Job 2.11-13 “When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognise him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”
I want to introduce to you Job’s friends. He received a visit from three men from three different cities and they are acknowledged by the Holy Spirit to be ‘Job’s friends’ (v.11). It is a wonderful gift to have one close friend. It is a mark of a mature man, that he has a number of friends. David called the love of friends more wonderful than the love of women. In Christian congregations, we have the structures and the dynamics for true friendship. Yet friendship brings familiarity and the possibility of unconscious hurt.
THE ARRIVAL OF THE FRIENDS.
Job’s friends are going to dominate the book. When they come together they don’t talk about making money, drinking, or going hunting, but they discuss the deepest issues of life. They are clearly discerning men in a long established and respectful relationship. Job led a rich life, not just in terms of material possessions. He was no loner; he wasn’t odd. Job’s friends are clearly men whom we ought to respect. They must have been the leading figures of their cities. They came from the same social class and background as Job, the wise men of their society. They had literary gifts, and were men of property, but they were also religious leaders in their own communities. They thought seriously about why these fearful providences had happened to their esteemed friend. They were men of good intentions, pious and moral. But unfortunately, they were ignorant of the whole counsel of God, and this ignorance became the rock that destroyed the friendship. It did not survive the events that are described in this book. We are told in verse 11 of ‘Job’s three friends’, but in the last chapter of the book, God speaks to one of them named Eliphaz and he says, “I am angry with you and your two friends.” (Job 42:7) In other words, those three were still friends, but they are no longer specified as friends of Job.
Their whole attitude to Job pictured in these verses shows that they were very sincere in their friendship, that they didn’t come at all to gloat over him. They arranged to come; messengers must have gone between the three cities and “they met together by agreement” we are told (v.11). They came to sympathise with Job and comfort him in his sufferings. When they saw him from a distance and approached nearer and nearer to this lonely figure sitting on the refuse dump, the sight broke their hearts, “they could hardly recognise him” and “they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads.” Then they sat on the ground among the ashes there alongside him. These weren’t theatrics; they weren’t like the wailing women that came out and professionally ululated as the Lord Jesus walked through the narrow streets of Jerusalem on his way to Golgotha. These three were genuinely overwhelmed with what they saw. They weren’t ashamed of the horrible environment in which he was sitting, and they joined him in the midst of that dust without a complaint. There was a sort of strength in that solidarity of grief and even a moral power.
When the American Civil War ended and Lincoln heard that the South had finally surrendered, the President went to see his secretary of state. He hadn’t always got on well with this man, but the week before he had fallen off his horse when it had bolted and had broken his jaw and his shoulder. The man was in severe pain and he could only lie down in bed. So when the President went to see him Lincoln himself stretched out his gangly frame and lay down alongside him. He turned his face to him and spoke to him, whispering in his ear and lying there for about an hour and a half, explaining everything to this man who was now utterly hors de combat. Lincoln showed his respect for the man, wanting him to know all the details of what had happened as the dreadful war was at last coming to an end.
THE SILENCE BEFORE THE SPEECHES.
So the three men sat together with Job for a week. They lived in a very different society from our own, four thousand years ago. Ours is a frantic and a noisy civilisation and that affects our children’s concentration span and their ability to think and learn. It affects the worship services, where activity is increasingly demanded, the encouragement of the expression of human personality and movement having to compensate for the absence of the Spirit’s working. In Job’s day, there were men who were able to come and sit silently, day after day, and then begin to talk together and at length of the most profound questions, such as the problem of pain. They talked without interrupting one another, and our society has lost that. I would judge that to be a very great loss.
Tentmaker Publications in Stoke have recently reprinted a Victorian book by the Rev. David Davies, ‘Echoes from the Welsh Hills’. It was first written in 1883, and is the account of a fictional village in Wales in the nineteenth century. It contains accounts of discussions taking place at the village smithy. No doubt the book is romanticised, but there is no question that when our forefathers met, they did talk together about great themes, and big issues. The villagers met at the blacksmith’s shop, while the slate quarry men of north Wales met in their lunch-time cabins. The miners of south Wales met in the Workers’ Education Association meetings, and how they talked. The adult Sunday School classes and the Experience Meetings were the centres for Christian discussion. Is there a faint echo of this in the renewal of discussion groups that some churches are involved in? One would like to think so. Job later remembers the times he spent at the gate of the city with the other men, where issues were discussed and judgments arrived at: “Men listened to me expectantly, waiting in silence for my counsel” (Job 29:21).
