The book of Job is a book most Christians think they understand, at least generally. It is also a book most Christians have never studied carefully and have only a superficial acquaintance with. We know the outline of the plot well enough, but the details not so well. In fact, so little do we know the details that it is comparatively easy to come up with questions that few, even comparatively well-read Christians, would know the answer to. For example:
- The book begins with prose and ends with prose, but the entire middle of the book, by far the largest part of it, is poetry. Why?
- The book seems to be about a real person and real events – after all Job is mentioned as a historical individual in Ezekiel 14:14, 20 along with Noah and Daniel – but real people do not speak poetry off the cuff. Obviously the narrative of Job’s conversations with his three friends has been created to make it a piece of literature. How does this fact affect the historical character of the book?
- Satan is mentioned in the prologue of the book but never again. Why? It would seem, wouldn’t you think, a still more satisfying conclusion if Satan were put in his place at the end; if there were one last conversation between the Devil and the Lord in which God said “I told you so”; but there is no such conversation.
- Three times the three friends each speak in turn and to each Job makes a reply. We would expect, therefore, nine such speeches, three from each of Job’s friends and Job’s reply to each, but there are only eight, because while Eliphaz and Bildad each speak three times, Zophar, for some reason speaks only twice. Is there some reason for the break in that pattern in a book that in other respects has so obviously been carefully put together and organized according to a plan?
- Chapter 28 – the famous chapter on wisdom – stands apart. Unlike the rest of the book it has many similarities to passages in Proverbs. Why is that chapter in Job and why is it put where it is, between the speeches of Job’s friends and Job’s replies in chapters 3 through 27 and one long last defense on Job’s part in chapters 29-31? Most Bible translations assume that chapter 28 is a continuation of Job’s remarks, though there are others who think differently, but the chapter is quite different from what comes before it and after it. What is chapter 28 doing in the book of Job?
- What do Elihu’s two speeches in chapters 32-37 contribute to the argument of the book? Most scholars aren’t sure Elihu has anything new to offer, that he merely repeats the tired line of the three friends. Others, a distinct minority, think Elihu charts new ground, but Job does not reply to him and when the Lord finally speaks he mentions the three friends but says nothing about Elihu. So what does Elihu contribute to the book’s message?
- Given the fact that the Lord rebukes Job for some of the things he said, and the fact that Job himself admits at the end that he thought and said some things he should not have and, in fact, repents in dust and ashes, why does the Lord seem to exonerate Job and condemn only his three friends?
- Job claims throughout to be a righteous man and even defends his righteousness against the arguments of his friends. Here is Job: “I hold fast my righteousness and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.” Can we say this? Are we supposed to say this? Was Job? And if so, how so and why?
There are many other such questions that many readers of Job rarely stop to consider. But the book deserves more than a cursory read. It is a profound piece of theological/spiritual literature that takes up a perennial problem in Christian thought. It deserves very careful attention.
It is, by all accounts, a remarkable, powerful, and beautiful literary work. Luther described Job as “…magnificent and sublime as no other book of Scripture.” And Alfred Lord Tennyson described it as “…the greatest poem of ancient or modern times.” The same cannot be said of all the commentaries that have been written on Job through the ages! John Wesley invested a good bit of time and energy in completing the commentary on Job that his father Samuel had spent the last ten years of his life in writing. John, the dutiful son, officially presented the volume when finally printed to the Queen and she said that “it was very prettily bound” and set it aside unopened. Bishop Warburton, however, actually read the book and likened the elder Wesley’s commentary to Job having his brains sucked out by owls! [Tomkins, 42] I’ll do my best to let the book speak for itself!
Though scholars have tried hard to find an ancient parallel to the book of Job — something in ANE literature that was like it, was built upon a similar plan, dealt with a similar problem, and so on — there is really nothing at all like it in ancient literature. [Anderson, TOTC, 24-32] Here is the conclusion of one OT scholar, a man well-known for his familiarity with ancient Near Eastern texts.
“Job stands far above its nearest competitors, in the coherence of its sustained treatment of the theme of human misery, in the scope of its many-sided examination of the problem, in the strength and clarity of its defiant moral monotheism, in the characterization of the protagonists, in the heights of its lyrical poetry, in its dramatic impact, and in the intellectual integrity with which it faces the ‘unintelligible burden’ of human existence. In all this Job stands alone. Nothing we know before it provided a model, and nothing since, including its numerous imitations, has risen to the same heights. Comparison only serves to enhance the solitary greatness of the book of Job.” 
