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It is a curious speech with which Bildad winds up the animated colloquy between Job and his three friends. There is a streak of failure across the face of the speech, notwithstanding its dignity. Indeed, the dignity is somewhat against the speech. Bildad is as ignorant of the reality of the case in the peroration as he was in the exordium. If this is all that can be said at the close of such an intellectual and spiritual interview, then some of the parties have grievously misunderstood the case. Taken out of its setting, read as a piece of religious rhetoric, it is good and noble; but regarded in its relations to the particular case throbbing before us with such suffering as man never bore, it seems to be impertinent in its dignity, and to aggravate the wound which the man ought to have attempted to heal. These grand religious commonplaces which Bildad utters are right, they are stately, they are necessary to the completion of the great fabric of theological and spiritual truth; but how to bring them down to the immediate pain, how to extract sympathy from them, how to make all heaven so little that it can come into a broken heart, has not entered into the imagination of this comfortless comforter.
Was there an undertone in his voice, was there anything between the lines in the curious speech with which he concluded the conference?
"How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?" ( Job 25:4 ).
Is there not more than theology in that inquiry? Perhaps not to the consciousness of the speaker himself. Yet we often say things which we do not put into definite words. There is a region of inference in human association, and fellowship, and education. Was the inquiry equal to saying, We have done with thee; we cannot work this miracle of curing thine obstinacy, O thou woman-born; thou art like all the rest of thy face; thou hast thy mother's obstinacy in thee a stubbornness that nothing can melt, or straighten, or in any wise be rendered manageable: how can he be clean that is born of a woman? how can a man such as thou art, and, indeed, such as we ourselves are, be set right if once wrong in the head and in the heart? Bildad did not say all that in words; yet we may so preach even a gospel discourse as to lead men to think that we have formed but a low opinion of them, and have no expectations as to their graciousness of reply. We may be evangelical, yet critical. We may ask a question in a tone which conveys the reply. Bildad would hurl the stars at Job, and pluck the fair moon that goddess of the dead in Oriental dreaming and throw it at the suffering patriarch, that they might all wallow in a common depravity and corruption a heap of things unclean! We should be careful how we pluck the stars. Better let them hang where God put them, and shine as much as they can upon a land that is often dark. Our little hands were never meant to gather such flowers and present them even as gifts of fragrance to other people. Let us keep steadfastly within our own limits, and talk such medicable and helpful words as we can out of our own sympathetic hearts, measured and toned and adjusted by a mysterious and subtle sympathy.
Now Job becomes the sole speaker. We have now to enter upon a wonderful parable. He has lost nothing of eloquence by all this controversial talk. He speaks the better now he has shaken his comforters from him, and he will deliver a great parable-sermon, apparently miscellaneous, yet not wholly unconnected. The marvellous thing is that this man has lost everything but his mind. Is there a drearier condition on earth, when viewed in one aspect? Do we not sometimes say, Thank God, he was unconscious; he did not know what he was suffering; the medical attendant says he could not feel the pain; his poor mind, his sensibility, quite gone: that is something to be thankful for. We had a kind meaning in that comment. But here is a man whose mind is twice quickened more a mind than it ever was. He feels a shadow; a spirit cannot pass before him without some sign of masonry, without some signal which the too-quickened mind of Job would instantly understand. All gone: the grave all set in order before him: the remembered prosperity hanging like a great cloud all round about him: not a child to touch him into hopefulness of life; not a kind voice to salute him, saying, Cheer thee! the darkest hour is just before the dawn; the angels are getting ready to come to thee on their wings of light, and presently heaven's own morning will dawn