Light in the Darkness: Christ in the Book of Job

Deep in his misery, Job contemplates two symbols of his hopelessness.

In Job 14, he considers that the utter hopelessness of his life rests in the fact that he does not seem to have a possibility of an afterlife. “Man born of woman is short-lived and full of trouble, like a flower that springs up and fades, swift as a shadow that does not abide,” (verses 1-2).

The fate of man is contrasted with of a tree:

For a tree there is hope;
if it is cut down, it will sprout again,
its tender shoots will not cease.
Even though its root grow old in the earth
and its stump die in the dust,
Yet at the first whiff of water it sprouts
and puts forth branches like a young plant (verses 7-9).

Notice how Job is at pains to distance himself from any possibility of hope. He draws an analogy with the fading flower to describe the mortality of man. But nature also abounds with analogies of the resurrection: new life from the seed of a dead plant, the changing of the seasons, and, here, the seemingly dead tree which sprouts anew.

But Job rejects this last analogy. The stump may revitalize, but this does not happen with man. His body decays. There is no hidden vigor waiting to be released. “But when a man dies, all vigor leaves him; when a mortal expires, where then is he?” (verse 10).

Job then further develops this contrast into another analogy. In the case of the tree, water nourishes the moribund stump back into life. But water can also be a destructive force:

Mountains fall and crumble,
rocks move from their place,
And water wears away stone,
and floods wash away the soil of the land—
so you destroy the hope of mortals! (verses 18-19)

If water can wear down rock, just imagine how perishable man is, no matter how durable he may make himself out to be.

Job thus presents us with two images. One, the replenished stump, is an image of hope for renewal, but man is assumed to be excluded from this hope. The other image is one of hopelessness which does encompass mankind.

The above two images are connected by a third: that of water. In one image, water is the source of renewal. In the other, it is a cause of ruin. It is a testament to how forlorn Job considers himself that something which brings life to other living things—dormant tree stumps—is seen as only bringing death for man.

But, in this darkness, light shines.

In the first instance, the stump, the language parallels and anticipates that of Isaiah 11:1, which speaks of a “shoot” from the “stump of Jesse”—a well-known prophetic image of Christ. This also recalls an earlier text, Isaiah 6:13, which likewise speaks of the “holy seed” of a stump.

Arboreal imagery is particularly fitting for Christ. It is not only the context of Isaiah 11 and St. Paul’s statement in Romans 15:12 that confirm the stump of Jesse foreshadows Christ. Remember, Christ’s destiny on earth is particularly linked to a tree, the cross, on which He dies in in order to destroy death and extend the hope of resurrection to all men.

For Job the sprouting stump is a paradoxical image. It is an authentic symbol of hope. But, in the mind of Job, it only reinforces his despondency because it is assumed that man cannot partake of this hope. In Christ, then, this longing is unexpectedly fulfilled. And it is done in both a symbolic and literal manner—literal, because Christ’s act of deliverance occurs on an actual tree.

Likewise, his image of hopeless is reversed to one of hope.

The flood waters that ravish all the earth—even the mountains—undoubtedly recall the Genesis flood. This event is another well-established type for baptism, the sacrament in which we are spiritually reborn and given hope of a full resurrection in the next life. Baptism is a form of participation in the death of Christ who is called the ‘living water’ in the gospels (see Romans 6:4; John 4).

Thus, in Job, two symbols—one of a hope impossible to fulfill, the other of hopelessness impossible to avoid—are transformed in Christ. The first is unexpectedly fulfilled. The second is fulfilled but in an unexpected way by being reversed from a sign of hopelessness into one of hope.

Whether we hope or feel hopeless, Christ will meet us, either as the light that is the source of our light or the light shining in our darkness (John 1:5, 9).

image: By Bohemian Baltimore (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • Christopher Thrutchley

    Stephen Beale,

    I read your article on Gregory of Nyssa. (The comments section is now closed.) You might have been using Brill’s definition of Apokatastasis, but your reading of Gregory of Nyssa is almost certainly false. Virtually every serious patristics scholar acknowledges Nyssa’s explicit belief in universal salvation.

