and the night that said,
"A man is conceived."
Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it,
nor light shine upon it.
This is the beginning of Job's lament in which he curses the day of his birth (Job 3:1-26). What are we to make of this? Does Job's poem reveal sinful thoughts? Is Job's faith wavering? Has he gone too far? There are many commentators who believe that this poem uncovers a sinful attitude of ingratitude and anxiety on Job's part. Matthew Henry says,
"The extremity of his trouble and discomposure of his spirit may excuse it in part, but he can by no means be justified in it. . . . to curse the day of our birth because then we entered upon the calamitous scene of life is to quarrel with the God of nature, to despise the dignity of our being, and to indulge a passion which our own calm and sober thoughts will make us ashamed of. Certainly there is no condition of life a man can be in this world but he may in it (if it be not his own fault) so honour God, and work out his own salvation, and make sure a happiness for himself in a better world, that he will have no reason at all to wish he had never been born, but a great deal of reason to say that he had his being to good purpose. . . There can be no reason for so vain and ungrateful a wish. It was Job’s folly and weakness to curse his [birth] day”
Keil & Delitzsch have a similar opinion: “If a man, on account of his sufferings, wishes to die early, or not to have been born at all, he has lost his confidence that God, even in the severest suffering, designs his highest good; and this want of confidence is sin."
So has Job now slipped? Was Satan correct in his prediction about Job? Are we to believe that the patient, faithful Job of chapters 1-2 has now given way to the impatient, doubting Job just as Satan predicted? Is there another way of reading Job's curse-lament? Is this kind of poetic lament really inconsistent with genuine godliness and piety? Might it actually be an expression of faith?
First of all, let's be careful how we apply passages like Philippians 4:4, "Rejoice in the Lord always." Let's not press such passages to absurd ends. When a loved one dies are you supposed to be happy and rejoice? What about Romans 12:15, "Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep"? Look at the Psalms, our inspired prayer book. There we have model prayers for all sorts of situations. Do the Psalmists ever lament their afflictions? Of course they do. Do they speak candidly to God about their own struggles? Absolutely. And they are models of godly prayer. Does Jeremiah weep over the destruction of Jerusalem in lamentations 3:1-12? Does Jesus agonize over his suffering? Did he sin? Upon hearing of Lazareth's death, did Jesus rejoice or weep?
With that general biblical background for lamentation, what are we to make of Job's specific wish that he was never born? I believe Job’s curses and laments are genuine expressions (in the context of overwhelming suffering) of the profound truth that it is better never to have been born than to be rejected by God. Job feels that he has been abandoned by God. In this he is wrong, as we shall see; but his error is understandable considering the fact that God has withdrawn the outward expressions of his favor as well as his inner testimony of grace in Job’s consciousness. As Keil & Delitzsch accurately note:
"Job has experienced 'the entire deprivation of every taste of divine goodness.' Not only does he experience the loss of his wealth, his sons & daughters, his reputation, but now it appears to Job that God himself seems to be hostile to him. Job seems to have lost God. It is, however, not the greatness of the affliction in itself which shakes Job to the core, but a change in disposition on the part of God which seems to be at work in the affliction. The sufferer considers himself as forgotten, forsaken, and rejected of God, as many passages in the Psalms and Lamentations show: therefore he sinks in despair; and in this despair expression is given to this profound truth, that it is better never to have been born, or to be annihilated, than to be rejected of God."
In response to this Job does not renounce God. He does not curse God. He does not even abandon his past faithfulness to God. Rather, he would rather not to have been born than to be without God's love and favor. How many of us have such a profound conviction of the blessedness of God’s love and favor that we can say that it would be better not to live than to be rejected by the Lord? If Job does err, he errs in thinking that God has abandoned him. That in the absence of the experience of God, God is genuinely absent. That since God’s love is hidden from Job’s immediate perception, then surely God has become Job’s enemy. Job is wrong about this. But he has to learn he's wrong through a long process of personal interaction with God and his friends.
Certainly Satan was wrong when he said of Job “Skin for Skin: all that a man has he will give for his life.” The reverse is true for Job, to have never possessed life would have been better according to Job. Job put no value at all on his life. Later Job will say something similar: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” How many of us feel that way? How many of us have such a strong faith? Too many people think: well, as long as God delivers the goods I’ll continue to trust him.
There are plenty of exemplary believers in the Scriptures that expressed something very similar to Job. Moses prayed with regard to the sin of Israel, "If you will not forgive their sin, I pray, blot me out of your book which you have written" (Ex. 32:32). Responding to the destruction of Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah cries,
Cursed be the day on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
Let it be not blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father,
"A son is born to you," making him very glad.
Let that man be like the cities
that Yahweh overthrew without pity;
Let him hear a cry in the morning
and an alarm at noon,
Because he did not kill me in the womb;
So my mother would have been my grave,
and her womb forever great.
Why did I come out from the womb to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame? (Jer. 20:14-18)
The Apostle Paul writes that he himself has such great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart that he "could wish to be accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers" (Rom. 9:1-5). How did our Lord respond to the prospect of his upcoming suffering and death? Did he keep a stiff upper lip? Did he hide his emotions? According to Matthew 26:37, "He began to be distressed and despondent." Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus saying, "My soul is exceedingly sorrowful even unto death." In other words, Jesus sorrow was so deep that he saw death as a release from his dreadful distress. How are the honest expressions of Moses, Jeremiah, Paul, or Jesus any different that Job's lament? Job has not lost his faith; rather, he is expressing it honestly. He would rather not have been born than to have lost the favor of God.