It was my junior year of college and I was sitting in my Western Civilization Class at the University of Kansas. While I’d already taken Western Civ. at community college, the credit had only been accepted as an elective, so there I was taking Western Civ. for a second time. Admittedly the K.U. rendition was markedly better, despite being taught by a graduate student who was—let’s face it—probably the epitome of what I would have been in his place, reserved, a little disheveled, and somewhat geeky.
The primary attribute that made the K.U. class superior was the amount of time we spent reading primary sources like The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Aeneid. There was still the same anti-Christian attitude that I expected when I chose the attend the University, in this class partially manifested in the way that the course selected one of the more amenable and lucid chapters in the Koran while selecting the book of Job from the Bible for analysis.
I still remember my instructor discussing the story of Job and in essence saying, “The God in this story is no different than the gods in the Epic of Gilgamesh. He is a bully, who toys with the lives of men.” From that moment on, I found myself drawn to the story of Job, determined to understand it—to the extent that the book remains one of my favorite to this day.
What follows includes a number of my thoughts that have helped me to decipher this story and some of the lessons I have learned from it. I will acknowledge up front that I am not a Biblical scholar in the traditional sense, nor do I speak or read Hebrew. I am, however, a passionate student of history and lover of literature. Consequently, I lean hard on literary methods. The beauty of the Bible and how the Holy Spirit works is that God delights in teaching us using the tools we have.
Here’s the short version of the plot:
Job is a righteous man, fearing God and shunning evil. He is blessed with great wealth, the affluence that wealth brings (he’s the greatest man among the eastern people), and a large family with seven sons and three daughters. Job is so righteous that he offers daily sacrifices for the potential, hidden sins of his children.
In heaven, the angels appear before God, including the fallen angel Lucifer, or Satan, who has to give an account of his actions. What has he been up to?
“Roaming the earth,” Satan says.
“Have you considered my servant Job?” God asks, which starts a debate where Satan claims Job’s righteousness is the result of God’s blessing.
“Take away Job’s possessions and he will curse you,” Satan challenges.
God answers, “Very well, but don’t lay a finger on him.”
One day a messengers arrives with the news that a Sabean raiding party captured Job’s oxen and donkeys, killing the servants who were tending to them. A second messenger says fire fell from heaven consuming Job’s sheep and servants. A third a messenger bears news that a Chaldean raiding party captured the camels and killed the servants. Then a fourth messenger announces that a mighty wind collapsed the house Job’s children were feasting in, killing them.
Let me pause here. It’s easy to rush through Job’s losses, and we shouldn’t. We have to stop and dwell and ponder. Personally, I have an easier time accepting the loss of Job’s belongings and servants as part of living in an older, more violent time. However, the loss of Job’s children cuts me because I’m the parent of four little children.
It’s important not to assume that Job’s children were all adults either. The eldest had a house, yes. Still Job will later have more children, which implies his youngest children to die would have been young children, perhaps even babies. As readers, we should feel this loss above any other. It is devastating.
In response, Job tear his clothes, shaves his head, and falls to the ground in worship saying,
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.” (1:21)
The angels again appear before the Lord, Satan along with them.
“Where have you been?” God asks.
“Roaming the earth.”
“Have you considered my servant Job?” God asks. “He is still blameless and upright, though you incited me against him.”
“Take his health, and he will curse you,” Satan argues.
“Very well,” God answers, “but spare his life.”
So Satan afflicts Job with painful boils, from head to foot. Job sits in ashes and scrapes himself with pieces of broken pottery. His wife says, “Give up on your integrity. Curse God and die.”
Yet Job answers, “‘You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’” (2:10).
At this point, three of Job’s friends arrive. They sit with him in silence for a week. Then Job opens his mouth and curses the day of his birth, which starts a philosophical debate between Job and his friends that spans the next thirty-five chapters. The debate largely revolves around Job saying that he’s innocent and God has wronged him, while his friends insist that Job must have done something.
Like most debates this one gets messy. Three of Job’s friends insists that Job did something wrong, while Job staunchly defends his innocence.
Finally, the fourth and youngest friend, Elihu, speaks up. He chastises the other friends but also holds Job accountable, defending God. At the end of Elihu’s speech, God finally interjects and speaks for four chapters.
Job answers, “You’re right. I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Afterward God rebukes Jobs three friends. Then we get a couple paragraphs detailing how God blesses the later part of Job’s life more than the first. He has seven more sons and three more daughters, sees his descendants to the fourth generation, and has twice the financial assets.
One of the tough parts about understanding Job’s story is figuring out which voices to trust. We have the narrator, God, Satan, Job, Job’s wife, the three friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar,) along with a fourth friend Elihu, who is the last to speak before God interjects. I find it helpful to break these voices into four categories: Trustworthy, honest but fallible, suspect, and evil.
Category 1 includes the narrator and God.
Category 2 includes Job, who is righteous but not sinless. While a Job is a good person, many of his words well up out of deep physical and emotional pain.
Category 3 includes Jobs three friends, who are strongly rebuked by God. They speak a mixture of truth and falsehood.
