Job’s Second Lament (Job 29-42)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
As noted in the introduction, Job 29-42 marks a second cycle of lamentation-discourse-revelation that recapitulates the first. For example, in Job 29 , Job’s recollection of the good old days brings us back to his idyllic scene in chapter one . In Job 30 , Job’s distress that many now reject him reminds us of his wife’s distancing herself in chapter 2. Job’s lament in chapters 30 and 31 are prolonged versions of his lament in chapter 3 . However, each phase in the second cycle brings a new emphasis.
The new emphases in Job’s second lament (Job 29-42) are nostalgia and self-justification. Job “longs for the days when God watched over me” (Job 29:2) and “when the friendship of God was upon my tent” (Job 29:4). He reminisces about when his “steps were washed with milk, and the rock poured out for me streams of oil” (Job 29:6). He remembers how well respected he was in the community, which in the language of the Old Testament is most dramatically portrayed by his “seat in the square” near the “gate of the city” (Job 29:7). Job was well-received by the young and old alike (Job 29:8), and treated with unusual respect by the chiefs and nobles (Job 29:10). He was respected because he tended to the needs of the poor, fatherless, widows, blind, lame, needy, strangers and those dying (Job 29:12-16). He was their champion against the wicked (Job 29:17).
Job’s nostalgia deepens his sense of loss when he realizes that much of the respect he received in work and civic life was superficial. “Because God has loosed my bowstring and humbled me, they have cast off restraint in my presence” (Job 30:11). “And now they mock me in song” (Job 30:9). Some people experience a similar sense of loss due to retirement, career setback, financial loss or any kind of perceived failure. We may question our identity and doubt our worth. Other people treat us differently when we have failed, or worse yet, they simply stay away from us. (At least Job’s friends come to see him.) Former friends speak cautiously if they must be around us, lowering their voices as though hoping that no one might find them near us. Maybe they think failure is a disease that’s catching, or maybe being seen near a failure will brand them as a failure. “They abhor me, they keep aloof from me,” laments Job (Job 30:10).
This is not to say that all civic and workplace friendships are shallow. It is true that some people befriend us only because we are useful to them, and then they abandon us when we cease to be useful. What really stings is the loss of what seemed to be genuine friendships.
In contrast to his first lament (Job 3), Job dishes up a large portion of self-justification in this round. “My justice was like a robe and a turban” (Job 29:14). “I was a father to the needy” (Job 29:16). Job touts his impeccable sexual purity (Job 31:1, 9-10). We have known all along that Job is not being punished for any fault. He may be accurate in his self-appraisal, but the self-justification is neither necessary nor endearing. Adversity may not always bring out the best in us. Yet God remains faithful, although Job is not able to see it at the moment, “for,” as he later says, “I was in terror of calamity from God” (Job 31:23).
In the midst of Job’s second lament (Job 29-42), he unveils a significant treatise on ethical behavior, which in some ways anticipates Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7). Although in the form of justifying his own practices, Job gives some principles that apply to many areas of our work lives:
Avoid falsehood and deceit (Job 31:5)
Don’t let the ends justify the means, expressed as not allowing the heart (principles) to be lured astray by the eyes (expediency) (Job 31:7)
Practice generosity (Job 31:16-23)
Don’t become complacent during times of prosperity (Job 31:24-28)
Don’t make your success depend on the failure of others (Job 31:29)
Admit your mistakes (Job 31:33)
Don’t try to get something for nothing, but pay properly for the resources you consume (Job 31:38-40)
Of particular interest is this passage about how he treats his employees:
If I have rejected the cause of my male or female slaves, when they brought a complaint against me, what then shall I do when God rises up? When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him? Did not he who made me in the womb make them? And did not one fashion us in the womb? (Job 31:13-15).
A godly employer will treat employees with respect and dignity. This is particularly evident in the way Job takes his servants’ complaints seriously, especially those that were directed towards his own treatment of them. Job correctly points out that those in power will have to stand before God to defend their treatment of those under them. “What then shall I do when God rises up? When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him?” (Job 31:14). God will inquire from subordinates how their superiors treated them. Superiors would be wise to ask their subordinates the same question while it is still possible to remedy their errors. The mark of true and humble followers of God is their openness to the possibility that they are in the wrong, which is most evidenced by their willingness to field any and all legitimate complaints. Wisdom is necessary for discerning which complaints do in fact merit attention. Yet the primary goal is to cultivate an environment in which subordinates know that superiors will entertain thoughtful and rational appeals. Although Job is talking about himself and his servants, his principle applies to any situation of authority: officers and soldiers, employers and employees, parents and children (raising kids is an occupation, too), leaders and followers.
Our time has seen great struggles for equality in the workplace with respect to race, religion, nationality, sex, class and other factors. The Book of Job anticipates these struggles by thousands of years. Yet Job goes beyond merely formal equality of demographic categories. He sees the equal dignity of every person in his household. We will become like Job when we treat each person with all the dignity and respect due to a child of God, regardless of our personal feelings or the sacrifice required on our part.
Of course, this truth does not preclude Christian bosses from establishing and exacting high standards in the workplace. However, it does require that the ethos of any workplace relationship be characterized by respect and dignity, especially on the part of the powerful.