Robert Watson

Job, the enlightened one

My previous sermon dealt with Job.  And here we go again!  We saw how Job poses some angry—and anguished—questions to his God.  God’s response to Job is very unsatisfying if we’re looking for answers to questions like: why does Job suffer?  Why does evil exist?  People often get irritated at God’s so-called “answers,” which consist of questions about creation Job can’t possibly grasp.  It seems as though it’s but a way of putting Job, and us, in our places.  It seems like the Lord is just being evasive!

I wouldn’t say there’s any one single way to resolve this.  Still, we can see God’s revelation to Job about his place in the cosmos as a healing revelation.  To limit it to reward and punishment puts Job, and us, into artificial constraints.

And so, here we are at chapter 42, the end of the book.  The long section of poetry is wrapped up.  We’re back to the ancient story of the suffering, but innocent man.  It very much has the feel of: “and they lived happily ever after.”

1 Job

The Lord lets Job’s dearest friends know they didn’t get it right; they need Job to pray for them.  And as for Job, he’s blessed with double the amount of livestock he lost, but with the same number of children—seven sons and three daughters.

Clearly, this is where the legendary nature of the story needs to be emphasized.  People can’t be replaced.  Period.  Full stop.  The last thing the scriptures do is to devalue human life.  Something we can take from this is that the joy of one so bereft as Job has now been restored.  However that happens, the children he lost are not forgotten.

And now, back to the legend!  He gives his daughters poetic names, and we’re told, “In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and [with an act unheard-of in the ancient world] their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers” (v. 15).

It looks like he truly has become an enlightened fellow.  He doesn’t want any of his daughters to be dependent on some man!

Right now, I want to focus on a single verse.  It has a number of different nuances, and in some ways, it affects how we understand the entire book.  It’s verse 6, which contains the final words we hear spoken by Job.  This comes right after he admits his ignorance.  As I said before, God shows him scenes throughout creation and asks him the “hows” and the “whys.”  All Job can say is, “Heck if I know.”  (Which in many ways is the beginning of wisdom!)

In verse 5, he says he’s known God by means of hearsay, so to speak.  “I’ve heard about you, but now, I have seen you!”  Something has happened.  Job has had a direct experience of God.  He has caught a vision.

After Job—after any of us—has had an experience like that, nothing is the same.  We are forever changed.  In Christian terminology, we recognize ourselves as a new creation.  The old, tired, dead rules of how we imagine the future and life itself are erased.  Liberation is at hand.  Something wondrous has happened.  Of course, frail creatures that we are, we need to revisit that time and again!  And so, here’s verse 6.

In the NRSV and the NIV, the verse reads, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”  The King James Version says, “I abhor myself.”  This is strong language!  It suggests at least a deep sense of remorse, and some might say it even goes to self-hatred.

The Good News Bible takes a slightly different slant: “I am ashamed of all I have said and repent in dust and ashes.”  The focus here isn’t on Job himself, but on what he considers his foolish talk.

Whichever of these we go with, it still seems to contradict the claim that Job is innocent, that he doesn’t deserve the horrors he’s had to face.  In fact, we read in the very next verse God saying to Eliphaz, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you did not speak the truth about me, the way my servant Job did.”

Two Hebrew words might be the guilty parties in the confusion.  The first one, מׇאַס (ma’as), means “reject” or “despise,” but it can also mean “melt away” or “dissipate.”  The second one, נׇחַם (nacham), means “repent,” but it can also mean “to comfort.”

Earlier, when referring to God’s message to Job—when he’s asked all those magnificently irrelevant questions—I said I don’t believe there’s any one single way to resolve this.  Well, the same thing is true here.  Does Job repent?  If so, of what does he repent?

In his book On Job, Gustavo Gutiérrez, looking at those Hebrew words, sees the verse this way: “I repudiate and abandon (change my mind about) dust and ashes…[being] an image for groaning and lamentation.”[1]  So by repenting of “dust and ashes,” Job is turning away from—he is rejecting—his whole attitude of complaining about his fate.  He figures he’s grumbled long enough.

2 JobBut beyond that, Gutiérrez says, “Job realizes that he has been speaking of God in a way that implied that God was a prisoner…”[2]  He has thought of God as a machine, without any control.  Be good, and you get a cookie!  Be bad, and you get an onion!  (As you might guess, I don’t like onions.)  It’s only after God steps in—only after God intervenes with the storm—that Job is liberated; he’s able to see beyond all of that.

Earlier, I referred to Job as “enlightened.”  Many might assume that means he has the answers, even answers to the questions of the universe.  One thing the book lets us know is that its title character has very little in the way of answers!  Still, by repenting, by turning from “dust and ashes,” Job declares he is in a new relationship with God.  Job doesn’t need to have the answers.

Indeed, Job accepts and embraces who he is.  He is without a doubt “dust and ashes.”  Stephen Mitchell sees that as the meaning of verse 6.  “Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.”[3]

We can see the book of Job as a story of conversion.  Despite the claims of God’s being irrelevant or evasive in responding to him, I suggested God gives Job a new vision—a healing vision.  By admitting the past is gone and by looking forward to a new way of being with God, Job invites us to do the same.

