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Related Verses: Job 2:11-13; 4 and 5

Leading Question: Can the words of Scripture be useful, even when they are taken out of context?

This week’s lesson focuses on the “encouraging” words spoken by Job’s friends. When they heard of his troubles, they came to visit him, and were so amazed that they were speechless for seven days.  Given Job’s reaction to their “encouraging” words, it probably would have been wise for them to remain silent much longer!

Nevertheless, for this week’s discussion, the official Sabbath School Bible Study Guide focuses on Eliphaz’s response in Job 4 and 5. In the context of the book of Job, the words of the friends were not at all helpful. But the official Sabbath School Bible Study Guide states: “Not all that Eliphaz is saying here is wrong. Many of these same thoughts are echoed in other parts of the Bible.” To make the point, the Study Guide (Wednesday, November 2) cites no less than eight biblical passages which “reflect the sentiments expressed in Job 5” (cited below from NIV):

Ps. 37:10: “A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found.”

Prov. 26:2: “Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, an undeserved curse does not come to rest.”

Luke 1:52: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”

1 Cor. 3:19: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’” [the words of Eliphaz from Job 5:13].

Ps. 34:6: “This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.”

Heb. 12:5: “And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you’” [citing Prov. 3:11].

Note: The official Study Guide only cites Hebrews 12:5, a quotation from Proverbs 3:11. But, interestingly enough, the very next verse in Hebrews 12 (verse 6) goes on to quote the next verse in Proverbs 3, namely, Proverbs 3:12, which is a citation modeled on the Greek OT (Septuagint) rather than the Hebrew: “because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” The last line of Proverbs 3:12 reads in the Hebrew: “as a father the son he delights in.”

Hos. 6:1: “Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.”

Ps. 33:19: [18: “But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love] 19  to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine.”

Note: The Study Guide cites only vs. 19; vs. 18 completes the context indicating that the Lord is the one who delivers.

Note: The official Study Guide is quite right in noting Eliphaz’s crass insensitivity in his response to Job:

“Perhaps a good opening for a book on grief counseling could feature Eliphaz here. The opening chapter could have been titled, ‘What not to Say to a Grieving Soul.’ Though obviously these men sympathized with Job, that sympathy went only so far. It seems that for Eliphaz, theological purity was more important than basic consolation. It’s hard to imagine someone coming up to a person going through all that Job was going through and saying, basically, Well, you must have deserved it, because God is just, and only the wicked suffer like this.

Even if one thought that this was the situation in Job’s case, what good did it do to say it to him? Suppose a speeding driver got into a car accident and lost his entire family. Can you imagine someone going up to him right away, amid his grief, and saying to him right away: God is punishing you for your speeding?  The problem with Eliphaz’s word isn’t just the questionable theology; the bigger issue is his insensitivity to Job and all that he is going through.” [comments for Monday, October 31, 2016]

In the comments for Tuesday, October 30, the Study Guide has this comment:

“What Eliphaz heard in ‘visions of the night’ was in many ways very sound theology (see Ps. 103:14; Isa. 64:7; Rom. 3:19, 20). We as humans are clay, we are so temporary, and we can be crushed as easily as a moth. And, of course, what man or woman can be more righteous than God”

But could we not say, at least in an ideal sense, that “sound theology” is only sound when it takes real people into account? Maybe we could even say that there is no “sound theology” apart from the needs of real people? That would be the point of Jesus’ one-line summary of the “law and the prophets: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12, NRSV). Words can kill. Only when they are massaged into place by a tender and loving heart can they really be “true.” That would seem to be the thrust of Ellen White’s comments to A. T. Jones in 6T 122-123:

“The influence of your teaching would be tenfold greater if you were careful of your words. Words that should be a savor of life unto life may by the spirit which accompanies them be made a savor of death unto death. And remember that if by your spirit or your words you close the door to even one soul, that soul will confront you in the judgment.

Do not, when referring to the Testimonies, feel it your duty to drive them home. In reading the Testimonies be sure not to mix in your filling of words, for this makes (122/123) it impossible for the hearers to distinguish between the word of the Lord to them and your words. Be sure that you do not make the word of the Lord offensive. We long to see reforms, and because we do not see that which we desire, an evil spirit is too often allowed to cast drops of gall into our cup, and thus others are embittered. By our ill-advised words their spirit is chafed, and they are stirred to rebellion.

