Lecture 01: Approaching the Book of Job
Course: The Book of Job
Lecture: Approaching the Book of Job
I. Basic Story
A. Why is there evil and injustice in the world?
In the philosophy of religion, one of the most abiding questions is the problem of evil. Why is there evil? Why is there injustice in the world? Skeptics will typically say something like, the fact that there is so much injustice, evil, oppression, suffering, poverty and disease in the world is proof either that God does not exist or that God does not care about evil, or that God is not strong enough to do anything about evil.
The book of Job is the Old Testament answer to this question. In the book of Job we encounter a man named Job who is righteous and just, but suffers terribly. And out of his suffering comes the answer that the Old Testament will provide to the problem of evil. But as we will see, it is an answer that leads right into the New Testament and what the New Testament teaches about Christ, the Wisdom of God.
B. Satan confronts God and God responds.
Let’s begin by thinking about what Job actually is all about. The book of Job begins in heaven where Satan confronts God. Satan says to God, “You’ve got this man Job, but the only reason he serves you is, you have put a wall all around him. Nothing ever touches him. He is rich, he has kids, they are healthy, everything is good. Job only serves you because it is the safe thing to do and he knows you make him rich.”
God allows Satan to take away all of Job’s possessions, all of his wealth, and his children are all suddenly killed. Job does not turn away from God. He does not curse God, but famously says that “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” Satan then comes back and says, “Well, it’s only because you have preserved his health that he continues to serve you. A man doesn’t care about anything as much as he cares about his body and his health and freedom from physical pain. So, if you will take that away from him, he will most certainly curse you.” So God allows Satan to afflict Job with all kinds of suffering, all kinds of pain. His body is covered with sores and boils and he is in agony. Even his wife encourages him to curse God and die. But he does not do it.
C. Three friends confront Job
Then three friends come to comfort Job: Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. They come from far away and they see Job and they are so thunderstruck by his suffering that they just sit in front of him and mourn. Finally, Job speaks up and Job gives full voice to his grief and his pain and his agony. He does not curse God, but he does declare that what has happened to him is unthinkable and he curses the day of his birth, which we will explore. He says things that are very troubling to the friends and they become traumatized and they take Job on.
We have a long debate, a long discussion between Job and the three friends, in which there is a simple point being made. The three friends are saying, “Job, the reason you are suffering is God is punishing you. That is the actual reason for suffering in the world. People do evil and God punishes them. They need to repent. Job, you must repent.”
The problem is, Job does not have anything to repent of. He is a righteous man. The suffering that has come upon him is not because of any sin; and Job in his integrity, will not pretend to repent for sins that he did not commit. Therefore, the friends and Job are at an impasse and their discussion becomes more and more heated and more and more sarcastic as they throw barbs at each other and try to figure out what is going on. Finally, their debate just comes to a screeching halt. There is nothing more for the three friends to say and that is the end of that.
D. Elihu confronts Job and Job does not respond
We then have another person come in who before we had never encountered. We don’t know anything about him up to this point. His name is Elihu. Elihu
comes in and he wants to straighten the situation out. He is very sure of himself. He is confident that he has all the answers. He is angry at Job because Job won’t confess to some sin, and he is angry at the three friends because they have not sufficiently answered Job or debated him well enough.
So Elihu says he is going to answer all their questions and he gives a very lengthy speech that basically lines up where the three friends were, still telling Job that he needs to repent and still telling Job that this is the reason for all his troubles. Then Elihu kind of just disappears from the book, he is not mentioned again.
E. God addresses Job and Job responds
Then suddenly God shows up and God directly addresses Job. We are going to look at the speech of God in great detail, but it is not what most people expect. Most people expect some kind of really profound theological explanation of the problem of evil and something that will answer all the questions. Instead, it almost sounds like God is berating Job for being a mortal. He says to Job, “Where were you when I created the sun and the moon and the stars? Where were you when I made the earth? Are you able to control all the animals in the world? Can you control the storms? Can you control the wild beasts? Do you take care of them?” Of course, Job has to say, No, no, I can’t do any of that.
