missing out on…is community. People who love each other and gather together on a regular basis to encourage each other, teach each other, and take care of each other when the need arises. This is precisely what Job’s friends are trying to do for him, and precisely why a walk in the park on Sunday morning doesn’t cut it—unless you bring all of us along with you (and someday we might just do that!).
One more thing to note in verse 18: No plant, not even the happy, well-watered plant, is safe from occasionally being stepped on. Tragedies will happen, whether you are in a community or on your own. True joy comes not from avoiding tragedy, but from the gardening itself, from the cycle of growth, and from the knowledge that other plants will eventually spring up, even from the trampled dirt.
20Behold, God does not despise the blameless, He does not take the hand of evil-doers. 21Yet will he fill your mouth with laughter, Your lips with a triumphal shout. 22Your enemies will be clothed with shame; The tent of the wicked will be no more.”
Bildad’s final move in this speech is to remind Job that it ain’t over ’till it’s over. You may have lost everything you care about; you may not have much will to live…but you’re still alive, and that means you still have a future. God can still use you. There is always hope that tomorrow will be better.
In Job’s own speech right before this one, he ends by saying that “Surely then I will lie in the dust; You will look for me, but I will be no more.” Hearing this, Bildad the optimist ends his speech to Job by saying, No, you will rise up again…rather it’s all your enemies, all the wicked who will be “no more.”
American Folk Singer Cat Stevens once put it this way, and I can almost hear Bildad nodding his approval: “I am confident that, in the end, common sense and justice will prevail. I’m an optimist, brought up on the belief that if you wait to the end of the story, you get to see the good people live happily ever after.”
*All scripture translations from C.L. Seow’s commentary on Job (Eerdman’s 2013).