Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Justice, Mercy and Job

This is one of those posts that I will likely never manage to articulate what's on my heart, at least not well.

As I said in my previous post, Job intrigues me. Much like Ecclesiastes, it asks a hard question about God's justice. How can God allow bad things to happen to good people? Now, some or many of you will say "But Oggie, all have fallen short." Yes, yes, yes. But that's not the point here. In the text of Job especially, Job is considered the quintessential "good" man. In the context of the book, he does not deserve his sufferings. The prologue makes clear that God permits Satan to punish Job not for any sin, but so that God can prove that nothing will cause Job to falter from his devotion and obedience to God. How can God permit Job to be punished like this, when (in the context of the story) he doesn't deserve it?

As the work unfolds we have some of the finest poetry not just in Scripture, but in all ancient literature. All of Job's friends argue as some of you might "Job, you are a sinner, you must have deserved this. Just confess your sin and God will stop the suffering." But Job is at a loss for what he did. None of them understand suffering. To them it is only a punishment. If someone is rich, it is because they were good and deserved it. If they suffered, they were sinners ... and deserved it. They cannot understand there might be other points to suffering.

Elihu provides a close glimpse at this. I find Elihu's interjection fascinating. No one seems to take any notice of him, not even God whom he introduces. When God doles out punishment to Job's friends, He never mentions much less praises or condemns Elihu. Job never responds to him. He walks on, says his peace, and as far as I can tell, never has any impact on the narrative at all. But he is the only character to talk about other uses to suffering.

Isaiah gives us a hint too, although obviously not in this book. I think of course of the paradoxical poetry-prophesy of "by His stripes we are healed." And it is in Christ that we see this played out, of course. Suffering can be redemptive. When we imitate Christ, especially by suffering vicariously, we help His salvific sacrifice continue to bear fruit in the world (cf Col 1:24 - my favourite Bible verse, btw).

But what of Justice and Mercy? Before I go further, I want to say something about these concepts. Sir Philip Sidney wrote Arcadia he, and many others besides, saw Justice and Mercy as being in opposition. One can either be just or merciful.

But I don't think this is true. It seems to me the real lesson of Job is this ... God is both just and merciful, because God is love (1 John 4:8). And what we understand as Justice and what we understand as Mercy are actually the same thing ... Love. This explains Elihu's purpose. He's not in the story for anyone in it, he's in the story for us. He's supposed to alert us to the notion that suffering has more than just the binary purposes the characters seem to think it does. He points us, subtly, to Christ. And the epilogue is more explicit. God did not, ultimately, let his servant falter because of both His Justice and His Mercy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love Elihu's interjection in chapter 32. :)

- Jim Deel