1 Do not human beings have a hard service on earth,
and are not their days like the days of a laborer?
2 Like a slave who longs for the shadow,
and like laborers who look for their wages,
3 so I am allotted months of emptiness,
and nights of misery are apportioned to me.
4 When I lie down I say, ‘When shall I rise?’
But the night is long,
and I am full of tossing until dawn.
5 My flesh is clothed with worms and dirt;
my skin hardens, then breaks out again.
6 My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle,
and come to their end without hope.
7 “Remember that my life is a breath;
my eye will never again see good.
8 The eye that beholds me will see me no more;
while your eyes are upon me, I shall be gone.
9 As the cloud fades and vanishes,
so those who go down to Sheol do not come up;
10 they return no more to their houses,
nor do their places know them any more.
11 “Therefore I will not restrain my mouth;
I will speak in the anguish of my spirit;
I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.
12 Am I the Sea, or the Dragon,
that you set a guard over me?
13 When I say, ‘My bed will comfort me,
my couch will ease my complaint,’
14 then you scare me with dreams
and terrify me with visions,
15 so that I would choose strangling
and death rather than this body.
16 I loathe my life; I would not live forever.
Let me alone, for my days are a breath.
17 What are human beings, that you make so much of them,
that you set your mind on them,
18 visit them every morning,
test them every moment?
19 Will you not look away from me for a while,
let me alone until I swallow my spittle?
20 If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity?
Why have you made me your target?
Why have I become a burden to you?
21 Why do you not pardon my transgression
and take away my iniquity?
For now I shall lie in the earth;
you will seek me, but I shall not be.”
One day the Frog Prince was praying to the great frog in the sky, asking that his one wish be granted–that a princess might find him, fall in love with him, and give him a magical kiss that would turn him back into a prince again. In the middle of the frog prince’s prayer, a voice from the heavens interrupted him and and great frog in the sky said, “I have good news and bad news for you.” After the initial shock wore off, the frog prince asked nervously, “What’s the good news?”
The great frog in the sky said, “Tomorrow you will meet a beautiful young girl who will want to know everything about you.” Momentarily forgetting about the bad news, the frog prince said, “That’s great! Where will I meet this beautiful young girl? At the royal palace?” The great frog in the sky replied, “Actually, no. That’s the bad news. You’ll meet each other in her biology class.”
Life is full of good news and bad news, and we don’t always get to choose which one we receive, and when.
Last week, in our story of the Book of Job, things were good. We learned that Job was a lucky man, blessed with great wealth, many children, an outstanding reputation, and even the favor of God himself.
But in between last week’s reading and this week’s reading, obviously something has happened. For those of you who are not already familiar with the story, it was a whole lot of bad news. In the span of just a few days, Job loses all of his property at the hands of raiding bandits. All ten of his children are killed in a natural disaster. On top of all this, his own body becomes afflicted with disease, and painful sores cover his entire body.
In short, Job has lost everything: His family, his business, his wealth, and his health. He is destitute and miserable, when his three closest friends arrive to comfort him. They do their best, like most well-meaning friends in this sort of situation. But their explanations, their theologies and philosophies do little to comfort Job.
By the time we come to today’s scripture passage, chapter seven, Job and his friends have been talking for awhile. Job’s speech here can be divided roughly into three parts: 1-8; 9-16; and 17-21. There is a beautiful symmetry to each section, each one beginning broadly with the shared condition of all humanity, and then coming in specifically to Job’s individual situation. (give examples)
It’s worth noting that Job’s friends, in their speeches, take the opposite approach. They tend to start with Job’s situation, and from that extrapolate broad generalizations about God and humanity. And this is the first really important thing I want to point out as we explore both prayer and human suffering in the book of Job. Where you begin has a big influence on where you end up. Let me repeat that: When you are praying, or thinking, or just trying to navigate this crazy world we live in….where you begin has a big influence in where you end up.
If, like Job’s friends, you start with one experience, one person, and try to determine what God is like or how the universe works from that limited perspective, you’ll probably end up with a pretty limited God, a pretty limited universe.
If, on the other hand, you begin with a broader perspective, the experiences of as much of humanity as you can observe, and then try to figure out where you fit in to all that, your reflections will take you much farther and deeper, and will hold true more of the time.
In Job’s case, it doesn’t always lead him to happy conclusions, but it does lead him to honest ones.
The next really important thing I want to point out to you is right there in the opening lines of the first verse. Two words in English: “Hard service” or in some translations, “struggle.” Don’t human beings have a hard time on this earth? In Hebrew, it’s just one word, צָבָא (tsaba). And that one little word, right here in the first verse of the seventh chapter of the Book of Job, out of all the approximately 780,000 words in the bible–this one little word may have been ultimately responsible for launching the crusades in the middle ages, and consequently, for the deep animosity and hostility that still exists today between Christians and Muslims in some parts of the world.
If you never listen to another word I say, please at least hear this: Words are important. How we translate, mistranslate, and interpret them has profound consequences, life and death consequences on a global scale, especially in our ancient, sacred texts.
Do not human beings have a hard service צָבָא (tsaba) on earth? What’s the big deal with that word?
Well, for roughly the first five hundred years of its existence, Christianity was considered to be a pacifist religion by most of its adherents. Early Christians were all conscientious objectors, or if they fought in any war, it was not with the blessing or sanction of the church. Christians were known for taking quite literally the instructions of Jesus to “turn the other cheek” and to “love your enemies” which was generally interpreted as, at the very least, “don’t kill them.”
The earliest translations of Job into Greek translated this little word, צָבָא (tsaba) as peraterion or “trial.” The earliest translations of Job into Latin translated it as temptatio (or temptation). But the Latin translation of the Bible that gained the most popularity and eventually became the official translation of the Roman Catholic Church (right down to the modern era) was the Vulgate, translated by Saint Jerome. And he translated that word צָבָא (tsaba) as “militia.” Roughly, the verse would read, “Man’s life is warfare on this earth.”
You can see how that word choice is at least related to struggle, or trial, or temptation, or hard service. But it’s also more specific. More…militant. As Jerome’s translation (and this verse) began to catch on, influential theologians like Cassiodorus and Gregory the Great began to speak of Job as a model soldier, at least in an allegorical sense, in spiritual battles. With this verse in view, Job’s suffering came to be seen as penitential–in other words, by undergoing spiritual warfare, Job does penance which absolves him of any sin and sets him up for a great reward in the end.
This (see image) is a 10th century illustration from a popular allegorical book in the middle ages. The army on the right represents the forces of anger. The army on the left represents the forces of patience. In the center, to the right, is Patience herself, getting ready to fight Anger. On her left, the guy with the shield, advising her? That would be General Job.
By the time we get to the 11th century, the celebration of Job’s military skill, and the idea of war as penance was not just allegorical. It’s not that big of a jump, perhaps, from spiritual warfare to actual warfare for “spiritual” reasons. Pope Urban II was a fan and student of Gregory the Great, and when he made his famous speech launching the first crusade, and calling all of Europe to go retake the Holy Lands from the he included this little incentive:
“All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.”
This was the very first “indulgence” offered by the Catholic Church, and it traces its theological legitimacy back to Job 7:1. Incidentally, issuing indulgences became pretty popular in the medieval world. Their abuse was one of the biggest complaints of the 16th century protestant reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin. So you might say that, in a very indirect and reactionary way, Job 7:1 is also responsible for the fact that we (as a reformed, Presbyterian church) even exist, and that you are sitting here today.
Did I mention that words, and how we translate or interpret them, are important?
By now, some of you may be wondering what any of this has to do with prayer. We are supposed to be talking about Prayer in the Book of Job this year. And that leads me to the third important thing I want to point out about Job chapter 7. I said earlier that the chapter is divided into three sections. That’s true, but you can also divide it roughly in half, for a completely different reason. Verses 1-10 (the first half) represent Job’s response to his friends, and his description to them of his suffering.
But then something changes in verse 11–not just Job’s tone, but also his direction. In verse 11, he says:
“Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit;I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” Complain and speak to whom? Eleven times in the following verses, Job uses the second person singular, “You” to address someone. It’s not his three friends. In verse three, he reveals his new audience: “If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity?” Watcher of Humanity, or Guardian of Mankind is a common epithet for God.
For the very first time in the Book of Job, halfway through chapter 7, Job turns his focus to God, and speaks to God. It may not sound like it to us, but this is prayer. And it’s not very nice. Job places the blame for all that has happened squarely with God: You scare me, you terrify me, you made me your target.
Three times, Job tells God, “leave me alone.” And that’s a very polite translation. I imagine that in Hebrew it sounded a little more forceful, like Job telling God where to go and what to do with himself. And probably Job’s three friends are looking up at the sky, wondering when God is going to send down lightning from heaven to burn Job into a crisp for his insolence.
But it never happens. God is silent. Job ends his prayer of anguish with a slew of unanswered questions: What have I done to you? Why have you done this to me? Why won’t you just let me die?
This is the last thing I want you to remember today, about prayer and the Book of Job: The most important thing about prayer is not what you say. It’s not even how you say it. It’s who you say it to.
Job’s friends talk about God, and then they talk to Job. Job talks about himself, but then he turns and talks to God. He yells at God. He questions God. And when God doesn’t answer, Job keeps on going for another 30 chapters, yelling, questioning, and demanding an audience with the creator of the universe.
Job is famous for his patience, but it’s not a calm and quiet patience. It’s not silent or serene suffering. Job is patient because he simply refuses to give up. In the face of all his losses, in the face of his friends’ condemnation, in the face of God’s seeming absence…Job just keeps praying. His prayer is beautiful, but it’s not pretty. It’s poetic, but it’s not polite. Instead, it is gritty, it’s rash, it’s melodramatic, completely over the top, and utterly, devastatingly real.
People of First Presbyterian Church,
Whether you are now walking in a season of sunshine or in shadow,
Whether you have lost everything, or whether you have everything to lose
Whether you walk with friends, with strangers, or on your own,
May you turn your tired, or hopeful, or anguished, or longing eyes
Just as Job did, to the Guardian of Humanity,
May your patience be always filled with passion,
And may your prayers be always from the heart.