An honest look at Job's depression

'For the arrows of the Almighty are in me; my spirit drinks their poison; the terrors of God are arrayed against me' (Job 6:4).

Timothy Rogers was born in 1658 and became a non-conformist evening lecturer at Crosby Square, Bishopsgate, about 300 years before Dick Lucas began his lunchtime lectures at St Helen's, also in Bishopsgate.  Joel Beeke and Randal Pederson describe, how in his mid-twenties:

Timothy Rogers

Rogers fell into a deep depression, which lasted nearly two years.  He gave up all hope of the mercy of God and considered himself 'a vessel of wrath fitted to destruction' (Rom. 9:22).  He described the condition of his mind as a land of darkness on which the sun never seemed to shine.  Nothing seemed to comfort Rogers: he felt trapped.  He later wrote, 'Who can describe that anguish and tribulation, which such apprehensions [of God's displeasure] cause in a desolate and a mourning soul?'  Another time he said, 'It is impossible to relate the whole, for my sorrows were beyond expression.'

These words could well have been on Job's lips and they are a summary of what Job is experiencing in this chapter.  What I want to do this evening is to take an honest look at Job's sufferings as they are described here and then, at the very end, make a few brief statements about what we might learn from them.  We see (1) Job's Pain, (2) Job's Vexation, (3) Job's Weakness and (4) Job's Frustration.  And these all come out in this chapter in no particular order, but they are all there.

1 Job's Pain

Look at verse 4.  Job feels like a man whose body has been pierced, not by one arrow, but by several arrows.  They are embedded within him, their sharp barbs tearing his flesh.  It is much the same as David says in Psalm 38:2: 'For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me'.  Not only are they arrows, but they are poisoned arrows.  They have been dipped in poison before being shot at Job, and now that poison is entering his bloodstream.  The word for 'poison' carries the idea of burning heat.  If you have ever burned your flesh - on a hob, on a grill, or in a flame - you will know that the pain of a burn doesn't subside.  There is a burning pain within Job that never lessens.

But in verse 4 Job also says that 'the terrors of God are arrayed against me'.  This is another very powerful image from the battle-field.  Job is saying that God is, to him, like a fierce warrior-king who has organised his horses and chariots against Job.  The Lord has lined up all his troops with the express purpose of wounding Job.

This is not only causing Job deep pain, but intense terror.  The God in whom he trusted and, yes, the God in whom he still trusts, is set against him.  We need to understand Job's pain and terror.  Job is not simply saying 'my life is very painful and I wish all my problems would had never happened: my loss of property and of children, and my complete breakdown of health.'  Job is in agony because he knows that God himself is afflicting him.  There can never be any doubt in Job's mind that God is Sovereign: if I am suffering, God is causing that suffering.

But at the same time the bodily and mental suffering of Job is all tied up with this spiritual agony.  Job does not do as we tend to do today: to compartmentalise body, mind and spirit.  He is one person, one being; and in his one being he is suffering indescribable pain, brought about, he knows, by God.

2 Job's Vexation

This vexation comes out in verses 2 and 3.  'Oh that my vexation were weighed, and all my calamity laid in the balances!  For then it would be heavier than the sand of the sea; therefore my words have been rash.'  What do we mean by 'vexation'?  We mean his grief, his anger, his being troubled and agitated in his spirit.   He wants to tell his three companions just how heavily all this is weighing upon him.  They can see his physical symptoms but they can't gauge his mental vexation.

If only I could weigh all this vexation, he says.  It would be heavier than the sand of the sea.  We are quite used to the Bible talking about sand as something that cannot be counted.  But sand is also very heavy, and especially wet sand!  A number of years ago we had a kind of paddling pool in our garden that could contain sand, or water, or both.  When it was both sand and water it was almost impossible to pick up.

That's how Job feels at the moment.  And because of this, he says, 'my words have been rash'.  It helps us to be told that Job's words have been rash, and they are going to be rash again.  This is the Word of God and we rightly pore over every word, trying to work out what Job means.  There are places, even in this chapter, where we feel like saying 'Steady on, Job - are you really accusing Eliphaz of being unkind, bargaining over orphans?'  But if we accept that Job's words are the expression of his vexation, then many of our problems are cleared up.

That's what it's like in real life.  We ordinarily expect our own words and other people's words to be rational and self-controlled.  But there are times when we are so burdened, so agitated, that what comes out is rash, unguarded, exaggerated, or even worse.  This is what we mean by vexation.

3 Job's Weakness

To see Job's weakness look at verses 11 to 13:

What is my strength, that I should wait? And what is my end, that I should be patient?  Is my strength the strength of stones, or is my flesh bronze?  Have I any help in me, when resource is driven from me?

