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Job 14:1-14

We sometimes believe that religion should comfort us, bring us to a place of feeling better. But this is not always where our faith leads us. Certainly the book of Job is preoccupied not only with struggle, suffering, and why it happens. This passage, Job 14:1-14, is fairly emblematic of the entire book. It comes at a low point when Job, whose life has been irrevocably marred by loss, pain, and grief, begins to see with unflinching perspective the place and fate of all humans. His pleas to God are pained and angry, and we are left wondering what will happen.

In verse 1 we see a thesis of sorts for this passage. Job declares that humans are “few of days and full of trouble,” like a flower that dies almost immediately after it appears. The first six verses focus on this transience, and on its universality. Not only is humanity gone almost as soon as they appear, but this fate is shared by all humans. In verse 2, there is almost a sarcastic tone when the speaker says, “Do you fix your eyes on such a one?” Who is Job speaking to here? It would seem that this comes in the middle of a prayer to God. “Oh God, have you turned your eyes on me as a mortal who will inevitably fade away? Why is your judgment upon me so?” Such a bitter-sounding prayer gives way to angered pleading. If humans are doomed to die, if God is going to limit the days of humanity, then could he please just let humans live their lives in peace? Those days may be toil, so why should they be marred by suffering?

The text then zooms out to take stock of where humanity stands in the context of creation. The speaker here notes that trees are more lasting than any human. Even if they cut down, shoots will come back. If its leaves dry, it needs only a little water to return. A tree’s roots run deep, and even when it is reduced to a stump there are new shoots that will come up later on. When a tree dies, there is a kind of rebirth that happens. Not so with humans, according to Job. In verse 10 he says, “But mortals die and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they?” Humans are more like a dried river bed, to which water will never return. It is only an empty husk now, a monument to what was and what will never return. According to the author, dead is dead, and there is no returning from the grave. Like the first section, this sequence also ends with pleading. Like the first plea in verse 6, this prayer is bitter, but this time it is leavened with ambiguity. Job prays in verse 13 to be hidden in Sheol, or the place of the dead, until God’s wrath has passed. But if there is no return from such a place, how could he come back? In verse 14 Job asks as much. In that same verse he asks for release. Is he referring to release from earthly suffering? Or is there some further release that Job seeks, beyond that of the grave? It’s not exactly clear, and the unresolved nature of this passage is indicative of some of the questions that linger from the entire Book of Job.

There are two particular applications to which I want draw the readers’ attention. First of all, we are in an age when we have become uniquely aware of the transience of all things. Having now lived through a global pandemic, we have all been touched by suffering, grief, and death. We have seen institutions fail and disappoint us. We are all now keenly aware that we are subject to variables that we cannot control. When I read the words of Job in this passage, I feel a pang of grief for the loss of the familiar and comforting. Uncertain times remind us that we are not long for this world.

But in the context of Holy Saturday, this passage takes on an even more complex atmosphere. We know that Sunday is coming, but it is not here yet. When I read this passage during Holy Week, I think of the grief that must have surrounded the disciples. It is tempting for us to skip from Good Friday directly to Resurrection Sunday, but there were a good 36 hours where there was silence. Like a sustained, unresolved chord, Holy Saturday invites us to dwell in that which is uncomfortable and depressing.

Many modern films and stage plays are built around what is called a three-act structure. In Act 1, we are introduced to the characters, and it ends with a small victory. In Act 3 the main conflict is resolved and everything ends as it ought. But in the middle is Act 2, which traditionally ends with a major setback that makes us, the audience, doubt whether the protagonists can succeed. We, like the disciples, are in Act 2. We sense that things are unresolved, but we can only reflect on the losses we have experienced. It is true that resolution will come, but we do not know when or how. All we know right now is uncertainty, pain, and grief. Perhaps death is all that awaits. In theory we know that resurrection is coming, but it seems distant and faint now.

So all we can do is wait…