Every sermon you preach, every article you write, may be all true; but one drop of gall in it will be poison to the hearer or the reader. Because of that drop of poison, one will discard all your good and acceptable words. Another will feed on the poison; for he loves such harsh words; he follows your example, and talks just as you talk. Thus the evil is multiplied.

Those who present the eternal principles of truth need the holy oil emptied from the two olive branches into the heart. This will flow forth in words that will reform, but not exasperate. The truth is to be spoken in love. Then the Lord Jesus by His Spirit will supply the force and the power. That is His work.” – Testimonies, 6:122-123

But it is in that connection that we must be extremely careful when we talk about what is “true” in the abstract sense but deadly in the practical sense.  EGW seems to be addressing that point when she says “every sermon you preach, every article you write, may be all true; but one drop of gall in it will be poison to the hearer or the reader.” In the same way we could say that much of what Eliphaz said was “true” in the abstract sense. But there was more than just one drop of gall in Eliphaz’s speech. In spite of whatever “truth” these friends may have spoken – and it is usually the friends who get quoted in church, not the strident words of Job – in the end, it was the friends whom God told to repent. In fact, the Lord was angry with them. Here is the quote from the book of Job itself after God had given Job the examination in which Job scored zero out of eighty-eight: “After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has’” (Job 42:7).

Additional comment about context: After emphasizing the importance of “context” in applying the words of truth, we must note that inspired writers frequently ignore the literary context when they cite Scripture. Following the practices of ancient midrash, the New Testament writers often quote passages out of context. The books of Matthew, John, and Hebrews are particularly noteworthy in that respect. From a modern technical sense, every OT passage quoted in Hebrews 1 and 2 is cited “out of context.”

And that habit continues today.  In last week’s lesson, this study guide referred to the experience of Elijah, quoting Ellen White from Prophets and Kings. In that chapter she links the story of Job’s discouragement with that of Elijah, the same linkage made in this study guide. But in doing so she actually quotes the words of Zophar as being words of “encouragement” to Job. She does not tell us that they came from Zophar. In fact, she adroitly introduces them in this way: “But though weary of life, Job was not allowed to die. To him were pointed out the possibilities of the future, and there was given him the message of hope.”  Then she quotes these words, given here with Massoretic-like precision, with her spelling [steadfast instead of stedfast] and her formatting: She drops out the KJV italics and verse numbering to make the passage more readable; she uses poetic lines, but indents, beginning with verse four; she omits part of verse 18, marking the omission with elision marks [“yea, thou shalt dig about thee, and thou shalt take they rest in safety. . . .], and also drops out the “Also” at the beginning of verse 19.

Thou shalt be steadfast [sic], and shalt not fear:
Because thou shalt forget thy misery,
and remember it as waters that pass away:

And thine age shall be clearer than the noonday;
Thou shalt shine forth, thou shalt be as the morning.
And thou shalt be secure,
Because there is hope . . . .
Thou shalt lie down,
And none shall make thee afraid;
Yea, many shall make suit unto thee.
But the eyes of the wicked shall fail,
And they shall not escape,
And their hope shall be as the giving up of the ghost. – Job 11:15-20

What she does not tell us is that these words did not encourage Job at all, but actually infuriated him!

In Summary: Two crucial points stand in a certain tension with each other: 1) The importance of applying the words of Scripture in helpful ways, not in ways that wound. Here the official Study Guide has it right. 2) The recognition that Bible writers (and Ellen White) often ignore the literary context, choosing to use the words of Scripture because of their known devotional value for the devout  Perhaps the words of P. T. Forsyth apply here, especially for those of us with an academic bent who may be inclined to place a lesser value on the actual words of Scripture while stressing the importance of literary context:

I do not believe in verbal inspiration. I am with the critics in principle. But the true minister ought to find the words and phrases of the Bible so full of spiritual food and felicity that he has some difficulty in not believing in verbal inspiration. – P. T. Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind (1907), 38; Eerdmans reprint, 26.

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