To speak well of God (1)

At the end of the Book of Job the LORD (twice) says to Job’s three friends:

לא דברתם אלי נכונה כעבדי איוב

“You have not spoken the truth about me as did my servant Job” (42:7-8 JPS), or, as some translations put it, “you have not spoken well of me”.

In a comment here Jen asked a very good question: “Does Job speak well of God in his confessions (40:3-5 and 42:2-6), or is it of his speeches in general that God tells the friends that Job was correct in his presentation of God?”

The comment addressed to the friends “You have not spoken the truth about me” could only refer to their speeches during the dialogue with Job, so I would be inclined to think that the words “as did my servant Job” referred to Job’s speeches during the same dialogue, and not to his final brief response to the LORD. I agree with Norman Habel [1] when he says “The blunt and forthright accusations of Job from the depths of his agony are closer to the truth than the conventional unquestioning pronouncements of the friends … Job’s answers correspond with reality. They are devoid of dissembling and flattery”.

This reminded me of something I’d read in Eugene Peterson’s Introduction to Psalms [2]:

‘Untutored, we tend to think that prayer is what good people do when they are doing their best. It is not. Inexperienced, we suppose that there must be an “insider” language that must be acquired before God takes us seriously in our prayer. There is not. Prayer is elemental, not advanced, language. It is the means by which our language becomes honest, true and personal in response to God. It is the means by which we get everything in our lves out in the open before God …

‘In English translation, the Psalms often sound smooth and polished, sonorous with Elizabethan rhythms and diction. As literature, they are beyond compare. But as prayer, as the utterances of men and women passionate for God in moments of anger and praise and lament, these translations miss something. Gramatically, they are accurate. The scholarship undergirding the translations is superb and devout. But as prayers they are not quite right. The Psalms in Hebrew are earthy and rough. They are are not genteel. They are not the prayers of nice people, couch in cultured language.’

Peterson went on to encourage ‘raw honesty and detailed thoroughness in our praying’ and I am convinced that this is how the Book of Job encourages us to approach God. Not with carefully worked out theological ‘truths’, but with raw honesty, articulating our despair, anger, disappointment and frustration. To speak well of God is to challenge him when his world appears to be unfair and his ways unjust.

David Wolfers [3] came to this conclusion about how Job spoke the truth concerning God:

‘Job has penetrated to the truth about the moral conduct of the world, that the quality of an individual’s life is unrelated to his moral deserts; that disaster is a random occurrence as likely to befall the righteous as the wicked; that God does reject the innocent and reward the wicked as individuals as aften as He does the reverse. What Eliphaz and his friends have maintained, from 4:7 … to 20:29 … is sentimental rubbish, at odds with all experience of life.’

As a slight digression, Habel [4] makes this interesting observation about Job’s priestly role in acting as mediator for his friends:

‘Job is reinstated as mediator even before his family and possessions are restored. He is again to act as a patriarchal intercessor like Abraham (Gen 18:23ff.). Job had previously looked for a friend who would support him against God if necessary (6:14), an arbiter who would handle his case with God (9:33), an advocate who would defend his suit with God (16:19-20), and a redeemer to vindicate him after his death (19:25). But Job stood alone and achieved his own meeting with God. Now the one who sought a mediator becomes the mediator.’

So it seems to me that to ‘speak the truth concerning God’ is less about correct theology (the approach taken by the friends) and more about being honest, blunt if necessary, and being based in reality.

[1] Habel, N. C., The Book of Job: A Commentary (London: SCM, 1985), 583

[2] Peterson, E., Psalms (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1994), 3f

[3] Wolfers, D., Deep Things Out of Darkness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 462

[4] Habel, 584

9 comments on “To speak well of God (1)

  1. Colin Walker says:

    Another possible explanation of “you have not spoken well of me” is that speech isn’t merely speech, but is a cipher for lifestyle toward or away from God and of the faith underlying it.

    A theme in the New Testament based around “conversation” implies that what we speak is merely the marker for our underlying faith or lifestyle: “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Cp Gal 1v13; Phil 1v27; Phil 3v20; 2 Co 1v12c; 1 Pet 1 v 15 ; 2v12; Ps 50 v 23 etc) i.e our speech is our way of life and a believers speech and prayer is sanctified as is his life. I dont believe the 3 friends were true followers of the Lord.

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Colin, you make a good point that one’s words are an expression of their thoughts and a reflection of their lifestyle. Bad theology almost invariably results in bad behaviour. The Bible doesn’t make the distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy that we often do.

  2. Jen says:

    >The comment addressed to the friends “You have not spoken the truth about me” could only refer to their speeches during the dialogue with Job, so I would be inclined to think that the words “as did my servant Job” referred to Job’s speeches during the same dialogue, and not to his final brief response to the LORD.<

    If Job's words about God during the dialogue were generally correct, then to whom is 38v2 referring 'darkening counsel by words without knowledge'? It seems there that Elihu, rather than Job, was speaking 'without knowledge'. However, Job quotes this phrase in an apparently rhetorical echo in 42v3 and seems to be referring to himself. Can you offer any solution to this puzzle? Looking forward to your thoughts on Elihu, and how he fits into this picture… Thank you!

  3. Stephen Cook says:

    Jen, my current thinking is that 42:3 is indeed a ‘rhetorical echo’ of 38:2 and that these words refer to Job. Elihu’s speeches are often thought to be a late addition because Elihu suddenly appears and then just as suddenly disappears, and he gets no other mention in the book. Chapter 38 could easily follow from the end of chapter 31 and make perfect sense. Elihu doesn’t add much to the debate. While Job’s three friends are condemned, and then forgiven, Elihu is ignored in the epilogue.

    However, it’s interesting that Elihu himself says that he is “full of wind (רוח)” in 32:18f and then the LORD speaks “out of the whirlwind” (‘wind’ is another interesting theme in Job). The writer may be making a comment here about Elihu’s words being nothing but flatulence, while the Almighty’s words are in stark contrast.

    • Jen says:

      Thank you… I am working on Elihu’s speech and finding it very challenging to interpret.

      Back to ‘speaking well of God vs. ‘speaking without knowledge’: In what did Job speak truth of God, and when/where does he transition to darkening/veiling knowledge, if both these phrases are used of Job? I do not mean to belabour the point, but find it difficult to determine exactly where Job’s ‘error’ is.

      • Perhaps the transition is only at the end wherein Job repents far easier than the three and indeed becomes their intercessor ,thus He speaks well of God in Chapter 42 verse 1–6 .
        regards Colin

  4. Jen says:

    @ Colin: Again, what does Job have to repent of?

  5. Job himself states I repent in dust and ashes . He states that previously he thought he knew about God ,but having seen Him face to face was a different affair . Therefore it appears that his primary sin was one of attitude and pride . None of us really know anything at all in relation to God–we are all like children and have no true righteousness of our own . It seems it took a direct experience of God for Job to realise this .
    regards Colin

    • Jen says:

      Thanks for engaging, Colin. I’m still having a hard time figuring out *where in the text* that Job errs. At the beginning of the book he is declared ‘blameless and upright’ and at the end of the book he is once again confirmed as acceptable before God: in the middle is where things seem less clear. The friends do indeed accuse Job of pride (among many other things), but I am finding it difficult to pin down where in the text specifically, Job himself ‘crosses the line’… if he does so at all. In other words, I can see what he is accused of, but am not convinced of his Sin. Thanks.

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