Category 4 includes Satan and Job’s wife, which is perhaps unfair to Job’s wife, but her advice—“curse God and die”—much as it came from a place of immense suffering, is bad, and that is her only line.
Elihu is more difficult to categorize. The reader doesn’t know exactly where Elihu enters the story. We first encounter him in chapter thirty-two; however, he says that he’s been listening to the debate in silence because he’s younger than all the others. He isn’t identified as one of Job’s friends, but he’s present the entire time, so perhaps he’s a trusted servant.
Elihu’s speech is striking. He basically refutes all four individuals, turning their own words against them. He challenges the friends for their lack of sympathy for Job and their inability to answer Job’s questions. Yet, while Elihu expresses sympathy for Job, he also has strong words of correction for Job as he defends God (I’ll say more on Elihu’s speech later).
In many ways, Elihu’s words act as an overture for God. Perhaps more notably, God doesn’t chastise Elihu the way he chastises Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Based on all this, I would place Elihu in roughly the same category as Job.
In many ways, Job’s response to his sufferings provides a template for how the righteous should suffer.
Step one: Worship
Job’s response to the loss of his possessions and children is compelling. He tears his clothes, shaves his head, and falls to the ground in worship, saying,
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.” (1:21)
It’s an almost inhuman response, and reminds me of something I heard years before about worship, that worship takes our focus off ourselves and puts it on God. When Job’s wife counsels him to curse God and die, Job in essence reminds her that God gave them those blessings in the first place.
Step two: Recognize that what we had is on loan
While worshiping, Job verbalizes the truth that every blessing we have is from God. We should enjoy the blessing while we have it, and when we no longer do, we should be grateful that we ever had it. This includes the all the primary blessings: possessions, family, and health.
Step three: Be Honest
Job isn’t fake; rather he’s transparent in his suffering. He says good things, but he doesn’t hide his hurt behind pithy sayings. He says a number of things like this:
“…I prefer strangling and death
rather than this body of mine.
I despise my life; I would not live forever.
Will you [God] never look away from me
or let me alone for an instant?
Why have you made me your target?
Have I become a burden to you?” 7:15-20
Step four: Trust in God
In the midst of his agony and his honesty, there are a number of moments when hope in God almost slips out of Job. He says, “‘Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him,’” 13:15, and later states:
“I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!” 29:25-27
In the midst of his pain and his accusations against God, Job remembers where our ultimate rescue resides.
These four steps don’t remove suffering, but they do provide the believer with a template to emulate in the midst of suffering.
One of the first things Elihu does is relate to Job, saying,
“I am just like you before God;
I too have been taken from clay.
No fear of me should alarm you,
nor should my hand be heavy upon you.” (33:6-7)
This stands in contrast to the divisive manner in which the three friends end up treating Job. Later he adds, “‘speak up, for I want you to be cleared’” (33:32).
Elihu calls Job on his claims of being clean and guiltless, not by dragging Job down into the dirt but by expressing how much higher and more pure God is. He says that man is sinful and expresses the idea that life is unfair because we don’t get the punishment we deserve (33:27-28).
The overall theme of Elihu’s speech is that God is righteous and man is not, and he goes so far as to speak hard truth,
“Oh, that Job might be tested to the utmost
for answering like a wicked man!
To his sin he adds rebellion;
scornfully he claps his hands among us
and multiplies his words against God.” (34:36-37a)
As blunt as these words are, note Elihu’s careful words choice. He doesn’t say that Job is a wicked man, but is answering like a wicked man. It is specific wording like this that tries to correct without alienating that separates Elihu from his peers. We see something similar in 36:21 when Elihu says, “‘Beware of turning to evil, which you seem to prefer to affliction.’” Elihu allows for a differentiation between how Job’s words come across and what Job truly believes.
Ultimately though, Elihu’s speech works as an introduction to God’s speech, which works in part because Elihu has introduced the primary theme, “‘How great is God—beyond our understanding!’” (36:26). This idea takes up the last quarter of Elihu’s discourse and uses many of the same imagery that God will expand on, particularly lighting and storms. Given that God is about to speak from a storm, I imagine that this very storm was building around them as Elihu spoke, and as Elihu looked around he found himself awed by the storm, saying in essence, “God is greater than this tempest.”
I can almost hear Elihu shouting over the wind,
“Tell us what we should say to him;
we cannot draw up our case because of
Should he be told that I want to speak?” 37:19-20)
It’s almost as if God hears his cue and speaks from the storm.
God Finally Speaks
Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said:
“Who is this that darkens my counsel
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.” (38:1-3)
It’s an incredible introduction, starting perhaps the most humbling speech in the Bible. God speaks, and there is no doubt that he now has the floor. All this time, Job has been demanding an answer, yet he is quickly set back on his heels. “I am the one asking the questions,” God indicates. “‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?’” (38:4).
It’s a difficult speech to condense; I want to quote it all. It’s compelling, it’s harsh, it’s sarcastic at points, and it would be arrogant if it weren’t a simple statement of facts. It’s like God tries to give Job a rudimentary understanding of the vastness of earth’s majesty and complexity.