This is a call to be the change Christ would have us be.  It’s a call to accept ourselves as a new creation; otherwise, we’re like those friends of Job!

In the liner notes of his album, Silence, Night, and Dreams, Zbigniew Preisner includes a sort of meditation:[4]

3 Job“Why are the poor so stricken by despair? / Why do the rich feel ever more alone? / It embraces everything, night and dreams, Silence that arouses anxiety. / Night that envelops sadness and despair. / Dreams of hope for a transformation. / Let us take heed of Job. / Then maybe we’ll prevail against / The slogans, the labels, illusions and indifference, The cradles that surround us.”

Job is a model for transformation, for getting out of our cradles!  He is a model for growing up, as painful as it is.  We must literally be dis-illusioned.

There was a book on Job published in 1900 by Robert A. Watson.  I like some of his closing thoughts on our hero.  “Job has passed through the furnace of trial and the deep waters of doubt, and at last the way is opened for him into a wealthy place.”[5]  As we’ve seen, that’s wealthy in every way.

“‘Now mine eye seeth Thee.’  The vision of God is to his soul like the dazzling light of day to one issuing from a cavern.  He is in a new world where every creature lives and moves in God…  In the microcosm of his past dream-life and narrow religion he appeared great, perfect, worthy of all he enjoyed at the hand of God; but now, in the macrocosm, he is small, unwise, weak.”[6]

Small, unwise, and weak—and that’s just fine; in fact, that’s awesome!

I spoke of the vision God grants Job, the vision that brings healing and enlightenment.  I spoke of the old, tired, dead rules of how we imagine life, and how we play the game of life.  Those old, tired, dead rules govern the judgments we make of others.  Job’s friends said he had done wrong, that he was wrong.

Are there people, groups of people, who we believe do wrong because they in themselves are wrong?  Even though we would never say it out loud, are there groups we believe are unworthy, despicable, even (using a less charitable word)?

That final understanding, the vision God grants Job, changes his world.  He no longer feels the need to justify himself, but he has been vindicated.  And he has traveled a long and painful road in the process.  He’s been a laughing stock, an object of disgust, and one whose words of wisdom have been rejected (12:4, 19:13-19, 29:21-30:1).  He’s been the object of fear and loathing.

But that’s not the end of the story.  We’re told, “After this Job lived one hundred and forty years [remember, this is legendary!], and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations.  And Job died, old and full of days” (vv. 16-17).  Full of days.  In the final chapters of his life, this good and just man is blessed like never before.

4 Job
“So the Lord Blessed the Latter End of Job More than the Beginning” (William Blake)

I won’t claim to have more than the tiniest, teeniest taste of what Job went through.  For me, it’s mainly ideas.  Some of you have felt it.  But if there’s any truth at all in this book, we can say beyond the pain, there is a sort of freedom.  It’s freedom from intolerance, freedom from cruelty, freedom from fear.  There truly is an immense opening to enlightenment, an opening to kindness, an opening to love.


[1] Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1987), 86.

[2] Gutiérrez, 87.

[3] Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992), 88.


[5] Robert A. Watson, The Book of Job (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1900), Kindle edition, Chapter 28, section 1, paragraph 12.

[6] Watson 28.1.15-16.

the art of Joban Friday

Who can doubt that the literature of Good Friday contains some of the most delicate and yet most disturbing images in all of sacred art? It is rivaled by the Psalms of lament, the confessions of Jeremiah, and of course, the book of Job. Our Tenebrae service, which we had on Maundy Thursday last night, included some texts which properly belong to Good Friday. The readings were from the gospel of Luke. Here is the scene in which Pontius Pilate yields to the cry of the mob, which was read with a touch of pathos by the liturgist:

“Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.’

“Then they all shouted out together, ‘Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!’ (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, ‘Crucify, crucify him!’ A third time he said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.’ But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.”

Job, William Blake
In 1900, Robert Watson had a similar feeling of the delicate and disturbing literature of the holy when he produced his text on the figure of Job. He begins with the opening lines:

“The Book of Job is the first great poem of the soul in its mundane conflict, facing the inexorable of sorrow, change, pain, and death, and feeling within itself at one and the same time weakness and energy, the hero and the serf, brilliant hopes, terrible fears. With entire veracity and amazing force this book represents the never-ending drama renewed in every generation and every genuine life.”

The cross can be seen as posing the question that upends our expectations of what is blessed and good in life. In an almost Zen-like fashion, it speaks volumes without uttering a word. Perhaps three or four centuries earlier, an author compiled a work verbally profuse with haunting beauty.

Watson’s book isn’t light reading. But if you’re interested in delving deeply into the world of Job (with not a small bit of Watson’s commentary and viewpoint!), then this book is for you. Over and over, you find a celebration of creativity and imagination.

It is worthy of a Joban Friday.

[The image is by William Blake. A caption below it reads, “And when they lifted up their eyes afar off & knew him not they lifted up their voice & wept. & they rent every Man his mantle & sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven”]