When Job’s friends rent their garments, cast themselves on the ground and sprinkled dust upon their heads, we note that although such ceremonies are signs of repentance, we must not think that anybody is discharged of their duty towards God through any outward sign or ceremony. Like any other ceremony, the clothing in sackcloth, the sprinkling of dust, the weeping and using such other manner of fashions that may make them seem to have nothing but lowliness and adversity within them counts as nothing in and of itself. It is only useful if it brings them to a mind where they can repent and God only has regard for the repentance. As the prophet Joel says, ‘rend your hearts and not your garments.’
Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.
Joel means that it is of no purpose for men to have great store of ceremonies, or to martyr themselves in the outward sight of the world, unless their hearts are broken and turned towards repentance before God. And in what way does God require us to break our hearts? It is that we should be cast down and humbled before him, that when we perceive any signs of his wrath (especially when we already feel the blows) we should be patient, assuring ourselves that everything comes from God, for his purpose and for our own ultimate good and that we do not, when God beats us with his rod, chaff at the bridle like mules and conceive of bitterness and rage against God, even though they give the appearance of being tame. On the contrary, it behoves us to rend our hearts, as David exhorts us in the psalm, by laying our hearts open before God, so that we reveal to him everything that is in it.
Psalm 17v1 – 5
Hear, O Lord, my righteous plea;
listen to my cry.
Give ear to my prayer –
it does not rise from deceitful lips.
May my vindication come from you;
may your eyes see what is right.
Though you probe my heart and examine me at night,
though you test me, you will find nothing;
I have resolved that my mouth will not sin.
As for the deeds of men –
by the word of your lips
I have kept myself
from the ways of the violent.
My steps have held to your paths;
my feet have not slipped.
I call on you, O God, for you will answer me;
give ear to me and hear my prayer.
Show me the wonder of your great love,
you who save by your right hand
those who take refuge in you from their foes.
Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings
from the wicked who assail me,
from my mortal enemies who surround me.
They close up their callous hearts,
and their mouths speak with arrogance.
They have tracked me down, they now surround me,
with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground.
They are like a lion hungry for prey,
like a great lion crouching in cover.
Rise up, O Lord, confront them, bring them down;
rescue me from the wicked by your sword.
O Lord, by your hand save me from such men,
from men of this world whose reward is in this life.
You still the hunger of those you cherish;
their sons have plenty,
and they store up wealth for their children.
And I – in righteousness shall I see your face;
when I awake, I shall be satisfied with seeing your likeness.
The prophet Joel wrote of the attitude of God; God does not have any regard for the rending of one’s garments. He only has regard to whether we have rent our hearts, for in that we come to true repentance. We show that our hearts are truly rent by confessing our sins with the intent that we turn from them and, in so doing, give glory to God.
God does not receive a person as a repentant person unless the person brings the sacrifices spoken of in Psalm 51v16,17.
God requires that we have our hearts and minds so distressed and ashamed of the sins we have committed that our hearts are truly rent, when our own conscience accuses us of our sins. Repentance does not consist in ceremonies. In the Old Testament times, the ceremonies were important, because the Lord had explicitly laid them down as law, to be carried out until the resurrection of the Christ. Neglecting the ceremonies would therefore have been disobedience against an express command of God and therefore a very great wickedness. But the ceremonies were only ever a means to an end; their purpose was to put a person in mind for repentance. God has regard for our repentance; the broken spirit, the broken and contrite heart. This was always the case, also in the times when ceremonies were lawful. Without these, the ceremonies were of no value.
When it is stated that Job’s friends sat by him seven days and seven nights, it is not meant that they did not depart from that place at any time during the seven days and nights. Rather, they were his company during that time, showing their love towards him by lamenting with him and abandoning all their own pleasures. It is stated that they did not speak one word, indicating that they were very sorely troubled when they saw that God’s hand was so rigorous upon Job. For they came with the set purpose to comfort Job, and now they are dumb. They saw Job, whom they took to be a servant of God. Before they came, they had thought that there would be some way to comfort him. But now, from what they see, they believe that God has utterly forsaken him and has set marks upon Job to indicate that Job truly is a reprobate person; there is no more hope for him and therefore they have no means to comfort him. This is the cause of their astonishment. But they ought to have had an eye to God’s promises, through which he witnesses to us that when all seems lost and past hope of recovery for us, he is above all and almighty, working for the good of those who love him and is well able to remedy the situation still. Not only is he well able, he has also promised to do so.
Isaiah 40v28 – 31
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and complain, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord;
my cause is disregarded by my God?”
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no-one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Why did Job’s friends fail to understand this? By this, we see that it behoves us to pray to God to hold us in the faith that we do not arrogate ourselves above our position and that we do not judge others, particularly that we do not judge our neighbour to be past hope of recovery when we see him suffer adversity. For the devil desires nothing more than to cause us to reach such a conclusion and to put into our heads either that God has cast us off, or put it into our heads that God has cast off our neighbour, so that we may be the instrument he uses to attack the faith of our neighbour. Do you suppose that God will receive you into his mercy if you become and instrument whereby the faith of your neighbour is attacked? If we give way to such temptations, we are certainly bereft of God’s grace and all his promises. We should therefore pray to God all the more earnestly that he will strengthen us so that we beat back all the assaults and we do not become instruments of Satan, by losing all hope when we see our neighbours afflicted. Even if the affliction is very great, we have a duty to trust in God, that he will ultimately turn the affliction to our welfare; that he always turns afflictions to the service of his faithful.
Prayer Let us fall down in the presence of our good God, acknowledging our sins, praying to God to make us feel them so that we may always be prepared to endure the chastising that he sends upon us. We pray that we will always be ready to condemn our sins and iniquities and crave pardon for them and confess that we are guilty before God in thought, word and deed. We pray that we may not cease to call upon our good God, we pray that by his grace we may come to him in true repentance and to assure ourselves that when we do, his mercy shall never be denied to us. We pray that, by his grace, our only desire will be to be subject to his good will, and to walk in his fear and obedience all the time of our life. We pray that it may please him to grant this not only to us, but also to all the people of the earth.