I hope you appreciate the burden of that statement. Job is one of the most magnificent pieces of human literature ever written and it stands virtually alone in all the literature of the ancient world. That is true in a way of many books of the Bible, but it is certainly true of Job. The Bible is a more extraordinary book than we sometimes realize. It stands far above all other ancient texts and one has only to read it and them to realize that.
But that makes only the more remarkable that we don’t have any idea who the poet was. One commentator describes Job as the work of a genius: “a Homer (for epic quality), a Shakespeare (for human and dramatic interest), a Pushkin (for mastery of a variety of moods), above all a Milton (for the majesty of his treatment of the highest of all themes – the ways of God with men).” [Anderson, 38] Be that as it may, this genius did his work anonymously. Someone with the extraordinary gifts this writer had usually will be known to us by name. We know that Homer wrote his two great epic poems. We know that Vergil wrote the Aeneid. But we don’t know who wrote Job.
So, what is Job? It is a book of wisdom; that seems clear and not only because of chapter 28. Clearly Job is a righteous man; the Lord himself says so both at the beginning and the end of the book. James, in his New Testament letter, recommends Job to us as an exemplar of patience or perseverance (5:11). So, obviously we are to learn from Job what righteous men think and do and say. It is a book about life and about suffering, of which there is a great deal in anyone’s life in this sin-sick world. But Job also repents in dust and ashes at the end of the book for some of the things he thought and said. It is a book that teaches us wisdom, as does Proverbs, both positively and negatively. We are shown what not to do and what to do. But certainly in the case of Job, all is not quite as simple as we find wisdom to be in Proverbs.
So, let’s look at the book as a whole. One needs some grasp of the overall plan to appreciate how the parts contribute to the whole. The first two chapters are in prose. We meet the protagonists right away: Job himself and his three friends (though not Elihu), Job’s wife, though we never hear of her again after chapter 2, Satan, of whom we also hear nothing more, and God. We are introduced to Job, a righteous man whom the Lord had greatly blessed, a man of the east, though no one knows precisely where or when he lived. We all know how the story begins. Satan came on one occasion into the presence of the Lord – a statement that in itself is highly intriguing, but no further explanation is offered – and the Lord, in conversation with the Devil, brought up Job. Satan, taking up the hint, suggested that Job served the Lord so faithfully only because the Lord had made his life so happy and peaceful. So the Lord offered Satan the opportunity to put Job’s righteousness to the test, to take everything from Job that ostensibly accounted for his godliness, though forbade him to harm Job himself.
One disaster after another then followed: his property, his servants, even his children were stolen or killed, one tragedy hard after the other. But Job, proving Satan wrong, fell on his face and worshipped the Lord, saying:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” [1:21]
In responding to those catastrophes, the narrator tells us outright, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” But, once again, Satan happened to appear before the Lord and again the Lord reminded Satan of Job and his faithfulness. It is as if the Lord were goading Satan into attacking Job. There is no one like him, says the Lord, as if defying Satan to prove him wrong.
“He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” [2:3]
Now that is an intriguing comment: Satan incited the Lord to destroy Job without reason. This is not the only place in the Bible where the Lord is said to have done what elsewhere Satan is said to have done! Satan, however, had an explanation for Job’s integrity. It was because Job himself was still healthy and physically comfortable. Take that away, says Satan to the Lord, and Job will curse you to your face. And, almost unbelievably, the Lord says to Satan,
“Behold, his is in your hand; only spare his life.” [2:6]
So Satan afflicted Job with sores from the sole of his feet to the crown of his head. The man was in constant pain. His only solace was the small measure of relief he could find in scraping himself with broken shards of pottery while he sat in the ashes, probably the rubbish dump outside of his town. This could have been because his skin disease made him unclean and he needed to remain apart from others – though, if that is so his friends could not have touched him and may not have wanted to sit near enough to console him – or it could have been one of those Near Eastern outward manifestations of mourning. It was Job’s way of accepting his new status as a man who had become an object of cursing not blessing.