But then by the end of the speech, Job is totally convinced. Job is absolutely clear in his mind what is the answer to the problem of evil. He turns away from all his former protests and God turns around and tells the three friends, “You have spoken wrongly all the way through.” So God does not endorse the three friends at all. In fact, Job has to pray for the three friends so that God doesn’t destroy them. Job does that. The three friends manage to survive their encounter with Job and then God restores all of Job’s fortune, and that is the end of the story.
Readers will look at this and say, What? What was this all about? How did this solve the problem of evil? How did this answer Job’s questions? That is what we are going to look at today in our study. We are going to work our way through the book of Job until we have found, I believe, what the book of Job is really saying and how it answers the problem of evil.
II. Central Problem of the Book of Job
A. It does not address the problem of why the righteous suffer
Let’s consider, what is the central problem of the Book of Job? It is often said to be the question of, why do the righteous suffer? But in fact, it never really
answers or even addresses that problem. It concerns again, the problem of evil in the world, but it doesn’t say, “Well, here is why bad things happen to good people.” That is not what the book of Job is trying to answer. That is why people will often read Job, looking for an answer: Why do I suffer? Why have bad things happened to me? They come away frustrated because Job does not really answer that question. That is not the question the book addresses.
If you are interested in that question, C. S. Lewis wrote a wonderful little book called, “The Problem of Pain.” He gets into all the kinds of issues that explain the existence of pain and suffering in the human race. There is the fact that there is evil in the world, people do evil to one another; people do evil to themselves and when they do that, there is suffering. There is the fact of Satan. Satan, of course, is mentioned in The book of Job and Satan and demonic influence would be another reason people suffer. There are other reasons, though, that it is just part of the natural world, so to speak, the laws of physics. If a great, big, heavy rock falls on you, it will hurt. There are also reasons such as the fact that pain is a signal that something is wrong, a signal for you to do something to fix the situation. So, if you put your hand on a hot stove, you immediately snatch it away. Why? Because it hurts and the pain there is to warn you, you are going to damage yourself badly if you leave your hand on the stove.
That is all really good to know and C. S. Lewis’ book is a great book. But you won’t find any of that in the book of Job. The book of Job does not answer those questions in the way that C. S. Lewis has done.
The prologue of the book does not really explain the problem of suffering. The prologue is the opening chapter where Satan goes to God and Satan says, “Well, this righteous man, Job, you know he is only behaving the way he is because you have put a hedge around him and he is protected from all kinds of suffering.” Why does that not answer the problem of suffering? Because the case of Job is unique. Job is specifically declared to be righteous in the eyes of God. None of the suffering that came upon him was because he had sinned. It was really because God is making a point, demonstrating something to Satan. So we can’t really say that that applies to humanity generally or even to all of us all of the time. At best, it is a very partial answer, but it is not really the thing that the book of Job is concerned with.
When you go through the Book of Job and you get to the very ending of the book where we are to understand the solution has been given, Satan and his original challenge to God are never mentioned. It ceases to be an issue as far as the book is concerned. There are passages in The Bible that discuss suffering from what we might call a “ministerial point of view.” That is to say, encouraging people in the face of all of this suffering. For example, we have Psalm 4. Here is what Psalm 4 says: “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness. You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer. O men, how long should my honor be turned to shame? How long will you love vain words and go after lies? But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him. Be angry, but do not sin. Ponder in your own heart on your bed and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and put your trust in the Lord. There are many who say, ‘Who will show us some good?’ Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord. You have put more joy in my heart than when their grain and wine abound. In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”
That is a beautiful psalm. It is a psalm that comes from the suffering of the psalmist and he voices his complaint, but he also voices his trust in God and his
reassurance that one way or another, sooner or later, God will address his suffering and bring deliverance to him.