    The most complete summary of Nyssa’s support for universal salvation (evident in practically all of his works) is available in the Patristic scholar David Bentley Hart’s “The Beauty of the Infinite.” I myself quote a critical passage from “On the Soul and the Resurrection” here.

    “Such I think is the plight of the soul as well when the Divine force, for God’s very love of man, drags that which belongs to Him from the ruins of the irrational and material. Not in hatred or revenge for a wicked life, to my thinking, does God bring upon sinners those painful dispensations; He is only claiming and drawing to Himself whatever, to please Him, came into existence. But while He for a noble end is attracting the soul to Himself, the Fountain of all Blessedness, it is the occasion necessarily to the being so attracted of a state of torture. Just as those who refine gold from the dross which it contains not only get this base alloy to melt in the fire, but are obliged to melt the pure gold along with the alloy, and then while this last is being consumed the gold remains, so, while evil is being consumed in the purgatorial1848 fire, the soul that is welded to this evil must inevitably be in the fire too, until the spurious material alloy is consumed and annihilated by this fire. If a clay of the more tenacious kind is deeply plastered round a rope, and then the end of the rope is put through a narrow hole, and then some one on the further side violently pulls it by that end, the result must be that, while the rope itself obeys the force exerted, the clay that has been plastered upon it is scraped off it with this violent pulling and is left outside the hole, and, moreover, is the cause why the rope does not run easily through the passage, but has to undergo a violent tension at the hands of the puller. In such a manner, I think, we may figure to ourselves the agonized struggle of that soul which has wrapped itself up in earthy material passions, when God is drawing it, His own one, to Himself, and the foreign matter, which has somehow grown into its substance, has to be scraped from it by main force, and so occasions it that keen intolerable anguish.

    “Then it seems, I said, that it is not punishment chiefly and principally that the Deity, as Judge, afflicts sinners with; but He operates, as your argument has shown, only to get the good separated from the evil and to attract it into the communion of blessedness.

    “That, said the Teacher, is my meaning; and also that the agony will be measured by the amount of evil there is in each individual. For it would not be reasonable to think that the man who has remained so long as we have supposed in evil known to be forbidden, and the man who has fallen only into moderate sins, should be tortured to the same amount in the judgment upon their vicious habit; but according to the quantity of material will be the longer or shorter time that that agonizing flame will be burning; that is, as long as there is fuel to feed it. In the case of the man who has acquired a heavy weight of material, the consuming fire must necessarily be very searching; but where that which the fire has to feed upon1849 has spread less far, there the penetrating fierceness of the punishment is mitigated, so far as the subject itself, in the amount of its evil, is diminished. In any and every case evil must be removed out of existence, so that, as we said above, the absolutely non-existent should cease to be at all. Since it is not in its nature that evil should exist outside the will, does it not follow that when it shall be that every will rests in God, evil will be reduced to complete annihilation, owing to no receptacle being left for it?”

    I repeat for emphasis: “…does it not follow that when it shall be that *every will rests in God*, evil will be reduced to *complete annihilation*, owing to *no receptacle being left for it*?”

    Hart notices, among many things, that Nyssa’s implicit Christology (Balthasar observed that for Nyssa, the total Christ is equal to the total humanity) necessitates universal salvation. You might prefer that Nyssa had been a good orthodox modern Catholic, but alas, he was not, and it is dishonest to suggest otherwise.

  • Stephen Beale

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. A few thoughts. 1. Gregory of Nyssa is a saint, so let’s be careful about saying a Catholic saint is not orthodox, i.e. a heretic. 2. Your statement that every serious scholar acknowledges Gregory was a universalist is not correct. The Brill dictionary, which is authoritative, is one example. It explains that there is a debate among scholars. I’m not sure why you discount Brill from your assessment. 3. The above passage seems to be talking about purgatory. Elsewhere I have Gregory explicitly offering a separate discussion on the reality of hell that is not supportive of universal salvation.

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