Three loyal friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, came to comfort Job and not only wept with him but sat next to him in silence for seven days and nights in sympathy with their friend in his suffering. As has been observed:
“Job is a book where silent men accomplish more than speaking men.” [NBC, 422]
Then Job opened his mouth and began to speak. There follows from 3:1 to 27:23 a cycle of speeches, after Job’s first speech Job’s friends in turn and Job replying to each in turn. The only speech missing is Zophar’s third speech, which may be missing simply to indicate that Job’s friends had run out of words; they had nothing more to say. They hadn’t been able to convince Job of their point of view and there was no point in beating a dead horse.
Now, since that is the largest section of the book and can be quite daunting, ancient Near Eastern poetry as it is, it is helpful to realize that while each speech is making its own contribution to the whole and building the tension as one follows the other, the viewpoint of the three friends on the one side and Job on the other does not materially change throughout the section. Both sides hammer away at the other making the same points again and again and again.
Let me give you a sense of this. The three friends drew the conclusion from Job’s terrible suffering that he must have offended God in some way; he must have sinned against God in some particularly egregious way and was being punished for his sin. Let’s follow the thread:
- Eliphaz (4:7-8): “Who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?
“…those who sow trouble reap it.”
- Job replies (6:10, 24): If God were simply to kill me, “This would be my comfort; I would even exult in pain… for I have not denied the words of the Holy One.” “Teach me, and I will be silent; make me understand how I have gone astray.”
- Bildad (8:6, 20): “If you are pure and upright, surely then [God] will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation.” “Behold, God will not reject a blameless man…” Indeed, Bildad has an explanation for the death of Job’s children as well. “If your children have sinned against him, he has delivered them into the hand of their transgression.” [8:4]
- Job (10:2, 7): “I will say to God, Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me.” “…you know that I am not guilty.”
- Zophar (11:4, 6, 14): “For you say, ‘My doctrine is pure, and I am clean in God’s eyes.” “Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” “If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away…surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure and will not fear.”
- Job (12:2; 13:4, 23): “No doubt you are the people and wisdom will die with you. But I have understanding as well as you…” “As for you, you whitewash with lies; worthless physicians are you all.” “How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin.”
- Eliphaz (15:14, 20): “What is man, that he can be pure? Or he who is born of a woman that he can be righteous?” “The wicked man writhes in pain all his days…” (which, of course, Job was doing).
- Job (16:16-17): “My face is red with weeping, and on my eyelids is deep darkness, although there is no violence in my hands and my prayer is pure.”
- Bildad (18:5): “The lamp of the wicked is snuffed out…”
- Job (19:3, 7): “These ten times you have cast reproach upon me; are you not ashamed to wrong me?” “I call for help but there is no justice.”
- Zophar (20:1-5, 28-29): “my thoughts answer me…. I hear censure that insults me… Do you not know this from of old, since man was placed on earth, that the exulting of the wicked is short and the joy of the godless but for a moment?” “The possessions of his house will be carried away, dragged off in the day of God’s wrath.” (That, of course, had happened to Job.) “This is the wicked man’s portion from God…”
- Job (21:34): After pointing out the obvious fact that the wicked often prosper in this world, he concludes, “How then will you comfort me with empty nothings. There is nothing of your answers but falsehoods.”
- Eliphaz (22:5): “Is not your evil abundant? There is no end to your iniquities.” “Therefore snares are all around you, and sudden terror overwhelms you….” “Agree with God, and be at peace; thereby good will come to you.”
- Job (23:3-7, 11-12): “If only I knew where to find him; that I might come even to his seat! I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. There an upright man could argue with him, and I would be acquitted forever by my judge.” “My foot has held fast to his steps; I have kept his way and have not turned aside. I have not departed from the commandments of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my portion of food.”
- Bildad (25:4): “How then can man be in the right before God?”
- Job (26): “As God lives, who has taken away my right, and the Almighty who had made my soul bitter, as long as my breath is in me…my lips will not speak falsehood…. I hold fast my righteousness and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.”
I could have multiplied many more statements to the same effect. But first grasp this basic fact about the Book of Job. It makes the book much less daunting and easier to understand. The long central section of Job is repetitive. While each speech of each man is interesting for its detail, the same broad points are made over and over again. You don’t have to follow a thread of argument here, as if the argument of one speech is built upon the one before it. On the contrary, each speaker is finding new ways to say the same thing.
