“Darkness is not dark for you and night is as clear as the day.” Psalm 138:12
Last week we began a reflection on the story of Job. The book of Job is 42 chapters long and deals with the mystery of suffering of the innocent. This mystery is difficult to address. Nevertheless, I will try to treat 3 pivotal themes from this complex book. This is Post 2: the night of Job.
Let me say from the start. The plight of Job makes no sense without the light of Jesus. Put differently, the night of Job, the descent of his soul into suffering: these things seem cruel and senseless without the spiritual light we receive from the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But when we do allow the light of the passion and the resurrection to shine back upon the prophetic experience of Job, a different picture emerges.
Let me unpack this, both what we can gather from the book of Job and how the rest of Scripture illuminates it.
What is the night of Job? When I use the word “night,” I mean it as a poetic term, in the same way it was employed by John of the Cross. John of the Cross was a 16th Century Spanish monk who deeply lived and taught about the spiritual life. He coined the phrase “dark night of the soul” to denote intensely difficult human suffering that bore a rare spiritual fruit. You can think of “night” as an analogy for the way Jesus uses the term “the cross.” The term “night” is descriptive. It helps us to better grasp certain aspects of the cross.
Spiritual night is that which darkens our sensory perceptions. It is an experience which, to our senses, feels like deprivation, like an absence of light. It is, at the natural level, a denudation, a stripping away of natural goods or health. A silencing of things; an entrance into uncertainty and unknowing. It is pain and sorrow and grief at the natural level. All these experiences are contained in the idea of spiritual night. They are also contained in the idea of the cross. For the experience of the cross falls under the poetic umbrella of the term, “night.”
Elsewhere in this blog, I have used the Psalm 23 term “dark valley” to denote the experience of night, or the cross. What I wish to underscore here is that I will use these three terms night, cross and dark valley interchangeably.
Prophesying the Passion
Let’s turn to the book of Job itself. Job’s experience is a quintessential experience of night. In Chapter 1, as we saw in Part I, Job loses his children, his livestock, his property. In Chapter 2 he loses his health in a dramatic way. God permits Satan to attack Job and thus we read: “Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD and struck Job with severe boils from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head” (Job 2:7). It’s a picture of utter physical devastation.
In the next 36 Chapters, he tries to make sense of his experience. He debates it with friends who come to visit; who assume his poor behavior must have brought on his suffering. I will touch upon the highlights.
In Chapter 17, we learn he has lost his reputation among his peers. His remaining family abandons him, and his servants cease to respect him. It is a further stripping away, an unmaking of the natural man. It’s uncomfortable to see. Like Job’s servants, like his family, we feel the tendency to turn away. We don’t want to read about such suffering. We prefer not to consider his plight too closely. We would rather such stories not exist in the Christian lexicon. We don’t want such experiences ever to befall us. We want to turn away.
But we must not turn away. Because there is, at the heart of Job’s experience, something central to the Christian experience. We must observe it. We must notice it. It may be painful and uncomfortable but we must wonder why.
In Chapter 16, Job describes his experience and gives some insight to the spiritual dimension of the experience that began in Chapters 1 and 2.
Referring to God, he says: “You have shriveled me up.” My gauntness, he says, is a witness that “rises up to testify against me. [God’s] wrath tears and assails me, he gnashes his teeth against me.” (Job 16:8-9). Here we hear the first note of Job’s sense that God Himself has turned against him in his suffering.
Next, in his weakened and emaciated state, Job endures the derision of those who know him. “They gape at me with their mouths; they strike me on the cheek with insults; they are all enlisted against me. God has given me over to the impious; into the hands of the wicked he has cast me” (Job 16:10-11).
There is more evidence that the heavy hand of God has turned against him: “His arrows strike me from all directions. He pierces my sides without mercy, pours out my gall upon the ground. He pierces me, thrust upon thrust, rushes at me like a warrior.” (Job 16:13-14)
This language is graphic. I believe we are in the domain of spiritual and psychological experience. God doesn’t pierce Job with a lance but psychologically his suffering feels like that. His language here conveys his state of soul.
There can be few experiences so horrifying as the hand of God turned upon the soul, or the perception that God has turned against the soul. Job feels this, despite his conviction of innocence, which he states plainly: “My hands are free from violence, and my prayer sincere.” (Job 16:17).
Nevertheless, “darkness covers my eyes” (Job 16:16). It is, for Job, excruciating, incomprehensible. He cries out to heaven to be heard in his plight: “O earth, do not cover my blood, nor let my cry come to rest! Even now my witness is in heaven, my advocate is on high … before God my eyes shed tears.” (Job 16:18-20)
Chapters 17 and 19 continue Job’s lament. “I am made a byword of the people; I am one at whom people spit” (Job 17:6). Chapter 19 deepens this lament, laying out how Job feels God is directly attacking him and his friends and family are now all recoiling from him. It is a pitiable picture, painful to read and consider.
A moving excerpt:
“Know then that it is God who has dealt unfairly with me,
and compassed me round with his net.
“If I cry out “Violence!” I am not answered. I shout for help, but there is no justice.
He has barred my way and I cannot pass; he has veiled my path in darkness;
He has stripped me of my glory, taken the diadem from my brow.
He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone; he has uprooted my hope like a tree.
He has kindled his wrath against me; he counts me one of his enemies.
His troops advance as one; they build up their road to attack me, encamp around my tent.
My family has withdrawn from me, my friends are wholly estranged.
My relatives and companions neglect me, my guests have forgotten me.
Even my maidservants consider me a stranger; I am a foreigner in their sight.
I call my servant, but he gives no answer, though I plead aloud with him.
My breath is abhorrent to my wife; I am loathsome to my very children.
…All my intimate friends hold me in horror; those whom I loved have turned against me!
Job is a ruined man. As he experiences it, God has dealt cruelly with him, has captured him in his net, refused to listen to his pleas; has barred his way, veiled his path in darkness; broken him down, devastated his hopes; left him like a tree, uprooted by a storm; treated him like an enemy; sent troops against him. His family, his wife, and his intimate friends have seen his state and recoiled from Job, shutting their hearts to his plight.
We are witnessing a kind of personal holocaust, a prophecy of the Passion, a suffering so deep and awful there seems no name for it. It seems to defy all notions of justice. Can God be the cause of such suffering? Or, if not the cause, why would He allow it to exist?
In Job’s view, it is clear: God has caused his suffering, his night. He is certain of it. None of his reasonable sounding friends can shake him from this view. He demands to know why. He repeatedly demands to know why!
Prophesying the Resurrection
As it happens, there are two breaks in the dark clouds of the Book of Job. Two moments where a kind of divine shaft of light breaks through. The first is Chapter 19. The second occurs when God himself addresses Job in Chapters 38-41. We will address the second moment in our next post.
But here, in Chapter 19, there is something marvelous. A moment of spiritual sight. Job has every natural good stripped away from him, even the skin metaphorically peeled away from his body (Job 19:26). But, here, from this place where night has fallen upon all his natural senses, Job beholds a kind of dawn. He sees, one cannot say how, a vision of light. It is a vision of the resurrection. It drops upon him, in this text, like a ray from heaven. Out of nowhere. It’s almost incongruous to the flow of the text. But there it is: the vision of faith of a broken man.
Job suddenly cries out to the friends who have come to critique him:
“Oh, would that my words were written down!
Would that they were inscribed in a record:
That with an iron chisel and with lead they were cut in the rock forever!
As for me, I know that my vindicator lives,
and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust.
This will happen when my skin has been stripped off,
and from my flesh I will see God:
I will see for myself, my own eyes, not another’s, will behold him;
my inmost being is consumed with longing.” Job. 19: 23-27
This is a mystical vision. It is vision in the spirit. It’s not what Job sees at the level of natural sight. At the level of his senses, Job still experiences devastation and loss, but suddenly his spirit can perceive that God, his vindicator, to whom he has been appealing, lives. God is no longer his adversary. God will stand forth, Job understands, when Job’s days are done; God will stand forth upon the dust. Job’s skin, that day, may be stripped away, yet from his flesh he will see God. This is a triumph! His own eyes will see him. He will look upon God at the end of his horrible ordeal.
And all of his being now pants with longing for this day to come.
Mark this: this is an vision of the Resurrection. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s a prophecy of the Resurrection. At this point in revelation history, the resurrection had been just a kind of whisper. Not fully understood. Not fully grasped.
But Job sees it. He announces it, from the heart of his night. And then the current of stories and experiences flow back over this moment, like an incoming tide over sand. The seeing fades. The understanding of what was seen is nascent.
Still it must be said: here, in the heart of Job’s night, there flashes a comet of revelation, a diamond of light streaking across the sky of the Old Testament, proclaiming: at the last, my vindicator will stand forth upon the dust. He lives. And even when my skin is stripped away, I will see him.
It’s an incredible revelation. It’s one of Job’s highest honors to have been granted this understanding and the role of proclaiming it in Judeo-Christian revelation.
It came after much suffering. But I think of the pain a mother goes through for a child to be born. The pain is excruciating, especially when the labor is difficult. And yet the joy of the child’s birth and breath; her awakening eyes; her hands clinging to fingers and breast; this little being so full of life, so full of the potential of life … All these things cast a light backwards upon the difficult labor and make it seem more like love. Like a labor of love that gives rise to life.
So it is with Job. His suffering has given rise to a vision of the Resurrection. That is something magnificent.
Yet still, we are not done. We are not done until we have seen Job’s plight in light of the full revelation in which it is planted and toward which it will one day flower.
Stay tuned next week. . .