Job’s Dark Night of the Soul

In one of the stanzas of the hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” William Cowper wrote those well-known words we often sing: “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace, behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face.” Cowper was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England in 1731 to John and Ann Cowper. His mother was a Donne and a relative of the poet and Church of England minister, John Donne, from whom William believed he received his poetic talents. His father was a chaplain to King George II, but his mother died when he was six.  After her death, William was sent to a boarding house where he was ostracized by the other children—a traumatic experience which shaped his life. At the age of 28, he was preparing to take the bar exam to become a lawyer, when he suffered a nervous breakdown and was placed in an asylum or mental hospital. One day, he found a Bible and read Romans 3:25 which resulted in his instantaneous conversion. Soon thereafter he was healthy enough in mind and spirit to leave the asylum and move to Olney, England where John Newton was the pastor. Newton encouraged Cowper to write hymns and he was able to write 86 in a short period of time. Many Christians know Cowper for his hymns, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”; “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”; and, “The Spirit Breathes Upon the Word.” Cowper had several periods of depression in his life and was well-accustomed with what is called ‘the dark night of the soul.’

Job 3 is one of the darkest chapters in the Bible and shocks our sensibilities that a righteous man would curse the day of his birth, bewail his life, and seek death over life. Job was experiencing that dark night of his soul when it seemed to him that all the Lord’s providences portended an angry God. Yet, it is important to note that God never rebuked Job for cursing his birth. Because of sin in the world, Christians will feel many different emotions—loneliness, depression, anger, fear, despair, etc.—and these emotions are not wrong in themselves. The Lord is large enough to understand when our souls cry out to Him in great agony and despair. Indeed, Jesus sweated great drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and from the cross He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” If the perfect Son of God could make such a complaint against His Father, then the Lord is not going to rebuke Job for doing so after suffering so much loss and pain. Job cursed the day of his birth, but he did not curse God nor did he curse himself. With all that he had suffered how could we expect him to remain emotionless? As Francis I. Anderson commented:

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the startling sentiments expressed in this speech do not mean that Job has cracked under the strain. . . Self-control is something quite different from not showing one’s emotions. Job is no Stoic, striving to be pure mind with no feeling. . . A man of stone or bronze (Job 6:12) might remain unmoved, but a real man is all turbulence. The Lord’s testing is not to see if Job can sit unmoved like a piece of wood.”[1]  

After the first wave of sufferings, Job worshiped God and acquiesced to the Lord’s will, saying, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). He neither sinned nor blamed God. After the second wave of sufferings, he rebuked his wife who counseled him to curse God and die. Whatever he felt in his heart, Scripture says, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10). After seven days of the ministry of presence from his three friends, Job broke out in a soliloquy—the act of speaking one’s thoughts out loud. Job makes his complaint to God—but not to his friends. They witnessed Job’s startling soliloquy and that, no doubt, influenced their speeches against him. Yet, for all that was wrong in those denunciations of Job, the Lord used them to get Job to open up about the thoughts in his heart.

It is easy to find fault with Job’s friends as even God blamed them at the end of the book for not speaking what was right about Him as Job had. Yet, we must also realize that their speeches were under the providence of God. The Book of Job is the Lord’s divine intervention with Job to restore him to sanity. The worst thing for Job, having suffered all these losses, would have been to remain quiet and keep it all on the inside. Suffering in silence would have prolonged his torment. It was necessary and essential for him to express his feelings outwardly—even if he had to go to combat against friends who, while perhaps being well-intentioned, were utterly mistaken about the Lord’s dealings with Job. The Book of Job is understood best, in my opinion, if it is understood as the Lord’s gracious intervention in Job’s life to restore him in every respect. As painful as it was for Job to suffer through the criticism of his friends, it would have been much worse if he had been allowed to suffer in silence. These friends did not come to visit Job for the purpose of arguing with him. They were driven to do so by the providence of God after they listened to the heart-wrenching soliloquy of Job. 

