SERMON: The Book Of Job by Archibald MacLeish

The Book Of Job by Archibald MacLeish

To preach is to speak with something more than one’s own voice – something that only ordination can give, that only the relation of minister to congregation can make possible.  I cannot preach here this morning.  I can only say – say the things possible to me as the kind of human being I am – not perhaps a religious man in the ordinary sense of that term but one who, because of the nature of the art he has followed and because of the character of the time in which he has lived, has had to think much about the things with which religion is concerned.  Whence and whither are questions for the poet as they are questions for the priest: in a dark time, even greater questions, for the priest has answers while the man who writes the poem has only, as Yeats puts it, his blind, stupefied heart.

It was a poet’s question that brought me to the text I wish to speak of this morning, the most difficult and the most urgent of all poet’s questions in a time like this, the question of the belief in life – which is also and inevitably the question of the belief in the meaning, the justice, of the universe – which, in its ultimate terms, is the question of the belief in God.

No man can believe in the imitation of life in art who does not first believe in life itself, and no man can believe in life itself who does not believe that life can be justified.  But how can life be justified in a time in which life brings with it such inexplicable sufferings: a time in which millions upon millions of men and women and children are destroyed and mutilated for no crime but the crime of being born in a certain century or of belonging to a certain race or of inhabiting a certain city; a time in which the most shameless and cynical tyranny flourishes, in which the ancient decencies are turned inside out to make masks for cruelty and fraud, in which even the meaning of the holiest words is perverted to deceive men and enslave them?  How can we believe in our lives unless we can believe in God, and how can we believe in God unless we can believe in the justice of God, and how can we believe in the justice of God in a world in which the innocent perish in vast meaningless massacres, and brutal and dishonest men foul all the lovely things?

These are questions we in our generation ask ourselves.  But they are not new questions.  They have been asked before us over thousands of years and by no one more passionately and more eloquently than by that ancient writer – the author of the book of Job.  It is of that book I wish to speak – but of that book, not as a fragment of the Bible, but as the great, self-containing poem it actually is.

Most of us who read the book of Job read it for the magnificence of its metaphors, or for the nobility of its language in the great translation in which we know it; but the language and the metaphors are not the poem.  The poem is the whole: not the language only but the action, and not alone the action but the meaning to which the action moves, and not the meaning as part of a web of meanings which the Old and New Testaments compose, but the meaning in itself.

It is commonly said, I know – and for reasons which are understandable enough – that the meaning of the book of Job is incomplete and unsatisfactory to any Christian; that the book of Job does not more than pose the tremendous question of man’s lot; that we must go on to the teachings of Jesus for an answer to that question.  It is understandable that men should say this, for certainly the meaning of the book of Job is a hard meaning and the terms of the dramatic action are brutal terms, terms that the modern mind may well find shocking and even blasphemous.  But the fact remains that there is a meaning – a meaning proffered by one of the greatest poets who ever wrote – a meaning that directly touches the enormous question which haunts us all in our time as it haunted him in his.

The book begins with the passage which I read you:

There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.  And there were born unto him seven sons and three daughters. His substance also was seven thousand sheep, and three thousand camels, and five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she asses, and a very great household; so that this man was the greatest of all the men of the east. And his sons went and feasted in their houses, every one his day; and sent and called for their three sisters to eat and to drink with them. And it was so, when the days of their feasting were gone about, that Job sent and sanctified them, and rose up early in the morning, and offered burnt offerings according to the number of them all: for Job said, It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts. Thus did Job continually.

 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them. And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord.

It is not a passage most of us care to dwell on, or to take in the literal sense and meaning of the words, for it makes God party to the undeserved sufferings of a human being.  Consider what is being said in those beginning verses of the first chapter. Job, it is said, was “perfect and upright and one that feared God and eschewed evil.”  This was God’s judgment of Job also, for God describes him in these same words, you will remember, in his conversation with Satan.  But notwithstanding his innocence God delivers Job into the hands of Satan, empowering the great adversary to destroy everything but Job’s person – his seven sons, his three daughters, all his people but the five servants who escape from the five massacres and disasters, all  his goods and wealth, and, eventually, after the second conversation with Satan, his health also.  And all this is done.  And done with God’s consent.  And done furthermore, as God himself asserts in the second conversation, “without cause.”  There can be no misunderstanding the intention of the text.  The death and destruction are Satan’s work, but without God’s consent they could not have been accomplished, and God recognizes from the beginning that they are unjustified by any guilt of Job’s.

