“You don’t see no hearses with luggage racks.”
Don Henley, Gimme What You Got
Pistons explode from shoulder to fist to face. In a boxing bout the word “jabs” describes one opponent snapping his adversary’s head back with each blow. This is Job 3.11-26. Job then picks up an automatic pistol, firing controlled bursts of bullets expressing the subject of his agony. Every single line and each nuance of meaning in the Hebrew throughout this chapter depicts the ferocity of blows and bullets. The power of this gut wrenching groan that reaches a roar at the end of the poem is not done justice in English. A taste of these compact attacks is summarized by verse eleven’s seven word-Hebrew-line: “Why not die birth womb came expire?!”
A crescendo of impending doom pounds throughout the first half of the poem. Verses 11 and 12 refer to the event Job wishes had never happened in verses 3-10—his birth. Placed on his father’s knees (a sign legitimizing the birth father) and at his mother’s breast to feed, now his awful life commences. Verses 1-10 repeat the idea of “may this never be!” and verses 11-26 repeat “Why did this happen in the first place?!” Verses 1-10 repeat “May…may…may” verses 11-26 repeat “Why? Why? Why?”
Job “piles on” the words for death: death will be a repose, an anticipated rest, lying down, be at peace, tranquility, what we call “the big sleep,” or “the long dirt nap.” Death is better than life because life is full of trouble. The list, the catalog, the pile that Job creates has but one idea: life is nothing but trouble, in every way, for everyone. Pick a social strata, they are all represented here: the powerful, rich, leaders, wicked, the weary, slaves, forced laborers, prisoners, the small (underprivileged) and the great (the privileged). Right in the middle of this grouping is what Job would have wished for originally—to be stillborn, dead at birth.
Verse 19 is a final resting place for death. In the Hebrew, there are no verbs present. Instead of reading, “Small and great are there,” rather we should read “Small and great there, dead, no more activity.” Every positive statement is about being dead: “the weary are at rest,” “captives enjoy their ease,” “slave freed,” and there is “gladness in reaching the grave.” Why is death best? Because it releases us from life’s miseries. All the things we build during our lifetime will be ruined. All the money we accumulate, gone. All the work we do, useless activity. Our position and place in life, gone. Before Kregel’s bookstore in Grand Rapids was sold, I loved to wander through the stacks. Most of Kregel’s inventory was located in a huge basement. The smell of old books as I searched for various titles is etched in my memory. But it struck me one day: most of the men who have written these books are dead. These are dead men’s books. It reminded me of my own demise. What we produce on this earth is literally “here today and gone tomorrow.”
Can we count on what believers refer to as “God’s hedge of protection”? Notice that the hedge of protection Satan thought God offered to Job in 1:10 is now thought by Job to be God’s trap 3:23. When he says “man’s way is hidden” in 3:23 he refers to life being without purpose. He has lost all sense of meaning because of all his losses. Verses 24-26 are very hard Hebrew. But a few ideas stand out: (1) “sighing” and “groaning” are too soft. The words are used for “roaring lions” in other passages. (2) The very thing Job dreaded (the loss of God’s favor in 1:5) has happened. (3) The final lines come back to my comments about head-snapping jabs at the beginning of this section. It’s as if Job is spitting out the words, disgusted, he can’t wait to get them out of his mouth. “I have no peace, I have no quiet, I have no rest; Enter trouble.” What he said in verse 13 he repeats here—he wants tranquility, serenity, to enjoy life. But all these words for rest suggest he has physical turmoil, mental anguish, and social discomfort. All he has is “trouble”—the word for agitation without peace.
Psychologists and physicians alike tell us that suffering produces questions of purpose and the will to continue in life. Amnesty International, for instance, attempts to get those who have been tortured to record their pain. Paul Brand’s book Pain: The Gift No One Wants is a tremendous source for understanding the physiology of pain and human response to it. I personally learned from a world renown physical therapist that the best response of the physician is listen to the person whose body is in pain. The patient knows their body better than the doctor imposing a diagnosis.
But, perhaps, the best example of response to pain is the genre of music referred to as the “negro spiritual.” M. Shawn Copeland, who teaches at Marquette University, has said
The spirituals . . . were an important resource of resistance. The spirituals reshaped the characters and stories, the events and miracles of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. These songs told the mercy of God anew and testified to the ways in which the enslaved people met God at the whipping post, on the auction block, in the midnight flight to freedom…. If the makers of the spirituals glorified in singing of the cross of Jesus, it was not because they were masochistic and enjoyed suffering. Rather, the enslaved Africans sang because they saw in the rugged wooden planks One who had endured what was their daily portion. The cross was treasured because it enthroned the One who went all the way with them and for them. The enslaved Africans sang because they saw the result of the cross—triumph over the principalities and powers of death, triumph over evil in this world. (1)
Slaves suffered with hope in the Savior. But Job 3 ends without hope which Psalm 88 expresses, “And darkness is my closest friend.” What happens when we beaten by the incessant fist blows of some earthly oppression? What happens when the automatic gun fire of suffering is unrelenting? There are days when this is our lot. To understand how we feel, how others feel, in the onslaught of suffering is to live in Job 3.
Mark believes it does not matter what kind of suffering you suffer. Suffering hurts, and sometimes it feels like all we want to do is die. Dr. Mark Eckel teaches for various institutions and is President of The Comenius Institute in Indianapolis. Part 4 of the ‘lament’ series will focus on Hebraic-Christian, biblical-theological applications.
(1) M. Shawn Copeland, “‘Wading Through Many Sorrows’: Towards a Theology of Suffering in a Womanist Perspective,” Charles Curran, Margaert Farley and Richard McCormick, ed. Feminist Ethics and the Catholic Moral Tradition (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1996) 150.