Sunday, February 26, 2023

Sympathy and Solipsism

Much of scripture is historical. No surprise there. We learn that in Sunday School.

History is just the words and doings of men recorded by other men, but Bible history is a little different in that the Bible’s historians recorded what they did not just to provide an accurate account of what happened, but with spiritual ends in view. Sometimes the conversations and speeches the Bible’s historians documented for us were essentially truthful; other times they were not.

Questions to Ask When Reading History

This makes it necessary to read Bible history differently than we read a letter from Paul, a psalm of David or a prophecy of Jeremiah. When we read those words, the only question we have to settle is whether the message we find there applies to us. The question of truth or error is not even on the table. We would not imagine for a moment that Paul, Jeremiah or David is trying to mess with us.

However, when we are reading the words of men recorded by other men in the historical books of scripture, we always have to ask ourselves the question “Was this person just giving his opinion, or was God speaking through him?” The writer of Genesis records the words of the serpent, but we are not interested in following the serpent’s lead. The writer of Exodus records the words of Pharaoh, and we know how many times he lied. Job’s wife counseled him to curse God and die. She was not speaking by the Spirit when she did.

The various speakers in the book of Job are engaged in trying to find an answer to a question that has been on everyone’s mind since sin entered the world. I suspect more people ask this question today than any other question about God: Why does he let good people suffer? Failure to come up with a satisfactory answer to that question becomes the excuse of many for not heeding the gospel, so it’s important we respond to it accurately, honestly, scripturally and sensitively. Job is a good place to go to think about how to do that.

Timeless Truths in History Books

Despite the fact that Job is a very poetic book, I believe it is also an accurate record of what happened to a real, living human being very early in history. Ezekiel mentions Job twice as an example of exceptional human righteousness. James mentions him as an example of steadfastness, and comments that through Job the Lord demonstrated his compassion and mercy. You can’t demonstrate much compassion and mercy through a fiction. So if we are going to treat Job as historical, then as we move through the book and different individuals are speaking, we are going to have to ask the question “Is what this speaker is saying true? Is he lying? Is he just giving an opinion that is neither here nor there? And even if he is speaking as a friend in good faith, and if even he believes what he is saying, does it reflect the truth of God?”

Chapters 4 and 5 of Job contain the transcript of a single speech from Job’s friend Eliphaz. These two chapters are chock full of timeless truth, quoted or referred to by the other authors of scripture as many as 14 times, far more than any other single speech in the book of Job. David (and probably other psalmists as well), Solomon, Isaiah, Hosea, the apostle Paul and the writer to the Hebrews all confirm the things Eliphaz says about God and about life.

Eliphaz in the Scriptures

Here’s a comprehensive list. Some are direct quotes. Others simply repackage the ideas. All confirm that a significant portion of what Eliphaz said to Job was 100% true:

Isaiah 35:3 alludes to Job 4:3-4;
Solomon in Proverbs 22:8 paraphrases Job 4:8;
Hosea 10:13 refers to Job 4:8;
David in Psalm 37:35-36 may have Job 5:3 in mind;
David in Psalm 65:9 seems to have Job 5:10 in view;
Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:19 quotes Job 5:13;
Psalm 94:12 restates Job 5:17;
Proverbs 3:11-12 restates Job 5:17;
Psalm 33:19 alludes to Job 5:20;
Psalm 37:19 may allude to Job 5:20;
Hebrews 12:5 are taken from Proverbs 3:11-12, which restates Job 5:17;
Psalm 31:20 restates Job 5:21;
Psalm 72:16 riffs on ideas that come from Job 5:25; and
Psalm 112:2 also incorporates ideas from Job 5:25.

Accurate, Honest, Scriptural … and Wrong

It’s an impressive list, and if it’s all we had to go on, we would confidently buy into everything Eliphaz has to say. He’s accurate, honest and scriptural.

Except the poor guy is wrong, and he’s wrong repeatedly. All his arguments fail the sniff test, even when they are full of premises that are perfectly valid if we take them on their own. God himself says so in the book’s final chapter concerning not just Eliphaz but his other two friends: “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Eliphaz said all kinds of things that were true, but he drew false conclusions from true statements.

We might think Eliphaz’s problem is that he goes on way too long. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking”, says Solomon. But does he? Not really. Chapters 4 and 5 can be read aloud at a reasonable pace in about two minutes and thirty seconds. If that’s too long to open your mouth and be safe from spiritual error, then the evangelical preachers of the last few hundred years have heaped up transgressions to the sky, and every one of us at one time or another has played Eliphaz.

No, length is not the problem, and truth is not really the problem either. There are lots of long, truthful speeches in Job out of which wrong conclusions are drawn.

Six Arguments in Two and a Half Minutes

Eliphaz’s speech subdivides into six different arguments, which build on one another and are largely constructed from truthful, repeatable statements.