And not only is all this explicitly said: it is also the essential precondition to the dramatic action and to the whole colloquy which follows between Job and his three “comforters.”  Job’s agony results far more from his consciousness of this lack of cause than from the loss of his wealth or even the destruction of his children.  The cry for death with which the great debate begins is not a cry for release from life but for the obliteration and canceling out of a condition in which such brutal injustice is possible.  “Let the day perish in which I was born,” says Job, “and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.” (3:3)  And it is to this same issue the comforters address their bitter comforts.  Eliphaz undertakes to answer the complaint of injustice by foreclosing the appeal to justice.  Justice, he says, is not for men to think of: “In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men, fear came upon me. . . a spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up. . . an image was before mine eyes, there was silence, and I heard a voice saying, Shall mortal man be more just than God?” (4:13-17)  It is not for men to debate justice with the Almighty.

But Job will not be answered in these terms.  He will not forgo his deep conviction that some how, some way, his suffering must be justified: “Teach me and I will hold my tongue; and cause me to understand wherein I have erred.” (6:24)  Job’s challenge is the challenge of his innocence, and it is of his innocence the comforters speak.  If Job insists on discussing the justice of his suffering, says Bildad, he is condemned forthwith because God is just, and a man who suffers, therefore, suffers necessarily for cause.  “Doth God pervert judgment?  Or doth the Almighty pervert justice?” (8:3)  But Job, like men before him and men since, rejects the unanswerable logic of this proposition: God destroys the good as well as the evil.  “The Earth is given into the hand of the wicked; he covereth the faces of the judges thereof; if not, where and who is he?” (9:24)  All one needs to do is to look at the world where the dishonest and the brutal flourish – and Job breaks out with that poignant cry our time has made its own: “changes and war are against me.” (10:17)

But the comforters are not persuaded.  Zophar picks up Bildad’s argument and presses it  home with the ultimate thrust.  Not only are all sufferers presumably guilty: Job is guilty.  God exacts less than Job’s wickedness deserves.  Job’s very self-justification is proof of his guilt.  But Job will not be browbeaten.  He knows and fears God as well as his friends, but he respects his own integrity also: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him; but I will maintain my own ways before him.” (13:15)

And thereupon Job turns from the debate with his friends to that greater debate in which we are all inevitably engaged: the debate with God.  He demands of God to show him “how many are my iniquities and sins?  Make me know my transgression and my sin.” (13:23)  But God does not answer.  “Oh that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his seat!  I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.  Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him.” (23: 3, 4, 8)

And so the argument goes on, until at last God answers Job out of the whirlwind and the dust.  But answers  him how?  By showing him the hidden cause?  No, by convicting him of insignificance!  Where was Job when the world was made – “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy”?  Has Job “entered into the treasure of the snow”?  Can Job “bind the sweet chains of the Pleiades”?  Has Job clothed the neck of the horse with thunder who “saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off”?  Does the hawk fly by Job’s wisdom or the eagle? – “where the slain are, there is she.” (38-39)

Power by power and glory by glory it piles up, all that unmatchable, rich fountaining and fluency of image and metaphor, heaping strength on strength and beauty on beauty only to culminate in that terrible challenge: “Gird up thy loins now like a man; I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me.  Wilt thou disannul my judgment?  Wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous?  Has thou an arm like God or canst thou thunder with a voice like him?  Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency; and array thyself with glory and beauty.   Then will I also confess unto thee that thine own right hand can save thee.” (4:7-14)  What can man reply?  What does Job reply to that tremendous utterance from the blind wind?  “Behold I am vile,” he cries, “what shall I answer thee?  I will lay my hand upon my mouth.” (40:4)

But what is this poem then?  What has happened?  What has been shown?  Only that Job is less than God in wisdom and in power?  It scarcely needed all these words, all this magnificence of words, to make that evident.  And no matter how evident, how doubly evident it may be, what answer can the insignificance of Job provide to the great question that has been asked of God?

Well, of one meaning of the poem we can be certain, can we not?  To the old poet who wrote this drama thousands of years ago, the injustice of the universe was self-evident.  He makes this clear not once but three times.  Job, he says, was a perfect and an upright man – that is to say, a man who did not merit punishment, let alone the terrible scourge of disasters with which he was afflicted.  Again, God by his own admission was moved to destroy Job “without cause.” (2:3)  Finally, the comforters, who had argued that Job must have deserved his sufferings, must have been wicked after all, are reproved – angrily reproved – by God at the end: “My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends,” God says to Eliphaz, “for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right.” (42:7)

The conclusion is inevitable: Job’s sufferings – and they are clearly meant to be the most dreadful sufferings of which the imagination can conceive, the steepest plunge from fortune to misery – Job’s sufferings are unjustified.  They are unjustified in any human meaning of the word justice.  And yet they are God’s work – work that could not have been done without the will of God.

But is this all the poem’s meaning?  Has the poet of the old visionary time nothing more to say to us than this – that the universe is cruel, that there is no justice, that God may plunge us into misery for no cause and then, at the end, for no cause either, give back to us twofold all that was taken away – all but the lost, all but the dead?  (For this, you will remember, happens to Job at the book’s end.)

