They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. – Job 2:13
The Daily Office lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer has recently taken up a survey of the long and profound Book of Job. I look forward to each opportunity to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this extraordinary part of the Old Testament; for, along with Ecclesiastes, this was the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures I truly came to love.
The opening sections of Job seem almost like a fairy-tale. They present the story of an ideal man of faith, blessed with all that one could want. The setting is that of a far-away place (not in ancient Israel; yet Job is more faithful than the most obedient Hebrew, it seems). This setting allows for much of what follows: an experiment dealing with the very extremes of belief itself. So radical and dangerous is what follows, that is must be held with the spiritual equivalent of oven mitts.
First, God allows the Malevolent One (literally “the accuser”) to put this good man to the test: first by the destruction of his wealth and family, then the destruction of his health. In itself, this is a very menacing window into the vagaries of life. God allows evil to happen as part of some deeper testing. Of course, we know that at the end of the book, all will be restored. But, for now, the actors in the drama cannot know this. Job and those around him only know that all of God’s blessings have been taken away in a complete and seemingly final way. Why? So begins the main part of the book.
Indeed, the first chapters are really a lead up to this central section of the Job: the great inquiry into the question of why evil happens. The author of Job has skillfully engaged our interest, set the stage, and drawn us into what will be a difficult, long, and labyrinthine discussion of justice, good and evil, God’s purposes, human righteousness, and the ability of the human being to be justified before God. It is a heady, demanding book whose subtleties are greater than almost anything else in the entirety of Holy Writ.
So, as we begin, we need to notice what Job and his friends do before they begin the Great Discussion: they sit in silence for seven days. This holy silence is a fast: a fast from attempting to make painful situations easier by surface conversations, easy answers, or sentimental clap-trap. While much will be said in this book that is ultimately proven to be false or unwise, it begins in a spirit of compassion and deep purpose. As we read this book, we need to do the same. This book’s secrets can only be unlocked in this spirit, much as the Gospel's meaning and purpose can only be known by a spirit of humility and inner silence.
Let us approach this book in our daily readings, our faith in its practice day-by-day, and our neighbors in the encounters allowed us by God, with a spirit of silence and compassion. Let us confront our own selves -- the lies we tell, the pat answers we offer to ease our circumstances at the expense of the truth, and the prejudices we hold. These things rob our neighbor of full humanity and deny the Imago Dei in them. Then – and only then – will we gain the wisdom available in the encounters with God and humanity that is the very fabric of our Christian pilgrimage.
Now: let us read on in faith and courage!