Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job

Proverbs

The book of Proverbs contains teachings used by the elders of Israel with their sons. The material is attributed to Solomon, but most scholars believe it was compiled into its present form at a later date. Given the patriarchal structure of Israelite society, all the teachings are designed for the instruction of young men and are imparted to them by their fathers and forefathers.

It is notable then that wisdom has a feminine personification in these teachings. At several points in the book wisdom takes the form of a prophetess, who "cries aloud in the street" and raises her voice "in the markets." (Pr. 1:20) She is said to have had a role in creation itself: that the LORD "by wisdom founded the earth." (Pr. 3:19) The mark of maturity is a man's relationship with wisdom: "Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you." (Pr. 4:6) Wisdom herself says that "he who finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD." (Pr. 8:35)

It is intriguing that the sages of Israel should speak to their young men in this way. It is almost as if they intuitively understand that wisdom in a patriarchal society will manifest itself through the voice of those kept silent by tradition.

Ecclesiastes

The book of Ecclesiastes is also attributed to Solomon, but it too was probably composed much later. The wisdom of this book is that "all is vanity and a striving after wind." (Ecc. 1:14) The teacher recounts how those who are good and those who are evil come to the same end, and how the evil often prosper more than the good while they are alive on the earth. He ponders the injustice and oppression of life and finds it beyond comprehension. Since nothing is permanent or lasting, the teacher seems to conclude that it is best to eat, drink, and be merry for as long as one can. The dead are more fortunate than the living, he asserts, "but better than both is he who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun." (Ecc. 4:3)

Thus the wisdom of Ecclesiastes appears, at first, to be cynical and hedonistic. Yet, if we look more closely at the overall thrust of the book of Ecclesiastes, we may come to a somewhat different conclusion.

The Hebrew word translated as "vanity" means "quickly passing." In this sense the statement that "all is vanity" asserts that all of life is subject to change. The wise man recognizes this truth and so ceases to strive for the things of life which only seem to give it meaning. "Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all." (Ecc. 9:11)

This teaching does not represent a cynical view of life, but a highly realistic assessment of the way things are. Ecclesiastes teaches that those who strive after wisdom, pleasure, wealth or power, or even those who seek consolation in their despair, are all engaged in a vain pursuit of a permanence that does not exist. In a passage from Ecclesiastes, known to many because of a song made popular by Pete Seeger, the teacher says that for everything there is a season and "a time for every purpose under heaven." (Ecc. 3:1-8)

Taken as a whole, the teachings of Ecclesiastes contradict a simple hedonistic attitude toward life. The author is not advocating that we live without regard for others, but moderately and with a keen sense of enjoyment in all that we do. "Behold, what I have seen to be good and to be fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life which God has given to him, for this is his lot." (Ecc. 5:18) Rather than cynicism this statement reveals a healthy acceptance of life and a strong commitment to celebrate each moment in a world of changes.

We may conclude, therefore, that the book of Ecclesiastes calls us to accept toil and the life that God has given us, for even as it is life is "the gift of God." In such a life of acceptance there will be little striving after the things which falsely promise permanence. With acceptance of life comes the freedom to live each moment to its full, and a person with such a faith "will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart." (Ecc. 5:20)

Ecclesiastes identifies as evil the affliction of so many, who though wealthy are unable to enjoy their wealth. The wisdom here is that of old age, when in reflecting on life one can see that much of the striving was foolish and that the richness of life is in the joys of the moment, no matter how fleeting they may be. Therefore, the teacher tells his readers: "Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days." (Ecc. 11:1) He urges them to give themselves to life in trust so they may receive from life whatever it has to offer. "It is God's gift to man that every one should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil." (Ecc. 3:31)

If the life of man is completely transitory, yet God has made "everything beautiful in its time." (Ecc. 3:11) We are unable to comprehend the purpose of God in life as it is, but our failure to understand is not a reason to deny God's presence and purpose. For "whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it: God has made it so, in order that men should fear before him." (Ecc. 3:14) 

Job

The story of Job is also attributed to the time of Solomon, although it is probably an older tale that may have been written down and edited at that time. The story begins with Satan, described as one of the sons of God, daring God to allow him to test the faith of Job, a man declared by God to be "blameless and upright" (Job 1:1) and properly in fear of God.

Satan argues that Job is faithful only because he has been blessed with great possessions and a fine family. "Put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face," he challenges. (Job 1:11) God accepts Satan's challenge and gives him leave to take away from Job his possessions, and his family, but not to touch the person of Job himself.

Then enemy nomads murder Job's servants, the "fire of God" (Job 1:16) falls from heaven upon his herds, and his children are killed by a great wind from the wilderness. When he learns of these calamities Job tears his robe and worships, saying, "naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD." (Job 1:20-21)

With pride in the strength of Job's faith God boasts to Satan of Job's integrity, "although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause." (Job 2:3) Satan's reply is to dare God: "touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face." (Job 3:5) So the LORD once more puts Job into the power of Satan, requiring only that Job's life be spared.