Job Curses the Day of His Birth

In this third chapter, Job pours out his soul to God with lamenting expressions and questions: “Let the day perish on which I was to be born” (Job 3:2); “May that day be darkness” (Job 3:4); “Let darkness and black gloom claim it” (Job 3:5); “Let those curse it who curse the day” (Job3:8); “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” (Job 3:11); “Why is light given to him who suffers?” (Job 3:20); and, “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet, and I am not at rest, but turmoil comes” (Job 3:26). There are many other such expressions in this chapter. When his friends heard these utterances, they judged him. Yet, as Mason shows, we who read the Book of Job do the same:

The thing we find particularly abhorrent is all this gloom-and-doom death-talk of his, this expressed longing not just for death but for total annihilation, this ache not merely to cease existing but never to have existed at all. Good Christians do not want to listen to this. We just feel Job is wrong—terribly wrong—to “curse the day of his birth,” and we do not want to acknowledge that such ghastly and despairing words could ever actually be uttered by a believer in God, let alone by someone with a reputation for exemplary sanctity.

So it is not just Job’s wife and friends who pass judgment on him; we too, as readers, are inclined at this point to dismiss and reject him, or else to block our ears and pretend that he does not know what he is saying. . . Apparently the Devil was right about him, and when the pressure gets too great he caves in and loses his faith.[2]

Yet, the problem with drawing such a conclusion about Job is that other great men of Scripture have also expressed such despair. Jeremiah, ‘the weeping prophet’, once wrote: “O that my head were waters and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jeremiah 9:1). He also wrote the Lamentations of Jeremiah, perhaps the most despondent book of Scripture next to the Book of Job. Lamentations 3:1-18 is an outpouring of sorrow that is very similar to what Job expresses. Then, Jeremiah 20:14-18: “Cursed be the day when I was born” (Jeremiah 20:14); “Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father. . . Because he did not kill me before birth” (Jeremiah 20:15, 17); and, “Why did I ever come forth from the womb?” (Jeremiah 20:18).

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Job was now experiencing the torments of his soul through this attack of Satan on his inner psychic life. The only limitation placed on Satan was to spare the life of Job. The devil reluctantly complied, but made use of every weapon in his arsenal. In Ephesians 6:11, 12, Paul made it clear how we are to fight the hellish fiend who attacks us in numerous ways: “Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” The devil delights to attack the thoughts of a believer. John Bunyan, in The Pilgrim’s Progress, described Christian being subject to the wiles of the devil while passing through the Valley of the Shadow of Death:

One thing I would not let slip, I took notice that now poor Christian was so confounded, that he did not know his own voice: and thus I perceived it: Just when he was to come over the mouth of the burning Pit, one of the wicked ones got behind him, and stept up softly to him, and whisperingly suggested many grievous blasphemies to him, which he verily thought  had proceeded from his own mind. This put Christian more to it than any thing that he met with before, even to think that he should now blaspheme him that he loved so much before; yet, could he have helped it, he would not have done it : but he had not the discretion neither to stop his ears, nor to know from whence those blasphemies came.[3]

Bunyan describes Christian as being comforted by Psalm 23 in the following ways:

Then was he glad, and that for three reasons:

First, because he gathered from thence, that some who feared God were in this Valley as well as himself.

Secondly, For that he perceived , God was with them, though in that dark and dismal state; and, why not, thought he, with me, though by reason of the impediment that attends this place, I cannot perceive it.

Third, For that he hoped (could he ever over-take them) to have company by and by. So he went on, but he knew not what to answer; for that he also thought himself to be alone: And by and by, the day broke; then said Christian, He hath turned the shadow of death into the morning.[4]

There are many fellow pilgrims who have traveled, are traveling, and will travel through the valley of the shadow of death. Some almost lose their way on that part of their journey or they are tempted to cease following Christ when they see the flames rising higher and higher and when they hear those ‘dreadful noises’ from their fiendish foes. Such people need to be encouraged by us to heed the advice of Paul to put on the full armor of God and to give themselves to ‘all prayer.’ Some are overcome with depression and can hardly find their way out of such a dark place. Once again, Mason’s insight into Job’s depression is helpful:

It is important to remember that nowhere in this book are we given reason to believe that Job’s depression, in and of itself, is ever viewed by the Lord as being his own “fault.” On the contrary, in view of the clear mandate for unlimited harassment (short of death) given to Satan in the Prologue, we are constrained to see Job’s psychic trauma as part and parcel with his other trials, just one more of the Devil’s assaults on his faith. In fact, the message that begins to unfold in Chapter 3 is that depression in a believer, far from being unforgivable, is one of the things that the Lord is most ready to forgive.[5]

A large part of dealing with spiritual depression is to know how to speak to our souls and encourage our hearts to seek the Lord. Job had never experienced anything like these trials and did not yet know the remedy for his despair. His depression was not to last. While it concerned the loss of material possessions, loved ones, and even his health, his depression was essentially spiritual in nature. Some, like William Cowper, are beset with clinical depression which is never completely overcome in this life. Others, are depressed as a result of being under the influence and control of the evil one. Until their bondage to the powers of darkness are broken, they can never experience the joy of the Lord.