over thee in infinite whiteness and beauty. Yet his mind was left. How eloquent he was! He could set forth his sorrow in something like equivalent words. He knew every pain that was piercing him. The river of his tears hid nothing from him as to the fountains whence they sprang. Is not misery doubled by our sensitiveness as to its presence? Do we not increase our suffering by knowing just what the loss means? This is one of the mysteries of Providence, that a man should have nothing left but his sense of loss; that a man should find himself in a universe of cloud, crying, without even the friendship of an echo to keep him company. To such depths have some men been driven. Do we not thank God for their experience now and again, because it shows us how in comparison our grief is very little, our complaint is not worth utterance, our condition is blessed as compared with their sorrow-stricken hearts? On the other hand, is it not comforting that the man's mind should have been left? There is something grand even in this agony. A man who could talk as Job talks in this elaborate parable is not poor; his riches are indeed of another kind and quality, but they are riches still. "Oh, to create within the mind is bliss!" To have that marvellous power of withdrawment from all things merely outward, or that more marvellous power of seeing things merely outward as stairways up to celestial places, is to have wealth that can never be lost, so long as we are true to ourselves and anxious to respond to the responsibilities of life with faithfulness and diligence. Thank God for your senses that are left. This is true even in the deepest spiritual experiences. A sorrowing soul says I feel as if I had committed the unpardonable sin. What is the pastor's answer to such complaint? An instantaneous and gracious assurance to the contrary, because the very feeling that the sin may have been committed is a proof that no such sin has been done. He who has committed the unpardonable sin knows nothing about it; he is a dead man. Who feels the traveller trampling over his grave? Who says, There is a weight upon me, when he is buried seven feet deep in the earth? The very action of sensitiveness is charged with religious significance. When you are groping for God and cannot find him, know that even groping may be prayer; when you are filled with dissatisfaction with your condition, and when you have to betake yourselves even to despised interjections, as Job has had to do now and again, know that even interjection may be theology of the best kind, poetry, prayer, worship. Woe be unto him who would seek in any wise to diminish the hope of souls that feel their need of God.
In all his tumultuous but noble talk Job now and again opens a great door as if in a rock, and enters into a sanctuary perfect in its security; then he comes out again, and plunges into clouds and wintry winds; then suddenly he enters a refuge once more, and praises God in an asylum of rocks; yet he will not abide there: so in all this parable he is in a great refuge and out of it; he is resting upon a pillow made soft by the hands of God, and then he will perversely wander amongst speculations and conjectures and self-criticisms, and come home with head fallen upon his breast, and tears stopping the hymn of praise. This parable is true. Whether spoken in this particular literary form or not, there is not one untrue line in it It is the parable of the earnest soul in all ages, in all lands. It would fit the experience of men who have never heard of the Bible. It is a great human parable. When the Bible itself becomes special its speciality acquires most of its significance from the fact that the larger part of the Bible is itself commonplace that is to say, adapted not to one community or another, but to man in all his conscious want of strength and light and peace.
Job comes as it were suddenly upon an idea which sustains him.
"Hell is naked before him, and destruction hath no covering. He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing. He bindeth up the waters in his thick clouds; and the cloud is not rent under them. He holdeth back the face of his throne, and spreadeth his cloud upon it. He hath compassed the waters with bounds, until the day and night come to an end. The pillars of heaven tremble and are astonished at his reproof. He divideth the sea with his power, and by his understanding he smiteth through the proud. By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens; his hand hath formed the crooked serpent" ( Job 26:6-13 ).
