These days we use the word friend as loosely as “Sure, you look great in those jeans.” And so we use a qualifying word when we want to express an actual friendship, a “He is a good friend,” or “She is a true friend” kind of thing. Plenty of thinkers have lamented that one can have 942 Facebook friends and still be a lonely person. It is a divine blessing to have three real friends.
Job had three friends like that.
I am reading Christopher Ash’s commentary on Job in preparation for an upcoming conversation I will be having with Carl & Todd for a Mortification of Spin podcast. After Job was stricken with every kind of unbearable tragedy we could imagine, he “sits in the ashes” with a “broken piece of pottery with which to scrape himself” (2:8). Basically, he is sitting outside the city gate on the incinerated pile of the city’s filth and garbage, “the place that Jesus was later to use as the best human image to represent Hell (Gehenna, the valley of the sons of Hinnom, outside Jerusalem),” as Ash describes it (52). That is where his three friends find Job:
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. (Job 2:11)
Ash explains that the Old Testament usage of the word friend is much more weighty than our contemporary usage. He describes the meaning of a friend as “pledged, unbreakable, covenant love and loyalty” (58). And we see that these three friends have already traveled a long way to comfort Job. Of course, we know how this will play out and that they do not give the best comfort.
I wonder if Job even wanted them there when he saw them approaching. Did he want his friends to see him like that? Many people isolate themselves when they are suffering because they are in a state that is impossible for anyone else to enter. What can anyone possibly say that will help this kind of pain?
These three don’t even recognize their old friend at first, but when they do they see that his suffering is so great that they sat with him seven days and seven nights without speaking a word to him. Ash points out how they are treating him as if he were already dead. “A seven-day silence symbolized mourning for the dead.” Could you imagine how creepy that must have been? I mean, at first Job may not have wanted them to talk, but seven days!? The text doesn’t even assure us that they were praying for Job. We only read that they didn’t utter a word to him. The author suggests that Job must have felt even more alone as his friends sat there offering no comfort. It is sort of dehumanizing not to be addressed at all. And lonely.
I thought about the times I have felt the most lonely. I also thought about the friends whom I have served poorly when I should have offered better comforting. Ash wrote about “the loneliness Job foreshadows”:
Job in his awesome aloneness foreshadows another believer, an even greater man who endures an even deeper suffering. This believer too was with his dearest friends, in a garden outside Jerusalem. He told them to sit and wait while he prayed. He took with him his three closest friends “and began to be greatly distressed and troubled.” He said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” He went a little further, fell on the ground, and prayed “with loud cries and tears.” But when he came back he found them sleeping. “Could you not watch one hour?” he asked sadly (Mark 14:32—42, Heb. 5:7). He prayed and wept alone. And the next day he suffered alone, stripped of his clothes, robbed of his friends, with even his mother having to keep her distance from the cross. He had said to his friends that although they would not leave him alone, he was not alone, “for the Father is with me” (John 16:32). But in the deepest intensity of his suffering he cried out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). As the old hymn puts it, “He bore the burden to Calvary, and suffered and died alone.” (63)
The best friends of the Son of God could not even stay awake to pray for him while he was suffering through his deepest sorrow. Just like Job, Jesus had three “steadfast” friends right there in his presence who might as well have been a million miles away. There he was on the ground, knowing his life was not going to be spared on the cross.
And Jesus was obedient. He was blameless. He did not curse God even when he suffered the greatest affliction imaginable. It was an affliction that none of us could bear. And he had to go through it alone.
Amazingly, Jesus calls the people the Father has given him his friends. We have unbreakable covenant loyalty in him. Even now, Jesus never sleeps, but is praying at the right hand of the Father, interceding on our behalf.
Ash closes quoting Jean Danielou:
Suffering encloses a man in solitude…Between Job and his friends an abyss was cleft. They regarded him with astonishment as a strange being…But they could no longer get to him. Only Jesus could cross this abyss, descend into the abyss of misery, plunge into the deepest hell. (64)
The friendship of Jesus is a divine blessing indeed. And Ash assures the reader that because of what he has done in his loneliness, a believer will never enter the depth of the abyss that Job did. But we will encounter suffering. Job points us to the One who gave us a true Comforter.
*Originally published on February 6, 2015.