11Now 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. 12And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. 13And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
Alone on the Rubbish Heap
Job is terribly, frighteningly alone. He sits on a rubbish heap. His wife has come and gone after a disagreement. His only companion, if we can call it such, is a broken shard of pottery with which he scratches himself (Job 2:8). At this stage we can only guess what thoughts filled his mind. Did he think back to days of purpose, when he got out of bed with drive and desire, to work energetically, to manage his farm, and to govern his household? Did he remember the accolades given him for his justice, his care for his employees, and his business success?
Were there memories of his sons and daughters in their childhood? Near where I used to live in central London there was a bronze statue of a local man sitting on a bench overlooking the River Thames. A few meters in front of him is a bronze figure of a little girl, his daughter who had died in childhood. As he sits, in his old age, his imagination plays tricks with him, and it is as if he sees his little daughter alive and playing there. That pair of statues always moves me to tears. Did Job’s imagination play those kinds of tricks with him? We cannot know.
A Visit of Friends
But what happens next presses home to us Job’s loneliness as never before. This is surprising because it seems to start so well. “Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil [harm] that had come upon him, they came. . . .” (Job 2:11). So Job has friends. The word “friend” in the Old Testament, and especially in the Wisdom literature, is stronger than our debased use, in which we may have many so-called “friends” (especially on social networking sites). “A man of many companions [what we might call Facebook friends] may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). A friend is bound to you with bonds of steadfast love (the strong Hebrew word is chesed, which means pledged, unbreakable, covenant love and loyalty).
It is therefore deeply encouraging to know that Job has three friends, men who are bound to him with ties of steadfast love and loyalty. Surely they will be able to help. It begins well. “Now when Job’s three friends heard . . . they came. . . . They made an appointment together to come ” (Job 2:11). It must have taken weeks, if not months, for the news of Job’s afflictions to reach them, for them to communicate with one another, to rendezvous, and then to travel to visit Job. And all this time Job is alone on the rubbish heap with his shard of pottery for company. Job himself later refers to “months of emptiness” (Job 7:3), and the lament of chapter 30 indicates a long suffering.
Sympathy and Comfort
But at last they come. They come “together” rather than separately, perhaps because they sense that the task of comforting Job will be more than any individual can bear. They come “to show him sympathy”—that is, to enter into and share in his grief1—“and comfort him”—that is, to find a way to ease his pain (Job 2:11).
It is worth pausing to ask how “comfort” works. The Hebrew word is nacham. It is not the same as empathy. Empathy may be inarticulate, because it focuses on entering into the feelings and experience of the sufferer as best we can. But comfort must be articulate and active. Empathy may be silent, but comfort must include speech. To comfort involves speaking to the mind and heart of the sufferer in such a way as to change his or her mind and heart. Comfort is an action, sometimes called “speaking to the heart,” that hopes and intends to bring about a change in how the sufferer thinks and feels about his or her suffering. Both the verb nacham and the expression “speak to the heart” refer to speaking words that bring comfort and change someone’s mind or feelings. This is what we expect Job’s friends to do.2
But then comes silence, seven days and seven nights of silence! “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” Job’s suffering was, as we shall see, deeper than merely physical. It was made sharper by mental and spiritual grief. It was an anguish and an agony.3 This man who had been a very great man (1:3) now suffers a very great suffering. What are we to make of this silence? It is at best ambiguous. Preachers often say that this long silence was the best thing that they did. And certainly, as we shall see later, when they begin to speak they do no good at all.
But while their silence may initially have been appropriate, it seems unlikely that it continued so. To sit quietly with a sufferer, to hold his or her hand, to listen patiently as he or she pours out his or her grief is one thing. But this silence is “hugely extended.”4 To refuse to speak a word to a sufferer for seven days and seven nights is eerie and not comforting. It is interesting that we are told they did not speak a word “to him” (Job 1:13). For all we know, they may have spoken with one another. So it may not have been silence after all, but just a refusal to speak to Job, which is quite another thing.
Empathy may be inarticulate, because it focuses on entering into the feelings and experience of the sufferer as best we can. But comfort must be articulate and active.
The Loneliness of Suffering
Whatever the meaning of their silence, the book of Job brings home to us the loneliness of suffering. The friends came with kind intentions. They came together. They brought with them the wisdom of the world, all the resources available within the world to comfort their suffering friend. But they were bankrupt, able to sympathize up to a point but utterly unable to comfort. Before they came, Job was all alone on the rubbish heap. After they came, he was yet more deeply alone as he sat alongside them but was utterly ignored by them with not a word addressed to him as a person. Before, there was no one physically or emotionally close to him; now he has proximity (they sit by him) but is still without intimacy.
Sometimes in Scripture there are corporate laments. Psalm 137 is one such. But this is so personal, and Job is so alone. Suffering does that. Even a non-serious illness cuts us off from others; we have to miss out on a family outing, a party, or a gathering. There is (in the title of an old play) “Laughter in the Room Next Door.” And if even a trivial suffering begins to isolate the sufferer, heavy suffering isolates acutely. Even a shared loss is experienced uniquely by each bereft person. When a child dies, the father alone knows what it is to be the father of this dead child; only the mother enters the unique depths of loss as the mother of this son or daughter. However much they share, at the deepest level they suffer alone. In his book The Anatomy of Loneliness Thomas Wolfe writes, “The most tragic, sublime and beautiful expression of loneliness which I have ever read is the Book of Job.”5 We need to recognize that those who suffer, suffer alone. And Job is terribly alone.
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 on a little farther, 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; Hebrews 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 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.”6
There is a deep sense in which the lonely sufferings of Jesus Christ mean that no believer today is called to enter Job’s loneliness in its full depth. As someone has put it:
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.7
However alone the believer in Christ may feel today, the reality is that he or she is not ultimately alone as Job was.
- “. . . to show . . . sympathy” means to shake the head to and fro as an act of identification with the sufferer. Clines, David J. A., Job 1—20 (Dallas: Word Books, 1989).
- Janzen, J. Gerald, Job, Press Interpretation series (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985).
- Gordis, Robert, The Book of Job (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1978).
- “Clines, David J. A., Job 1—20 (Dallas: Word Books, 1989).
- Quoted in The Dimensions of Job: A Study and Selected Readings, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. ix.
- Charles H. Gabriel, “I Stand Amazed in the Presence,” 1905.
- Jean Danielou, quoted in The Dimensions of Job: A Study and Selected Readings, p. 109.
This article is adapted from Job: The Wisdom of the Cross by Christopher Ash.
Single or married, young or old, man or woman—everyone experiences loneliness at various times and to varying degrees.
Single or married, young or old, man or woman—everyone experiences loneliness at various times and to varying degrees. No one is exempt.
We forget who we are, and when we do, we begin to give way to doubt, fear, and timidity. Identity amnesia makes you feel poor when in fact you are rich.
In the context of the whole Bible, perhaps the deepest error and omission of Job’s friends is this: they have no place for innocent suffering.