Christopher Hitchens, that British-American contrarian, was famous for many things, including his avowed atheism, but I enjoyed reading his shorter stuff, in which he was usually taking on the sacred cows of the late 20th century. Hitchens’ most famous quote might be “Everyone has a book inside them, which is exactly where I think it should, in most cases, remain.” That seems to echo what Joseph Epstein wrote in the New York Times in 2002, when he wrote that “According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them — and that they should write it.” Epstein continued “As the author of 14 books, with a 15th to be published next spring, I’d like to use this space to do what I can to discourage them.”1
I couldn’t help but think of Hitchens and Epstein when I read the passage from Job for this weekend: “Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were graven in the rock for ever!”
Job may or may not be surprised that so many of his words were written, certainly some with an iron pen and lead, and that we would hear his words so often. “I know that my Redeemer liveth, Job wrote,“and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.”
Does that sound familiar? Can anyone tell me the last time you heard those words? They’re in the Processional Anthems of the Burial Office in the Book of Common Prayer. Job’s words come second only to the words of Christ Himself; the Burial Office begins “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”
So Job’s words are important words, words worthy of being written in stone, words worth hearing every single time someone goes before us to his or her reward. So what was Job up to when he said those words?
Well, life wasn’t so hot for Job about then. But let’s back up for just a second. The book of Job tells us that “In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.” Job lived, most likely, before even Abraham, and so he was a God fearing man when there wasn’t a whole lot of God fearing men to be found. In fact, the book of Job is probably the oldest book of the Bible by far, and so the wisdom contained in it is invaluable to us.
And so, the book tells us, the devil took interest in this Job, who was godly and upright, and he essentially bet God that if all was taken from him, all of Job’s wealth and standing and family and friends, that Job would curse God, turn away from the God he knew and therefore prove himself unworthy of the favor the Lord had granted him. When we pick up the story, Job’s whole family is dead, his farm and all that he had was totally wiped out, he’s covered in sores, he’s sitting in sackcloth at the village dung heap, and has already wished his own death. If all of this was not bad enough, Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, come to console him. This was more than Job could take, as his three friends are three of the dumbest people alive. And even in all of this, what does Job say? “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”
“I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Six of the saddest and most hopeful words written, in stone or otherwise, in the history of man. Job had a book inside of him all right, and that book boiled down to those six words, some of the most wise and wonderful words I’ve ever heard.
All of us feel like Job from time to time, like all that we’ve ever known has been taken from us, like sitting at the city dung heap is preferable to living in our own skin. Somewhat like Job, if the devil isn’t behind our problems, than he is running right along with them, looking for new and exciting ways to get at us. What gets us through times like these is not effort, it’s not self-affirming Joel Olsteen quotes, but rather the hope of Job, written in stone, that no matter what comes, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”
1Joseph Epstein, Think You Have a Book In You? Think Again, The New York Times, 9/28/2002.