O that you would hide me in Sheol,
that you would conceal me until your wrath is past,
that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
If mortals die, will they live again? (Job 14:13-14a)
The Book of Job is not something that you just dip into. One of the most complicated scriptures in the Bible, it defies easy categorization, quick reading, and simplistic proof-texting. So when I looked at the lectionary readings for today, my instinct was to avoid Job 14 and turn back once more to the psalms.
But in the end, I’m glad that I spent at least a little time hearing the words of a man who struggles to understand his loss, his suffering, and his isolation. Today’s psalm addresses a God of refuge who rescues the lost “speedily.” But on this Holy Saturday, when we remember a moment when all hope seemed lost, it’s as appropriate to listen to Job’s prayer, which starts with despondence turning to resignation:
A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble,
comes up like a flower and withers,
flees like a shadow and does not last. (Job 14:1)
Yesterday I read a variety of Christian thinkers debate on Twitter just why Jesus had to die. Holy Saturday invites at least one simple answer: whatever else Jesus’ death meant, it underscored that God the Son was also fully human. For, as COVID-19 is painfully teaching all of us, mortals are defined (in part) by their mortality, the relative fewness of their days. That’s not all that we need to think about this day, but it’s got to be part of it: if Jesus died, he shared in our humanity.
But the sheer fact that Job is saying these words as a prayer suggests something other than fatalism. Job “would speak to the Almighty… to argue my case with God” (13:3). A mortal reaching out to the eternal, Job yearns to be in relationship with God, to hear God’s voice. Even when he presents what sounds like a legal argument, emphasize Glandion Carney and William Long in today’s commentary, “Job longs for intimacy with God.”
But this takes us to one of the many mysteries of this mysterious book. “The central problem for Job,” observe Carney and Long, “is that God will not talk to him, will not explain to him why this disproportionate suffering has been visited upon him.” Earlier in this series, a different Hebrew poem reminded me that “sometimes God does hide from us.” For much of the Book of Job God certainly hides from its namesake, who struggles to understand why his children had to die, why his wealth was taken away, why he suffers painful sores… why the God he believes in doesn’t answer.
“O that God would speak, and open his lips to you,” says Zophar, early in the speech that prompts Job’s prayer in ch. 14. One of the three friends who come to “console and comfort him” (2:11), Zophar’s version of comfort is to assure Job that he deserves his suffering, or worse. He hopes to hear God explain to his friend Job “that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves” (11:6b).
But if Job can’t hear God’s voice, he certainly doesn’t want to hear friends “speak falsely for God… deceitfully for him” (13:7). Job knows that God’s wisdom is different: that the one who holds “the life of every living thing” in his hands, is prone to behaving in ways that humans cannot understand. This God not only “overthrows the mighty” and “pours contempt on princes,” but “makes fools of judges” and “takes away the discernment of the elders” (13:17, 19-21).
This God “brings deep darkness to light,” but he also “uncovers the deeps out of darkness” (13:22). So as I read the conclusion to Job’s prayer on this Holy Saturday, I was struck that Job trusts that a God of unexpected outcomes and hidden reasoning might bring life out of death. If “there is hope for a tree” that will “sprout again” even after being felled (14:7), then there might be hope for another mortal creature. “Nature is always on the brink of rebirth,” write today’s commentators. “Why shouldn’t this be the case for mortals too (v 10)?”
As the prayer continues beyond the boundaries of the lectionary, Job waits for the day when God “would call, and I would answer you” (v 15). He’s not sure he would like what he hears, for in the crumbling of mountains and rocks, Job sees reminders that God can also “destroy the hope of mortals” (v 19).
But if “the rock” can be “removed from its place (14:18), then Christians should know that if mortals die, they might indeed live again. After humbling himself, Job did “sprout again,” as God “blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning” (42:12).
And while Job did eventually die (“old and full of days”), the One who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phi 2:8) has risen to life, so that every knee — even death’s — shall bend at the sound of his name.