Lecture 16: Job and Proverbs
Course: Understanding the Old Testament
Lecture: Job and Proverbs
After the book of Psalms, we come to the book of Job, which is an extraordinary book by anybody’s definition. Job gives us an understanding of how to struggle with doubt and pain and suffering. Job has long been considered a literary masterpiece. Its stimulating discussion of the human/divine relationship, its portrayal of fascinating characters and use of rich imagery and irony, place it among the best works in world literature. Written mostly as a drama, the book’s alternating speeches gradually force readers to consider God’s character, especially as it relates to human suffering. If we understand the book properly, it will teach us about the value of struggling with our faith.
Description of Wisdom Literature
Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes are part of a great ancient tradition called Wisdom Literature. Wisdom Literature was written in many countries, including Babylon, Egypt, Edom and Israel. The authors of this type of literature sought to tell people how to live wisely. To achieve this goal they explored life’s mysteries, such as why the righteous suffer and how and why God will judge people. Wisdom writers also catalog common, everyday advice. They also observe how nature works quite closely. They wanted to know how to relate to neighbors, how to serve the king and how to avoid seductive men, women and habits.
Most wisdom literature is conservative. That is, it gives us rules to follow that will make our lives go well. It claims that if we keep these rules, we will typically prosper. If we break these rules, we will usually suffer. Some wisdom literature, however, is rather radical, it probes the depths of things. It discusses what happens when the rules simply don’t work. Job fits into this category.
Background of Job
It is impossible to know when Job was written. The text has both old and relatively late Hebrew words, which probably means it was copied and recopied over a long period of time. Its setting may be during Abraham’s era. There is no Mosaic law and Job acts as priest for his family. The story takes place in Uz, an unknown location in the east. In fact, it may be important to note that Job is not an Israelite at all, he is a gentile. That category makes sense prior to Abraham’s family growing. But it is important for us to see that God is revealing himself to Job in an important way.
There have been a lot of suggestions about why the Book of Job was written. Some have said it has been written to solve the problem of suffering, to tell us why we suffer. Others have said it is really about God showing us that he is with us in our suffering and that he will sustain us through our suffering. Others have mentioned that it is about how we trust God, the creator and sustainer of all things, in the midst of our troubles.
I think the last two options are most likely. The first option that explains why we suffer simply doesn’t work. God does not give us an explanation of why he does what he does in this book. Yet the text does tell us that God is with Job throughout, that God does love Job throughout and that Job has reason to put his faith in God.
Testing of Job (1–2)
In Job 1 and 2 we have the first section of the book. The first section is the testing of Job. We are told right away in chapter 1 that Job was a blameless and upright man. He fears God and shuns evil. In other words, he is an ideal character for Wisdom Literature. You really have to wonder, what more can anyone ask? Job’s character is fully intact. The book also tells us he has seven sons and three daughters, an ideal family in those days. He has large numbers of animals and servants; in fact, is one of the great men of the east. He is also pious. He offers sacrifices for his children while they feast together, just in case one of them might curse God in their heart. He is one of the greatest individuals in Scripture.
But in Job chapter 1 the scene shifts from earth to heaven. In 1:6-12 the text tells us that Satan, a word that means “adversary,” Satan, a figure, comes before the Lord and has to give an account of himself. And Satan, who is described much more fully in the New Testament than the old, makes the accusation that if God will take everything away from Job, all his money and family, he will turn away from the Lord. Without explaining why he does so, the Lord allows Satan to take away what Job has, including his family and his business and his wealth. It is important to note that the Lord does not allow Satan free reign. The Lord determines what happens to Job.
In 1:13-22 Satan does take away Job’s property and children; and yet, though he has suffered greatly, great emotional and financial loss, Job does not turn away from God. So in chapter 2 Satan asks for and receives permission to take away Job’s health; and indeed, he does so and yet Job does not deny God. But he does probe why God has done these things and he does ask for an explanation.
Job’s Dialogue with His Three Friends (3–31)
Three friends come to see Job in 2:11-13 and they speak with him throughout the rest of the book. But chapters 1 and 2 focus on the testing of Job, introduce the characters and in chapters 3-31 we have Job’s dialogue with three of these friends. To summarize things, in chapter 3 Job laments the day he was born and talks about his terrible troubles. But unlike the laments in the Psalms, he offers no statement of faith.
