October 24, 2021
We’ve finally made it to the end of the book of Job! God has just finished speaking, pointing Job to all the wonders of creation as the answer to his complaint. Job seems to understand what God is getting at. He realizes that he is not able to see the whole universe the way that God can, so even though he doesn’t understand fully why suffering happens—and we don’t get to learn either—he can say that God knows what’s up. And if God knows, then that’s enough. So then the story is rounded out with the epilogue where Job receives twice as much stuff as he started off with. Which feels…odd.
The restoration of Job has made a lot of readers of this book uncomfortable. For forty some chapters, we’ve been reading a masterful work of poetry that is just tearing apart the idea that God rewards the righteous with material blessings, and punishes the sinful with curses. Then, in the space of a few verses, it seems like the story gets so uncomfortable for the writer (remember Job is a parable meant to teach us, not a direct retelling of a history) that the writer feels the need to give it a Disney-fied ending where everyone lived happily ever after. Job does, in fact, get rewarded for his righteousness. So…were his friends really that wrong after all?
Because looking at Job’s words, it seems like he repents of some kind of sin. It certainly seems like the double portion that God gives him is a reward—he’s admitted that he was wrong to accuse, that he’s the sinner and God is in the right, so God gives him twice as many blessings as before. And if we read it that way, it does really undermine the whole rest of the book. But that’s not the only way to read it, and I want us to pay special attention to one particular sentence:
“I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
It’s a very pious translation, because Job is given the words of a man who is properly responding to his smallness compared to Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth. But because Hebrew is a very different language from English, the words sometimes have a different shade of meaning. The same sentence could be translated “I am comforted, and put off my dust and ashes.” And if we read it that way, it opens up a whole new understanding of what Job is actually saying.
Instead of Job piously humbling himself before God, admitting he was wrong and repenting, what if we read it instead as Job praising God for giving him closure? When he says “I am comforted,” he’s talking about the speech that God gave, that God even took the time to be present with him to help him put his life into perspective. He’s comforted by the realization that God can work the mechanisms of the entire universe, and still find the time to answer him. And because of that, because he got the response that he needed, because even if the answer was unsatisfying it was still an answer, he can start to move on from his grief. He can “put off” his dust and ashes, the symbols of grief and mourning.
And just to drive the point home, there are some missing verses in our reading. Between Job’s proclamation about God and God’s restoration of Job, there is the matter of what God says to Job’s three friends. Y’all remember the friends, right? The long-winded guys that kept insisting that Job must have sinned because that’s how God works? After all of that pontificating, God turned to the friends and reprimanded them, pointing out that Job was right and they were wrong. God will not be put in a box of being a cosmic bean counter of good and bad deeds. Instead, Job is right because Job embraced the ambiguity of a God who works in mysterious ways. And Job was right because he didn’t give up until he heard from God. He didn’t move on in the way his friends insisted.
What Job’s reaction teaches us is that grief and mourning don’t have to have a set timetable. He waited for God to answer. He got mad. He railed about the unfairness of it. He refused to move, to admit something that wasn’t true just for the sake of appearances. And when it comes to grieving, our culture is really, really bad at giving space to people who are not ready to move on.
And that can be any loss we experience. We’re frequently expected to be “back to normal” within a month or two, to the point that people who take longer than that to grieve are seen as unhealthy, as if something is wrong with them. And when the loss isn’t a death—we tend to be slightly more patient with that—the timeline is even shorter. Divorce, job loss, loss of a friendship, even children moving out of the house—somehow we’re supposed to bounce right back from that? No, the truth is what we read here in Job. No matter how many well-meaning platitudes we hear, no matter how many theories are thrown our way, no matter how deeply entrenched other people may be in trying to dictate what our grief should look like, we like Job can only move when we get the closure we need.
And for Job, that closure was the word from God. He needed to be heard. He needed his concern recognized, to have God acknowledge that something has happened to him and it is jarring and unfair and doesn’t make sense. He needed God to come and put it into perspective, to help him piece together the puzzle of why it happened, to get some kind of answer—even if the answer was frustratingly vague. In our own grief, Job is our reminder that it’s not wrong to demand the kind of closure that will help us move on. He needed that answer so that he could put off his dust and ashes.
And then he was restored. He received double what he had before. But it wasn’t all at once. The text mentions that he had seven sons and three daughters—the same number he had before the disaster. Those children would have taken time to have, maybe more than a decade. I think they, more than anything, are the blessing that Job receives that speaks loudest to what it looks like to live on after grief. It happened, year, after year, that Job took the chance once again to bring life into the world when it had so chaotically been taken from him all at once. His restoration was less about God replacing everything that he’d lost, and more about Job being able to put his life back together.
Because you don’t get restored after loss. The things you lose, they’re gone. Job wasn’t going to be able to reset his life to before everything fell apart, and neither will we. But he embraced the blessing of life after that God gave him. He let joy back into his life with children. He named his daughters Dove, Cinnamon, and Antimony, signs that he could see beauty in the world again. He let friends back into his life who came to visit him and spend time with him. He decided to defy convention by including his daughters in the inheritance. He was changed, but he was healed too.
Job is a hard book. It’s a challenging book. But the Spirit put it in the Bible for a reason. I hope, over the past few weeks as we’ve taken the time to look into it, y’all have heard something of what God is saying through it. Scripture doesn’t shy away from things as real to us as grief and loss, the confusion of why suffering happens, and even the kind of hazy uncertainty of what life looks like after we’ve experienced loss. It’s a very real book, and in that way the Spirit uses it to sharpen our attention, to recognize that God may be higher than the heavens, but God is also closer to us than we are to ourselves.
Ultimately, Job is a parable about grieving. And it tells us that sometimes, tragedy can strike and we don’t understand why. And sometimes we have friends who insist on saying things they think are helpful. And sometimes we have to just shout and scream at God. But God listens. God makes the entire universe run, but God still takes the time to hear our complaint. God will walk with us as we navigate the uncertainties of this majestic and untamable universe. And God will help us find closure so that we can take those tentative steps back to seeing the wonder and beauty of life, after.
Thanks be to God. Amen.