Then the story relates that Job is afflicted with sores all over his body. For a time he keeps his peace, but finally with the arrival of three friends who have come to console him, "Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth." (Job 3:1)

Job's friends argue with him in an effort to persuade him to retract his curse. Each in his own way offers a justification for Job's suffering. One suggests that Job has acted unjustly, even if he did not intend to do so, and is therefore being chastened by God. Another asserts that, if Job is blameless, he is suffering for the sins of his forefathers, for the law of Moses clearly states that God will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children. (Job 21:19)

Since God is just, Job's friends assume the suffering of Job must be just. All that remains unclear, they argue, is the nature of the sin that Job has either committed or inherited.

Job's answers these arguments by asserting that his suffering and the suffering of many others is  unjust. "Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?" he asks. (Job 21:7) They clearly go unpunished even though they deny God by saying, "What is the Almighty that we should serve him? And what profit do we get if we pray to him?" (Job 21:15) Job affirms that he has lived righteously, or at least not sinned so grievously as to justify the calamity that has befallen him and his family.

Job argues that if life is unjust and God is in control of life, then God is unjust, and thus there is no purpose to his suffering or to life itself. Job concludes that the LORD's blessings amd apparent curses are arbitrary, and so he boldly challenges God to account for the sufferings inflicted on him and for the injustice of life.

Then God answers Job "out of the whirlwind" with a challenge: "Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me." (Job 38:3) God asks Job to explain how the foundation of the earth was laid and its measurements determined, who separated it from the seas, and how life began. "Have you commanded the morning since your days began," God thunders, "and caused the dark to know its place?" (Job 38:4-12)

God taunts Job with his obvious impotence: "is the wild ox willing to serve you?" Is it "by your wisdom that the hawk soars" and "the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high?" (Job 39:9, 26) God is even sarcastic at times, for in asking Job to describe the source of light and darkness God comments: "You know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!" And in asking Job to explain the creation of the earth God exclaims, "Surely you know!" (Job 38:21)

Finally, God says to Job: "Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it." (Job 40:2) Job's answer is to admit that he has no answer to the questions put to him. He says. therefore, that he will not question God any further, but will remain silent.

God responds to Job with a further challenge to his power, as a mortal man in a creation not of his own making, and then concludes with the question: "Will you condemn me that you may be justified?" (Job 40:8) With this, Job relents of his rebellion, despises himself, and does penance before God. Then God judges the three friends of Job, saying that they have "not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has." (Job 42:7) However, after Job appeals for his friends, God agrees not to punish them and also restores to Job all that he has lost.

Job's challenge to God to explain his suffering raises the ancient question, which few of us are willing to voice as our own. Why has God made life as it is? Suffering is clearly a large part of life. The tale of the garden seems to explain suffering as the result of human choices that are contrary to the will of God. This seems to follow from the story, but in everyday life is unconvincing.

The suffering of Job is unrelated to anything he has done or failed to do. Nowhere in the story does God indicate that Job acted unrighteously prior to the suffering that was inflicted upon him, but on the contrary God boasts of Job's character. The suffering of Job is the suffering of an innocent man, just as the suffering of so many men, women, and children in the world is the suffering of the innocent.

In judging the attempts by Job's friends to explain that all suffering is just, God seems to indicate that suffering cannot be so easily explained. However, in answering Job's challenge God does not provide an explanation of suffering or justice. Thus, God's answer to Job is no answer at all, because God does not explain why life is as it is, but only asserts that no earthly creature has any business challenging the Creator of the universe.

Perhaps the key to understanding God's answer to Job is in his accusation that Job seeks to condemn God in order to justify himself. It is this accusation and not God's assertion of power over all creation that seems to lead Job to abandon his rebellion. Job seems to admit that, even if he was innocent prior to his suffering, he has now committed a sin by condemning God in order to defend his own innocence.

Given this reading of the story, and God's rejection of the explanations of suffering offered by the friends of Job, we are led to conclude that suffering may not be just, but that it is to be accepted nonetheless, as the will of God.

Both as individuals and as a people we want to explain suffering and injustice, as a means of bolstering our faith in God. The most direct explanation is that all suffering is God's response to sin. This was God's explanation in the story of Cain and Abel, and this theme is reiterated in the punishment of the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness.

Suffering may also be explained as a form of discipline designed to prepare individuals and peoples for the struggles of life. Such a discipline was asked of Abraham, when he was told to sacrifice his only son, and this explanation is also articulated in the wilderness experience of Israel.

Finally, suffering may be accepted as inexplicable. This may be because God's favor, or lack of it, is arbitrary, as it seems to be in the stories of Cain and Abel and Jacob and Esau. Or it may be because God is jealous, as is suggested by the story of the tower of Babel. Or it may be for reasons that we do not, and cannot, understand, as is the case in the tale of Job. 

In answering Job's challenge, God does not attempt to justify what happened to Job, nor does God offer any argument about the purpose of life. At a time when Israel was quite certain of its own righteousness, and thus felt assured that God would be on its side in any future conflict with its enemies, the book of Job offers a stark challenge. As so often in the wisdom literature, we are led more to pondering the mystery of life than to proclaiming the meaning of that mystery.

If suffering is a part of life and if suffering may be unjust, then what are we to conclude about God? In the tale of Job's suffering God is identified with creation and its mysterious power and order. God is the source of life as it is. The God who allows Satan to toy with Job's life is the source of suffering and injustice as well as health and righteousness.

Job does not deny God's presence and power, but Job does challenge God's purpose and justice. Is this the answer we are looking for?

 Bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016