Apparently his friends then assume that Job has lost his faith. So they ask Job in a variety of ways to consider his life, to note that no-one has ever perished being innocent; that those who sow trouble receive it; that probably sin has caused everything that has happened to him; and that Job should consider looking into his life, repenting of sin and turning back to God. Sometimes these discussions get very involved, and I won’t have time to develop them fully. But at the end of the day, what they are arguing is, that there is a direct correlation between what Job has done and the trouble he has received.
Now, we need to know that in the Bible it is true that at times people suffer in direct proportion to their sin. Yet there are other times that people sin and God does not punish immediately. And sometimes people do not sin at all and yet, they suffer. Abel did nothing to Cain to cause Cain to murder Abel. David did nothing to Saul to make Saul pursue and try to harm David. The Bible is filled with all sorts of people who suffer despite their righteousness. Job’s friends don’t seem to entertain that possibility; and so Job and the friends are at standstill in their discussion.
But Job quite clearly expresses that he will believe in God, no matter what. Look at Job 13:13. Job says, “Let me have silence and I will speak and let come on me what may. Why should I take my flesh in my teeth and put my life in my hand? Though he slay me, I will hope in him. Yet I will argue my ways to his face.” In other words, he says I will hope only in the Lord, yet I will argue before him. I will argue my case before him and say that I have not sinned against him. Job has many questions, but he does not give up his faith in God and he keeps taking his questions to God.
In chapter 19 he expresses again his faith in God, verse 23: “O that my words were written! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever! For I know that my redeemer lives and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall for myself and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” So Job is saying, “I have a redeemer. I trust in Yahweh. I know that I will see him even after my flesh is gone. “ He has complete confidence that despite what he sees now, God will answer and God will help.
Fourth Friend (32–37)
In Job 32–37 we have a fourth friend speaking. He tells Job in chapters 32-37 that God has already spoken. God has spoken to Job through his suffering and through his pain; and what he is trying to tell Job is that he has sinned. As for Job wanting God to answer him directly, this friend whose name is Elihu, says God will not do that.
Yahweh Confronts Job (38:1–42:6)
In chapter 38:1 to 42:6 Yahweh does come and speak and he confronts Job with Job’s attitude. And he reminds Job that he, Yahweh, takes care of all the creatures on earth; and in an extraordinary piece of wisdom literature, the author of Job describes all the different characters and individuals and animals that God cares for, and all the things he does for them. This drives Job to say that he is of small account. He is not sure how to answer. He will say nothing else, Job 40:3-5.
But then God continues, showing Job that he is ruling the earth, he is ruling it well and he can be trusted. Job responds in 42:1 as follows: “He answers the Lord and says, ‘I know that you can do all things, that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me which I did not know. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.’”
Many scholars I have read seem to think that Job lets God off the hook. He doesn’t press things the way he should. But it seems to me that God’s answer has satisfied Job. God has said he is in control of the world. He is sovereign over all things. He is good and he is caring for his creation. Job is satisfied by this answer. Therefore, it seems to me that what Job really wanted to know all along was, is God still sovereign? Is he still in control? Has the world lost its senses, or is there someone in charge of things?
The answer is, God continues to rule the world. Once Job knows that whatever has happened to him has not been outside of God’s providence and God’s strong purpose for his life, he is satisfied. This teaches us something very important. As long as we know our God, the one in whom we trust, the one who has made us and redeemed us; as long as we know that this good God is on the throne, that which happens to us has reason and purpose, and we can trust him.
Healing and Restoration (42:7-17)
In 42:7-17 the book ends with healing and restoration after Yahweh confronts Job in 38:1 to 42:6. God restores Job’s fortunes and his finances. He gives him more children. He also sends along friends who are more sympathetic to his situation.
As we bring our brief discussion of Job to a conclusion, perhaps it is important to remember the following. Many Christians believe doubting and questioning God constitutes a lack of faith. Job shows doubts come even to the blameless. They are a part of life. Thus doubts, however severe, should be taken to God. He is not intimidated by human questions. In fact, the Lord is willing to reveal answers to those who ask. God is present with even the doubter, as long as the doubter truly seeks God and no-one else. People who do seek this goodness will find that God is sovereign, he is in charge and that nothing can happen to us that he hasn’t decided can occur. Unfortunately, many Christians also agree with Job’s friends. They believe suffering always results from sin or from lack of faith in God’s restorative power.