The notion of a human, a being with limited experience, understanding, and perspective, passing judgement on the creator of the world is ultimately ridiculous. It’d be like a single-celled organism casting judgment on a human only vastly more absurd. Humans struggle to comprehend bits and pieces of creation, but somehow we consider ourselves qualified to call God to account.
Perhaps most striking of all, God doesn’t explain his reasons for allowing Job to suffer. He doesn’t hint at his wager with Satan or a greater purpose, either for Job specifically or for humanity. It’s like a parent telling a child, “I don’t owe you an explanation.”
However, as I’ve studied God’s answer, I’m reminded that God has this unique ability to provide the exact answer that is most affective for the exact individual whom he is instructing. Some people need a meal and a good night’s rest, like Elijah after he threw his adult temper tantrum, and others need a show of cosmic force. If this all seems impersonal, consider how affective God’s instruction is Job’s reaction.
Then Job replied to the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things;
No plan of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my
counsel with knowledge?”
Surely I spoke of things I did not
Things to marvelous for me to know.
You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.” (42:1-6)
It’s a humble, timid response, and it’s markedly absent of follow-up questions.
Job does get his happy ending, or rather a return to prosperity. God rebukes Job’s three friends, who ask Job to intercede with God on their behalf. Jobs family and friends come around him, comfort him, and give him silver and gold, which he uses to rebuild his wealth. In the end, he has twice as many flocks and herds. He also has seven more sons and three more daughters, the exact number of sons and daughters that he lost. Job lives one hundred and forty more years, living to see his fourth generation descendants.
On a side note, you may be wondering why God only gave Job the exact same number of offspring in the exact same genders instead of double. I wondered this too. As I was reflecting and asking God for an answer, a thought in the stillness came back. The children Job lost were not lost forever, but only for this life. Job did have double the children, half on earth and half in heaven.
While it’s tempting to gloss over Job’s suffering in the face his later blessing, readers shouldn’t dismiss his suffering as fleeting. While one lesson to be gleaned from Job is that suffering is temporary, we should consider his pain, particularly the loss of his children. Job’s suffering wasn’t a figment of his imagination or blown out of proportion. He lost practically everything, except his wife who appears to have been subtraction by addition. Perhaps no human has ever lost more than Job. Even his road to full recovery could have taken decades or even more than a century.
I can’t speak with any claim to divine revelation on the subject, but I suspect that one reason God allowed Job to suffer is so that his life could provide a template for how the godly should suffer. In fact, this entire idea of the righteous suffering to alleviate the suffering of others points to the Bible’s great theme.
While some would say, “That isn’t fair,” that God shouldn’t allow suffering, at least for the righteous. I have to point out that the greatest unfairness recorded in human history is that another righteous man, this one sinless and named Jesus, died to pay the price for my sin. To repeat Elihu’s words, “‘I sinned, and perverted what was right, but I did not get what I deserved’” (33:27). This is the ultimate takeaway from Job; that the suffering of a righteous man brings relief.
Now there is one final aspect to how that the righteous should suffer that I didn’t mention earlier when discussing Job’s words, and I’m placing it at the end because it likewise comes at the end of suffering: After suffering has passed, the righteous person rebuilds.
After all his loss and suffering, Job’s family and friends gather around him and console him. They each give him a piece of silver and a gold ring. From that point, with God’s redoubled blessing, Job starts over. It’s a long journey, but he ends up with double the number of sheep, camels, oxen, and donkeys.
Job also started his family all over again. Of all the things Job did, this was probably the most courageous. Job lost his ten children in a moment, yet still he joined with his wife and created life again. The days and weeks and months must have lingered as God knit each child together, time pregnant both with new life and the potential for heartbreak. Yet Job persisted until he again had seven sons and three daughters.
Job rebuilt. As Proverbs 24:16 says, “though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again,” and this is the challenge for any follower of Christ who suffers. We cannot give up. We cannot lose hope or give way to futility because we understand that God may allow suffering for a time but such times are exceptions to the rule, that God is a hedge around the righteous.
As I write, the world is in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many businesses, mine largely disappeared almost overnight. Just a few days ago, I applied for partial unemployment for the first time in my life. I don’t know what life will be like when social distancing ends. I hope clients will come back, but I don’t know if I’ll have a business still at the end of this or exactly how I will feed my family. Many have it far worse.
However, as Christians we need to be ready to rebuild. We cannot let fear and frustration hamstring us. If we have to start over—in part or in total—we need to have the courage to do so. If we need to change and innovate to survive, we need to act. As the economic dust settles, we need to be in the forefront; we need to dream again and bold leading the way to recovery and new frontiers.
And for those who haven’t been devastated by the last few months, here’s my challenge: Be like Job’s friends and family. Be ready to help. Give gifts. Encourage. Support businesses. Tithe to your churches and give offerings. Donate to trustworthy charities reaching the needy. Yes, Job flourished again because God blessed him, but his recovery was hastened by his family and his friends. Be part of the recovery.