"Job's Despair" by William Blake
As we begin this section of Job, I think it is important to remember where we are in the entire structure of the book. Here I turn to David Atkinson’s commentary on Job for help. Atkinson points out that the text of Job between chapters 4 and 27 is divided into three cycles of speeches. They can be outlined in this way:
The three friends’ speeches: Job’s replies:
Eliphaz chs. 4-5 6-7
Bildad 8 9-10
Zophar 11 12-14
Atkinson characterizes the approaches of Job’s three counselors in this way:
Eliphaz: the logician, who effectively places his rationalizations above faith in the living God. He argues from his experience about God’s transcendent holiness.
Bildad: the traditionalist, the preacher with his sharp tongue and narrow mind, who is more ready to speak than to listen. He argues from traditional orthodoxy about God’s power and righteous justice.
Zophar: the arrogant counselor, whose approach is marked by impetuosity and directive confrontation. He argues from an overdose of what he calls common sense about God’s inscrutable and omniscient wisdom.
Atkinson also, very helpfully, notes how Job moves through various stages of grief in this narrative. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first outlined these stages in her book On Death and Dying (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance). Atkinson writes,
Strikingly, we discover that the book of Job, written so many centuries before ours, gives very similar insights to the stages through which Job’s feelings pass as he tries to handle his own losses…. Job began in chapter 2 in numbed silence, a stage of shock and unbelief…. Eventually this gave way to his lament in chapter 3. He moved to a time of questioning—searching for some meaning in pain…. Now in chapters 6 to 7 he is getting angry: anger is often the flip side of depression, and is a frequent normal accompaniment of grief.
Job then moves through despair in chapters 9 and 10, then terror at God’s absence and presence in chapters 12 through 14. Finally, in chapters 16 and 17, hope of vindication begins to grow, culminating in chapter 19 where Job expresses his belief that his Redeemer lives. This last expression corresponds, perhaps, to Kubler-Ross’ stage of "acceptance".
However, if Job had no hope of an afterlife, how are we to understand his expression of faith in chapter 19?
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
And that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
Then in my flesh I shall see God. (19:25-26)
One point to note is that while the general theology of the Hebrew Scriptures did not allow for an afterlife, there began to be a transition to a new belief after the exile. If we go back to Job 7:17 we see Job picking up the words of Psalm 8. This is significant for it suggests that the book of Job was written after the time of David, possibly even as late as the post-exilic period. The book of Job would have spoken very powerfully to the Jews in the post-exilic period as they were wrestling with the meaning of suffering.
Atkinson writes this in answer to our question:
‘I know that my Redeemer lives.’ These words, read back through the window of the cross of Calvary, have often been a source of comfort to Christian people in a time of distress. They were immortalized not only in the Prayer Book service for the Burial of the Dead, but also by Handel in the Messiah. Though the full Christian meaning which they hold for us today was merely a glimmer of first light before the dawn for Job, the God in whom he trusts is the God made known to us in Jesus as the Kinsman-Redeemer and Vindicator of those who trust in him. How marvelous that Job could have said so much, knowing so little! What a rebuke to some of us, who know so much more of God than Job ever did, yet we trust him so little.