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When Job responds to Eliphaz’s second speech, his opening words are scarcely less tempered than those of his opponents—though doubtless with more provocation (Job 16–17): “I have heard many things like these; miserable comforters are you all!” (Job 16:2). Ostensibly they have come to sympathize with him and comfort him (Job 2:11), yet every time they open their mouths their words are like hot, bubbling wax on open sores. From Job’s perspective, they make “long-winded speeches” that “never end” (Job 16:3). Job insists that if their roles were reversed he would not stoop to their level; he would bring genuine encouragement and relief (Job 16:4–5).
There is a way of using theology and theological arguments that wounds rather than heals. This is not the fault of theology and theological arguments; it is the fault of the “miserable comforter” who fastens on an inappropriate fragment of truth, or whose timing is off, or whose attitude is condescending, or whose application is insensitive, or whose true theology is couched in such culture-laden clichés that they grate rather than comfort. In times of extraordinary stress and loss, I have sometimes received great encouragement and wisdom from other believers; I have also sometimes received extraordinary blows from them, without any recognition on their part that that was what they were delivering. Miserable comforters were they all.
Such experiences, of course, drive me to wonder when I have wrongly handled the Word and caused similar pain. It is not that there is never a place for administering the kind of scriptural admonition that rightly induces pain: justified discipline is godly (Heb. 12:5–11). The tragic fact, however, is that when we cause pain by our application of theology to someone else, we naturally assume the pain owes everything to the obtuseness of the other party. It may, it may—but at the very least we ought to examine ourselves, our attitudes, and our arguments very closely lest we simultaneously delude ourselves and oppress others.
Most of the rest of Job’s speech is addressed to God and plunges deeply into the rhetoric of despair. We are unwise to condemn Job if we have never tasted much of his experience—and then we will not want to. To grasp his rhetoric aright, and at a deeper level than mere intellectual apprehension, two things must line up: First, we should be quite certain that ours is innocent suffering. In measure we can track this by comparing our own records with the remarkable standards Job maintained (see especially Job 26–31). Second, however bitter our complaint to God, our stance will still be that of a believer trying to sort things out, not that of a cynic trying to brush God off.
The last chapter of Genesis includes a section that is both pathetic and glorious (Gen. 50:15–21).
Everything that is sad and flawed in this family resurfaces when Jacob dies. Joseph’s brothers fear that their illustrious sibling may have suppressed vengeful resentment only until the death of the old man. Why did they think like this? Was it because they were still lashed with guilt feelings? Were they merely projecting onto Joseph what they would have done had they been in his place?
Their strategy involves them in fresh sin: they lie about what their father said, in the hope that an appeal from Jacob would at least tug at Joseph’s heartstrings. In this light, their abject submission (“We are your slaves,” 50:18) sounds less like loyal homage than desperate manipulation.
By contrast, Joseph weeps (50:17). He cannot help but see that these groveling lies betray how little he is loved or trusted, even after seventeen years (47:28) of nominal reconciliation. His verbal response displays not only pastoral gentleness—“he reassured them and spoke kindly to them,” promising to provide for them and their families (50:21)—it also reflects a man who has thought deeply about the mysteries of providence, about God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. “Don’t be afraid,” he tells them. “Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (50:19–20).
The profundity of this reasoning comes into focus as we reflect on what Joseph does not say. He does not say that during a momentary lapse on God’s part, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, but that God, being a superb chess player, turned the game around and in due course made Joseph prime minister of Egypt. Still less does he say that God’s intention had been to send Joseph down to Egypt in a well-appointed chariot, but unfortunately Joseph’s brothers rather mucked up the divine plan, forcing God to respond with clever countermoves to bring about his own good purposes. Rather, in the one event—the selling of Joseph into slavery—there were two parties, and two quite different intentions. On the one hand, Joseph’s brothers acted, and their intentions were evil; on the other, God acted, and his intentions were good. Both acted to bring about this event, but while the evil in it must be traced back to the brothers and no farther, the good in it must be traced to God.
This is a common stance in Scripture. It generates many complex philosophical discussions. But the basic notion is simple. God is sovereign, and invariably good; we are morally responsible, and frequently evil.
50:1 Then Joseph fell on his father's face and wept over him and kissed him. 2 And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father. So the physicians embalmed Israel. 3 Forty days were required for it, for that is how many are required for embalming. And the Egyptians wept for him seventy days.