We are told about two people walking to Emmaus on the first Lord’s Day: “They were talking with each other about everything that had happened” (Lk. 24:14). “Why has this happened? Jesus of Nazareth was tremendous … no one like him … so kind … so powerful … so close to God. Why should he have been crucified? Why did the chief priests do that to him, and why should God have allowed it to happen? Isn’t God powerful enough to protect his own Son from what sinners do? We had such hope that he was going to herald the dawn of a new day, and yet it is all over. Why did he have to die?’ Then the risen Lord Jesus himself came alongside them and he talked with them. But he did more than talk, he opened up all the scriptures. They had a limited grasp and belief in the Bible, but he explained to them from every single part of the Old Testament that it was necessary that the Messiah should be lifted up to die. He made himself known to them by his words through the Word of God, and their hearts began to burn within them.
I think that we need to do that. It is not enough to be only silent in sympathy. There is a place for that, but surely not for it to last seven days. We all agree that there should be more Christian fellowship, and godly conversation. That should characterise more of the time we spend together. I was in a congregation last week in Camberwell in London and the pastor was saying to me after the evening service ended, “They’re still here, you know, after nine o’clock. They talk together, and it is not worldly conversation, They have come here and they take advantage of it. There are things they have heard that stir them up. There are mutual concerns and love for one another, and they talk together.” I see it here too. We seem to be going home later and later after the services have ended.
THE COMFORTERS’ COOLNESS TO THE GOD OF JOB.
So here were men who were friends of Job, sympathetic with his plight, who were self-consciously religious men. They had thought about the Lord, and had some great views of God, yet these three men were also deficient in their knowledge and understanding. One of the less obvious things that strikes you about these three men is that they were fit, hearty, strong, and well off. They had not experienced the loss of family, property, and health as Job had. They had never endured the crucible in which God had placed Job. They had lived long prosperous lives, and this affected their whole attitude to Job.
It is inconceivable that these men had never thought or talked about suffering before these calamitous events hit their friend. Job had a reputation of testifying to men about their need of faith in a personal God. You see this in these words to him of Eliphaz in chapter 4, ‘think how you have instructed many’ (v.8). We know that Job offered a sacrifice for his sin because of the justice and holiness of the Lord. The only way that a sinner can approach God is by the shedding of blood. Cast yourself on God’s mercy because the blood has been shed. We flood the light of Golgotha onto the incident which is described in this first chapter, how Job made sacrifice for the sins of his children, setting out a way of atonement for them. However religious or good Job was, he needed redemption. But this is not what Job’s friends considered important. It was never a part of their conversations. Their health and prosperity were themselves the evidence that all was well between themselves and God. Wasn’t the Lord blessing them? Look how wealthy they were! The troubles that happened to Job hadn’t hit them. They were right with God. So when Job was cut down by his disease, they were deeply sorry for him, and yet, they always resented this message to them that they needed a lamb and forgiveness for their sins, and should cast themselves on the grace of God. The more that they spoke to him as speech follows speech, the more evident is their deep hostility to him and his message, and their irritation with what he stands for is evident. They are almost relieved at his pain to vindicate themselves, their beliefs, and their own lives. God was obviously judging Job, and he was not judging them, was he? So Job was wrong; Job was the sinner, and not them.
What is quite significant in the first two chapters of the book is that God is addressed as the ‘LORD’, that is, ‘Jehovah.’ That is the covenant name of God, the name of his grace and his mercy. But once you come to chapter three, and the others begin to speak, never once does a friend refer to God as ‘the Lord’. Eliphaz never speaks of him as the Lord, Bildad never speaks of him as the Lord, Zophar never speaks of him as the Lord. They refer to him as ‘Elohim’ – ‘God’, the creator, or they call him ‘El Shaddai’ – ‘The Almighty One’. That word ‘El Shaddai’ is found 48 times in the Old Testament, and 31 of those occurrences are found on the lips of the friends of Job. But when you come to the last chapters, after all the chapters where men have spoken, God speaks again. He refers to himself as the ‘Lord.’
