Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite hold the dubious distinction of forever having their actions acknowledged unfavourably with a negative appellation. A “Job’s comforter” may be defined as “a person who unwittingly or maliciously depresses or discourages someone while attempting to be consoling” according to dictionary.com. The term originates in the Biblical book of Job, with the three abovementioned people being Job’s friends who visited him following a series of terrible calamities which took away his wealth, children and health.
Their intentions were obviously well meant. Each came from their own country, journeying to be with Job. So distressed were they by Job’s appearance that, following the customs of the day, they wept, tore their garments and covered their heads with dust. They then sat with him in silence for a week, acknowledging his grief. We might well ask ourselves if we would have the same fortitude to do just that if faced with a friend in a similar situation.
However, then the three decide to offer their interpretations and explanations of Job’s plight, and that’s where the straining of relationships begins. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar labour under the misconception that there is cause and effect in relation to behaviour and calamity. In other words, sin is punished by the occurrence of bad things, whilst godly behaviour is rewarded with blessings. Bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. Through a series of discourses, Job defends his integrity, whilst his friends suggest he must be sinful and needs to get right with God.
We, of course, have the advantage of being able to read the book of Job right through, as well as being able to see this book in its context within the Bible. We are told at the outset of the book of Job that he is an upright and righteous man, and that his trials are the result of testing. We know from the book of Genesis that all humanity is fallen and flawed and sinful. Job himself bemoans the lack of an intercessor who will mediate between man and God –
“O earth, do not cover my blood, nor let there be a secret place for my cry. Even now my witness is in heaven; my advocate is on high. My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God; and he contends with God on behalf of man. (Job 16:18-21)
We know from the gospels that Jesus is sent from heaven to earth to die on the cross in order to become our Saviour and advocate before God’s throne.
Job rightly points out that in fact the righteous do suffer and the ungodly sometimes do prosper, at least in earthly terms. In the final few chapters of the book, God speaks, declaring His sovereignty. God sees no need for explanations or justification of His ways – He is God. What is man’s wisdom in relation to His dominion?
We learn so much from the book of Job and it’s an interesting and thought provoking inclusion in the Bible. Job’s friends demonstrate the importance of being with people who are suffering, but also the danger of attempting to sermonize to the sufferer. Far better to be a silent presence or a practical helper.
This book reminds us as Christians that we are not immune to trials. Jesus said
“In the world you will] have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).
The book of Job reminds us that God is not bound by human rationales. He is free to bless or allow suffering. The poet Robert Frost wrote an interesting fictional postscript to the book of Job in which God, Job and Job’s wife discuss the events:
“JOB: You will perhaps tell us
If that is all there is to be of Heaven,
Escape from so great pains of life on earth
It gives a sense of letup calculated
To last a fellow to Eternity.
GOD: Yes, by and by. But first a larger matter.
I’ve had you on my mind a thousand years
To thank you someday for the way you helped me
Establish once for all the principle
There’s no connection man can reason out
Between his just deserts and what he gets.”
(A Masque of Reason, Robert Frost, 1945 from Robert Frost, Selected Poems, Penguin, 1976)
As a writer, I thoroughly enjoy the fact that Job in the course of one of his dialogues cries out
“O that my words were written down,
O that they were written on a scroll,
they were engraved in a rock forever!” (Job 19:23-24)
He was not to know then that his words would indeed be recorded and published millions of times, bringing a source of wisdom and comfort to many.
In an age of prosperity doctrine, it’s good to remind ourselves that Christians can and do suffer, and that we should be ready to offer comfort and encouragement, never judgement and condemnation. Job exemplifies the person who in the face of suffering can say:
“As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that as the last He will stand upon the earth. (Job 19:25)”