If there is a single Biblical vision for humanity, it is shalom. Shalom is peace: living in right relationships with neighbors and with God.
To have shalom, one must be righteous. What is ‘righteousness?’ Obedience to God? Yes. Is it proper worship? Yes. Is righteousness acting justly and being humble toward other people? Yes. Yes. Yes. Righteousness is hard to obtain and harder still to define. Yet shalom – the goal of humanity – is impossible without righteousness.
Job’s friend Eliphaz stands before Job as Job suffers from loss, heartbreak, shock, and physical pain. No one has suffered like Job. He maintained that he was suffering unjustly because he had been blameless. God said exactly that in the gathering of heavenly beings in Job chapter 1.
But Job’s friend Eliphaz does not believe he is without fault. We can dismiss Eliphaz because we know he contradict God, but we shouldn’t write him off too quickly. “Can mortals be righteous before God?” Eliphaz asks. God does not even trust his angels. How can He trust us, humans who live in houses of clay whose foundation is dust” (4:19)?
Each human being from the president to the guy driving the trash truck; we are houses of clay.
In the days of the prophet Jeremiah, God asked,
5Then the word of the Lord came to me:
6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.
11Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. (Jeremiah 18:5-11)
“Just like clay … so you are in my hand.” We can ignore Eliphaz, but God is the speaker in Jeremiah. God says to his people, “Now … I am a potter shaping evil against you.” It was because of sin, but even so, does God do evil? Well, how we can ask such questions? We’re clay.
The Apostle Paul, in Romans:
But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? (Romans 9:20-21)
Are we angry? The preacher says we’re nothing but clay, mud. No, not the preacher, the Bible. Jeremiah, Job, Paul; it seems there’s Biblical consensus that humans aren’t much in the grand scheme of things.
We go back to Genesis, back to the beginning; we need some help here. We’re just clay? That can’t be right. What does Genesis offer? From Genesis chapter 2:
“The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Gen. 2:7)
Eliphaz’s question is blaring now. Can a mortal, a mere house of clay, be righteous? We are formed, created. There was a time when there was no Rob Tennant. In 1969, no one had ever heard of Rob Tennant. I had not existed. I was born in 1970. If I live 83 years, I’ll in die in 2053. I am a blip on the screen of history. I will die and my corpse will be consumed by maggots. I am dust, clay, earth. Can a mortal be righteous and enjoy Shalom? Can Job? Can I? You?
What does ‘clay’ mean in the book of Job. Eliphaz says human beings are houses of clay. Zophar, another friend of Job’s, like Eliphaz and Bildad before him judges Job to be guilty. He rejects Job’s innocence saying that God’s wisdom is unattainable for humans, and it is by God’s wisdom, Zophar implies, that Job is found guilty. Job says to Zophar, “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay” (13:12). Clay when dried crumbles and blows in the wind like dust. When hardened it is weak and easily smashed. Dust; nothing; weak.
What about the young man Elihu? He says to Job, “Before God I am as you are; I too was formed from a piece of clay. No fear of me need terrify you” (33:6-7). Job, I’m clay like you, nothing to fear. Nothing to be impressed by. Nothing.
You and I, church, we are houses of clay. Can we hope to be righteous? Can we hope to live in right relationships with God and with each other? Our best efforts shatter as does a clay pot if it dropped onto concrete from just a few feet in the air.
Is clay mentioned any more in the book of Job? Actually, yes, by God. Knowing Job has no possible answer, God asks,
12“Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, 13so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? 14It is changed like clay under the seal, and it is dyed like a garment. (Job 38:12-14)
In God’s remark, the feature of clay is different than what we’ve previously heard. In the mouth of Eliphaz, humans, houses of clay, cannot possibly be righteous. Whatever shalom we enjoy is a gift from God we should accept. We also accept any misery that fills our lives because that too is from God. To Job, clay is fragile, weak, nothing. To Elihu, clay is unremarkable, unworthy of any reknown. But God says something different.
God says clay is something that can be changed. By who? By the potter. Who is the potter? Obviously there is just one, God. Why is this important? When we meet God we change – we become something we were not before the encounter happened. Lost people are those who resist the influence of God on their lives. In the book of Job, his friends, the young man Elihu, his wife – they all refuse to change. They believed certain things about God, humanity, and the world. As Job goes through his horrendous ordeal, they stubbornly hold onto a theology that does not fit the reality around them.
Job realizes his life is in the hands of a dynamic, real, living God. God is not a far off deity who set things in motion at the dawn of creation, set up the rules, and has been hands off ever since. God is right here, active in the affairs of humans right now. Suffering helped Job see that. And he realized his only hope was to turn to that God in prayer. Sometimes it was angry prayer. Some things said would have to be reconsidered. But Job knew his hope was not in the commonly held beliefs of his day. In fact his only hope was to disrupt those beliefs and reach out to God because his fate was in God’s hands. So too is ours.
Again, Genesis 2: “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” We are not just houses of clay; we are houses of clay filled with the breath, the Spirit, of God. To be human is to be animated by God’s spirit. From the very beginning we were made for relationship.
What’s the Biblical goal? Right relationship: peace and love and harmony with God and with others. How do we attain that? Through righteousness. Can humans be righteous Eliphaz asks? No. But we can be in relationship with God who is perfectly righteous. In fact the very reason we exist is to be in relationship with God and each other. That’s why we are here.
Rick Warren writes, “God was there as an unseen witness, smiling at your birth. He wanted you alive” (Purpose Driven Life, p.63). Leonard Sweet says of faith, “Faith is not a problem to be solved or a question to be answered but a mystery to be lived – the mystery of a real, live relationship with God.” God desired this so much He bridged the gap.
First God chose a nation – Israel and wed Himself in marriage to His chosen people. Then God became one of them. Jesus is a house of clay just like you and me. God lowered God’s self. Paul writes in Philippians, “[Jesus] emptied himself taking on the form of a slave, born in human likeness” (2:7). He did it because previously only remarkable individuals in history became true friends of God – Job, Abraham, Moses, Elijah. Each one of these was blown away by God. The house of clay cannot “know” intimately the potter. So the potter became a house of clay.
From Job we learn to tenaciously hold onto even the slimmest of hopes in God. When all else is lost, we, like Job, reach to God. There is nothing else to do. But the lesson is incomplete if it ends there. In our reaching, which includes full acknowledgement of all our mistakes and limitations, full confession of all we’ve done that is wrong and harmful, in our reaching we realize God reached that much farther when he came to us.
We houses of clay, animated by God’s creative spirit, become sons and daughters of God when in Christ, we are redeemed and made new by that same Holy Spirit. We are changed. Paul says, “Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). God told Job that clay is moldable, but that’s a good thing. Job and you and I are molded by God. God makes something of us.
He does this through Jesus and it is the love and forgiveness of Jesus in us that makes us what we are. Job was not blessed to live with knowledge of Jesus. We have that knowledge. Jesus makes us righteous and through him we have right relationships. Paul says that as we carry Jesus and share his love and his gospel, we houses of clay become signposts pointing to God’s glory. “We have this treasure [Jesus] in jars of clay, so it may be made clear that this power [eternal life] belongs to God” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Can mortals be righteous? No, Eliphaz, we houses of clay cannot be righteous. But we are animated by God and saved by God in the flesh, Jesus. So we can be in relationship with God. His righteousness is sufficient for us and because of him, we can and will live in shalom forever.