The Book of Job can change your life. Seriously. In my limited knowledge of ancient texts, I don’t think there’s anything that resembles it. It is a poem describing the breathtaking story of a man whose trust in and love for the one true God is tested to an extent that we can barely conceive today.
Job goes from hero to zero in the span of a few days. First, one after the other, he loses the sources of his wealth in a rapid staccato (Job 1:13-17). Then, before the news settle in, he loses his children (Job 1:18-19). And finally, for all his enduring faithfulness to God, he is struck with “painful boils” (Job 2:7), a horrible, painful, lesionous skin disease that forces him to live away from home, at a heap of ashes outside the city – an ancient quarantine of lepers (Job 2:8).
You’d think that’d be enough. But no: in the midst of his misery, Job’s friends arrive from abroad to offer some comfort. Well, have you ever heard the term “Job’s comforter”? This is – obviously – where it comes from. These three guys are the human equivalent of salt on an open wound. Once they see their friend, they have the decency to keep their mouths shut for a week (Job 2:13), but once Job finally breaks down and curses the day he was born (Job 3), they decide that now’s a good time to kick him while he’s down – but in a spiritual, wise-man way.
In essence, the book of Job asks the questions that are on everyone’s lips at any time: Why do bad things happen to good people? Is there any purpose in suffering? Is trouble always the result of sin?
And the answers? Well, they’re not explicit. But the dialogue between Job and his (ultimately four) friends from chapters 3 to 37, is vicious to say the least. Job despairs, and his friends’ response is, essentially, that his trials are a punishment from God on his sin. Job spends most of the book defending his innocence by claiming that he has not sinned (as opposed to that he is without sin), that God knows his heart and that he trusts God’s wisdom and sovereignty over this despairing situation. But in the same time, Job recognises that living a godly life is not always rewarded on earth, while those living in sin might temporarily prosper (Job 24:1-25).
Let’s take a moment here. There’s a bizarre notion in the world today that Christians ought to abandon their faith because their loving God cannot be reconciled to the misery and evil that exists in the world. It’s even got an official name: “The problem of evil”. And even though it is a fairly valid problem in the philosophy of religion, it is also entirely nonsensical to think that the Bible shies away from the issue. Far from avoiding it, Scripture also offers the most realistic perspectives on it.
Now think about this: If the book of Job started, say, in chapter 3, it would have to end in 37:24. Why? Because there would be no resolution of the issue. Job would maintain his innocence and say, “Well, God must have His reasons”, while his “friends” would shake their heads at his stubborn intransigence to admit his sin and eventually go back home. Questions: 1 – Answers: 0. All we would have would be a lengthy poetic book whose bottom line would be “Bad things happen and you just gotta trust God.” How edifying – not to mention comforting.
But the Bible doesn’t do half-baked cry-yarns, even when our finite little minds cannot grasp a concept. When we say that the Bible is the word of God, we mean that with it and through it, God speaks to us – and, thus, we better listen. And in the book of Job, we need to realise that we’re not sitting inside the debate. We’re not huddling around the lepers’ ash-heap, listening to wise men of the ancient Near East argue about God’s character and wisdom. No – in the book of Job, we are given the perspective of God. We’re not searching with Job for the cause of his troubles. We’re not puzzled over whether or not he really is being punished for some unacknowledged sin or if it was simply his turn to enter the eye of the storm. We’re not left wondering about karma or about the chaotic nature of the Universe. No – we know what’s happening and – more importantly – why.
The book starts off with a heavenly council – something like a divine conference – and we get a “behind the scenes” glimpse of Job’s upcoming suffering: Satan himself asks God’s permission to hurt him. His purpose? To prove to God – omniscient God – that Job’s righteousness is shallow. “He only loves you because you bless him with wealth, family, health; let me take away the goodies, and he’ll rebel against you before you can say ‘boils’.”
