The book of Job is very old, probably one of the oldest books of the Bible. It is skillfully designed wisdom literature and covers some of life’s biggest questions: Is God good? Is He almighty? Why does God let good people suffer?
The book’s design
The book starts with two chapters of prose that tell about a man named Job, who “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). He was extraordinarily rich and had ten children. After this introduction, the scene shifts and we read about a conversation between God and Satan.
God pointed out Job’s blamelessness, but Satan responded: “Does Job fear God for no reason? … Stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse You to Your face.” God accepted the challenge, “and the Lord said to Satan, Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” The next verses record how Job (who had no clue of the heavenly challenge) lost all of his riches and even his children. But “Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (Job 1:22). After Job had also lost his health, three friends came to visit and comfort him.
The main part of the book is filled with conversations of Job and his three friends, then a speech of a fourth friend, and finally God’s words to Job. The main question in all of these conversations is: how can it be that a righteous man like Job has to suffer so horribly? How can God let this happen?
The book ends with another small piece of prose, which records how Job humbled himself for God, and God restored his fortunes. He received ten other children and more possessions than ever before.
The theology of Job’s friends
Job’s suffering poses him and his friends with a problem: given that Job is known as a righteous person, how can God let all this happen? Job is wrestling with this question. He is not only suffering from his massive loss of wealth, children, health, and social status, but most of all from the loss of his intimate relationship with God. It seems like God has turned into an enemy: “He crushes me with a tempest and multiplies my wounds without cause” (Job 9:17). Job does not understand, and he is desperate.
His friends are confident that they have answers. Their theology is clear and straightforward: God is almighty, sovereign, and good. So, Job’s suffering must be a punishment for some sinful behavior. When Job maintains that he is innocent, they just claim that God is omniscient and knows what is really present at the bottom of Job’s heart, even when he himself is not aware of his sinfulness.
Job gets utterly frustrated with his friends, since they don’t really listen but just repeat their empty phrases. He bursts out: “I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. Shall windy words have an end?” (Job 16:2-3).
Speaking about God or speaking with God
Job’s friends have a lot to say about God, but they never seem to seek God in prayer. They are concerned about theological discussions, not about a personal relationship with the Lord. This is very different from Job. He knows God personally, and this gives him glimmers of hope in the midst of his suffering and confusion. One of his most famous quotes is:
“Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
Oh 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 see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:23-27).
Throughout the whole book, Job is not just talking with his friends but also crying out to God. In his despair, he is sometimes disrespectful, which he regrets later (see Job 40:3-5, 42:1-6). But God says that Job has spoken of Him what is right – in contrast to his friends (Job 42:7). He has been totally honest and without pretense.
At the end of the book, when the friends’ “wisdom” is spent but the problem of Job’s suffering is still unanswered, God speaks. But He does not answer any theoretical and theological questions. On the contrary, He is asking a lot of questions Himself, like
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements-surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7)
With all these questions God makes clear to Job that He is indeed almighty, and good, and wiser than humans could ever imagine. The Lord does not give Job the answers he was looking for, but He does something far better: He restores the relationship. Job acknowledges God’s greatness and faithfulness, despite his hard circumstances and unanswered questions.
That settles the question of Job’s faithfulness to God, and Satan has lost the “challenge”. In the last chapter of the book, we read how Job’s fortunes are restored. The book concludes as follows: “And after this Job lived 140 years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations. And Job died, an old man, and full of days” (Job 42:16-17).
Some lessons for us
- We know that Job’s suffering had to do with a heavenly challenge, since the Bible tells us so. But in our own lives, we often do not have this overview. There might be many unanswered questions. God does not want us to understand everything; we would never be able to. But He does want us to trust Him.
- Job’s friends were absolutely sure about their theology, and judged Job on the basis of their limited understanding of God. The Lord strongly condemned their behavior: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7). We should be very careful with our words!
- Job did not understand what was going on, he was desperate. But he never turned away from God! Instead, he cried out to Him. We are exhorted to do the same.
For a beautiful artistic impression of the life of Job, see the Sandy Tale video below.