The Scream: Job, the Abyss and Christ
The book of Job is one of the most enigmatic, yet most significant books of the Bible for a whole range of reasons. Among them is the attention it has been given by the likes of John Calvin (who preached 159 sermons on it in the space of 6 months 1558-59) and Joseph Caryl who preached a staggering 424 sermons on it over a 12-year period in 17th Century London. But readers often miss its point.
Although Job appears to be the main character in the book, he is not its central focus, nor is the book addressed to him. Many scholars believe it was written sometime between the reign of Solomon and the Exile – the era during which much of the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible was given by the Holy Spirit and with which the book of Job has been traditionally classified in the Old Testament corpus. John Calvin unpacks the significance of this by saying, ‘God wanted some few seed [Job and his family] to remain among the pagans to worship him in order to convict those [in later generations] who turned from right path, like the pagans.’ In other words, at a time when his covenant people were straying from their covenant privilege in the Promised Land, God pointed them to a godly man in a pagan world who didn’t stray. This book and the struggles to which Job was subjected are intended to drive home – in a very visceral manner – that the essence of wisdom we need to navigate life always begins with ‘the fear of the Lord’.
What is strange, however, is that again and again, from Job’s perspective, the God whom he fears seems very far away. Indeed, there are times when this is so much the case that it isn’t just Job’s world that so obviously implodes, his entire mind and psyche appear to disintegrate as well.
This becomes apparent in the book’s third chapter. In Chapter One he has suffered the loss of his personal fortune, his esteemed reputation and, worst of all, his ten children – taken from him with one bitter stroke. In Chapter Two this loss is compounded not just with the radical loss of his health, but through the Judas-like betrayal of his own wife. The woman who had pledged to be his soulmate and support through life urged him to end his (their) misery by betraying his Lord and Redeemer: ‘Curse God and die!’ But, even in the face of being undermined by his wife, Job maintains his faith and devotion to God, saying, ‘Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’ (2.10). But this appears to crumble as he ‘goes over the edge’ into what many commentators regards as ‘the abyss’ that spans the bulk of the book between its beginning and end.
Job, as the record states, is so crushed by the succession of his woes as their devastating weight begins to penetrate his very soul that he sits in silence for seven days and nights – even though his three friends had travelled a long way to see him and bring comfort. But it is what happens when he finally opens his mouth that brings home the depth of his devastation, first of all to his closest friends, but also to us as readers. We are told, ‘Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth…’ (3.1). He did not curse God as Satan claimed he would in response to his losses and torment; but he did curse his own very existence.
There is a small universe of discussion and debate over what this entailed and the legitimacy of a man of righteousness to act in this way; but it is the sheer and stark force of what pours out of his mouth that stuns us as readers into silence.
Indeed, it crossed my mind, reading these words again recently, that the pictorial image it generates is akin to ‘The Scream’ by the 19th Century Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch. With all the vividness of his Expressionistic style – a form distorted against a bleak and writhing backdrop – we see a face, with mouth wide open, in what comes across as a never-ending cry of desolation. It looks like what Job sounds like as he opens his soul to the world.
Why, in a book that is meant to help us see God as we have never seen him before, are we brought face to face with such raw anguish? Let me suggest a few reasons.
The first is that what Job experienced gives us a glimpse of where Satan would take us if he had his way. As the author of Job subtly indicates in all his references to the devil, ‘Satan’ is not just one of his names, it is his character and nature. In Job he is always ‘the Satan’ – the accuser, the adversary, the bringer of ruin and the architect of disorder and the arch-deceiver. This same Satan is alive and well on planet earth and the world is full of the wreckage of lives and beauty that he has ruined.
The second reason for the inclusion of this dark despair of a man of God in Scripture is that, although Satan cannot pluck us from God’s grip, he can afflict us within the limits God sets. But let us not be under any illusion as to the pain and anguish he can inflict – not least to our mind and spirit. There is much talk in the world generally these days about the importance of mental health, but too often as Christians we downplay its seriousness and how unnerving it is for a believer to experience mental breakdown. Job’s ‘scream’ says it all.
The most important reason for its inclusion, however, is the fact it leads us to Christ and to his anguish on the cross. He was plunged into the deepest depths of the abyss and all for the sake of sinners, to rescue them from its depths. His was an anguish captured in a single word: ‘Why?’ – ‘Why the darkness, why forsaken, why the torment?’ No human will ever fully grasp what was bound up in that ‘Why?’ But Job was given a glimpse – more than that, in the closing chapters of the book he would ultimately taste the eternal relief and comfort Christ secured for those who, like Job, he came to save.