1/ I Did Everything Right

In 4:2-6, Eliphaz points out that the shoe is on the other foot. Job, who has instructed and encouraged many people in trouble, is now in trouble himself, and he’s not handling it well in Eliphaz’s opinion. Buck up, Job, he says: “Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?” He’s suggesting Job’s righteousness should be his confidence.

False conclusion. Righteous behavior is a good and godly thing. We all ought to pursue personal righteousness as Job did. But rely on our own righteousness before God? Those filthy rags? Strong start, bad ending.

2/ Suffering Implies Sin

In 4:7-11, Eliphaz asks, “Who that was innocent ever perished?” If that sounds staggeringly naïve, we must remember Job is a very old book and an even older story, one of the oldest in the Bible. It was surely in circulation orally and maybe in writing long before the final version we have in our Bibles was put together. On social media last week, a few acquaintances considered the time frame during with Job lived. I tend to think he lived shortly after the Flood, but one fellow even made a case for an antediluvian Job.

In any case, when Eliphaz asked this question he had not lived through a world war. He could not pick up a newspaper and read about sixty million abortions. He could not pick up a Bible and read about the crucifixion of Christ, the stoning of Stephen or prophets sawn in two. So he asks a question that sounds ridiculous to the modern reader. It probably sounded less silly to him.

And he was wrong. His knowledge of the world was defective. But in the process of getting to his wrong conclusion, he also makes a truthful point in verse 8 that would later be restated by both Hosea and Solomon.

3/ The Argument from Experience

In 4:12-21, Eliphaz starts to go seriously wonky. Nobody else in scripture quotes from this section of his argument. It’s a combination of putting too much emphasis on personal experience combined with the “appeal to authority” fallacy. He tells a story in which he sees a spirit form in the night who gives him the message that no mortal man can be in the right before God. “Even in his servants he puts no trust, and his angels he charges with error.”

All technically true, but there are spirits and there are spirits. And nobody’s personal experience is authoritative. Only God’s word can wield that kind of clout.

4/ You Do It to Yourself

In 5:1-7 Eliphaz argues that affliction doesn’t come from nowhere. Trouble does not sprout from the ground. We bring it on ourselves with foolish behavior. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” He as much as calls Job a fool, which, when you think about it, is a staggeringly unhelpful way to speak to a suffering friend. An old Radiohead song called Just says much the same thing: “You do it to yourself, just you / You and no one else / You do it to yourself.”

Ouch. Still, David restates the ideas of verse 3 in the psalms. Sometimes fools take root, and sometimes wicked, ruthless men spread themselves like green laurel trees. These things are true, but they don’t add up to what Eliphaz wants them to.

5/ Here’s What I’d Do …

In 5:8-16, Eliphaz really steps in it. It’s the old “Here’s what I would do in your shoes” lecture, followed by the spiritual cliché: Put your trust in God. Of course that’s precisely what Job was trying to do, but in the extremity of his suffering he was finding it exceedingly difficult. This sort of provocation was not helping.

And yet in the middle of all that he gives Paul something perfectly true about God to quote in 1 Corinthians: “He catches the wise in their own craftiness.” Very much so.

6/ All’s Well That Ends Well

Finally, in 5:17-27, Eliphaz resorts to the worst sort of platitude to offer to a sick man: “You’re actually in a good place. It’ll all work out.” “Despise not the discipline of the Almighty.” The thing about offering that sort of comfort to a sufferer is that you can’t do so with any authority. Of course it’ll all work out in the long run: “God will be all in all.” But people are not usually thinking about the big picture when they are covered with boils and scratching away at themselves with a potsherd. They can’t possibly. Even though Eliphaz sees Job’s future correctly (many offspring, a tent at peace, a ripe old age), his “It’ll all be fine” speech can’t help the man much in the present.

Taken as a whole, it’s a fascinating speech; like so many, such a mixture of truth and error that nobody could possibly sort it out. The true bits have gone on to serve useful purposes elsewhere in scripture. The false bits have given preachers fodder for many a sermon. Maybe there’s something profitable even in our mistakes.

Me, Me, Me

How can a comforter know so much truth and be so bad at his job, a job that he may have traveled hundreds of miles to take on voluntarily? I don’t doubt Eliphaz really cared about his friend, but I suspect Job puts his finger on what was really motivating him in 6:21 when he says, “You see my calamity and are afraid.”

There is a fine line between sympathy and solipsism, and it’s all too easy to cross, even for Christians. Sympathy says, “I see you are in terrible distress and I wish I could take away your pain.” Solipsism says, “What would I do if this happened to me?”, and then wanders off contemplating not the sufferer’s actual pain but its own imaginary pain.

At that point, anything useful the comforter might have accomplished is pretty much over. You might say all the true things in the world, but nobody will be able to hear them.

1 comment :

  1. Re: 6.21: Our protective shell: "If I obey, God will bless me." If Job's experience proved that philosophy untrue, Eliphaz stood bare and vulnerable, with no clear way forward.