The Spiritual Forces of Wickedness

          In the introduction to his sermon series, The Christian Warfare: An Exposition of Ephesians 6:10-13, Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote:

I mean this, the devil does work in us and can work in us through our bodies, through our instincts. The devil can make use of anything. I shall be pointing out later how he can even produce illnesses and sicknesses and depression and misery. The devil can do all this within us, so we must not make it an absolute division.[6] And yet it is a very real division. In other words, we must never forget the devil, we must never forget the ‘principalities and powers’. I must never think that my whole problem is confined to that which is within me and in other people. Above and beyond that is this other mighty power arrayed against me, the mightiest power apart from God Himself. Not to remember this basic fact is to court certain defeat and disaster. The great trouble with the world today, and with the Church unfortunately, is that they know so little about the devil and the ‘principalities and powers’.[7]

The devil has many schemes and wiles. He has many ways in which he approaches the souls of both believers and unbelievers. Through his great subtlety, he beguiled Adam and Eve and enticed then to sin which resulted in the fall of all mankind through our first parents. While the devil is not able to possess a child of God, he can and does certainly oppress him, causing him much harm. Thus, Job’s trials at the hands of the devil were not demonic possession like the Gerasene demoniac experienced or other demon-possessed people in the Scriptures experienced. The Gerasene demoniac was able to tear apart the chains and shackles used by others to bind him; and, “night and day, he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones” (Mark 5:5). The daughter of the Syro-Phoenician widow was “cruelly demon-possessed” (Matthew 15:22), while a man who met Jesus at the bottom of the Mount of Transfiguration had a son who was afflicted with lunacy and, the father said, he “often falls into the fire and often into water” (Matthew 17:15). Demon-possession is accompanied by terrible afflictions of various kinds wherein the one captured by the devil often does bodily harm to himself. Job was not possessed of the devil, but he was tormented by that fiendish enemy. Nor was Job’s depression what we would refer to as clinical in nature. It was depression at a particular time that was a direct attack by Satan. Every Christian is a combatant in this great ‘struggle’, as William Gurnall so aptly observed in The Christian in Complete Armor:

Whether you like it or not, you must get into the ring with Satan. He has not only a general malice against the army of saints, but a particular spite against every single child of God. As our Lord delights to have private communion with His saint, so the devil delights to challenge the Christian when he gets him alone. The whole issue of your spiritual destiny is personal and particular. You give Satan a dangerous advantage if you see his wrath and fury bent in general against the saints, and not against you specifically. . . Conversely, you lose much comfort when you fail to see the promises and providences of God as available for your specific needs.[8]      

In 1999, I made my first mission trip to Russia and had numerous opportunities to preach. One evening I was preaching at a church in Tambov, Russia from Ephesians 6:10-20. There was a woman present who became visibly agitated as I spoke about the principalities, powers, and spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Finally, she could take no more and abruptly ran out of the meeting place. After the conclusion of the service, I asked the pastor what had happened and he explained that she had been dabbling in the occult for many years. He was not surprised at her reaction to my sermon. I do not know what became of the woman, but I hope that she eventually experienced what a well-known spirit-medium did in Aberavon, Wales when young Martyn Lloyd-Jones began his ministry there:

Every Sunday evening she had been paid three guineas—quite a large sum in those days—for leading a spiritist meeting. Then one Sunday when she was ill, and unable to go out, her attention was attracted to the numbers who were passing her house on the way to Sandfields.[9] The very sight of these people, and their evident anticipation, awakened a desire to attend a service herself. This she did, to be herself transformed and thereafter to live a Christian life until her death. Included in the testimony which she subsequently gave to the messenger who had led her to Christ were these remarkable words: ‘The moment I entered your chapel and sat down on a seat amongst the people, I was conscious of the same sort of supernatural power as I was accustomed in our spiritist meetings, but there was one big difference; I had a feeling that the power in your chapel was a clean power.[10]