So Job’s comforters do not know God as the ‘Lord.’ They don’t know him familiarly, intimately and confidently. But Job does and he instructs many people, saying, ‘You have got to know the Lord; you must be reconciled to him. It’s by the way of sacrifice you have to go,’ he would say. But these three men wouldn’t hear Job when he tells them, “the Lord requires absolute holiness. God commands perfection and offers unearned pardon. Then through the slain lamb God can forgive, cleanse and pardon everything when we go in faith to him and say, ‘I’m a failure, and I need your mercy, and here is the sacrifice I offer.'” Job testified to that truth.
Yet when these calamities came into his life they so undermined Job that in his great lamentation even he doesn’t have enough assurance to refer to God as ‘the Lord’. Job himself can refer to him simply as ‘God’, the Creator, just as Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar do. Job is struggling because of all he’s gone through.
So then, that is the big picture. Job had lost so much, and into his life marched these three men.
WHY WERE THESE MEN PERMITTED TO ENTER JOB’S LIFE?
Why did God allow it? Why at a time of need are our troubles compounded? One problem seems to beckon to another to hurry after it into a Christian’s life. Why does God seem to lower his head behind the parapet, and let these men come clumsily into Job’s life when he is hurting?
There are three reasons for that, as we so often point out. There are always three reasons why providences come into our lives. Firstly, there are the natural and human factors as an explanation. Here were men who had known Job for years, sympathising and anxious to help. They were curious that he had been humbled so greatly and wanted to see him. Those are the natural reasons. Then, secondly, the devil of course is still active, and Satan cannot resist a chance of kicking a man when he is down. So his intention is to twist the knife in the soul of Job and he torments him through the insistent voices of the men that it is because of some secret wickedness of monstrous proportions that God is punishing Job. The devil is always active. Thirdly God is in this; the Lord is bringing Job closer to himself through all of these trials, training Job by the things that he suffers, strengthening Job through having to think about the mean words, weighing, resisting and answering them just like you and me. We are involved in a religious debate with people at work or university, and they ask us questions for which we don’t always have the answers. That is a very valuable service they perform. It makes us think, and we say to ourselves that next time we are asked that question this will be the answer we’ll give.
I’m saying again to you that in everything that happens to us we must see these three factors at work; there are the natural reasons for the interrogation; you have to see God at work in it, and you must see Satan is also present. After Job had been through this nightmare, he had become a stronger man. He was an even holier man, more obedient, wiser and more useful, and it was in spite of all they had said, not because of it. The pressure religious men bring to bear upon us in their hostility can have that great benefit. It happened to a pastor friend of mine who once preached in this pulpit. His name is John, and this is what John wrote about his experience of being pressured by a man like one of Job’s comforters:
‘In the forty years I have been in the ministry, I have nearly always been able to get along with the leaders with whom I have worked. There was only one exception to that. I worked with one particular deacon that literally hated me. I think he would have killed me if he could have got away with it. I used to call him Shimei, but only when my wife and I were talking. I’m sure you remember Shimei makes his appearance when David was fleeing for his life after Absalom had taken over the kingdom. Shimei cursed David and said, ‘Come out, come out, thou bloody man,’ He told David that in his troubles he was getting what he deserved. One of David’s men, Abishai, wanted to take off Shimei’s head, but David said, ‘If God wants me to be cursed, so be it.’ David recognised the hand of God. My Deacon friend was like Shimei. When he was on the diaconate he would magnify every single bad thing and overlooked every single good thing. He hounded me to death, but the strange part is that he did more to help me to be a better pastor than any other deacon with whom I ever served. You see, when he was on the board, I always made sure that I did everything, down to the smallest detail, that I was supposed to do. I have a tendency to leave things until the last minute, and then I miss some small detail. But I didn’t miss anything when ‘Shimei’ was on board. I came to the place where I could honestly thank God for that man. I believe that God knew that I needed some help, and he sent ‘Shimei’ along to help me to become a better Pastor. I also know that God was going to deal with that man for the ‘help’ he gave me.
“You see the point? All that the man did, he did out of dislike for me. He was not motivated by love for God or a true concern for the church, he was after me. But God used him to help me by the very fact that he forced me to take care of details.” As believers, we can be sure that everyone is under God’s control, when we pray for him to teach us something, he often answers by sending the people into our lives that can accomplish that task. We are praying for patience, and for wisdom. So God sends a mean-spirited boss into our factory. That will teach us patience and wisdom. If we rebel against God’s teachers, then we are really rebelling against God. Far too often we would like to pick our teachers and our actual study course, but when we do, we never learn the lessons that are necessary. God sends the people that do the job.
