News & Blog


Comfort on the Ash Heap

Our recent podcast on how the book of Job brings comfort in our suffering obviously only scratched the surface of the book. One encouraging thought which we didn’t have time for is found near the very end of Job. It comes in what is actually one of the most moving turning points in all of Scripture, when Job says: “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6). This is the very last thing Job says to God, but it’s only when we take into account everything else Job has said up to this point that we can understand why it matters so much—and why we might find ourselves saying something similar, and similarly beautiful.

The story of Job’s tragedy in chapters 1-2 is well known: God allows Job’s picture-perfect existence (1:1-5) to be ruined all in one day (1:13-19). The reason God allows this nightmare is not hard to find. “Does Job love God for no reason?” the Accuser asks (1:9), a question heavy with the sinister implication that Job secretly tolerates a God he despises all so that he can enjoy the blessings God gives. This question is terribly relevant to every believer. Our God is deeply generous in blessings both spiritual and material—but do we value the material more than the spiritual? Or (worse yet) do we value God’s material blessings more than the Giver? 

And so God allows an ordeal to take place in which Job will lose every material blessing. He loses every reason to maintain a relationship with God - except God himself. What is crucial to notice at this point is that Job cannot know that it is a test. He must remain ignorant throughout of what God is really up to in his tragedy, otherwise the Accuser could simply claim that Job professes a loyalty to God he doesn’t really feel in the hopes that if he says the right thing, God will reward him in the end. It must look to Job as if God has turned his back on him when Job has given God no reason to do so. “Let me know why you contend with me,” Job begs (10:3); and this agonised question animates all of his pained speeches. Job never once asks for his charmed life back, but he does obsessively question why God and he are no longer friends. Sometimes this takes the form of the truly admirable hope that, if only God would stop being so distant and mysterious, he and Job could work things out and be friends again (13:13-24; 23:3-7). More often it takes the form of vicious criticism of the God who, so Job thinks, has treated him brutally and for no good reason: in 16:12, for example, Job says God used him for target practice in archery (16:6-17 is a difficult passage to read, to say the least). And all the while, poor Job cannot imagine that the heart of his divine friend remains unchanged toward him (1:8), that a bright sun is shining above his storm clouds, and that a perfect restoration awaits him.

Job remains admirably faithful throughout his ordeal and never curses God (1:11). But he describes his predicament by saying either that God is shown to be wrong for allowing Job’s tragedy and should apologise, or that God should show Job that he sinned in some way and deserved the nightmare of chapters 1-2 (see chapters 29-31, and especially 31:6, 35). When God finally speaks (chapters 38-41) his speeches are complex, and there is much in them which we can’t explore here (although our podcast gets into this a bit). But suffice it to say that in chapters 38-41 God breaks open Job’s way of describing his predicament in such a way that Job can be innocent, and God just, all at the same time. A major way he does this is by portraying the fearsome monster Leviathan at such length in chapter 41. This is a way of saying to Job, “You thought I was just torturing you for no reason, but let me show you your real adversary, and mine as well—an enemy I tolerate now but one day will destroy.” (Remember that Satan is described in a Leviathan-like way in Rev. 12:9.)

Job responds to this with a worship both broken and beautiful. I know you can do all things (42:2)—there is no tragedy too great for you to heal, no loss too profound to restore. Who on earth did I think I was, criticising and railing against the God who actually turned out to be my closest friend and champion and advocate all this time (42:3)? Little wonder Job despises himself (v. 6). What a change from his former protests!

There is a double meaning in 42:6 which deepens its beauty, however. One could just as easily translate Job as saying, “I am comforted about dust and ashes”, alongside the usual “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Either fits so well with the Hebrew that I suspect both are intended. Remember that Job is sitting on the ash heap as he says this (2:8), and in 30:19 he compares his suffering to dust and ashes. So the “dust and ashes” in 42:6 seem to express both Job’s humility and repentance, and simultaneously stand for all his suffering. But he is entirely comforted about it, he says.

What is so moving about this verse is that nothing in Job’s life has changed externally. His restoration only begins in 42:7. At this point, he is still sitting on the ash heap, sick and covered with sores; still alienated from his wife; still smarting under the accusations of his friends; still casting side-long glances at the graves of his ten children. And yet he expresses utter comfort over it all. “Now my eye sees you” (v. 5)—Job is simply taken up in God and God alone, and without any of his miserable circumstances improving in the least, he is comforted down to his bones. 

God does not love you less than he loves Job. In his generosity, he restores Job to vitality and blessing in his earthly life after his ordeal (v. 10-17). But more deeply, he enfolds him in his own presence. Many saints who have lived after Job have found a comfort as profound as Job’s, even in the midst of terrible suffering. For example, Samuel Rutherford wrote from prison that “all was but children’s play between Christ and me, till now. If one would have sworn unto me, I would not have believed what may be found in Christ.”1 While not sitting on an ash heap, Rutherford’s suffering in prison delivered to him a profound experience of Christ’s all-surpassing comfort and fulness.

The Scottish covenanter John Nisbett found the same fulness in prison, but in his case it was a few days before he was executed for being a Christian. His biographer writes:

A day or two before [Nisbett] died, when it came to be his turn to go about worship with the rest of his fellow-prisoners, in prayer he cried out, O for Friday! O for Friday! O Lord, give patience to wait for thy appointed time! O give strength to bear up under the glory of thy sweet, sweet, and comfortable presence! If thou, O glorious! thou the chief of ten thousands, the eternal wonder, and admiration of angels, and redeemed saints, put not more strength, this weak clay vessel will rent in pieces under the unspeakable glorious manifestation of thy rich grace, and matchless, matchless presence."2

Christ’s presence and comfort was so real to John Nisbett that he needed to ask for strength to wait until he was hanged! This is different language for the same comfort given by God in the most comfortless circumstances. It can be yours as well. In fact, your own personal ordeal may exactly be that one place where God gives himself to you in such a way that, like Rutherford, you can testify that you cannot believe how much there is to be had in him; and, like Job, say, “Now I see who you really are.”


1. Samuel Rutherford, Three Hundred and Fifty Two Religious Letters (Glasgow: Thomas Lochhead, 1818), 241.
2. W. K. Tweedie, ed., Select Biographies (Edinburgh: Wodrow Society, 1947), 389.


Support Oak Hill

If you benefitted from reading this and would like to support the work of College by giving financially, please visit our support section.

Support Oak Hill