By contrast, we have a very different situation in Job, where it is not just the fact that there is suffering. It is the fact that we have a philosophical problem set up; and the philosophical problem is that Job is a righteous man who has been given terrible affliction. What does that say about the justice of God? That is what the book of Job is trying to answer. What I am saying to you is, if you want to read a passage in the Bible that will speak to your heart and encourage you when you are in pain - maybe you are dealing with disease or a loved one has died or is suffering, or you are facing some kind of terrible adversity - that is what the Psalms are there for. The Psalms are very general, they are nonspecific. When you read the Psalms, you really don’t have any idea what is actually wrong with the psalmist. You don’t know what kind of suffering he is facing. The reason they are that way is because that allows you to plug whatever your suffering is into the psalm. You may be suffering something that was very different from what David suffered; but by reading the psalm, you can plug your suffering into his prayer and the psalm will address your need, your sorrow.
With the book of Job, by contrast, you know everything that has happened to Job. It is very specific to a single individual and it is a highly unusual case because behind it all is this challenge between God and Satan. Again, the book of Job is not there to explain suffering or to comfort you in your suffering. The book is there to address the problem of evil.
B. For Job’s friends, the answer to the problem of evil is the doctrine of retribution
What is the answer to the problem of evil? For the three friends, the answer is simple and straightforward, it is the doctrine of retribution. God punishes the wicked. God rewards the righteous. That is all there is to it. End of story. If a person is suffering, it is because he has sinned and God is punishing him. If a person is prospering, it is because he is righteous. Or if he is wicked and prospering, he will only prosper for a very little while and then God will bring
everything tumbling down and his wife will be a wreck and that is that. That is the answer to suffering.
We already know from the beginning of the book that that is not the case with Job. He was not suffering because of some evil he did. He was suffering, he was righteous. The whole book will work through and explain why God appears to be unjust when in fact, God is managing the world the way he needs to manage the world. In fact, there is a righteous solution to all of the suffering; but we have to work through the book in order to get there.
C. Satan’s challenge is that people only serve God out of self-interest
We should understand one other thing the book addresses along the way as it considers the problem of suffering. That is, Satan’s challenge. Satan’s challenge is that you only protect people if they serve you. If they cease to serve you, you will destroy them. Therefore, they only serve you out of self-interest. Is that correct? Certainly, there is an element of self-interest in serving God; but there is more to it than that. The book will explore all of that as well.
In summary, what is the central issue of The Book of Job? It is not, Why do we suffer? It is not, Is Job good or evil? We know from the beginning, Job is good. It is not, should deity be disinterested? That is Satan’s challenge and the book will answer that to some degree, but that is not the main issue. The righteousness of God, the justice of God in the face of pervasive evil, is the main issue of the book of Job and that is what the book will explore.
III. Essentials for a valid interpretation of Job
As we get into this, there are certain essentials for a valid interpretation of Job, things we have to keep in mind.
A. Job is declared to be righteous
First, Job is declared to be absolutely righteous. There is a common misinterpretation of the book of Job that I have read from evangelical authors and heard from evangelical professors, but I will give you my strong conviction. It is wrong and it actually goes back to essentially the point of the three friends. It is that in some measure or other, Job had to be punished because there may have been some sin deep in his life, or at least the potential for sin; that Job had to suffer because God was preventing him maybe from going off into some sin that otherwise he would have. The book makes it clear, that is not the issue. So if you are going to read the book of Job, if you are going to come to an understanding of it, you must accept this reality, Job is righteous! You cannot and will not ever understand Job unless you accept that premise.
B. Satan’s challenge to God is not the solution
Secondly, Satan’s challenge to God is not the solution, even though the three friends will ultimately embrace it. Again, many people will take the book of Job and will read through it and will come to the conclusion that somehow, somewhere, Job deserved what happened to him; or at least, again as a
preventative thing. That solution is not correct.
C. The three friends voice orthodoxy but in this debate they are wrong
Third, the three friends voice orthodoxy, but in this debate they are wrong. One of the most troubling things about Job is that so much of what the three friends say is correct. It is good. Much of it is righteous. Much of it is wise. We will have to kind of distinguish what they say that is orthodox and good and right, from what they say that is off-base. We will also have to understand that even when they speak the truth, even when they say things that are right, in that context, they are wrong because they keep trying to say Job is a sinner.
