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Occasional Letters: The Consolations of God

D Newell, Glasgow

The other day my Choice Gleanings reading drew me to Job 15, where we encounter one of those many verses in this tricky book which, taken at face value, offers a practical spiritual lesson. Says the elderly Eliphaz to his suffering friend Job (and to make best sense of the second half of the verse I am quoting from Darby's translation): "Are the consolations of God too small for thee? and the word gently spoken to thee?" (Job 15.11).

As it stands, it's a real challenge. Do we make light of God's gracious consolations in Scripture or undervalue the gentle teaching of His Word? But like everything else in this book the verse needs careful understanding. One of the commonest bad habits into which we can drift is the easy assumption that every Scripture provides instant spiritual gratification, a message straight for our souls regardless of its context. This is not only a mistake, it is downright dangerous. Such a methodology, transferred to the platform, gives the impression to younger believers that the Bible is a book so different from others that we can forgo the normal discipline of painstaking study and simply pluck verses out of the air, making up spiritual lessons as we go along. Try reading an encyclopaedia article, a novel, a history book – or even the instructions for operating your new radio alarm clock – in this cavalier way and you'll find yourself up a gum tree. It is impossible to construct a solid word of ministry from three or four texts ripped out of context and pasted together. To do violence to the face-value significance of Scripture brings God's truth into discredit, for an intelligent listener will go away convinced that Christianity is so irrational as to be beyond sensible investigation. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. When Paul evangelised in Berea he expected his hearers to check his preaching against the Old Testament (Acts 17.11). The Bible is not an esoteric collection of coded mysteries to be unravelled only by some professional elite in a kind of spiritual Bletchley Park. God graciously conforms to the conventional rules of human language and grammar so that every believer – male and female, young and old – has the capacity, with the aid of the Holy Spirit and the use of his God-given intelligence, to make sense of the Word.

May I therefore suggest a simple procedure which should help us avoid serious errors of reading? Three words provide a safe guideline: location, interpretation, application. So many Christians head straight for the third and bypass the others, but the only genuine route to the right application of Scripture is through the first two steps.

By location I mean the wider setting of the verse. That involves bearing in mind the purpose, pattern, and literary genre of the book in which it is found. Though Job is placed, in our English Bibles, after Esther, it is not a similarly straightforward historical narrative packed with spiritual instruction. And though it stands in front of the Psalms it is not, like them, a series of inspired poems of prayer and praise. Nor is it, like Isaiah, a prophetic oracle straight from the mouth of Jehovah. Rather, it is a stand-alone book recording, with unerringly inspired accuracy, the misunderstandings and increasingly ill-tempered arguments of men who lived without God's written revelation and who therefore struggled to grasp, on the basis of incomplete and imperfect information, God's ways with His choicest servant.

Interpretation involves sorting out exactly what the verse means in its immediate context, bearing in mind the standard rules of grammar. Eliphaz is not composing a brief meditation for a devotional calendar but is rather reacting to Job's persistent claims of innocence with evidently growing tetchiness. To give him his due, he has made the effort, along with his two companions, to travel a distance to visit and console his sorely afflicted friend in his terrible distress. His first speech in chapters four and five draws on all the weightiness of his experience and authority – and yet Job has persevered in rejecting his sage advice. Because Job has not responded to his earlier counselling session with the humble gratitude that he expected, Eliphaz's bruised ego rises to the surface. When he speaks of the "consolations of God", then, he is not talking in the abstract about a God who tenderly meets His people's needs, but is specifically describing his current attempts to encourage and correct his old friend with words of wisdom. These, he maintains, should be viewed as heavenly comforts which ought to have Job down on his knees sobbing out his contrite thankfulness. Eliphaz, who obviously has a very high view of his own gifts, feels distinctly miffed.

At this point we can begin to tease out a legitimate application of the verse. Although Job's sufferings are entirely unique in their intensity, and although his comforters are completely off-course in their diagnosis of his case, much of what they say, irrelevant as it may be to Job's particular needs and offered as it is with an astonishing lack of sympathy, can be of value to us. Let's read the verse in the light of the whole Bible. What are its lessons? Well, we should bear in mind that our God is revealed as the "God of all comfort" (2 Cor 1.3), which means that He specializes in soothing His people's distresses. It is precisely in times of trouble that we discover the blessings inherent in that name, for only those in pain or perplexity cry out for comfort. And His consolations come in a rich variety of forms. For a start, there are the consolations of Scripture. Unlike Job and his friends, the psalmist had the written word on which to lean when he wrote, "In the multitude of my thoughts within me thy comforts delight my soul" (Ps 94.19). Or again, "Remember the word unto thy servant, upon which thou hast caused me to hope. This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me" (Ps 119.49-50). He could look back and rest on God's sure covenant promises to Israel. Paul sums up the continuing impact of the Old Testament when he tells us that "whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope" (Rom 15.4). We should never miss out on the uplifting ministry of the Word. Added to this is the New Testament ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit, one of whose names is the Comforter: "I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you" (Jn 14.16-17). And there is also the fellowship of saints. Paul illustrates this when writing about a proposed visit to Rome: "For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established; That is, that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me" (Rom 1.11-12). Notice how Paul explains that his teaching ministry is not one-sided but involves the joy of mutual encouragement. Again, his memories of a tough time in Macedonia testify to the practical cheer believers bring one another: "when we were come into Macedonia, our flesh had no rest, but we were troubled on every side; without were fightings, within were fears. Nevertheless God, that comforteth those that are cast down, comforted us by the coming of Titus" (2 Cor 7.5-6). Yes, it was God who comforted Paul, but He did it by means of the arrival of Titus. How marvellous that God elects to use feeble saints to succour saints! Think how many times you have been uplifted by reading Scripture, by the inner ministry of the Spirit, by the love and care of the believers in your local assembly. Whatever our circumstances, the true "consolations of God", which are rich far beyond Eliphaz's wildest dreams, are never too small to meet our needs.

To be continued.

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