Sunday, June 14, 2020

More Than Accurate

“My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right.”

In his first letter to the churches in Corinth, as he so often does, Paul appeals to the authority of the Old Testament in making his argument. He says, “For it is written.” Apparently that settles the matter.

Incidentally, Paul is quoting from the book of Job. The text at the top of this post comes from Job as well.

Authority in Unexpected Places

That is not the only time the book of Job is quoted in the New Testament, but it is a little different in this respect: in invoking the authority of scripture, Paul is not reciting the words of Job himself, nor is he quoting the words which God speaks to Job later in the book. He is appealing for the authority of his argument to the words of Eliphaz the Temanite from his first speech to a suffering Job in chapter 5.

In that chapter Eliphaz is talking about God and he says to Job, “He catches the wise in their own craftiness, and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end.” Many years later, the apostle Paul would effectively say with respect to that particular pronouncement of Eliphaz, “That’s a good point. That’s authoritative.” So he grabs it and quotes it to the Corinthians and says, “The wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’.” Then he adds another quotation from the Psalms to bolster his argument, as the writers of the New Testament often do. Perhaps they are thinking there of the principle of the legal validity of the testimony of two men. At any rate, they frequently give us two or three Old Testament sources to make their case, rather than just one.

Good Intentions and Bad Execution

So then, though God says about Eliphaz later in the book of Job, “You have not spoken of me what is right,” that condemnation is far from a universal statement. God is not saying that everything Eliphaz had to say about him cannot be trusted. In point of fact, not just Eliphaz, but his friends Zophar and Bildad said literally dozens of good, factual, eminently quotable things about God; things that we can quite easily confirm from later scriptures, expressed with an unusual poetic beauty and elegance. These were righteous men who had a pretty decent idea what God is like, though they made a serious mistake or two in assessing what he was doing.

Moreover, they were genuine friends genuinely trying to help. They had traveled a long way to shown their concern for Job, and they had just spent a full week sitting quietly with him to mourn his situation. When they finally spoke, they did not argue with Job just for the sake of enjoying a bracing intellectual back-and-forth, but in order (they thought) to correct a good friend’s thinking about himself so he could repent and extricate himself from an awful situation. They wanted the very best for him. As is often the case, the problem was not with their intentions, but with their execution.

Misapplying the Truth

And yet the poverty of their arguments reminds us that it is possible to know God very well indeed, and to say true things about him; things that are not wrong in themselves but wrong in the way we apply them. If we apply a particular factual statement about God as Paul did, to demonstrate that the wisdom of this world is folly with God, then we have done a very good thing, and have made a valid point.

However, it is also possible to take the same perfectly factual statement about God and use it, as Eliphaz did, to imply something horribly untrue and quite hurtful about his friend’s personal situation. You see, the implication of Eliphaz’s lengthy speech about God’s wisdom is this: that the terrible calamities which had come upon Job served as evidence that he was one of those crafty people whose devices God was frustrating. Job’s problem, Eliphaz argues, is that he needs to repent. He is under the discipline of God. That’s what he goes on to say: “Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty.” He is telling his friend, in effect, “This is all your fault,” and he’s making his incorrect argument from a true statement about God which he has managed to misapply.

Eliphaz’s argument fails Logic 101. You cannot go from “He catches the wise in their craftiness” to “Since it appears you have been ‘caught’, it must be because you are crafty.” There are a whole bunch of assumptions (not to mention undefined terms) in the latter statement that do not follow logically from the former. And yet what Eliphaz has said about God is technically correct. On its own, we would never argue with the statement.

Maybe this is the sort of thing James had in mind when he wrote, “Not many of you should become teachers.”

Different Sorts of Rightness

There are different sorts of “rightness”. There is the rightness of rigid technical accuracy, which we all appreciate from engineers, or else crossing a bridge would be a terrifying prospect. There is the rightness of being appropriate, as in the “right” shirt for an occasion. There is the rightness of moral rectitude ... and I might go on. But when God says of Eliphaz and his friends that they have not spoken of him what is right, he is not talking about any of these sorts of rightness.

In Hebrew the word “right” is kuwn, which occurs 15 times in the book of Job. The word bears several shades of meaning in the Old Testament, but in Job it is consistently used to refer to the “rightness” of preparation or readiness. In this sense, a word may be said to be “right” not just when it is factually correct, but when it is entirely thought-through and correctly applied.

The failure of Eliphaz and company was not a failure of technical accuracy, but a failure of both charity and imagination. Charity, because they made assumptions about Job which were quite untrue. Imagination, because these good men were binary thinkers, much like Jesus’ disciples when they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” For Eliphaz and his friends, it was either this or that, either ones or zeroes. They could not conceive of the real reasons for Job’s torment, or the workings of the spirit realm which had produced them. Such things were outside their experience. They could not imagine them, let alone address their consequences helpfully.

Three Thoughts
  1. It is possible to say plenty of true things about God without speaking “rightly” of him. Satan did this in his temptation of the Lord Jesus. Discernment requires a great deal more than technical accuracy. This is what makes dealing with neo-Christian cults so difficult: they often get so much right.
  2. People can say terribly unkind things without meaning to. In giving counsel to others, we are often up against the outer limits of our own thinking, and we need to be humble enough to know when to stop talking.
  3. True statements about God are authoritative no matter who makes them. Even a person who is mistaken in his conclusions may still provide all manner of insights along the way.

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