At the start of Chapter 3 of The Book of Job, we find Job, having sat in silence with his 3 friends for 7 days, ready to talk. (Text of Chapter 3 here.) What comes out of his mouth is one of the more heartbreaking of the laments found in scriptures. Job does not curse God or Satan or even his misfortune. Rather, it is his very existence which is the subject of his lament.
One of the notable things about Chapter 3 is that it is where the Book of Job ceases to be a narrative story and becomes an extended series of poems. We are of course reading a translation which can make it hard for us to appreciate the poetry involved. In addition, Hebrew poetry uses something called parallelism where an idea is stated and then restated. This can happen between lines, within lines, between stanzas or withing stanzas. For example, verse 17: “There the wicked cease from troubling, there the weary are at rest” is an example of parallelism within a line. We can see it in the repetition of the sentence structure and the repetition of the first word of each phrase. There is also a pairing relationship between the wicked and the weary and ceasing from trouble and being at rest (ceasing to be troubled).
People with more patience and attention to detail than I have/can spend oodles of time teasing out these structures and themes. For the rest of us, however, the result is often that the text becomes repetative and we can get so caught up in the flow that we lose track of what is going on. Like I said, I am not a good detail person, so having to wade through a bunch of lines which repeat themselves with variations over and over again is not my cup of tea. I have found it helpful to look at these sections as what they are: poems. I try to break the poem into thematic sections which are usually composed of the same or similar number of lines. For this chapter, it looks like this:
Verses 3-9 are a poetic curse upon the day of Job’s birth. He wishes for the day to be obliterated from existence.
Since the day itself cannot be erased, then in verses 9-12/13** Job says that he would prefer to have died before, during, or even rejected to die after birth.
However, since he did not die on the day of his birth, in verses 13/14-19 Job extols the virtues of death itself. There he says all men are the same, evil ceases and worry ends.
Having cycled from wishing for the day of his birth to disappear, to wishing that he had not been born so he could experience the sleep of death, Job begins to return to the real world where the day of his birth happened, he survived and men such as himself are subject to such great suffering that they long for death (verses 19-23).
Job closes his lament in verses 24-26 with a proclamation of his troubles: food is harder to find than his sighs, what he fears has come and he is scared of what might come next, there is no rest, only trouble for him.
Job’s lament is completely understandable. We are also presented with a problem familiar to those of us who have been through terrible times or have been around others going through terrible times. The problem is that there are certain truths about suffering and our proper response to suffering which, although true, are enormously unhelpful in the middle of suffering. For example, we could tell Job to be grateful for the good times – most men will never experience even one day as good as the many years of prosperity and family which Job enjoyed. We could also advise Job to seek after God in the hard times; ask God what He would have him learn from this suffering. We could advise Job to use this time of suffering to simply sit before the Lord and ask for healing in His presence. We could assure Job that God will redeem his suffering – that it serves a purpose which is simply hidden right now. All of these things are good, healthy and helpful ways of dealing with suffering. They are all far more useful and healing than wishing you were dead. However, they are often worse than useless bits of advice for the person who is not ready to hear them.
The truth is that dealing with suffering and hardship is something we have to learn. And like anything which needs to be learned, we need to be ready to learn it. Otherwise, it does more harm than good. So while I can sit here and say that the way Job reacts to his suffering is all wrong, in reality, Job simply needs some time to learn how to suffer. So he starts off where many of us start when face with enormous suffering: wishing we could just be swallowed up into the ground.
**I am using the New American Bible as my primary translation for this study. The NAB notes that verse 16 of Chapter 3 seems to have been accidentally misplaced in some early transmissions of the text. It appears to belong between verses 11 and 12 rather than in between lines 15 and 17. Therefore, the line has been moved to the proper spot while retaining the verse number assigned in current Hebrew texts.