Job is simply saying that the combined weight of everything he is suffering is more than his human frame can bear.  We sometimes talk about people who are strong, and it is true that some people are strong, and they can be strong in different ways.  For some people it is physical strength, whether that strength is seen in short, muscular bursts, in long-term stamina, or in what we call a strong constitution - they don't easily get ill.  For others it is mental strength: these people make up their minds what course of action they're going to take, and they stick at it without being deterred.  For others it is emotional strength: such people can take a lot of knocks in life, a lot of sadness or disappointment, but they can still function cheerfully.

Depression

We have every reason to suppose that until all this happened, Job had been a strong man, probably in all the ways we've just described.  But now he is utterly spent, he is worn out and broken by it all.  That is why, in this chapter and in the next, Job repeats his desire that death will take him.  He does not kill himself, he does not ask others to kill him.  But the will to fight on another day has so completely evaporated that he just wishes it was all over.

4 Job's Frustration

Come first of all to verse 6.  'Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt, or is there any taste in the juice of the mallow?'

There is some doubt as to exactly what Job is referring to here, but I understand it as a reference to the advice which Eliphaz has just given to him in the previous two chapters.  Job uses the powerful image of taste and we can all identify with that.  What has Eliphaz's advice been like?  It has been tasteless, insipid, to the point of being absolutely loathsome.

What exactly is 'the juice of the mallow'?  We don't know for sure.  It certainly isn't the marshmallows which we're used to, which are delicious!  Most scholars agree that it is some kind of slime that exudes from a plant - not especially appetising.  And unappetising food doesn’t fill, doesn’t satisfy.

We see this frustration even more clearly in verses 15 to 20.  I won't read all these verses.  But here are some travellers in the desert.  They know that some wadis, some desert streams, are not far away, and they need water.  But on arriving, they find that all the water has evaporated and the streams are bone-dry.  Or you have the well-known example of the parched traveller in the baking desert who looks up and sees a beautiful oasis of water in the distance but as he approaches it he realises that it is just a cruel mirage.  That may be the sense of verse 20: 'They are ashamed because they were confident; they come there and are disappointed.'

Mirage

And this is just where Job is: frustrated, disappointed.  He poured out his soul to Eliphaz, hoping for words of comfort, but has received nothing in return.  When his friends arrived he hoped they might bring him some wisdom, some words of relief, but instead, nothing - only an increase in his pain, vexation, weakness and frustration.

Is that all I have to say this evening?  Nearly, but not quite.  Let me return to Timothy Rogers, with whom we began:

Rogers's proneness to despondency returned to hinder his usefulness in 1707.  He became so depressed - looking upon himself 'as a lamp despised, a broken vessel, and, as a dead man out of mind' - that he left the ministry and retired in Wantage, Berkshire.  Though he spent his last twenty years in obscurity, he continued to justify God in all the dispensations of His providence, even in the midst of darkness.  Rogers entered triumphantly into his Father's arms in November 1728, and was buried in the Wantage churchyard.  He never married.

But Rogers became the author of A Discourse on Trouble of Mind and the Disease of Melancholy.  Joel Beeke and Randal Pederson comment:

Many books have been written on religious melancholy, but most authors have not really experienced the condition.  By contrast, Rogers wrote from the depths of his heart, expressing gratitude on every page and giving witness to the beauty of Christ, the best cure for spiritual depression.  He had a unique perspective, for he lived through terrible darkness of soul to help others toward healing.  He longed for the coming of his Deliverer and yearned for the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.

There was no happy ending in this life for Timothy Rogers.  The Job-like distress of his earlier life came back to haunt him for the last twenty years of life.  Rogers was like Job, in that 'he continued to justify God [to insist that God was righteous] in all the dispensations of His providence, even in the midst of darkness.'

But Rogers was able to perceive far more clearly what Job was as yet unable to see: 'the beauty of Christ, the best cure for spiritual depression'.  Because Jesus Christ is the companion in darkness for the Christian who is suffering.  

Ask Jesus Christ about pain, and he will take you to the scene of Calvary's cross with the nails and the thorns.

Ask Jesus Christ about vexation, and he will take you to the Garden of Gethsemane, where vexation became extreme anguish, the sweating of blood.

Ask Jesus Christ about weakness, and you will see him expiring on the cross, giving up his life and being laid, stone-cold dead, in a tomb.

Ask him about frustration and disappointment, and see all his disciples, who could not keep awake to comfort him, forsaking him and fleeing.

Job looked for comforters and found none.  He was God-forsaken and also man-forsaken.  There was no one for him.

And yet there was someone for him, the Christ whom he so resembled.  And the one that Job only begins to see dimly is the one that we know now as our Lord and Saviour, and the friend who sticks closer than a brother.  With Jesus there is no insipid, tasteless, barren advice, no platitudes, no barking corrections – but instead his blood, his righteousness, his life, his death, his love, his resurrection, his everlasting life, his intercession, his Spirit – for Christ specialises in attending to the sick, the needy, the spiritually depressed, the broken-hearted.

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