The long silence is at last broken. It is Job that speaks. Hear him. Is this the man who but lately uttered in his deep distress, words worthy of being engraven upon the rocks, and fit to be proclaimed over our graves? We may almost, at the first view, say with his friends, that we “know him not” as the same man we knew before, so altered is the moral feeling which his utterances now indicate. Some profess to be greatly astonished at his passionate outbreak, overlooking the antecedent circumstances which we have pointed out as preparing for it, and leading us to look for it. The thoughts and feelings to which he now gives vent, had already been passing through and nestling in his mind. Hitherto he had labored against them, and had refused to give them utterance. But they had gathered strength in silent brooding over his sorrows and humiliations, in the presence of friends from afar, to whom he had been wont to give a noble reception, killing for them the fatted calf, and from whom he had been used to receive a most different greeting. He probably perceived the bent of their thoughts and to have sunk so low in the presence of these his peers, to have become to them in object of compassion, mingled with irrepressible disgust, and shaded by dark suspicions, proved at length too much for him, and the torrent of his hard complaints gushed forth.
We have shown the change to be less abrupt than is usually supposed; it may be that it is also less complete. It is in fact rather a progression than a change. Calvin, so learned in all matters touching man’s inner life, well remarks, that if we consider the case well, and examine thoroughly, we find a combat, wherein man’s infirmity shows itself on the one hand, while, on the other, some strength to resist temptation still remains. Hitherto we have seen nothing but strength and constancy in Job; but now there is a mixture, for the infirmity of his flesh so overcomes him as to constrain him to murmur against the Lord, while yet he adheres to Him, and has no thoughts of departing from Him. Nevertheless, he gives utterance to hard words and evil thoughts—which cannot be justified—and proceeding from a heart no longer wholly right before God. The state to which this afflicted man has come is, then, that in which he is less steadfast than he was before; and in which he so far succumbs in this high conflict as to show that he is still a frail man, not able to sustain his temptation as he fain would do, nor to submit himself to God with that resolute serenity which was required from him, and which he had before most nobly exemplified.
Again, this great master in Israel, vindicating Job from those who regard him as altogether an altered man, so as to have forgotten his former patience, as angry with God, and as no longer minded to glorify Him, observes that: “It is certain Job has not come to such extremity as this. It is still his desire and purpose to obey God. Nevertheless, there is now a mixture and conflict of interests in his soul. In this conflict he fails not to be wounded, he seems not to receive blows, he staggers, he steps awry. He has not so sound a perfection as before; and yet, although his affliction pinched him sore, so that he was likely to faint in the midst of the way, he still held on his course, with a fixed purpose to obey God, although meanwhile he failed to realize all the good that he desired. There is a memorable text in which St. Paul confesses, that although all his desire was to give himself unto God, yet, notwithstanding, it came not so to pass; for he was hindered by his own nature, which was over-weak. Now, if Paul acknowledged this much of himself, let it not be thought strange that the like should happen to Job, so as that he should be desirous to conform himself to the good will of God, and yet that his affections should not be in all points so perfect but that he stooped and halted in his course.”
The language of Job’s opening address, is certainly that of bitter lamentation and despair. He curses the day in which he was born, using, a great variety of strong, harsh, and, if literally understood, reprehensible language, to show the deep detestation in which he regarded it, because it did not prevent his birth, and save him from sorrow and despair. He passionately asks why he did not die as soon as he was born—why any care was taken to preserve an existence doomed to be so wretched? He expatiates with much beauty upon the peace, the rest, in which he should have lain, had this happened to him; and then he breaks forth again into bitter complaint that life should be given to one who does not want it, but covets death beyond all precious things. In this he goes farther than hitherto, as it implies, if it does not express, a reflection upon the Lord, as one who had been less than just and merciful to him; and towards the close he lets out the interesting fact, that his life had been haunted by a vague fear and presentiment of an adverse change in his condition, and now, far more than the worst of all he had feared had come upon him.
Having thus stated the substance of Job’s speech, we shall direct attention to some remarkable points in it. And this course we mean to follow throughout, as our plan does not admit of the same extended development of particulars, which it has allowed in the historical or introductory portion.
With regard to the mere fact of Job’s cursing the day of his birth, and so forth, this is much less offensive than some of his subsequent utterances. It is less offensive in poetry, which allows the boldest expression to strong emotion, than it would be in prose; and far less so to an Oriental than to a European imagination. The feelings of grief, of despair, of hate, of joy, which with us are vented in the simplest forms of expression, are in the East carried to the utmost limits of language and thought, are applied in all their possible circumstances. How often do we hear one say, under comparatively light afflictions or discontents, “I wish I were dead;” or, “I wish I had never been born;” and although we regard them as culpable expressions of discontent, they make no very strong impression upon our mind, and are scarcely regarded as outrageous, atrocious, or rebellious against God. Yet this is neither more nor less than what the Oriental means; and the impression which his words made upon those who hear him, is scarcely stronger, when, in vehement and high language, he curses the day of his birth, and all connected with it, or under a multitude of pathetic and despairing images, invokes the rest of the grave. That this kind of language was not regarded as more heinous than such phrases in common use as we have produced, is shown by the fact that (not to mention other instances), the prophet Jeremiah curses his days in terms as hot and passionate, though “less amplified,” as does our patriarch in this place, and for the very same reason too; “Because he came into the world to see labor and sorrow, and that his days were consumed with shame.” Job is certainly not more to be blamed than Jeremiah—perhaps less, for the prophet possessed the light of a brighter revelation than was afforded to the patriarch. But both are more excusable in these their fervid utterances, than is the Christian in even the comparatively tame murmurings for death, or regrets for life, which he gives forth, seeing that to him have been granted far stronger consolations under afflictions, and supports in adversity, and far higher evidences of the Divine love, than any of the ancient saints were permitted to enjoy.