So those three men were moved by natural factors to visit Job, and Satan used them to depress Job further, but God was also in their arrival, their questionings and their accusations. Through their presence, but in spite of their attitudes and their words – not because of them – Job became a stronger and a more godlike man.
Now then, let me say three things in closing:
i] WE ALSO MAY GET IT WRONG WHEN WE TRY TO HELP.
It is easy to criticise these attempts at comforting Job. When we try to help Christians who are depressed, we can get it wrong, but it is worth the effort. We sometimes make a mess of it, but it is worth trying. Some people are enormously complicated and you can almost guarantee that what you say to them will be misunderstood, but it is worth trying to help. Keep smiling!
There is a lady who is a pastor’s wife in London. Her name is Sue Atkinson and she has an observation about helping people with depression. She says, “You do three or four things to cheer them up, you cook their favourite meal, you tidy the room while they are out, you put fresh flowers in the hall, you even suggest that they buy a new coat. Yet when they see what you have done it is all wrong. You were supposed to realise that their present loss of appetite means that the sight of their favourite meal would reduce them to tears, tidying their room was actually a way of saying that you dislike the way that they leave their room in a mess, putting fresh flowers in the hall was wrong because the flowers are going to die and they look much prettier in the garden, and as for suggesting a new coat, that was a threat for you were saying that the person should try to do something about her dishevelled appearance however low she feels.’ Now that is the experience that many have in their stumbling, lisping, stammering attempts to help people that are depressed. Although we criticise Job’s friends, we have to acknowledge that when dealing with elderly senile parents or unhappy teenagers, that we have been no more successful in speaking to them. However, our spirits are right and we would like to see them change for the better. We try to encourage them in the counsels we offer. So that is the first thing, when we criticise Job’s friends – as we must – let us remember that we have not found it always a very easy matter to encourage other people.
ii] THIS PROVIDENCE OCCURS EARLY IN THE HISTORY OF REDEMPTION.
All this happened to Job very early on in the history of redemption. Job certainly lived before Abraham, maybe he lived before Noah? You are going right back and back to the earliest times. In other words, Job doesn’t have the examples of other men of God who acknowledged that they felt just as wretched as he did. Job was a pioneer amongst Christian men who have an intimate growing relationship with God. Job was initially inclined to think that if you follow God then you don’t get discouraged, that you go on placidly in the religious life, that as you walk with him such calamities don’t crash into your life.
That same friend of mine called John (who had trouble with someone he nicknamed Shimei) is advertising a tape of his that he gave at a conference last year and he entitled his message, ‘Three great sovereign grace preachers who were so depressed that they wanted to die.’ Now who were those three? Well the first was Moses; Numbers 11.14 ‘put me to death right now.’ And the second was Elijah under the juniper tree, 1 Kings 19, ‘it is enough Lord, take away my life.’ And the third was Jonah, chapter 4.3, ‘now O Lord take away my life.’ John shows in that tape that here were men who struggled with physical and personal and spiritual problems, ending up very low in spirits.
It was just the same with Job; there were physical reasons why Job spoke as he did, there were personal reasons, and there were spiritual reasons also. Now, Job probably lived at least six-hundred years before Moses; he lived thirteen-hundred years before Elijah, and fourteen-hundred years before Jonah. He didn’t have the benefit of reading those scriptures that you and I now have. He never know that there would be those three great men who were of like passions as himself, who were once as low as Job himself. That would have greatly encouraged him, as it has helped Christians ever since.
There is an incident recorded by Dr Lloyd-Jones in his sermons on Romans 8 called ‘The Final Perseverance of the Saints.’ He talks of a woman who passes through a time of dryness and darkness and so was in great spiritual trouble. It was partly a physical condition. Many of her friends had gone to her (and some of them were ministers) and they had spoken in the same way. They were all trying to get her to rouse herself, talking in a theoretical manner, and assuring her that feelings didn’t matter. The only important thing was the truth of justification by faith, they emphasised. But Dr Lloyd-Jones said that she believed that truth, in fact she was able to articulate it even better than some of the ministers speaking with her. However, that didn’t help her because her problem was that she didn’t feel the blessedness of being justified freely by the grace of God. She was praying, ‘Where is the blessedness I knew when first I saw the Lord?’ That was her condition, and the advice of her friends wasn’t helping her, because it is cold comfort to say, “Pull yourself together, arouse yourself.” That is what they cannot do. Superficial people who do not understand anything about the depths of spiritual experience don’t understand this.
