When Well-Intended Words Become a Weapon

1 Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered and said:

“If one ventures a word with you, will you be impatient?
    Yet who can keep from speaking?
Behold, you have instructed many,
    and you have strengthened the weak hands.
Your words have upheld him who was stumbling,
    and you have made firm the feeble knees.
But now it has come to you, and you are impatient;
    it touches you, and you are dismayed.
Is not your fear of God your confidence,
    and the integrity of your ways your hope?

“Remember: who that was innocent ever perished?
    Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity
    and sow trouble reap the same.
By the breath of God they perish,
    and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.
10 The roar of the lion, the voice of the fierce lion,
    the teeth of the young lions are broken.
11 The strong lion perishes for lack of prey,
    and the cubs of the lioness are scattered.”

12 “Now a word was brought to me stealthily;
    my ear received the whisper of it.
13 Amid thoughts from visions of the night,
    when deep sleep falls on men,
14 dread came upon me, and trembling,
    which made all my bones shake.
15 A spirit glided past my face;
    the hair of my flesh stood up.
16 It stood still,
    but I could not discern its appearance.
A form was before my eyes;
    there was silence, then I heard a voice:
17 ‘Can mortal man be in the right before God?
    Can a man be pure before his Maker?
18 Even in his servants he puts no trust,
    and his angels he charges with error;
19 how much more those who dwell in houses of clay,
    whose foundation is in the dust,
    who are crushed like the moth.
20 Between morning and evening they are beaten to pieces;
    they perish forever without anyone regarding it.
21 Is not their tent-cord plucked up within them,
    do they not die, and that without wisdom?’ – Job 4:1-21 ESV

We all have them – well-meaning friends who step alongside us during times of difficulty and seasons of suffering spouting sanctimonious sermonettes on our condition. They’re the Scripture police who tend to quote passages they don’t fully understand and draw conclusions based on scant information and little or no experience. These people don’t intend to hurt anyone, but in their zeal to “encourage,” they do more harm than good.

Job’s friend, Eliphaz, was one of these types of individuals. In the midst of all of Job’s grief and suffering, he shows up on the scene lobbing all kinds of theological and psychological hand grenades into Job’s pity party. He has taken one look at Job’s circumstances and reached a conclusion: Job is guilty of something. He has to be.

But Eliphaz prefaces his verbal barrage on his suffering friend with what appears to be a kind and gracious request to share his thoughts. He and his companions have completed a seven-day-long wake, where they sat by Job’s side as he mourned the deaths of his ten children and the loss of his entire economic empire. They sat in silence as their devastated friend attempted to heal from his deep emotional wounds while suffering from a debilitating and painful skin disease.

In time, Eliphaz grew impatient and decided it was time to speak. He had seen enough and was ready to help his friend come to grips with the real source of Job’s problems. Knowing that Job is in no mood to hear what he has to say, Eliphaz begs his friend to show patience as he shares his enlightened insights. Then, in a somewhat heavy-handed attempt to gain Job’s ear, Eliphaz flatters his suffering friend by recalling how Job had so often played the role of comforting counselor in the lives of others.

In the past you have encouraged many people;
    you have strengthened those who were weak.
Your words have supported those who were falling;
    you encouraged those with shaky knees.
– Job 4:3-4 NLT

In a sense, Eliphaz is saying, “I’m only doing what you would do if the shoe was on the other foot.” Eliphaz is trying to prepare Job for the “truth bomb” he is about to drop. In the lengthy speech he has prepared, Eliphaz is going to share some things that Job is not going to want to hear. Eliphaz knows his words are going to be painful and difficult to accept but they need to be said, and he challenges Job to accept them like a man.

He levels an accusation of duplicity, suggesting that Job has always been quick to hand out advice to his suffering friends but now that he is the one doing the suffering, he crumples like a house of cards.

But now when trouble strikes, you lose heart.
    You are terrified when it touches you.
– Job 4:5 NLT

These words seem to echo the sentiments found in the Book of Proverbs.

An open rebuke
    is better than hidden love!

Wounds from a sincere friend
    are better than many kisses from an enemy. – Proverbs 27:5-6 NLT

The heartfelt counsel of a friend
is as sweet as perfume and incense. – Proverbs 27:9 NLT

As iron sharpens iron,
    so a friend sharpens a friend. – Proverbs 27:17 NLT

But friendship isn’t necessarily a guarantee of wise counsel. Well-intentioned friends can end up giving poor advice and questionable counsel. A close and intimate relationship doesn’t automatically qualify someone to serve as an infallible source of wisdom. Eliphaz meant well, and much of what he had to say contained a semblance of truth, but there was a great deal about Job’s situation to which he was ignorant.

From his limited vantage point, Eliphaz had come to certain conclusions regarding Job’s circumstances. From the outside looking in, he assessed the scene and determined the cause of Job’s suffering, and he validated his conclusions by spiritualizing them. He claims to have had a vision in the night.

“This truth was given to me in secret,
    as though whispered in my ear.
It came to me in a disturbing vision at night,
    when people are in a deep sleep.
Fear gripped me,
    and my bones trembled.
A spirit swept past my face,
    and my hair stood on end.
The spirit stopped, but I couldn’t see its shape.
    There was a form before my eyes.
In the silence I heard a voice…” – Job 4:12-16 NLT

Eliphaz doesn’t attribute this vision to Yahweh. He never claims to have received a word from God Almighty. He simply saw “a form” that whispered a cryptic message in his ear.

Can a mortal be innocent before God?
    Can anyone be pure before the Creator?” – Job 4:17 NLT

Eliphaz heard a voice but he could not name its source. He had a vision but he had no way of knowing who this “spirit” was or whether the message was God-ordained. From his ethereal night encounter, Eliphaz built an entire case against Job. He wrongly concluded that Job must be guilty of something. Otherwise, why would he be suffering so much loss and pain?

In the second half of his speech, he draws the following conclusion:

“…evil does not spring from the soil, and trouble does not sprout from the earth. People are born for trouble as predictably as sparks fly upward from a fire.” – Job 5:6-7 NLT

Bad things don’t just happen. They’re the result of bad choices made by individuals. In other words, you reap what you sow. And Job must have sown some really wild oats at some point in his past. Eliphaz admits that Job was a pretty good guy. He had been an encouragement to a lot of people over the years. He had been a source of comfort and strength to others when they needed him. He had always been there with a kind word and a listening ear. But he must have done something to deserve this bizarre turn of affairs. These things don’t just happen.

The problem with Eliphaz’s speech is that it contains a modicum of truth. He has a lot of good things to say but he suffers from bad timing and a lousy understanding of reality. He speaks of things he doesn’t know. He makes assumptions about things he doesn’t understand. He is judging based on the circumstances, but can’t see what God sees. He can’t even see God working behind the scenes. And isn’t that how we all approach the presence of trials and troubles in our lives?

We draw conclusions. We make assumptions. And we pass out words of wisdom like they were so much Valentine’s candy. We mix a touch of biblical truth with a little bit of home-spun wisdom and then baste our friends with this toxic marinade of self-righteous piety. Eliphaz was dispensing truth like a doctor handing out prescriptions for a condition he had yet to diagnose; a process that will render perfectly safe drugs potentially deadly. We do that when we reach hasty conclusions about the spiritual condition of others based on circumstances alone. It reminds me of the story in the Gospel of John. Jesus is walking with His disciples and they encounter a man blind from birth. His disciples reveal a lot about their theology when they ask Jesus, “Teacher, why was this man born blind? Was it a result of his own sins or those of his parents?” (John 9:2 NLT). To their surprise, Jesus responded, “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins, he was born blind so the power of God could be seen in him” (John 9:3 NLT).

The truth is, we don’t know what God is doing behind the scenes. We don’t know why certain situations are as they are, and if we’re not careful, like Eliphaz we can hastily draw wrong conclusions and hand out poor advice. When Job needed comfort, he got unnecessary conviction. When he needed a listening ear, he got a lecture. Was a lot of what was said true? You bet. But it was misapplied and mistakenly meted out. In his commentary on the book of Job, John Gill says this about Eliphaz’s little speech:

“and he ‘said’ not anything by way of condolence or consolation, not pitying Job’s case, nor comforting him in his afflicted circumstances, as they required both; but reproaching him as a wicked and hypocritical man, not acting like himself formerly, or according to his profession and principles, but just the reverse: this was a new trial to Job, and some think the sorest of all; it was as a sword in his bones, which was very cutting to him; as oil cast into a fiery furnace in which he now was, which increased the force and fury of it; and as to vinegar an opened and bleeding wound, which makes it smart the more.” – John Gill, Exposition on the Entire Bible, the Book of Job

A big part of ministering to others is learning to listen well. Sometimes the greatest form of comfort is silence. But if you’re going to say anything at all, maybe we could take notes from the words of Isaiah.

Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you. – Isaiah 35:4-5 NIV

Strengthen, steady, encourage, and point them to God. Lift them up, don’t tear them down.

Timely advice is lovely,
    like golden apples in a silver basket.

To one who listens, valid criticism
    is like a gold earring or other gold jewelry.

Trustworthy messengers refresh like snow in summer.
    They revive the spirit of their employer. – Proverbs 25:11-13 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.


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