For my Lenten reading this year, I’ve been inching my way through the book of Job. The theme of faith’s testing seemed like an appropriate one to linger over during this penitential season. To help me engage with Job devotionally, I decided to read it together with a commentary for preachers, Job: The Wisdom of the Cross, by evangelical Anglican Christopher Ash. But one of Ash’s signature moves in the commentary strikes me as incomplete, and articulating why I think so may help lead me, at least, deeper into the meaning of this time in the church’s calendar.
“We live after the cross of Christ,” writes Ash at an early moment in his commentary, “and therefore after the fulfillment of the story of Job. … So as we read the story of Job we think first and primarily of the greater story of Jesus, who walked the way of Job for us.”
This affirmation functions as a kind of thesis statement for Ash’s whole treatment of the book: The entirety of Job must be read in light of its Christological terminus. And to that, Christian readers of all stripes can surely say, Amen.
But how Ash applies that thesis gives me pause. For him, the fact that Job is fulfilled in Jesus Christ means that Job’s trials are fundamentally unlike ours, since we live on the far side of God’s fullest self-revelation in Jesus. For instance, when he discusses the role of the Accuser, “the Satan,” in the prologue of Job, Ash says this: “As a result of the victory of the cross, the Satan is no longer present in the council of God, as he was in Job 1, 2, to accuse believers before the Father.”
Similarly, when he comes to describe Job’s humiliation and aloneness after the death of his children and the grief of his wife, Ash says, “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.”
Ash, of course, is drawing here on the venerable evangelical doctrine of the substitutionary atonement: Because Jesus suffered the full brunt of divine judgment and Godforsakenness on our behalf, those of us who are in Christ are spared that judgment ourselves. Jesus suffered in our place and for our sakes, so that we don’t have to. Applying this doctrine to the Book of Job, as Ash has done, undoubtedly leads to a powerful, pastorally “preachable” interpretation. But does it — inadvertently — lead to the sort of pastoral chiding that says to a suffering Christian, “If you are seeing your anguish in Job’s, and using Job’s words as your own, be careful: You do not suffer the depth of the anguish of Job because Jesus has already borne it for you”?
And if so, is it really appropriate to thus set up a divide between Job’s suffering and ours today?
This semester at my seminary, in preparation for teaching a class on biblical hermeneutics, I’ve also been reading an older book called From Shadow to Promise by James Samuel Preus. Ostensibly a study of medieval and early Reformation interpretation, with a special focus on Luther, Preus’s book is much more than that. It amounts to a kind of biblical theology program, exploring how Christian readers may faithfully appropriate the Old Testament.
One of Preus’s central claims is that Old Testament interpretation took a great leap forward when Martin Luther stopped trying to find the “hidden” prefigurations of Christ in various Old Testament characters, events, and artifacts, and instead turned to the theme of “promise, or testimony, as Scripture’s normative, theological-literal meaning.” What this meant, says Preus, is that in Luther’s mature theology “the Old Testament gets theological value not so much from the Christ it hiddenly describes as from the salvation it promises, and from the faith and expectation of the faithful whom this word invites.”
Gradually, Preus argues, this led to a different sort of preaching from the Old Testament in the Lutheran Reformation. Old Testament saints — like Job — became not so much “types of Christ” (although they weren’t less than that) but rather models of what New Testament faith might look like. Luther came to focus on these saints’ “own word[s], spoken out of [their] own circumstances, [as] the basis of [post-cross, specifically Christian] theological interpretation.”
In the case of Job, for instance, the task of interpretation then becomes not so much to hold up Job as a sort of icon or foreshadowing of Christ — although, if I read Preus rightly, neither he nor Luther would reject that approach out of hand. Rather, the emphasis falls on Job’s anguished trial of faith as fundamentally the same as ours. Job must cling to the promise of God’s goodness, unaware that he is being tested by “the Satan,” and cry out in the hope of a divine future he cannot yet see. This posture of faith, thought Luther, is precisely the stance of the Christian believer who must — in Lent especially, perhaps, but in all times too — await in assailed yet confident expectation the coming of God in Christ (1 Thess. 1:9-10; Phil. 3:20-21; Rom. 8:22-25).
One of the gifts of the Church calendar is, I think, that it reminds us that Christian faith, like Job’s faith, must always be forward-looking, future-oriented. Of course we cast our eye backwards to the decisive turning point of the cross and resurrection, but each year we also intentionally place ourselves with the agonizing prophets in Advent, the lonely Christ in Lent, and the grieving, yearning disciples on Holy Saturday too. We confess, in these moments, not just that Jesus has defeated our ultimate loneliness and death but that he takes us into his own suffering, making us participants in his journey to Calvary. We confess that we haven’t outgrown the need to groan. We haven’t yet fully escaped Job’s plight.
Now, at the end of Lent and in Holy Week, we remember where we began. When we received ashes on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent, we shouldn’t simply have thought of how Jesus’ death spares us the final ashes of eternal damnation. Perhaps we should have thought just as much of how those ashes reminded us that we are sitting in the same ash heap as Job, awaiting the moment when “in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26).
“God will stand upon the grave of every man or woman in Christ, to act as our Redeemer,” writes Christopher Ash, rightly and beautifully. But that day is not yet. And so, now at the end of Lent, we cry out with Job — heads smeared with a reminder of our mortality, eyes bleared with tears of penitence and longing, and voices raised with cries of hope that one day “my eyes shall behold [God], and not another” (19:27).