So what happened to this woman? Dr Lloyd-Jones went to her and this is the sort of thing that he said: “You know, there are periods like this in the lives of the saints. Sometimes God for his own inscrutable reasons withholds his face from us.” She looked at him with amazement, “Is that true?” “Of course it is true,” he replied. Lloyd-Jones goes on to say, “I proceeded to give her many examples and illustrations of this. At once her problem was solved, because now she had an explanation. The other counsellors weren’t giving her an explanation; she had no reply to the devil, but now she could turn to him and say, “Yes, the child of light occasionally has to walk in darkness, and sometimes he does so because he is a child of light.”
We can do what Dr Lloyd-Jones did when we need pastor our own hearts, or other people’s. We can say, “Well, Moses felt like as you do, and Elijah felt like this, and Jonah too, and it was a Psalmist who asked, “Why art thou cast down O my soul.’ Paul, when he was in Ephesus was pressed down beyond measure. Think of the Lord Jesus’ condition in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here are examples of struggling Christians, but they all were alive after Job had gone to heaven. Job was the pioneer; he didn’t have the biblical knowledge that you and I have.
We also have the knowledge of the saints in church history, and we have learned of the discouragements of John Bunyan, William Cowper, Charles Haddon Spurgeon and also of Joni Eareckson, all of whom came long after Job. More than that, we know what God was doing with Job, that he had lowered the hedge of protection around him because the Lord had absolute confidence in Job. God would keep him and his faith wouldn’t fail, so that when Satan came and troubled him, God would be holding him fast. That same Jehovah Jesus said to Simon Peter, “I have prayed for you, that your faith won’t fail when Satan sifts you.” Job didn’t know any of those things. So through the increasing flow of redemptive history we have gained more knowledge of God’s dealings with men than Job possessed.
iii] YOU CAN HELP OTHER CHRISTIANS.
The third thing that I want to say to you is that you are able to help other Christians. You have the ability. Do not be put off by the mess Job’s comforters made. Do not think to yourself that it is better for me to say absolutely nothing to that person, and be a ‘non-directive counsellor.’ It is better for you to use a lisping and stammering tongue than sit in embarrassing silence. I remember when my father died on Christmas day 1978 the number of people then who came to the Manse, young and old members of the congregation, and the profound things they said. They were so encouraging by the wise, helpful, loving things they said, spoken with such affection. I enjoyed a day when I was on a spiritual high from Christian fellowship through the sense and graciousness with which all were enabled to speak. All that they said was so true. I think it was different when my mother died, because my mother was a long time dying and she had a disease that caused her to lose her mind and understanding. Death was a release for everyone and her door to heaven. My father died suddenly and then people came and said such extraordinarily wise things. I don’t think they could imagine how helpful were the words they said.
You are able to counsel because you have the scriptures, and you know your own hearts. You have the indwelling Comforter to minister through you to other people. You must not even think, “Well I couldn’t comfort people because I don’t have the personality.” Simon Peter didn’t have the personality but then Jesus worked in Simon Peter’s life and changed him. That rough diamond later wrote wonderful letters, and was able to help so graciously and powerfully people who came to him. You have to learn to carry other people’s burdens. You will be taught to weep with them that weep. You have to learn to get involved with people. The greatest commandment is to love one another. Paul writes to the Thessalonians and says, “you know that like a father dealing with his children, so we urged and encouraged and charged each one of you to walk in a manner that was worthy of God.” That is spirit of a true comforter. How did Paul do it? “We were so concerned for you that we were glad to give you not only God’s good news, but also part of our very souls because you were dear to us.”
We have to look at one another and examine our own hearts and ask about whom in the congregation is it true for us to say we are so concerned for you that we would give you a part of ourselves because you have become so dear to us? Now the man who wrote this was once a blustering bigot. He was not at all this tender man when on the Damascus road the Lord Jesus met him and began to change him. But the same Jesus is working in you and is making you look outwards and consider others. He gives you grace to help and comfort other people. You know the great words at the beginning of Philippians 2, “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility, consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others.”
That is how the apostle exhorts, and then he encourages them always to be looking at the interests of others by appealing to the mind of Christ, ‘let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Paul opens up the theme of the great humbling of God the Son, the incarnation of Christ, the giving of the Lord who became the servant who served. That is what we are called to do.
11 November 2001 GEOFF THOMAS