The friends are sure that Job’s misfortune is the result of his sin and Job is sure that it is not. Obviously by the book’s end we know that Job was right and his friends were wrong. So much is this the case that at the end of the book we read that God was angry with the three men because “they [had] not spoken of me what was right, as my servant Job [has].” [42:7] And he required the three men to go to Job, apologize for their bad advice, offer a burnt offering for themselves of seven bulls and seven rams, and have Job pray for their forgiveness. To their credit that is what the three men did.
In other words, we know that a great deal of the book trades in false thinking. Job’s friends are quoted at length, but we are told later to ignore what they had to say because theirs was a faulty theology (“they did not speak of me what is right”!). As one commentator sums up the counsel of the three friends,
“…the basic error of Job’s friends is that they overestimate their grasp of truth, misapply the truth they know, and close their minds to any facts that contradict what they assume. … The book shows…how small a part of any situation is the fragment we see.” [Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes (1985), 61]
Now, before you nod your heads in knowing agreement, remember that the Bible often talks about misfortunes in the world as the punishment of sin, even as the punishment of the sins of believers. Think of Eli losing his family because of his bad parenting, or David having to watch the disintegration of his family because of his sins, or the Lord’s remark to the man he had healed beside the pool of Bethesda: “Stop sinning or something worse will happen to you.” [John 5:14] Then, of course, think of the horrific punishments that befell Israel, again and again throughout her history, because of her infidelity to the Lord and her flagrant disobedience to the Law of Moses. So the picture is more complicated than you might at first imagine. I have heard people refer to the teaching of Job as if it proved that our misfortunes are never the consequence of our sins. Tell that to the man who lost his marriage because of his infidelity or lost his children because of his parental indifference during the years of their upbringing! Sin pays a wage and often already in this world.
But, in Job’s case, his suffering had nothing to do with the sins he had committed. Indeed, he suffered precisely because he was such a righteous and upright man. His goodness made him a target! According to the Bible, people suffer, and God’s people suffer for a host of different reasons. They suffer, as we said,
- As punishment for their sins; but also
- Sometimes for the sins of others;
- For the perfecting of their character and to strengthen their faith;
- For the revelation of some dimension of God’s character and ways;
- For loyalty to Jesus Christ or to share in his sufferings;
- To learn what they do not yet know;
- To test their faith;
- To produce a greater joy;
- They even suffer as a sign of God’s favor.
I could read out the texts, many of them, which make all of those points and others. The Bible has a complex and sophisticated theology of suffering. We’ll have more to say about this as we proceed in our examination of the book.
But what is clear is that Job was righteous and was not being punished for his sins even though he was made to suffer greatly. That possibility must be reckoned with in all our thinking about suffering and it was the failure of Job’s friends to reckon with it that was their great mistake. What is more, they failed to reckon with the profound mystery of God’s ways. Like so many believers after them they thought the world was simpler than it is and human life more easily explained.
What is more, Job reminds us – as do other passages of Scripture – that what happens in this world is often the result of events in the unseen world of spirits. Job may never have learned that Satan lay behind his troubles, but we do. When Paul says in Ephesians 3:10 that things happen in this world
“…so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places…”
we are made aware of something we often forget: our lives matter for more than simply our own personal fulfillment, happiness, and Christian service in the world. They are also a stage upon which the great drama of God’s contest with the evil powers is being performed. Others are involved in the sorrows of human life and the revelation of God to others is also at stake in what happens in our experience. Satan may not have cared that Job withstood his temptations to curse God, but God cared and the angels cared and a great many saints have cared in the ages since! Only eternity will tell us how much of our suffering, indeed how much of all suffering was born in this death-struggle between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the Evil One. But the fact that some of our trials at least are born in the throes of that battle in the unseen world ought both to solemnize us and cheer us. Something very great is going on around us and we are allowed to be part of that great victory being won over evil by the Lord our God. Even our small lives are part of that great story. It adds great dignity to our personal stories and great importance to our daily faithfulness to God: others are watching; others taking note; others being influenced for good or ill. That certainly is one of the great lessons of Job and that perspective is part of the wisdom, the art of living, which Job is in the Bible to teach us.