Job demonstrates suffering may result from sin, but does not necessarily do so. Therefore, as we have friends who are suffering, we ought to show compassion, for God may be as displeased with us as he was with Job’s friends. Trust the providence of God, Job says. And though life may be extremely difficult, even horrible, and unacceptable at times, we will find that our God has a purpose in it. And we have a redeemer who will stand upon the earth and even after our flesh is gone, we shall see him. The stubborn faith of Job is the kind of faith many of us need; and as we exercise it, we find Yahweh faithful, true and restoring.
So the book of Psalms talks about how to worship and the book of Job talks about how to struggle with doubt. The book of Proverbs is about how to develop wisdom. Job discusses life gone bad and teaches us how to absorb life’s blows and how to think about them and how to come to an understanding of our relationship with God. But what about normal life? Thank goodness, most of us do not live as Job does, most of the time.
So we should be thinking about how we should live in everyday circumstances. We should be thinking about how to develop character that pleases the Lord. We ought to be concerned with how we relate well to others. Thankfully, Proverbs deals with such practical questions. It examines the art of living well. So it addresses issues that affect everyone. Proverbs admits that wisdom is difficult to attain, but available to all who will learn from God’s revealed word lived out in daily life.
Description of Wisdom Literature
I want to say, because of the special nature, it is particularly important for us to learn how to interpret Proverbs correctly. I want you to know that the Hebrew word usually translated “Proverbs” is mashal, probably means to rule or to be like. In other words, the book of Proverbs is a book of analogies. It shows us what life is like. It tells us what is normal. A proverb, then, is a comparison about life drawn from life.
A proverb attempts to teach by showing what life is like. Proverbs state the normal results of correct or incorrect behavior. Thus, they are not absolute promises. To treat them as such can lead to some very difficult issues that we can avoid. Simply knowing what proverbs are will help us to know they are not absolute promises.
Let me give you an example or two. Proverbs 10:3 says, “The Lord will not allow the righteous to hunger, but he will thrust aside the craving of the wicked.” Certainly, Yahweh usually feeds the righteous. Still, we know throughout history, some righteous people have starved. It is possible to read this proverb and think the writer is speaking of eternity. But probably I think he is showing again what is normal.
Proverbs 10:4 says that, “The hand of the diligent makes its owner rich.” But we look at life and see that some people work hard, yet are poor. Normally, however, those who are industrious have what they need. Again, the proverbs are talking about what is normal.
One other example: We know that the proverbs say that “If you train up a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not depart from it.” I’ve known many good parents who tried to raise their children well, and the children rejected God, who read this proverb and somehow blame themselves for what their children became. It is typically true that if you train up a child in the way he should go, if you instill in him good habits and good character, that character will last, those good habits will endure. But we also know that the Bible shows us that this is not always the case. Again, proverb by definition is showing us what life is normally like.
Themes in Proverbs
The material in Proverbs was composed and gathered over a long period of time, something like The Psalms. Three texts link Solomon to the book: Chapter 1:1, 10:1 and 25:1. Thus, some of the proverbs date at least from his era; that is, from 970 to 930 B.C. when he was king. Of course, Solomon could also have recited proverbs that were older than himself.
Proverbs 25:1 mentions Hezekiah. You will remember that he was king of Judah from 715 to 687 B.C. It says that his men collected some of Solomon’s texts. Other proverbs follow that are probably even later. Therefore, the book itself reveals to us that the contents of the book can span as long as 1000 to 400 B.C. Like Psalms, Proverbs contains the best literature of its type from many periods in Israel’s history.
It is extremely difficult to divide Proverbs into large sections. Chapter 1 through 9 are fairly clear. These chapters stress pursuing wisdom and avoiding foolishness. However, chapters 10–31 change subjects rapidly, seemingly at random. Despite this problem, there are unifying factors. There are six headings in the book. These headings occur in 1:1, 10:1, 22:17, 25:1, 30:1 and 31:1. After each heading, a proverb or exhortation follows that announces at least the section’s main purpose. Each section moves learners closer to the goal of achieving wisdom.