Here at all events is a sense of almightiness, sovereignty, something that can be got hold of. We must beware how we credit Job with true astronomical ideas as to the poising of the north over the empty place, and the hanging of the earth upon nothing. Let us call it Hebrew poetry. We must be careful how we seize any one point even that is exact, and make that too much of an argument, because when we come upon points that are not so applicable how can we refuse their being turned as against the biblical contention? There is no need to make this a merely astronomic discovery: but poetry does sometimes outrun science, and get the truth first of all. The expression may have to be dressed a little, modified somewhat, perhaps lowered in temperature; but even poetry is a child of God. The idea that abides is the conception of the almightiness that keeps things in their places. Who can turn the north into the south? Who can take the earth out of the emptiness which it apparently occupies, and set it upon pillars? On what would the pillars stand? How do the stars keep in their courses? Why is it they do not break away? If heaven should come down upon us we should be crushed: what keeps the great, blue, kind heaven up where it is, as if for our use and enjoyment only? Suppose we cannot tell, that does not deprive us of the consciousness that the heaven is so kept, because there stands the obvious and gracious fact. What, then, has the soul to do in relation to these natural supports, these proofs that somehow things are kept in order and are set to music? The conception coming out of this view is a conception of omnipotence. The soul is intended to reason thus: Who keeps these things in their places has power to guide my poor little life; whatever ability it was that constructed the heavens, it is not wanting in skill and energy in the matter of building up my poor life into shapeliness and utility; I will, therefore, worship here if I cannot go further; I will say, O Great Power, be thy name what it may, take me up into thy plan of order and movement; make me part of the obedient universe: art thou deaf? canst thou speak? I know not, but it does me good to cry in the dark and to tell thee, if thou canst hear, that I want to be part of the living economy over which thou dost preside. Disdain no pagan prayer. No prayer, indeed, is pagan in any sense that deserves contempt. Our first prayers have sometimes been our best; blurred with tears, choked or interrupted with penitential sobbing, they have yet told the heart's tale in a way which could be understood by the listening Love, which we call by the name of God sometimes by the name of Father. Seize then the idea of Omnipotence; it covers all other conceptions; it is the base-line of all argument; it gives us a starting thought. Do not be particular about giving a name to it, or defining it; enter into the consciousness of the reality of such a Power, and begin there to pray at least to stumble in prayer.
Then Job utters a word which will be abiding in its significance and in its comfort
"Lo, these are parts of his ways: but how little a portion is heard of him? but the thunder of his power who can understand?" ( Job 26:14 ).
The man who said that was not left comfortless. Sometimes in our very desolateness we say things so deep and true as to prove that we are not desolate at all, if we were only wise enough to seize the comfort of the very power which sustains us. He who has a great thought has a great treasure. A noble conception is an incorruptible inheritance. Job's idea is that we hear but a whisper. Lo: this is a feeble whispering: the universe is a subdued voice; even when it thunders it increases the whisper inappreciably as to bulk and force: all that is now possible to me, Job would say, is but the hearing of a whisper; but the whisper means that I shall hear more by-and-by; behind the whispering there is a great thundering, a thunder of power; I could not bear it now; the whisper is a gospel, the whisper is an adaptation to my aural capacity; it is enough, it is music, it is the tone of love, it is what I need in my littleness and weariness, in my initial manhood. How many controversies this would settle if it could only be accepted in its entirety! We know in part, therefore we prophesy in part; we see only very little portions of things, therefore we do not pronounce an opinion upon the whole; we hear a whisper, but it does not follow that we can understand the thunder. There is a Christian agnosticism. Why are men afraid to be Christian agnostics? Why should we hesitate to say with patriarchs and apostles, I cannot tell, I do not know; I am blind, and cannot see in that particular direction; I am waiting? What we hear now is a whisper, but a whisper that is a promise. We must let many mysteries alone. No candle can throw a light upon a landscape. We must know just what we are and where we are, and say we are of yesterday, and know nothing when we come into the presence of many a solemn mystery. Yet how much we do know! enough to live upon; enough to go into the world with as fighting men, that we may dispute with error, and as evangelistic men, that we may reveal the gospel. They have taken from us many words which they must bring back again. When Rationalism is restored amongst the stolen vessels of the Church, Agnosticism also will be brought in as one of the golden goblets that belong to the treasure of the sanctuary. We, too, are agnostics: we do not know, we cannot tell; we cannot turn the silence into speech, but we know enough to enable us to wait. Amid all this difficulty of ignorance we hear a voice saying, What thou knowest not now, thou shalt know hereafter: I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now: if it were not so, I would have told you, as if to say, I know how much to tell, and when to tell it. Little children, trust your Lord.
Now Job gathers himself together again, and coming out in an attitude of noble gracious strength, he says
"I will teach you by the hand of God: that which is with the Almighty will I not conceal" ( Job 27:11 ).