In the first chapter of this book, Satan had complained to God about Job: “Have you not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land” (Job 1:10).  Now Job complains to God that he is hedged in so that he does not know where to find God—“Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden, and whom God has hedged in?” (Job 3:23). What irony! Both made the same complaint against God but for different reasons. Yet, we must recognize that God is in control of all things, whether by decree or permission. All of us are hedged in by God. Satan chafed under that bitter realization. Now, Job complains to the Lord about it also. The complaint of Satan was that Job was hedged in by his successes in everything. So, the battleground is changed. Now Job is tested by the Lord through the withdrawing of all those blessings. And he is tempted by the devil to curse God because of his losses. Yet, even the storm that surrounded Job was still a hedge. What it proves is that the safest place is always in the will of God, even if His will is a storm which threatens to destroy us. Mason expounds on that very idea:

The moral here should be evident: God’s surest protection can sometimes take the form of apparent obstruction, of darkness and difficulty and pain. Indeed there are times when the very safest place for a believer to be is in the midst of obscurity and suffering, to all appearances cut off from God. . .

In the book of Acts, for example, the entire penultimate chapter is taken up with the story of a violent storm at sea that raged for over two weeks and ended in shipwreck. Things grew so desperate that at one point the narrator, Luke, admits that “we finally gave up all hope of being saved” (Acts 27:20). Presumably the “we” here includes not just the unbelievers on board, but the believers as well. (Yes, even for the great Apostle Paul there came a point in his life where he “gave up all hope of being saved”!). Nevertheless, could anyone doubt that Luke and Paul were just as secure in God’s hands at the very height of the storm as they were when they finally set foot safe and sound on the island of Malta?[12]  

As I write these words, I am reflecting on some of the things that have happened in the past few weeks. On Monday, May 9, 2022, I learned that a first-cousin of mine committed suicide. Sadly, another cousin had done the same thing over 30 years ago. A niece attempted to overdose more than twenty years ago. She survived. Yesterday, May 19th, we learned that a long-time friend, one of our dearest friends, is scheduled for lung cancer on Monday, May 23rd—a woman who has always been the picture of health. She asked for prayer, but not for pity. Everyone reading these words can reflect on all the trials they have faced and the times they have felt that the dark night of the soul has overtaken them. Sometimes, they faced those trials alone with no one in whom to confide—except the Lord who is always ready to listen to the cries of our hearts. These recent events and this third chapter of Job reminds me of the anonymous prose, “I asked God…”

I asked for strength and God gave me difficulties to make me strong,

I asked for wisdom and God gave me problems to solve,

I asked for prosperity and God gave me brawn and brain to work,

I asked for courage and God gave me dangers to overcome,

I asked for patience and God placed me in situations where I was forced to wait,

I asked for love and God gave me troubled people to help,

I asked for favors and God gave me opportunities,

I received nothing I wanted,

I received everything I needed,

My prayer has been answered.

Job was being taught by God that grace grows best in winter. It was a painful lesson for him to learn, but a necessary lesson as well. Job is Everyman and this book is for everyone. Jesus was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). When we become His followers, we also become sharers of His sorrows. There will be times when we feel like Job in this soliloquy. We might question where is God in the midst of our trials, but He is there with us all the time. We are hedged in by His grace as His children.

 Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL Please mail any contributions for Vanguard Presbytery to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540. Your gifts are greatly appreciated!

[1] Francis I. Anderson, Job: An Introduction and Commentary (London and Downers Grove, Illinois, Inter-Varsity Press, 1976), 101

[2] Mike Mason, The Gospel According to Job (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1994), 57.

[3] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress: from this World to That which is to Come (London, Oxford University Press, 1960), 63-4.

[4] Ibid., 64.

[5] Mason, Ibid., 59.

[6] Lloyd-Jones is saying that we must not make an iron-clad distinction between the devil as an enemy that is completely without us because he often works within even the saints.

[7] D M Lloyd-Jones, The Christian Warfare: An Exposition of Ephesians 6:10-13 (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 19.  

[8] Ruthanne Garlock, Kay King, Karen Sloan, and Candy Coan, eds., William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armor, Volume I (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 125.

[9] Sandfields was the name of the area where the chapel was in Aberavon, Wales.

[10] Iain H. Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years, 1899-1939 (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 221.

[11] David Dickson, A Commentary on the Psalms, Two Volumes in One, Volume One (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1995), 237.

[12] Mason, Ibid., 61.

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