Like all wisdom literature, Proverbs teaches us how to live. It seeks to convey a mindset, a world view, that will guide readers. Knowledge is important, since it begins the process. Wisdom only results, though, when a learner applies wisdom teachings to life. Knowledgeable persons become disciplined and skilled enough to act consistently. Therefore, I like to read the book of Proverbs as a growth process, seeing the six headings in the book as examples and evidence of what it means to choose wisdom and to choose it for life. In the book we move from people learning how to serve the Lord and choosing it, to becoming leaders and wise persons.
Choosing Wisdom and Avoiding Foolishness (1–9)
So let’s go through the book fairly rapidly. Proverbs 1–9 emphasizes choosing wisdom and avoiding foolishness. We all know that the first stages of a new venture are often the most important. Choices and plans made then can determine the project’s success or failure. This tendency holds true for learning how to live wisely as well. Learners must make some decisions in Proverbs 1-9. Proverbs 1:1 to 7 introduces the whole book. It tells us that these proverbs are given for a purpose. According to 1:2,3 Proverbs intends to make readers discerning, righteous and just. It wants to help inexperienced youths gain knowledge and discretion, says 1:4. It also hopes older, wiser persons will increase in learning, 1:5. How will these goals be achieved? By learning Proverbs’ word pictures, traditions and riddles, according to 1:6.
I need to warn you that in Proverbs, learning is always an interactive thing. It involves the mind, it involves study, it involves thinking. And it involves putting all that thinking and studying into practice. It is a holistic process. Wisdom Literature never pits thinking against doing. Knowing includes both. Wisdom includes all of the above. In chapters 1-9 in a series of passages the author asks people to choose wisdom, who is portrayed as a wonderful woman, and reject foolishness, which is portrayed as a lying, seductive, sensual woman. Those who pursue the wicked woman, foolishness, will find the way of death. Those who listen to the wise woman will find life. “Make your choice,” Proverbs 1-9 says. Determine to be a person of wisdom. Set a course for your life. Listen to God, follow his word, and you will find the right path.
How to Become a Righteous Child (10:1–22:16)
Proverbs 10:1 to 22:16 tell us how to become a righteous child. Proverbs 10:1, the next section of the book, announces the next stage of the quest for wisdom. Already, learners have chosen the path of humility before God and have rejected foolishness in favor of wisdom. Now, a new set of Solomon’s proverbs explains how learners can truly please God. Several things are important.
First, it is important to work hard, 10:1-5. Wisdom is not for the lazy. Second, learners should strive for righteousness in every area of their lives, chapter 11. Greed must go. Humility, integrity and knowledge are more important than economic wealth. Telling the truth, helping the community, aiding neighbors. These things matter more than collecting money and sexual conquest.
Third, righteous persons need to accept advice. They have to be humble. They have to listen to others, so that they can choose an appropriate spouse. Learn their trade well. And learn how to raise their children. We see these things in chapters 12 and 13. So hard work, striving for righteousness in every area of life, understanding what is important. Third, taking advice about life’s crucial decisions, learning to live for the Lord by listening to others who are wiser.
Fourth, how can someone remain humble and fear God? How can they secure their life? Well, it is by helping those who are weaker, according to chapter 14. It is by fearing the Lord and speaking carefully and good words, according to chapter 15. It is by avoiding pride, chapter 16 says. It is by shunning evil persons and choosing good company, according to chapters 18 and 19.
We could extend the list, but the point has been made. In effect, to become a righteous child of God, the person will have faith in God and follow the teachings of his word. Everything in Proverbs 10 to 22:16 has already been explained in the Bible. But these proverbs put the truths that have already been explained into neat, bite-sized pieces to teach us how to live in our families, in our communities, before God and with our neighbors.
Sustaining Righteousness (22:17–24:34)
Once we have chosen wisdom and we have begun our path, it is important to go to the third stage. That is in Proverbs 22:17 to 24:34. That is, sustaining righteousness. As you know, many people serve God for a time, only to fall back into foolishness later. Proverbs anticipates this possibility, therefore addresses individuals who are established in life. How can we grow in sustaining righteousness? This section gives us four warnings.
