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John Peck

Job 42:1 & 5-9

The Book of Job illustrates a vital point: that it is possible for believers to be absolutely orthodox and yet completely wrong.Job's 'comforters' are a byword for insensitivity. True, they sit with him in silence for a whole week; but they do not realise the value of silence, which lies in careful listening. So, they misread his outbursts, which are mere cries of distress addressed to no one in particular except God.

They have to intervene (wise people must always have something to say!). Eliphaz appears diffident - you can almost hear him clear his throat - but he is certain he has some pearls to share. His testimony of an overwhelming spiritual experience culminates in the proclamation that 'God is always right.' What profundity! And this, he feels, entitles him to give the kind of advice that begins 'If I were you...' Bildad, too, appealing to traditional wisdom, feels qualified to offer his worthy criticism. Then Zophar parades his ungracious bigotry.

Job is bitterly sarcastic. The argument escalates until his friends blurt out what they have been hinting at all along: that his rejection of their advice shows that he has gotten what he deserves, and he had better repent.

Job wants answers. What he gets from God instead is some 70 questions, all unanswerable, about the vast mysteries of life. He begins to apologise, but God has not finished. Then he capitulates. But it is surely his friends who suffer the worse embarrassment: they must ask for him to pray for them to be spared. God restores Job's fortunes after he has interceded for others.

Truth, and our experience of it as knowledge, involves more than just accurate information. People are beginning to realise that it is not simply an arrangement of factual statements. Nor do theological formulae in themselves constitute truth. Truth in scripture is not primarily a function of ideas but of persons - thus Paul talks of 'truthing it' in love.

Contrary to the dreams of science, truth will always be an untameable leviathan. Job's comforters, so sure of divine approval, never address God directly. But Job rejects mere explanations: he wants a personal encounter, which will bring him nearer to true knowledge. His friends, for all their fine words, have no personal knowledge of God. Orthodoxy without covenant love may be heartless.

It all adds up to this: God dwells in mystery, in 'light inapproachable'. If being right blinds you to this, you are lost.

There is no true knowledge of God, or (in the end) of anything, that is not grounded and rooted in loving faith.


This is an abridged version of a commentary which first appeared in Third Way in April 1999. Find the full article in the Third Way archive.