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Monday, October 29, 2012

Job's Oath of Innocence

Job 27:1-6

Job again took up his discourse and said:

2“As God lives, who has taken away my right, and the Almighty, who has made my soul bitter,

3as long as my breath is in me and the spirit of God is in my nostrils,

4my lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit.

5Far be it from me to say that you are right; until I die I will not put away my integrity from me.

6I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.


            “As God lives …” says Job.  Robert Sutherland, a lawyer and student of ancient legal codes describes Job chapter 27 as Job’s “oath of innocence.”  He writes, “The Oath of Innocence was a self-contained lawsuit understood to have been given by God himself and reserved for those most difficult of cases where the defendant … could not be compelled to come to court.” (Putting God on Trial, p.50).  Sutherland’s book is called Putting God on Trial.  A self-contained lawsuit: Sutherland contends that Job was bringing God to trial for imposing unjust suffering.  Job was admired because he lived righteously.  In fact, it was said he was blameless and God confirmed this assessment.  Yet, after Satan and God argued over him, God permitted Satan to inflict horrendous pain and loss on Job.  Job knew nothing of Satan.  He counted God as guilty.

            “[God] has made my soul bitter,” Job laments.  OT scholar Sam Ballentine writes that Job approached God as an equal partner in dialogue (Prayer in the Hebrew Bible, p. 176).  Taking it further, OT scholar Leo Purdue says Job sees himself as a prince and expects God to give him the royal treatment.  Job’s disputation is based on his sense of injustice, with God in the role of offender.

            Ballentine, Perdue, Sutherland are experts in law, the language of Biblical Hebrew, and the theology of the Old Testament.  Are these academics right?  Is Job so audacious as to bring God to trial?  There was a Biblical precedent.  Recall Solomon praying when the temple was completed in 1 Kings 8:31-32:

“If someone sins against a neighbor and is given an oath to swear, and comes and swears before your altar in this house,32then hear in heaven, and act, and judge your servants, condemning the guilty by bringing their conduct on their own head, and vindicating the righteous by rewarding them according to their righteousness.


            Recall God’s words from Deuteronomy 1:17,

You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. Any case that is too hard for you, bring to me, and I will hear it.”


            When Job says, “As God lives,” he is swearing on God’s name.  His claim is on God’s promise from Deuteronomy, which King Solomon relied on in establishing terms of justice in the newly constructed temple.  When no other justice is possible, the victim can turn to God and claim by oath his case, and God swears he will hear it.  Job uses this promise of God to bring trial against God and his foundation for the trial is the name and word of God. 


            Who cares?  What does this have to do with you and me?  So Job, according the conventions of ancient times, takes out an oath of innocence.  So what?  So Job uses God’s own terms to bring a case of injustice against God.  How is that relevant here and now?  What difference does this make to us as we try to figure out how God relates to our lives in America in the year 2012?

            Ballentine, whom we referenced earlier, puts it this way.  Job staked his life on the belief that God could not deny his plea.  We like to think God is without limits, but Ballentine is saying Job risked his very existence not just on the idea that God would hear his prayer, but on the idea that God would have to agree to the validity of it and would thus have to rectify Job’s situation.  Do we ever pray like our lives are at stake?  Ballentine is saying that is what Job did.

            Sutherland takes it further.  He sums up 27:2-6 this way.  Job is saying, “I’ll be damned if I do anything other than declare my own innocence” (p.51).  In our everyday speech, someone might see something extraordinarily surprising and say, “Well I’ll be damned.”  He doesn’t really mean he’s going to spend eternity in a fiery inferno.  He just means he’s very, very surprised.  In that case, “Well, I’ll be damned” is a crass way of expressing shock.  It is swearing, cussing.

            Sutherland says Job is saying, “I’ll be damned if I do anything other than express my innocence.”  He has been through three exhausting rounds of debates with his so-called friends, all of whom have insisted he confess, repent, and turn away from sin.  Now he’s fed up.  He won’t do it.  Sutherland suggests that he is willing to barter not just life, but his eternal life.  He will declare his innocence and demand that God acquiesce, and he fully believes that if God rejects him, he will either be utterly annihilated or damned for all time. 

