Lecture 08: Job’s Opening Speech
Course: The Book of Job
Lecture: Job’s Opening Speech
We had left at the point that the dialogues of Job were about to begin. Job is going to begin the whole thing by cursing the day of his birth and then we are
going to see his friends react in great alarm. So we have to figure out what Job said that was so troubling as to prompt this entire acrimonious bit of debate that takes up the first half of the book of Job.
First of all, the structure. You can see it is basically in three parts.
A. Job’s birth and the reversal of creation, 3:1-10.
B. Preference for stillbirth over birth, 3:11-19.
C. Death is better for those in misery, 3:20-26.
So let’s get into the text.
II. Job cursing his birth is asking that creation be reversed
First of all, Job’s birth and the reversal of creation. We have already looked at this a little, but let’s look at it in more detail. “After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. ‘May the day of my birth perish, the night they said, ‘A boy is conceived,’ that day may it turn to darkness, may God above not care about it, may no light shine in it. May gloom and utter darkness claim it once more. May clouds settle over it, may blackness overwhelm it. That night, may thick darkness seize it, may it not be included among the days of the year, nor be entered in any of the months. May that night be barren, may no shout of joy be heard on it. May those who curse days, curse that day, those who are ready to rouse Leviathan. May its morning stars become dark. May it wait for daylight in vain and not see the first rays of dawn, for it did not shut the doors of the womb on me to hide trouble from my eyes.‘”
On the surface of it, this just appears to be Job saying, “I wish I had never been born.” But I am going to suggest to you, there is a lot more to it than him just saying, “I wish I had never been born.”
A. The day of birth is to you what creation is to the world
First of all, let’s think in terms of what one’s birth and one’s lifetime really is. For us as people in this world, our lifetime is the time in which the world exists. We have heard about sometime prior to our lifetime, but we weren’t there. For us, the world did not exist at that time; and when we die, well, in effect, the world will cease to exist for us. So our personal existence is closely tied to our understanding of the existence of the world itself. Job in emphatic ways declares that his day of birth should be cursed and this is in effect the cursing of the whole of creation.
We looked at this a little bit previously, but let’s remind ourselves quickly. He calls upon the day of his birth to be cursed. He says, verse 5: “May gloom and darkness claim it.” This is again a kind of reversal of the first day of creation when God created life. He calls for it to be “seized with gloom.” He calls for it not to be entered into any of the months of the year; again, something that recalls Genesis, the fourth day, when God set the stars and the moon and the sun in the sky for days and seasons and months and years. He wishes that there had been no joy to celebrate his birth, the coming of his life; and he calls in verse 8: “For those who know how to issue curses, to curse that day, those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.”
B. Job even invokes the name of Leviathan
It’s interesting. Here in this one verse we have a little bit of a preview of what is coming because Job at the very beginning of his speech talks about Leviathan; and then at the end of the book, Leviathan will make a major reappearance. We might ask ourselves, what is going on with Leviathan in Job 8? First of all, the verse could be translated: “Let those who curse the day, invoke a curse against that day, and let those who are prepared, rouse up Leviathan.”
Leviathan, I think, is understood in this passage to be an agent of chaos and destruction. He is speaking of people who invoke curses; in other words, people who practice what we might call, “black magic.” They invoke dark spirits in order to bring down chaos and destruction and death on people. Job wants this monster of chaos to come and eat up the day of his birth. Leviathan is a profoundly anti-creation figure. Leviathan stands for all of the formless void and chaos that you have in Genesis 1:2. Leviathan stands for a reversion, for an end to all that is right and orderly in creation. When Job calls upon those who know how to curse, to rouse him up, the idea is, this is a creature who can swallow up the light. This is a creature who is one with those who belong to the darkness. Leviathan is a creature of darkness.
C. Job desires to see creation revert to chaos
Thus, this is a powerful call to put an end to creation, to bring it back into chaos, to side with those who are sorcerers in order to see that the whole world comes to an end. That is pretty dramatic. So here in chapter 3, verses 1-10, Job didn’t just say, “I wish I had never been born.” He says in effect, “I wish there had been no life. I wish there had been no stars. I wish there had been no seasons. I wish Leviathan would just swallow it all up and it would go back into chaos.”
Why? Why would Job say something like that, and why would his friends be so alarmed? It is not just that Job is really miserable. He lost his children. He lost his possessions. He lost his health. He is in physical pain. We might say, “I can understand why he is so miserable and says, ‘I wish I were dead.’” But that wouldn’t really alarm his friends and that would not explain why he uses all of this language that seems to speak of a return of darkness and a return of chaos and of Leviathan.
It is important to understand, as I have mentioned already, that Job and the three friends are not really that different from each other. They all have what I have called simply the doctrine of retribution. God stands up there just constantly weighing people in the balance; and if you do what is good, God rewards you; if you do what is evil, God punishes you. Why is there suffering? Because so many people are so evil and God is punishing them. That is their explanation for the justice of God. In their mind, the problem of evil has been solved. The reason there is so much evil in the world, there is so much suffering, there is so much misery, is because God is just punishing people all the time because people are so evil.