D. To understand the arguments, you must look for veiled connection within the book of Job.
To understand the arguments and the debate, the reader must look for veiled connections within Job. We are going to be doing this a whole lot. We will find things in Job, especially in the debates among the three friends, that just seem strange. They seem off-topic. We will just ask ourselves, Why would you say that? Often, what they are doing is, they are making veiled references to things that have been said already. The speeches of Job and his friends require pretty close reading, to figure out what they are really doing, what the whole thing is all about.
E. The reader must be prepared to face hard facts
Fifth, the reader must be prepared to face hard facts. Much of Job is painful to read. Job will wax eloquent about the suffering in the world, about people who are poor, who didn’t do anything specifically wrong, who are not specifically bad people and their lives are miserable, are horrible. Job will talk about people who prosper and who do well and live long lives and have many children, and they don’t see any trouble in their days and they are evil to the core. Job is challenging his three friends.
The point here is, what Job is saying ultimately is correct. There is great evil in the world, there is terrible injustice; and Job, unlike the three, is willing to confront all of that evil and all of that suffering.
IV. Three Levels of Wisdom
There is one other thing I want to briefly talk about, to finish up this, our first lecture. We will go back to it in detail later. That is what is I would call the three levels of wisdom. Within the book of Job, there are three specific levels of wisdom.
A. Level one: academic knowledge or artisan skill
Level one is something the book of Job really doesn’t talk a great deal about, but you see it elsewhere in the Old Testament. This is wisdom that is what we might call academic ability or a skill. For example, in Exodus 35:30-35, God filled Bezalel and Oholiab with wisdom, the Hebrew word there is hokma, to work with fabric. In other words, they were skilled craftsmen and the Bible calls that “wisdom.” So level one of wisdom is being a skillful person. Whatever your task is, whatever your hobby is, if you are really good at it, then that is a kind of wisdom, level one.
B. Level two: knowing how to deal with life
Level two wisdom is knowing how to deal with life. Ethics, common sense, social interaction, personal responsibility, family life and faith in God. This is what we have in the book of Proverbs. So, if you are lazy, you are going to be poor. That is basic level two wisdom, what we would call also common sense. If you are unreliable, if you make promises and you don’t keep them, pretty soon people won’t trust you anymore and they won’t hire you. The book of Proverbs tells us basically how to deal with life on a day-to-day basis. It even says, if you greet a person early in the morning, he will count it a curse because that is how we are as human beings, right? We wake up, we are groggy, we are in a bad mood. If someone yells, “hello,” we get irritated. So the book of Proverbs is really an in-depth look at how to deal with daily affairs in life. If you are careless with your money, you will grow poor. If you commit adultery, you will ruin your life. All of these things are in the book of Proverbs and they teach us how to deal with life on a day-to-day basis.
C. Level three: God’s secret ways
Level three is God’s secret ways, his often surprising way of resolving the problem of evil. This is a kind of wisdom that is far beyond human wisdom. Let’s consider what Paul says in I Corinthians 1. We will begin with verse 21: “For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached, to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and Christ the wisdom of God.”
Notice the kind of wisdom we have here. This is a wisdom that we would call counterintuitive. This is a wisdom that is above and beyond anything humans
could imagine. In context, of course, the idea that Jesus Christ crucified would be the means of overcoming evil and bringing salvation to the world. This is not like the wisdom of Proverbs. The wisdom of Proverbs is absolutely in agreement with common sense. It is fully intuitive. Again, if you are lazy, you will be poor. There is nothing mysterious about that. There is nothing secret about level two wisdom. But level three wisdom, the plan and work of God to bring about salvation to humanity, the ways of God that no-one could have imagined, no-one could have figured out in advance, that is what I am calling level three wisdom.
To give you a little preview as we move forward in the book of Job, we will finally come face-to-face with God’s wisdom, this level 3 wisdom, and see how it
answers the questions of the book of Job.