Who is it that proposes to teach? Actually the suffering man himself. The suffering man must always become teacher. Who can teach so well? Now he begins to see a new function in life. Hitherto he has been "my lord." He says, I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame: when I passed by the elders rose up and saluted me, and young men fled from my path: I was a prince amongst men. The talk was indeed haughty, as became a fine sheik, a gentleman of Eastern lands, overloaded with estates; but now, having passed through all this sorrow, he says, "I will teach you." Not only so, "I will teach you by the hand of God." Sorrow is always eloquent True suffering is always expository, as well as comforting. Have we not seen that there are many chapters of the Bible which a prosperous man cannot read? He can spell them, parse them, pronounce the individual words correctly, but he cannot read them, round them into music, speak them with the eloquence of the heart, utter them with his soul; because they can only be read by the lame and the blind, and the sorrow-laden and the poor: but oh, how they can read them! Keep away the rhetorician from the twenty-third Psalm; the fourteenth chapter of John; the Lord's Prayer. For a man who knows nothing but words to read such passages is blasphemy. Sometimes they cannot be read aloud; they can only be read to the heart by the heart itself. So it is with preaching. Here it is that the older man has a great advantage over the young man. Not that the young man should be deprived of an opportunity of speaking in the time of zeal and prophetic hopefulness. Nothing of the kind. The young man has a work to do, but there are some texts which he must let alone for a good many years; they do not yet belong to him; when he reaches his majority then he will have his property, so to say, given to him, and he can use it in harmony with the donor's will. The young man must be zealous, perhaps efflorescent, certainly enthusiastic, occasionally somewhat eccentric and even wild: but was not Paul himself sometimes a fool in glorying? He would have been a less apostle if he had been a more careful man. He plunged into the great work; he leaped into it, and seemed to say to the sea, O sea, thyself teach me how to swim, that I may come right again to the shore. So we need the young, ardent, fearless, enthusiastic, chivalrous; but at the same time who can teach like the man who has suffered most? He knows all the weight of agony, all the load of grief, all the loneliness of bereavement He tells you how deep was the first grave he dug. Then you begin to think that your grief was not quite so deep as his. He has lost wife, or child, or friend, or property, or health, or hope. He tells how the battle went, how cold the wind was, how tempestuous the storm, how tremendous the foe, how nearly once he was lost, and was saved as by the last and supreme miracle of God. As he talks, you begin to take heart again; from providence you reason to redemption; and thus by help of the suffering teacher the soul revives, and God's blessing comes upon the life. Young persons should be patient with men who are talking out of the depths of their experience. It is sometimes difficult to sit and hear an older man talk about life's battles and life's sorrows, when to the young hearer life is a dream, a holiday, a glad recreation; the ear full of the music of chiming bells, wedding metal clashing out its nuptial music to the willing wind to be carried everywhere, a gospel of festivity and joy. We would not chill you, we would not shorten the feast by one mouthful; but the flowers that bedeck the table are plucked flowers, and when a flower is plucked it dies.
Sorrowing men, broken hearts, souls conscious of loss and desolation, the story of the patriarchs will be lost upon us if we do not apply it to ourselves as a balm, a cordial, a gospel intended for our use and privilege. Risk it all by taking the comfort. But are we worthy of the comfort? Do not attempt too much analysis. There are some things by which analysis is resisted; they say, If you thus take us to pieces you will lose the very thing we meant to convey to you. We have heard of the patience of Job, we have listened to his colloquies with his friends, and seen how they have been puzzled and bewildered; Job has now come into the parabolical period of speech: presently another voice will come across the whole scene a young voice, bell-like in tone, incisive; a young man who will take up another tone of talk altogether, and then the great whirlwind platform will be erected, and from its lofty heights there will come a tempest of questions; then will come the long eventide quiet, solemn, more hopeful than a morning dawn. Meanwhile, at this point, here is the feast of comfort. The suffering man says, We only know a part, we only hear a whisper: the great thunder has not yet broken upon us because we are not prepared for it. Let us stand in this, that God is working out a great plan, and must not be interrupted in the continuance of his labour, in the integrity of his purpose. O mighty, gracious, miracle-working Son of God, help us to wait!
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Job 26". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany