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.
In our sermon series on “Job: The Other Voices” today we come to Zophar. He is the last of Job’s three friends, although not the last voice we’ll hear from in the series. Next week we’ll hear from Elihu, the young wisdom teacher who is not included in the list of friends we just read about in chapter two, and who appears rather suddenly on the scene after Job’s friends have concluded their words. Elihu is a bit of a mystery, actually…but that’s all next week. This week is Zophar’s week.
Before we get into his story, however, I’d like to share a little bit more of my own. Today I’m going to tell you the story of how I learned what my name means (apologies to those of you who have heard this story before). Most of you know me as Neal, or “Pastor Neal” but Neal is actually my middle name. My first name is Ira. I was named after my great-grandfather, Ira Ashley. I actually like my first name quite a bit, but ever since I can remember, my parents and pretty much everyone I know has called me by my middle name, Neal. The only time I really get to hear my first name is on the first day of a class (in high school, college, seminary) when the professor would take attendance, call out “Ira Locke?” and I would politely respond, “Actually, I go by Neal.” And that would be the end of it.
Until about four years ago, on my first day of Hebrew class in Seminary. You see, Ira is a Hebrew name. And the professor of this class just happened to write the Hebrew textbook that most seminaries in the country use today. And he also happened to be an enthusiastic onomatologist (onomatology is the study of names, their meanings and origins). I’m sure there were plenty of Hebrew names on his roster that day—names like Michael, Daniel, Rebecca, Sarah, David, etc. But when he got to mine, he stopped, looked up, and when I started to respond, he said “Do you know what your name means?”
Of course I did. I had a fancy little card hanging in my bedroom with my name meaning on it, and I had seen my name in countless “baby name books” through the years. Proudly, I told him, Ira means “watchful.” He just shook his head and firmly said, “No.” I was perplexed, but I remembered another meaning I’d come across somewhere in another baby name book, and said (more cautiously this time) “does it mean descendant?” Again, “No.” At this point I realized I wasn’t going to win this argument, so (with a slight touch of annoyance) I said, “Okay, what does Ira mean?”
My professor walked out from behind his lectern, down the classroom aisle right next to my seat, and then he leaned over as if to whisper to me (but then he spoke loud enough for the entire class to hear), “Ira means…Ass.”
And there it was. That was my first day of Hebrew class, etched forever in my mind (and probably the mind of all my classmates, too). It was a humbling experience. Later that night, a quick search in the Hebrew dictionary (which is a bit more reliable than those baby name books) revealed that my professor was, in fact, quite correct. Ira means Ass. As in “donkey” but also with some of the same additional connotations it has today—stubborn, a little bit pompous, arrogant (no wonder the baby name books felt a need to just fabricate meanings from thin air on this one!).
Believe it or not, all of this does have a point. While the name Ira appears a few times in the bible as a proper name (mostly minor characters), there are two notable places where a variant (specifically “wild ass”) is used to describe a person. One is used by God himself, in the book of Genesis. Abraham has two sons — Isaac and Ishmael, and he promises to bring forth a great nation from each of them (we tend to focus on Isaac, and forget about Ishmael). In the promise to Hagar (Ishmael’s mother) God also says that Ishmael will grow to be a “wild ass of a man.”
The second place that description is used is in the book of Job. Zophar, in today’s scripture passage, calls his friend Job a “wild ass of a man.” For reasons that I’ll get into in just a moment, I think Zophar’s description of Job is a good one. But then, I suppose it takes an Ira to know an Ira.
1Then Zophar the Naamathite responded and said: 2Should an abundance of words go unanswered? Or must a talker be in the right? 3Should your babblings silence people, So that you mock without anyone to expose you? 4You said, “My discourse is pure; And I have been clean in your eyes.” 5But would that God speak, And open his lips with you, 6And tell you the secrets of wisdom—That resourcefulness is double-edged. Then know that God would make you oblivious because of your guilt.”
So far, I’ve gone to great lengths to give Job’s friends the benefit of the doubt; to see them as good friends who offer good, helpful, kind, respectful, and biblically sound wisdom. All three friends sit with Job for seven days and seven nights, just listening to him in silence. When they finally speak, Eliphaz is complimentary and compassionate. Bildad is optimistic and encouraging. They do what good friends are supposed to do. So far. Or, should I say…Zophar?
Right out of the gate, Zophar’s words are obviously harsh. He calls Job a talker, a babbler, and a mocker. This is “tough love” at the very least. And because Job is the hero of this story; because we want him to be Saint Job the Patient; because we want clear-cut good guys and bad guys in black and white; and because it’s so much easier to skim over the words of Job’s friends and disregard them if we paint them as evil; because of all these things, we read the words of Zophar (the LAST friend to speak) and finally we can say, “See? Look! Job lost everything and his friends just bash him while he’s down and call him names!”
Not so fast. I’d like for us to lay aside our preconceptions and ask the question, Is it possible that Zophar, in his assessment of Job…could be right? Well, let’s see. He calls Job a talker, a babbler. At this point, there are four people in the conversation—Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Help me keep score here: Job begins talking in chapter 2, and continues all through chapter 3. Eliphaz takes chapters 4 and 5, then Job gets 6 and 7. Bildad gets chapter 8, then Job gets 9 and 10. Zophar takes 11, then Job gets 12, 13, and 14.
Round two: Eliphaz 15 – Job 16, 17 – Bildad 18 – Job 19 – Zophar 20 – Job 21. Round three: Eliphaz 22 – Job 23, 24 – Bildad 25 (poor Zophar doesn’t even get a single word in) – Job 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, and 31. After Job’s six-chapter-long monologue, no wonder his friends stop talking altogether. At this point, Job’s total is 21 chapters. Job’s friends all combined? 9 chapters. Later on, when God speaks, he only gets 4 chapters—but he has to pause in the middle, because Job actually interrupts him!
Job is, in fact, a bit of a talker. And I suspect that his friend Zophar knows him well enough to know this, and to call him out on it, too. That’s what good friends, friends who know you, do. Incidentally, Zophar waits until the other friends have spoken first, and speaks the least of anyone in the book (except Job’s wife!). And when he does speak in verse 5, he doesn’t really offer his own thoughts, but rather wishes that God “would…speak, And open his lips with you, And tell you the secrets of wisdom—That resourcefulness is double-edged.” Job, in his ranting, has been demanding that God explain himself to Job, and Zophar says, in effect, “I hope he does, but you might not like it when you get your wish.” And Zophar proves to be correct in this prediction.
7Can you discover the profundity of God, Or reach the limit of Shaddai? 8It is higher than the heavens – what can you do? It is deeper than Sheol – what can you know? 9Longer than the earth in length; Broader than the sea. 10If he sweeps by or delivers up, Or calls an assembly, who can restrain him? 11For he knows the people of delusion; When he sees trouble, will he not perceive it?”
The first part of Zophar’s speech was, I think, to get Job’s attention. With a talker, sometimes that’s hard enough to do without being impolite. But in this second part of the speech, Zophar has moved on. He’s no longer criticizing Job, but instead trying to call Job’s attention to something bigger than himself and his own problems. As in…God. In fact, many who take the time to read this passage have noticed that Zophar is saying essentially the same things that God himself will say to Job later on. Zophar is saying “who are you to question God?? What can you do, what can you know? And sure enough, in chapter 38, when God finally speaks to Job, he says, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!”
This “echoing” or rather “foreshadowing” of God’s words in Zophar’s is no accident. By now, you have probably figured out my entire premise for this sermon series: All of these “other voices” that we are studying in the Book of Job are important, and they are included in the book not as foils to Job, or because they are “bad” voices, temptations or trials for Job to endure. I believe that the “other voices” in the book of Job are, ultimately, God’s voice. How often to we cry out to God, saying, “where are you?” only to realize in hindsight that he was with us all along, in the voices of and the presence of those who love us. God hears job, God is with Job, and God answers Job—first through his wife, then through his friend Eliphaz, then through his friend Bildad, then even through his quiet friend, Bildad.
Why is it, then, that Job cannot hear the voice of God? Why is it that any of us sometimes have difficulty hearing God’s voice? I say this as one talker, one babbler, one wild, stubborn ass speaking for another: Sometimes we have a hard time hearing God, because we’re too busy listening to ourselves.
Job suffered an incredible loss—he lost almost everything dear to him, and I don’t want to diminish that in any way. Grief and mourning are are good—they are outward expressions of love for others, for those who are no longer with us. But when grief begins to turn inward, into self-pity and self-loathing, this kind of grief can consume a person, leaving him empty, hollow. Zophar’s final words to Job here have none of the harshness of his opening. They are words of hope, and a plea to his friend, if he can’t turn his ears toward God, to at least turn his heart and his hands to heaven, and reach beyond himself to find comfort and peace.
12But a hollow person may be heartened, <> A wild ass of a man may be formed. 13If you direct your heart, And spread your hands to him, 14If trouble is in your hands, remove it, And do not permit malice to dwell in your tent, 15Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish, And you will be made firm and not be afraid. 16Surely you will forget misery; You will remember (it) as waters that have passed. 17And life will appear brighter than noon; And as for (its) flicker, it will be as morn. 18And you will be confident, for there is hope; When you have searched, you will lie down in confidence. 19You will be in repose, with none to disturb (you); Many will implore your favor. 20But the eyes of the wicked will fail, And there will be no escape for them, And their hope will expire.”
Job’s story ultimately has a rather happy ending, and for what it’s worth, so does the story I began my sermon with today—the story of my name, and my first day of Hebrew class. On that day when my professor told me something about myself that I didn’t want to hear, something that was true (probably in more ways than one), he wasn’t my favorite person. In fact, I had kind of made up my mind that he was my new enemy. That professor’s name was Dr. C.L. Seow. In addition to being an onomatologist and a Hebrew expert, it turns out he’s also the foremost expert on the Book of Job. The translation we’re using today is his, along with most of the “original ideas” I’ve been preaching the last few weeks. He ended up being my favorite seminary professor, the advisor for my (unfinished) senior thesis on the Book of Job, a wise mentor and a constant encourager throughout my time in seminary.
Like Job, I am a talker. I have an expert opinion on just about any subject, although (as was the case about the meaning of my name) it’s not always the right one. But I’m thankful that in Dr. Seow’s classes (and I took several) I was able to let go of my injured pride, be quiet, and listen to what he had to say. Because when I did, I heard the voice wisdom. And through a wisdom teacher, I heard the voice of God.