The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God
Publisher: Crossway Books
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
John Piper is known mainly as a pastor-teacher, while theologian runs a close second. He is a devoted husband and father, and is committed to noble causes such as urban ministry, church planting, and prolife. But his mantle of poet is relatively unknown outside of Piper aficionados and members of Bethlehem Baptist Church, where Piper has pastored since 1980. Bethlehem members have been beneficiaries of the best part of one hundred poems over the years, ranging from short lyrics to epic narratives. The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God, known to Bethlehemites since 1994 as simply “Job” parts one through four, was published in 2001. To date, three of Piper’s longer poems have been published by Crossway: “The Innkeeper,” “The Prodigal Daughter,” and “Job.” Of these three, only “Job” has been renamed for publication.
Some reviews on Amazon have taken the book to task for not being a doctrinal work. But these reviewers are wrong; it is doctrinal. The difference is in the style of delivery. In an age that has largely lost the art of reading poetry, as well as the patience to accomplish it, ingesting a piece of art like this can be arduous work. I listened to the four parts chronologically, but independent of each other, I admit. This was as much for a breather in between each part (much like Piper’s congregation would have had between installments) as it was to collect my thoughts for this review. But the striking photography from award-winner Ric Ergenbright makes the task much easier, as does the option of listening to Piper read the poem on an accompanying CD. Incidentally, the book can be read and heard online at the Desiring God website, but the full effect of Ergenbright’s photography doesn’t come to bear online as it does in print.
The meter in which Piper wrote this poem is iambic tetrameter, the stress falling on every second syllable in lines of eight syllables. His stanzas are as long or as short as they need to depending on natural breaks in the action. Without spoiling the content for those who would like to read the poem, I would warn even those who are familiar with the events of Job’s 42 chapters that Piper’s poem takes a different narrative route – mostly chronological, but not entirely – to its conclusion. The climax therefore occurs in a different place than one might expect. The reader should also expect the inevitable poetic license that transpires in a retelling of a Scriptural event. Enjoying the poetry is the order of the day, rather than feeling tempted to write to Piper concerning addition to the closed canon of Scripture, per Revelation 22. Some turns of phrase, such as “angel-riven heav’n”, are breathtaking. And Piper is clearly undercutting Bildad’s facile, altruistic wisdom by rendering his speech in childish rhyme, whereas the rest of the poem employs the sophisticated poetic technique of enjambment (extending the sentence beyond the limitation of the line). It’s also worth mentioning that Piper limits himself to the human portion of the Job account rather than attempting the Miltonian task of narrating the supernatural as well. At times Job’s thoughts and words hint at a cosmic battle out of sight of the human players, but the action of Piper’s poem remains squarely on terra firma in the land of Uz.
One of the standout couplets of the poem, in which Job is speaking to one of his daughters, acts as a doctrinal summation of the entire narrative: “Beware, Jemimah, God is kind / In ways that will not fit your mind.” Here Piper articulates simply and clearly the difficult doctrines that he so often addresses in his teaching ministry: that God sends both the good and the evil for the benefit of those who believe in Him, that we may trust in Him more and rejoice in both the triumphs and the trials. More than simply a retelling of the story of Job, this piece of art impresses the wideness of God’s mercy and the extent of God’s sovereignty on the twenty-first century psyche.