            At this point we must remember the story’s beginning.  Chapter 1, verse 1- Job is defined as “blameless.”  After Satan has hit him, taking all his property and killing his children, God declares Job blameless.  After Satan comes again and adds misery to misery, covering Job with loathsome sores, the narrator says through it all, Job did not sin in his speech.  From God and from the storyteller, we have confirmation.  Job is without sin in this story – blameless.  His oath of innocence, his desperate clinging to his own integrity – it is based on truth.  At the end of the book, God declare Job has spoken rightly. 

            Fine.  Here is the problem.  Romans 3:23 – “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”   Now, Job’s integrity is not in question.  Ours is.  Can we believe Job and the narrator and God when they say Job is blameless?  Can we believe Paul as he writes to the Roman Christians that all people – every last one – are sinners who fall short of God’s glory?  Do we trust scripture?  If yes, then what do we do with such tension as this?

            For me it all comes together in John 14:6.  Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through me.”  Job lived centuries before Jesus came.  He couldn’t know what it means to know God through Jesus.  But there are some important lessons we learn from Job and for now we consider two of them.

            First, not all suffering is punishment for sin.  We don’t have to look far to see people going through terrible suffering.  There are individual stories where people have utterly broken lives or are afflicted with excruciatingly painful illnesses.  There are collective stories where people groups suffer enormously; think of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule; think of the overcrowded impoverished conditions of Palestinians living in Bethlehem; think of children wasting away in Romanian orphanages.  Is all this suffering a result of sin?  Yes, but not necessarily sins of those who suffer.  Job shows us that pain is not a punishment sent from God.  In fact, God loves us and wants to help us face pain and wants to rescue us from it.

            Second, Job approached God with integrity.  That meant declaring his innocence.  I am not certain we can fully reconcile the unflinching assertion that Job is blameless with Paul’s equally firm declaration that all humans sin.  I don’t know that we can get full harmony with those competing claims.  But we can accept that Job prayed so honestly he risked his own eternity.  He was that straightforward with God.

            We must be also.  For Job, honesty meant declaring the Oat of Innocence.  For us, it means signing our statement of guilt.  If we are as honest as Job, even the best among us must be honest about our sin.  If we believe all this God talk, then we believe we’ve already forfeited our eternity by our sins.  By repeating Adam and Eve’s rebellion, by turning away from the ways of God, by hurting other people, we have destined ourselves to an eternity away from God’s love and God’s presence.  We know on our own merit, without help, we are bound for Hell, whatever Hell is.  We don’t say, “I’ll be damned.”  We say, “We are damned.”  In that admission, we are as honest as Job was.

            But we remember Jesus’ words.  “I am the way.”  No one gets to be with the Father in an eternal relationship of peace, love, and joy except by going through Jesus.  But the gospel is this: Jesus has come to us and for us.  Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians 5, “For our sake, [God] made him [Christ] who knew to sin to become sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”

            In him.  The idea of being “in Christ;” it is the most precious notion in all of scripture.  Job couldn’t have it.  He lived before Jesus’ coming.  Job teaches us honesty and perseverance in prayer and in our relationship with God.  In our admission of guilt for all our sins, we realize it is only by faith in Jesus Christ that the relationship with God is possible.  But it is possible because he did come.  God’s plan was to save the world through Jesus. 

            What about poor Job who lived before Christ?  I trust God has a way of working people into His grace even if they lived prior to the Christian narrative or outside of it. 

For us Job exists as a model of integrity.  In living out that integrity, we begin in confession knowing that confession leads to good news: death to the sinful self, complete forgiveness, and new life as sons and daughters of God.  When read alongside the New Testament, Job does not show the Gospel, but subtly anticipates it.  Stepping from Job into Paul’s letters, we move from model to means.  Jesus is the means to make us righteous beyond even blameless Job’s wildest imagination. 

            Today we take the bread and the cup, the communion elements first shared by Jesus and the disciples.  As we do, consider your integrity before God.  Come clean.  Open your heart and invite Him in.  It won’t be easy.  We are humans and we have  messes in our hearts.  But He loves us enough to accept us and clean up our messes.  So this morning, don’t for a second worry about being innocent as Job was innocent.  Be true as Job was true.  The one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life is reaching welcoming arms to you.  For you, He makes a way.


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