First, if you want to sustain the righteous, don’t oppress the poor or deny them justice and use them. Second, avoid hot tempered companions. Third, practice economic common sense, see 22:26. Guaranteeing others debts can lead to poverty, or to abusing the poor, so be very careful how you use your money. Fourth, traditional land boundaries should be maintained. We should respect our communities and the land that God has given us. Those who stay consistent, become skilled in their work, should be honored by it. Vicious and wicked schemes are unnecessary. God will reward the wicked. Remember these four principles.
Also remember that there are things that will try to tempt you away from the Lord’s work. Chapter 23 says you may desire power and luxury, so avoid the king’s deceptive food, 23:3. According to 23:4,5, acquiring wealth requires nonstop labor, yet is not worth it. He also reminds us that wicked companions may seem to give us what we want, but in the end will lead us to death. This section reminds us that wisdom’s path seems long and hard, but those who build their lives on wisdom find food for their souls.
Read 24:3,4 and 24:13,14. Those who build their lives on the wisdom that God provides in his Word and through the example of his people, don’t need to worry about evildoers. They can focus on justice, honesty and working hard, according to chapter 24. It takes endurance to be a wise person. It takes endurance and perseverance to continue on in the Lord’s ways. But such behavior marks those who persevere and who endure, as people who sustain their righteousness in the difficult middle years of the quest for wisdom.
Becoming a Righteous Leader (25–29)
Proverbs 25–29 emphasize becoming a righteous leader. These passages are especially important for people who have arrived at the age where they are looked up to by others. These people must be humble. They must be willing to settle disputes with others. They must be ready to speak words of comfort. They must even help their enemies. All of these truths are in chapter 25.
In chapter 26 and 27 we are reminded that good companions are important throughout life. It tells leaders not to honor fools, not to become addicted to your own opinions, and not to become addicted to foolish ways. It reminds leaders that gossipers make poor companions and that flatterers tell you what you want to hear, more than they tell you what you need to hear. So, value good friends and wise counsel. Chapters 28 and 29 remind leaders to protect the poor, to avoid oppression, lawlessness, injustice, lack of integrity. Refuse crooked gain. Show no partiality.
Like all of the steps toward wisdom, this advanced stage is not easy. Few people can accept responsibility for their community’s welfare and maintain their own integrity at the same time. Proverbs insist, though, that some of us must become leaders. The principles shared in earlier chapters still apply and must be taught to the wider audience. As before, the key to wisdom, the key to living for God in his way in our world, is fear of God, humility before him. As 1:7 began the book, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It is also continuation of wisdom.
Dealing with Pride (30)
Chapter 30 deals with a special problem in growing in wisdom, that is dealing with pride. It is so easy for us to be filled with ourselves, rather than to seek a balanced life that would love others.
Importance of Choosing a Faithful Life Partner (31)
Proverbs 31 deals with yet another issue. Just as it is true that pride will keep us from seeking God’s wisdom, that pride will keep us filled with our own ways, pride will lead us to fear and reverence others, rather than to fear and reverence God. Proverbs 31 concludes with the importance of choosing a faithful life partner. In chapter 31 we have the description of a woman who is faithful to God, faithful to her husband, faithful to her family.
Her efforts help her husband become a respected leader. She herself teaches others, works hard, makes sure her family has what is needed. This woman, her value is above all rubies and gold. Finding a life partner who walks with you along the way, serving God fully, the value of such a person cannot be estimated, it is beyond all value. But just as pride can keep you from serving the Lord, so can longing for and lusting after the wrong kind of life partner can do the same.
In conclusion, I think Proverbs carefully leads us in a seminar on how to live. It guides seekers through the various stages of acquiring wisdom, always identifying dangers, yet never making the process seem impossible. However difficult the task may be, wise persons will determine to learn to fear God, embrace humility, accept discipline and thus, develop character.
Other paths are easier to travel and the writer of Proverbs freely admits this. But no other path yields true and lasting benefits. In a way, then, if you read passages in the New Testament about perseverance and endurance and the value of them, you would keep all the proverbs in mind. It is this sort of patient endurance on the pathway of choosing wisdom, becoming a righteous learner, enduring in righteousness in the middle of life, becoming a righteous leader, avoiding pride and choosing the right life partner. As we walk this path, we persevere in the teachings of the Lord and we find ourself living appropriately, thus wisely before the Lord with our neighbors.