No, surely this is not the only meaning.  If it were, men would not have read the book of Job generation after generation, century after century, no matter how magnificent its language.  But what other meaning is there?  What other meaning can there be?  What has the poem to say to us of our real concern: the possibility of our living in this world?  If the universe is unjust, if God permits our destruction without cause, how are we to believe in life?  And if we cannot believe in life, how are we to live?

This is, for all of us, the crucial question.  It was the crucial question for the author of the book of Job also.  “Why died I not from the womb?” cries Job; “as a hidden untimely birth I had not been.” (3:11,16)  What answer to that question does the poet find?  What answer does he show us in this drama of man’s agony?

A deep and, I think, a meaningful answer.

Consider the drama as drama: the play as play.  What is the fateful action from which all the rest follows?  Is it not God’s action in delivering Job, though innocent, into Satan’s hands?   Without this, Job would not have suffered, the comforters would not have come, the great debate would not have been pursued, God would not have spoken from the whirlwind.

But why did God deliver Job into Satan’s hands?  Why?

For a reason that is made unmistakably plain.  Because God had need of the suffering of Job – the need of it for himself as God.

Recall that scene in Heaven with which the play beings.  Satan has returned from going to and fro in the Earth and from walking up and down in it.  God, hearing where he has been, asks him to admire Job’s uprightness and reverence.  Satan replies with that oldest of sneering questions: “Doth Job fear God nor nought?”  Has God not protected Job and enriched him?  Has God not bought Job’s love and paid for it?  Do you think, cries Satan, Job would still love you if you took it all away?  “Put forth thy hand now and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.” (1:9ff)

And God give his consent.

Why?  For proof?  To silence Satan?  Obviously.  But still, why?  Clearly because God believes in Job: because God believes it will be demonstrated that Job loves and fears God because he is God and not because Job is prosperous – proved that Job will still love God and fear him in adversity, in misfortune, in the worst of misfortunes, in spite of everything.

Which means?  Which gives what meaning to this book?

Which means that in the conflict between God and Satan, in the struggle between good and evil, God stakes his supremacy as God upon man’s fortitude and love.  Which means, again, that where the nature of man is in question – and it is precisely, you will note, the nature of man that Satan has brought into question with his sneering challenge – where the nature of man is in question, God has need of man.

Only Job can prove that Job is capable of the love of God, not as a quid pro quo but for the love’s sake, for God’s sake, in spite of everything – in spite even of injustice, even God’s injustice.  Only man can prove that man loves God.

If one were to write an argument to go at the head of the book of Job in some private notebook of one’s own, it might well be written in these words: Satan, who is the denial of life, who is the kingdom of death, cannot be overcome by God who is his opposite, who is the kingdom of life, except by man’s persistence in the love of God in spite of every reason to withhold his love, every suffering.

And if one were then to write an explanation of that argument, the explanation might be this: Man depends on God for all things: God depends on man for one.  Without man’s love, God does not exist as God, only as creator, and love is the one thing no one, not even God himself, can command.  It is a free gift or it is nothing.  And it is most itself, most free, when it is offered in spite of suffering, of injustice, and of death.

And if one were to attempt, finally, to reduce this explanation and this argument to a single sentence which might stand at the end of the book to close it, the sentence might read this way: The justification of the injustice of the universe is not our blind acceptance of God’s inexplicable will, nor our trust in God’s love – his dark and incomprehensible love – for us, but our human love, notwithstanding anything, for him.

Acceptance – even Dante’s acceptance – of God’s will is not enough.  Love – love of life, love of the world, love of God, love in spite of everything – is the answer, the only possible answer, to our ancient human cry against injustice.

It is for this reason that God, at the end of the poem, answers Job not in the language of justice but in the language of beauty and power and glory, signifying that it is not because he is just but because he is God that he deserves his creature’s adoration.

And it is true.  We do not love God because we can believe in him; we believe in God because we can love him.  It is because we – even we – can love God that we can conceive him, and it is because we can conceive him that we can live.  To speak of “justice” is to demand something for ourselves, to ask something of life, to require that we be treated according to our dues.  But love, as Saint Paul told the Corinthians, does not “seek her own.” (1 Corinthians 13:5)  Love creates.  Love creates even God, for how else have we come to him any of us, but through love?

Man, the scientists say, is the animal that thinks.  They are wrong.  Man is the animal that loves.  It is in man’s love that God exists and triumphs, in man’s love that life is beautiful, in man’s love that the world’s injustice is resolved.  To hold together in one thought those terrible opposites of good and evil which struggle in the world is to be capable of life, and only love will hold them so.

Our labor always, like Job’s labor, is to learn through suffering to love. . . to love even that which lets us suffer.

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