Interesting here that God doesn’t dismiss Satan’s proposal, even though He knows the outcome, He is sovereign, He is God. Why does He need to put poor Job through the paces? Why does He require proof of Job’s faith? Answer: He doesn’t. Not only does God know the extent and the quality of Job’s faith, but He is also the author of that faith (cf. Rom. 12:3; Heb. 12:2). Also, notice that neither Job nor his friends ever find out the reason for the trial, even in the end, when everything is restored to Job in greater abundance (Job 42:12-16). So why then?
Because we can’t see things the way God does. Because, in the end, He is God and we are not. And Job, for all his despair, understands as much (cf. Job 36:26; 37:5).
And though it seems like an obvious point, we need that reminder. We need to remember that, on this side of eternity, we can only see things dimly (1 Cor. 13:12), and that sadly means that we just can’t have all the answers – not because they are deliberately withheld from us, but because we can’t.
Now, that can be a terrifying thought: If my life is in God’s hands to do as He pleases with it, if I can lose everything in the blink of an eye, then that turns life into the most frightening gamble ever. I can hope for nothing; I can only fear because, after all, who am I to withstand what God throws at me?
Well, here’s the thing: I would be right to think like that unless God let me know something about who He is and what He does. For example, if God revealed that He never breaks His promises (Josh. 23:14; 1 Kings 8:56; 2 Tim. 2:13 ; Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Mal 3:6; Rom 11:29; Titus 1:2; Heb 6:18; James 1:17) and then promised that, even though I cannot understand the cause and purpose of everything that happens in my life, in the end all the orchestrations of my earthly sojourn would work together to my eternal benefit (Rom. 8:28; 2 Cor. 4:17), well, that would certainly remove the horror of a whimsical, unknowable god who played dice with my life.
And that is the point of Job’s story. It’s not to reveal to us the threads that connect all the pieces of our lives. It’s not to give us bite-sized answers to the problem of human suffering, even though the Scripture teaches that at least some suffering is judgment on sin (e.g. Acts 12:20-23). The point of Job’s story is to tell us that, yes, if we belong to God, we are not exempt from suffering (John 16:33; Acts 14:22) but in the same time we have no reason to despair and every reason to put our hope in our sovereign God. As Job famously put it: Though he slay me, I will hope in him (Job 13:15a).
I emphasised a point in the above paragraph, and I would be amiss to not say something about it. These principles, these promises, only apply to those who belong to God. They are not extended to everyone, because not everyone partakes of God’s promises to His children. That is why in the New Testament, these promises come with explicit qualifications – see for example how Paul speaks of God’s promises in Christ:
As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory – 2 Cor. 1:18-21
In other words, God does not promise that “all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28) for everyone, regardless of their stance before God. His promises of “good” are only to those who “love God” – and no-one can genuinely love God outside of Christ:
We love Him because He first loved us. – 1 John 4:19
And how did He first love us?
…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us – Rom. 5:8
So, back to Job before we close. As we said above, if we had only his perspective, the book could finish with chapter 37, because that is the inevitable impasse that human understanding reaches when faced with the problem of pain.
And that is exactly the point where God intervenes: when human reason has gone dry and is now running in circles. And as we saw above, He does not explain things to Job, but instead calls Job to a correct, more clear understanding of His own person. Notice this: God doesn’t start a philosophical discourse with Job. He doesn’t debate Job’s friends. He doesn’t offer a psychological, Job-centred analysis to boost Job’s self-esteem. No. Instead, He turns the tables on Job’s incessant and demanding questioning by interrogating him with questions that, frankly, none of us would want to have to answer. And the point of God’s questions? To demonstrate His sovereignty, omniscience and omnipotence, as well as Job’s lack thereof. In other words, God wants Job to understand that He is God, and that that is the key to having a true perspective on his suffering.
The result? Job repents of thinking that he could demand explanations from God as if they were equals. His friends repent of their lack of spiritual discernment and for making narrow-viewed proclamations on God’s character. And in all this, Job gives those words that we should all take to heart because they encompass the true fruit of suffering under the sovereign hand of a loving, omniscient, omnipotent God who works all things for the good for those who are His (Job 42:5):
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear” Job admits. No shortage of information on God, no shortage of theological discourse.
And then comes the ultimate purpose of his and everyone’s suffering:
…but now my eye sees you.