D. Life no longer makes sense
Job knows he did not deserve this. He knows, as God Himself has confessed, he is a righteous man, he fears God and shuns evil. Therefore, the old theology doesn’t work. Something is wrong. Job’s entire worldview has collapsed, everything he believed in, that he built his whole life upon. This man, who every time his kids had a get-together, would sacrifice animals in case perhaps they would blaspheme God in their mind. This man, who built his whole life on this structure of this retribution theology, now finds it completely crashing down. Job, the righteous, is suffering worse than anyone else. Therefore, as far as he can tell, the best thing that could happen is for the world to revert to chaos because the world doesn’t make sense anymore to him. The world has become an alien place, a hostile place, a place that has no orderly structure to it, no underpinning wisdom, no truth that holds it all together. It is just a place that is, in more modern philosophical terms, absurd. Bad things just happen for no reason apparently, or simply because God for his own whims, chooses to punish people.
So the first part of the book is the most dramatic speech of all in a sense. Job’s cursing of the day of his birth is his saying that it just doesn’t make any sense to me anymore, and my world as I understand it is over, has come crashing down.
III. Preference for Stillbirth Over Birth
He then moves on and declares preference for stillbirth over birth. This is chapter 3, verses 11-19. “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb? Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed? For now I would be lying down in peace, I would be asleep and at rest with kings and rulers of the earth, who built for themselves places now lying in ruins, with princes who had gold, who filled their houses with silver. Or why was I not hidden away in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day? There the wicked cease from turmoil and there the weary are at rest. Captives also enjoy their ease, they no longer hear the slave drivers shout. The small and the great are there and the slaves are freed from their owners.”
Notice he says, “Why did I have a successful birth? Why didn’t they just let me die as soon as I came out? Better yet, why wasn’t I just stillborn? Why wasn’t I just born dead?” This is of course a very painful thing to read. It does have some precedent elsewhere in Biblical wisdom literature, in Ecclesiastes 6:3. I think it should be translated like this: “If a man begets a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his youth are many, but his soul is not satisfied with goodness, then even if it has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better than he.” So here Ecclesiastes says, it doesn’t matter how much he has; he can have a long life, he can have lots of children. If you never have joy in life, if you never know how to enjoy the good things of life, you are no better off than a stillborn child.
Job echoes the same kind of thing, only Job is saying, “My world is so shattered, is so broken, I think I should have been stillborn rather than actually coming to life alive, and to experience all the things that I have experienced.” Notice what he says about stillborn children and about death in general in chapter 3. He says, “Kings and rulers are there (that is, in the grave).” So he is in effect saying, “When it comes to the grave, the kings and the mightiest people of earth are no different from the stillborn infant, they are dead and they are put in the grave.” Then he speaks of it as a place where people at least have some relief from their suffering. He says in verse 18: “Captives also enjoy their ease, they no longer hear the slave driver’s shout.”
So he sees death in effect as a great equalizer. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a king, it doesn’t matter if you have been rich. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a slave or even if you were stillborn. Once it comes to the grave, all of that is done away with. That is very similar to what we see in Ecclesiastes. But in Job the main point here is, the world is filled with injustice, inequality and suffering; and at least in death, it is all over. When Job makes this point, what he is really stressing is not just the fact that people are all equal in death. It is the fact that the world is fundamentally an unjust place. The world is fundamentally an evil place of gross inequality and terrible suffering, much of it by people who don’t deserve it, just as a stillborn child did not deserve it.
Again, the point is not just that Job is unhappy. The point is that he sees that his way of handling life, his way of saying that everything makes sense and resolving all of these problems and contradictions has collapsed. Before, he could always chalk it up to the doctrine of retribution, the world is full of evil people. God is always punishing them, that is why there is so much suffering.
Now he looks at all the suffering in the world and he just says, “You know, it just doesn’t make any sense. It would be better if they were all dead. At least that way, all of this suffering and all of this inequality would be over.”
IV. Death is Better for Those in Misery
Finally, he says that death is better for those in misery, chapter 3, verses 20-26: “Why is life given to those in misery and life to the bitter of souls, to those who long for death that does not come, who search for more than hidden treasures, who are filled with gladness and rejoice when they reach the grave? Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in? For sighing has become my daily food and my groans pour out like water. What I feared has come upon me, what I dreaded has happened to me. I have no peace, no quietness, no rest, but only turmoil.”
Here Job says basically, When life is so filled with suffering, why do people even continue to live? Why doesn’t God just take their life away from them? Why not just let them die? And of course, Job quickly transfers or moves over from talking about death or suffering and evil kind of abstractly, to talking about it in himself, how he is the victim of so much suffering, how he has seen so much injustice pour upon him and he wishes it would just all end.
So, death is better than life for those who are in misery. Again, his misery is not just physical and it doesn’t just concern the possessions he lost or even his
children he lost. It concerns the fact that his world has collapsed. He can no longer make sense of the way the world works and the troubles that take place.
This is the speech that thoroughly alarms Eliphaz, the first of the three friends to speak. He will rebuke Job and he will try to bring him back to what Eliphaz
believes is the right way; and that will be the course of the debate of the first half of the book of Job.