4 And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke to the household of Pharaoh, saying, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, please speak in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, 5 ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die: in my tomb that I hewed out for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.” Now therefore, let me please go up and bury my father. Then I will return.’” 6 And Pharaoh answered, “Go up, and bury your father, as he made you swear.” 7 So Joseph went up to bury his father. With him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, 8 as well as all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father's household. Only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the land of Goshen. 9 And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen. It was a very great company. 10 When they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, they lamented there with a very great and grievous lamentation, and he made a mourning for his father seven days. 11 When the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning on the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “This is a grievous mourning by the Egyptians.” Therefore the place was named Abel-mizraim;1 it is beyond the Jordan. 12 Thus his sons did for him as he had commanded them, 13 for his sons carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave of the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place. 14 After he had buried his father, Joseph returned to Egypt with his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father.
15 When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” 16 So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: 17 ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people2 should be kept alive, as they are today. 21 So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
22 So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father's house. Joseph lived 110 years. 23 And Joseph saw Ephraim's children of the third generation. The children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were counted as Joseph's own.3 24 And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” 25 Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” 26 So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.
3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,1
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
7 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics2 is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother's wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son;3 with you I am well pleased.”4
23 Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, 24 the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph, 25 the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, 26 the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, 27 the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel,5 the son of Neri, 28 the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er, 29 the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, 30 the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim, 31 the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, 32 the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Sala, the son of Nahshon, 33 the son of Amminadab, the son of Admin, the son of Arni, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, 34 the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, 35 the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, 36 the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, 37 the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalaleel, the son of Cainan, 38 the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.
16:1 Then Job answered and said:
2 “I have heard many such things;
miserable comforters are you all.
3 Shall windy words have an end?
Or what provokes you that you answer?
4 I also could speak as you do,
if you were in my place;
I could join words together against you
and shake my head at you.
5 I could strengthen you with my mouth,
and the solace of my lips would assuage your pain.
6 “If I speak, my pain is not assuaged,
and if I forbear, how much of it leaves me?
7 Surely now God has worn me out;
he has1 made desolate all my company.
8 And he has shriveled me up,
which is a witness against me,
and my leanness has risen up against me;
it testifies to my face.
9 He has torn me in his wrath and hated me;
he has gnashed his teeth at me;
my adversary sharpens his eyes against me.
10 Men have gaped at me with their mouth;
they have struck me insolently on the cheek;
they mass themselves together against me.
11 God gives me up to the ungodly
and casts me into the hands of the wicked.
12 I was at ease, and he broke me apart;
he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces;
he set me up as his target;
13 his archers surround me.
He slashes open my kidneys and does not spare;
he pours out my gall on the ground.
14 He breaks me with breach upon breach;
he runs upon me like a warrior.
15 I have sewed sackcloth upon my skin
and have laid my strength in the dust.
16 My face is red with weeping,
and on my eyelids is deep darkness,
17 although there is no violence in my hands,
and my prayer is pure.
18 “O earth, cover not my blood,
and let my cry find no resting place.
19 Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven,
and he who testifies for me is on high.
20 My friends scorn me;
my eye pours out tears to God,
21 that he would argue the case of a man with God,
as2 a son of man does with his neighbor.
22 For when a few years have come
I shall go the way from which I shall not return.
17:1 “My spirit is broken; my days are extinct;
the graveyard is ready for me.
2 Surely there are mockers about me,
and my eye dwells on their provocation.
3 “Lay down a pledge for me with you;
who is there who will put up security for me?
4 Since you have closed their hearts to understanding,
therefore you will not let them triumph.
5 He who informs against his friends to get a share of their property—
the eyes of his children will fail.
6 “He has made me a byword of the peoples,
and I am one before whom men spit.
7 My eye has grown dim from vexation,
and all my members are like a shadow.
8 The upright are appalled at this,
and the innocent stirs himself up against the godless.
9 Yet the righteous holds to his way,
and he who has clean hands grows stronger and stronger.
10 But you, come on again, all of you,
and I shall not find a wise man among you.
11 My days are past; my plans are broken off,
the desires of my heart.
12 They make night into day:
‘The light,’ they say, ‘is near to the darkness.’3
13 If I hope for Sheol as my house,
if I make my bed in darkness,
14 if I say to the pit, ‘You are my father,’
and to the worm, ‘My mother,’ or ‘My sister,’
15 where then is my hope?
Who will see my hope?
16 Will it go down to the bars of Sheol?
Shall we descend together into the dust?”4
4:1 This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
6 I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers,1 that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. 7 For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! 9 For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11 To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, 12 and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.
14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless2 guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent3 you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ,4 as I teach them everywhere in every church. 18 Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. 21 What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?