After he lost and endured during those dreadful days, would any of us be surprised if Job just wanted to be left alone? Even if that was what hoped for, it was not to be the case and as he barely held on to his life, Job 2:11-13 tells us three of his friends traveled together to comfort (or confront) him. Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar literally came from the four corners of the world (at least the known world), and traveled quite some distance to sit with their friend. And up until they speak, their actions seem genuinely altruistic.
It is easy to spot why these three men were such good friends with Job – they were intentional. The text says that “they had made an appointment together to come and mourn with him, and to comfort him” in 2:12. When you have friends like these what more could you ask for?
At least in the beginning, they were intentional in their planning. Their stay with Job could have easily lasted for some time and while they were probably wealthy men like Job, they had no idea what they would find when they reached Job nor how much would be needed so this was not a haphazard trip.1 Perhaps Job 7:3 gives us a hint about the time they spent together when Job says:
So I have been allotted months of futility,
And wearisome nights have been appointed to me.
Job may have looked up and recognized them from a far off in between scraping himself with potsherd, but they did not recognize him as he sat all alone in the midst of ashes. Because of what they heard and now saw with their own eyes, they cried out loud and wept for their friend. 2:12 says,
And when they raised their eyes from afar, and did not recognize him, they lifted their voices and wept; and each one tore his robe and sprinkled dust on his head toward heaven.
They weren’t just showing some sympathy, but solidarity as well. This solidarity can be called empathy, which is what we would expect from such close friends. They were able to show empathy with Job through outward signs. Although he was not dead, they performed rituals that one would expect during the mourning process and purposefully mimicked Job’s actions.
Although the text does not recall where Job actually weeps for himself, they weep for him.
When they tear their robes just as Job had in 1:20, they also sprinkled dust on their heads.2 Dust is going to be an important bookend to the story of Job. Here we have dust being thrown on heads and at the end we see Job repent in dust and ashes (see Job 42:6). Those are not coincidental. Dust is reminder of our frailty along with disease and this actions shows how they viewed the current situation of their friend.3
We’re told in the the New Testament that believers are one (see Ephesians 4:4), so there should be a built-in solidarity between its members from the moment of conversion. The purpose of that fellowship is so we can “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep,” (see Romans 12:15). It is this silent sharing of suffering that is a beautiful manifestation of fellowship.4
In solidarity they sat with Job on the ground for seven days and seven nights (see 2:13). Seven represents completeness in Hebrew (see the creation account in Genesis 1). While it’s also the traditional period of mourning for the dead, it would be unreasonable to think he was close to death for the entirety of those days. We see elsewhere that Ezekiel sat awestruck for seven days when he came to the captives at Tel Abib and dwelt among them (see Ezekiel 3:15) so it’s not out-of-the-norm to see something like this.5 There are even more passages throughout the Old Testament that describe rituals like this centered around mourning with friends (see Genesis 37:25; Second Samuel 10:2 and Jeremiah 16:5-7).6 While it seems strange to us today, it’s really no different than someone going to a house or a funeral home to pay respects after a tragedy.
After those days of sitting in silence, the dam breaks in chapter three and continues for the next thirty-five chapters. We expect them as good friends to not only comfort him in silence, but with words as well. However, in the middle of their speeches Job will call them “miserable comforters” (see 16:2). Perhaps, it would have been best to simply comfort him with their presence only. Job certainly thought so in 13:5 which says:
Oh, that you would be silent,
And it would be your wisdom!
So what happened? What can we learn from these friends who started well, but ended horribly? We can easily learn that sometimes being quiet and listening is better than talking. We can learn that sympathy isn’t empathy. We can learn that bringing your prejudices and agendas into a conversation can escalate a bad situation into something untenable.
If only they would have kept their mouths shut and listened to Job, what unimaginable comforters they could have been.
On the other hand, Christopher Ash argues that the Hebrew word nachem, translated as “comfort” is not the same as empathy. What the English reader gathers from a simple reading of the text is that they were empathizing with Job, but maybe they weren’t. It could be that they were very intentional with their speeches. Perhaps, they thought about them and prayed over them before they had the courage to speak them in Job’s presence. If these speeches were given in order to speak to the heart of Job, then surely they hoped his mind would be changed and his view of suffering would change as well. Instead of assuming their speeches are casual or flippant, they might actually be well-thought out and planned on purpose.
Note that there are other examples throughout the Old Testament that demonstrate this type of behavior: Joseph comforting his brothers with kind words (Genesis 50:21); Ruth praising Boaz for comforting her and speaking kind words to her; Joab pleading with David to comfort the soldiers with kind words (Second Samuel 19:7) and Hezekiah delivering kinds words to his army as well in Second Chronicles 32:6-7.
With all that being considered, perhaps the best way to translate nachem is “to speak to the heart of.” If that was indeed the intention of Job’s friends then we must give them some benefit of the doubt. Is that not what we expect them to do? Is not helping him through with actions and words something that seems necessary.7
If only their thoughts had been as kind as their early actions, what three friends might they have been? If so, it might even be possible to say they saw the sanctity of his suffering from up-close and it changed them forever.
1 Robert L. Alden, Job, The New American Commentary; v. 11 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993), 68.
2 Alden, Job, 69-70.
3 John E. Hartley, The Book of Job, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1988), 86.
4 Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1987), 7.
5 F. I. Anderson, Job – an Introduction and Survey, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (Inter-varsity Press, 2008), 99-101.
6 Stephen M. Hooks, Job, The College Press NIV Commentary. Old Testament Series (Joplin, Miss.: College Press Pub., 2006), 79.
7 Christopher Ash, Job: The Wisdom of the Cross, Preaching the Word (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 58-59.
All Scripture is taken from the New King James Version (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Zack Martin is the Pulpit Minister for the Cedar Springs Church of Christ in Louisville, Kentucky and a graduate of both Freed-Hardeman University and the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville.