One the most puzzling facts about our world is the fact of human suffering and how unfairly it seems to be experienced, the fact that good people sometimes experience more suffering than bad people. It shakes the faith of more people than perhaps any other reality that we can observe or experience. Unfair human suffering is the most weighty of arguments used against the existence of the God that we believe in.
I remember sitting in a high school chemistry class, and we had a little free time at the end of class and I somehow got into a conversation with a friend of mine about the existence of God. He told me an of uncle of his who, he said, was one of the best men that he ever knew. But when he was in his 20s he was diagnosed with some kind of cancer, and he suffered terribly and fought it for about 10 years, until finally he died in his 30s. And he said, “You see, there is no God like you believe in. If there was He wouldn’t have let my uncle suffer so much and die so early in his life.”
Several years ago my wife and I bought a Boston Terrier puppy from a young lady who actually grew up attending this church. I was able to ask her about her faith and why she was no longer coming to church. She explained when her dad, a good Christian man, at middle age was afflicted with cancer, she and her family and many others prayed and prayed for his recovery, and God’s answer was no. She said, “At first I was just so angry at God for taking my dad from us.” Then her anger turned into disbelief in a good, loving, all knowing, almighty God. She said she believes there is some high power, but not the God that we believe in. How could He be good and loving and fully capable of relieving the suffering of decent people and yet just let it go on?
Well, the Bible gives us an entire book, 42 chapters, on that very conundrum of unfair suffering, the book of Job. It tells us a true story about God’s dealings with the man Job, who lived, it appears, around the time period of the latter part of Genesis, around the time of Jacob and Esau, maybe a little later. One of Job’s friends is a descendant of Esau. But there’s no reference in the book to God freeing the Israelites from Egypt or to His covenant with them or to the Law of Moses. It appears Job lived before the story of Exodus. And the length of Job’s life suggests that he was living way back toward the Genesis time when people were living longer.
The story begins with…
A brief description of Job (1:1-5)
It gives us 4 descriptions of Job’s righteous character. It says first he was blameless. You couldn’t find fault in how he was living his life. Second it says he was upright. He was a man who would always do the right thing even when it wasn’t easy or convenient. Then it says he feared God and turned away from evil. If any man was leading a life pleasing in God’s sight it was this man Job.
Then it tells us something about his family. He was blessed with 7 sons and 3 daughters. And when you look at the description we’re given of them, it appears here were siblings who loved each other. They’re were grown up apparently at the time the story begins. They had homes of their own. But they seemed to get along very well. They wanted to be together. And so they would take turns having each other over to their homes for a feast. They enjoyed being together. That indicates something about how they were raised, the way they were brought up by this good man Job. And we see something about Job’s love for his kids in that he would on a very regular basis offer up sacrifices on their behalf whether he’d witnessed sin in their lives or not, just in case they’d sinned against God secretly in their hearts. Job was like the father today who prays everyday for his kids and talks with them about God often and makes sure they’re in church. He was a righteous man and a good family man.
And then the opening description tells us about his wealth. He possessed 7,000 sheep. Can you imagine a flock of 7,000 sheep? I suspect Job was one of the top wool suppliers in his area. 3,000 camels. Now, what would you do with 3,000 camels? Well, back in that day the caravans and the traveling traders would use camels to ride and to pack. And perhaps Job supplied many travelers with their vehicles. Perhaps he was sort of the car rental company. And he had 500 yoke of oxen. 500 ancient near east tractors. Maybe he had so many fields that he needed that many. And he had 500 female donkeys. Was he prejudice against the males? I don’t think so. I suspect he was breeding donkeys, so he wouldn’t need a lot of males. I suspect he was supplied a lot of people with those more compact cars of the ancient world. And he had a huge staff to run his operations, many, many servants. It says that of all the men of the east Job was the greatest. He was sort of like Bill Gates. Everyone has heard of Bill Gates. Everybody knew about Job, because he had so much.
That sets the stage for the story. There are 2 plots in the book of Job skillfully woven together. There’s a heavenly plot and there’s an earthly plot. Both consist of debates, one that goes on in heaven and one that goes on on earth. After the brief description of Job, it begins with the heavenly plot.
The debate that takes place in heaven
It’s a debate between God and one of His angels, Satan. And it’s fascinating because it gives us insight in the unseen spirit realm. The curtain that divides this physical world from the spirit world is for a moment removed and we’re given a glimpse of something that happened there. God holds a council meeting in heaven with His angels. Did you know God holds council meetings? Angels who have responsibilities report and have meetings with God. And on this occasion Satan was among them. Satan by this time has become very cynical about human beings. And you can imagine why when you think about mankind’s history so far. Not too long ago mankind became so corrupt that God had to destroy them with a flood, sparing only one family. Satan does not believe that any human being loves and serves God for God’s own sake. He believes those who serve God only do it for their own sake. It’s only because of what’s in it for them that they serve God. It’s only because God blesses them in return. Satan believes that self-interest is the only real motive behind all human behavior; that the question, “What’s in it for me?” determines everything that people do. And of course there are many cynical people today who say much the same thing, “Oh well, you’re only a Christian because it pays, for what you get out of it.”
God asks Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” Satan says, “God, you don’t think Job serves you for nothing, do you? Surely You know He only serves You because You bless him so richly and You’ve made a hedge around him and his family and all that he has. You take away what you’ve blessed him with and he’ll be done with You. He’ll curse You to Your face. I guarantee You. He’s just like everybody else. He only serves You because of what’s in it for him. He’s a bought man, Lord.”
And incredibly God says, “Well, let’s test your theory. I grant you permission to do what you want with all that Job has. Just don’t touch him.”
Satan has no mercy. In one day one messenger after another comes to Job with heart wrenching news. The first comes to Job and says, “All of the oxen and donkeys have been taken by an enemy raid and all the servants killed, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he’s still speaking another messenger arrives and says, “Fire from heaven, lightening or meteors or something, came and burned all of your sheep and all the servants. I alone escaped to tell you.” While that one is still speaking a 3rd servant arrives and says, “All the camels were taken by an enemy raid and the servants killed. I alone escaped to tell you.” And while that one is still speaking another comes with the worst news, “Job, your kids, all 10 of them were having dinner together, and a tornado struck the house, and none of them made it.” That’s strange, all that devastation at once.
How does Job respond? He tears his robe and shaves his head as an expression of mourning, and falls to the ground and worships. And he says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job knew that he didn’t deserve anything that he had in the first place. God didn’t owe him any of that. God has every right to take it back. And even though everything has been taken from him, he still saw God as worthy of praise and obedience. It says that through all this Job did not sin, nor did he charge God with wrongdoing.
God wins round 1. Satan is somewhat taken back, but he’s still not convinced that Job would serve God for nothing. So he asks God to change the rules of the game. He claims that “Job is still faithful because he has his health. But take his health, afflict his body, and he’ll curse You to Your face.” And God grants him permission and says, “Just don’t take his life.”
All of the sudden Job is stricken with boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. I’ve never had a boil, but I hear they’re painful. And he’s covered in them. He goes at sits on an ash heap, perhaps at the end of the village street as an expression of grieving. He uses a potsherd to scrape himself to relieve some of the pressure and itch of the boils. Further in the book he describes how food is loathsome to him and how he was unable to sleep, and when he did manage to fall asleep he suffered nightmares. He says his skin has turned black and his bones burn with fever. He also suffered isolation. As he sat on the ash heap people would just walk by at a distance rather than talk to him, because people don’t know how to talk to someone who is really suffering and really in pain. They don’t know what to say, so they avoid contact. His brothers and relatives didn’t want to be around him. Job even goes on to say, “My breathe is offensive to my wife.” And the teenagers would snicker and make a joke of him.
And then I’m sure it broke his heart further, when his wife asked him “Why do you hold fast you integrity?” And advised him to curse God and commit suicide. “You might as well curse Him and die. He’s not going to look after you.” That’s pretty tough on a man of faith when his wife has that attitude toward God.
Job response? “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” God has every right to deal with us as wills. And God has blessed us with much over the years. Whatever He allots to us He deserves our loyalty and our worship.
God’s winning round 2 with Satan. Job will serve Him for nothing.
That brings us to the other plot in book…
The debate that takes place on earth
It’s a debate between Job and his friends about why he’s suffering so much. They have no knowledge of the debate that has gone on in heaven between God and Satan. They just have their earthly circumstances and they’re trying to make sense of them. 3 friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, hear of Job’s suffering and come to comfort him. And for a week they do fine, because for a week they just sit with him and don’t open their mouths. That’s probably about the best thing you can do for someone who is suffering. Not discuss their suffering. Just sit alongside them; show you care. So for a week they do fine. But unfortunately for Job, he opened his mouth, which led them to open theirs.
Job opened his mouth and cursed the day he was born. and he says, “O why couldn’t I have been a still born, a miscarriage? I wouldn’t have had to experience all this.” And he says that he longs for death.
And that leads into 3 cycles of dialogue between Job and his 3 friends. All 3 of Job’s friends hold to a certain doctrine, a certain theology. They all believe very strongly that God is all powerful and sovereign and in total control of our lives and He’s good and just and so God will always see to it that the righteous are blessed and the wicked suffer. It’s as simple as that. Which is actually not bad theology, if you think it terms of ultimately; in the eternal scheme of things God will see to it that the righteous are blessed and the wicked suffer. But they misapply their theology to what we always experience here in this temporary earthly life. They think earthly suffering is always the result of his personal sin. And the greater the sin, the greater the suffering. And so since Job is suffering tremendously, then he must be guilty of some grievous sins, sins that he’s hiding. And their advice for Job is that he own up to his sin and repent, so that God will bless him once again.
Eliphaz speaks first and he begins very tactful and gentle with Job. And he appeals to experience and observation to establish his understanding of why Job is suffering. 4:7-8, “Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed? 8 According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity And those who sow trouble harvest it.” “Job, it seems to me from what I’ve seen that we live in a moral cause and effect universe. When you sin you reap suffering. When you do right you reap good things. That appears to be the way it is.” And then he appeals to a vision that he received. 4:12-16, “Now a word was brought to me stealthily, And my ear received a whisper of it. Amid disquieting thoughts from the visions of the night, When deep sleep falls on men, Dread came upon me, and trembling, And made all my bones shake. Then a spirit passed by my face; The hair of my flesh bristled up. It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance; A form was before my eyes; There was silence, then I heard a voice:” And the message from the vision was that really nobody is pure before God, nobody is righteous really in His sight. We’ve all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. “So don’t claim to be righteous, Job. And realize God has every right to put you through this.” And he says “If I were you, I would admit my sins and repent and seek God, because has mercy and blesses those who do that.”
But Job says, “But I’m conscious of no sin that I’ve been doing. You show me how I have erred. You point out my fault. And why am I suffering more than anybody else?” And he calls on God, “Why won’t you leave me alone? Why won’t you just give me a little break in my suffering that I my swallow my spittle? Have I sinned? What have I done to You, O watcher of men? Why have You set me as Your target?”
Bildad thinks Job’s words are irreverant, and he’s not near as gentle as Eliphaz was. He even says, “Well, if you haven’t sinned a lot then your children must have been big sinners for you to lose all your children. They must have been a pretty bad bunch of kids.” What a way to comfort a man who lost his kids. And he says, “If you were pure and upright God would deliver you from this right now.” And he appeals to tradition. 8:8-10 he says, “Please inquire of past generations, And consider the things searched out by their fathers. For we are only of yesterday and know nothing, Because our days on earth are as a shadow. Will they not teach you and tell you, And bring forth words from their minds?” “Won’t you listen, Job, to the wisdom of past generations. They will all tell you it’s the wicked that suffer. You need to own up to your sin and quit being a hypocrite.”
But Job insists he’s blameless. And he calls on God for explanation.
Zophar takes a stab at trying to convince Job to acknowledge his sin. And he’s brutal. He tells Job that his punishment is less than he deserves, and he insists that if Job will put away his sin, his sufferings will pass and be forgotten, and his prosperity will be restored.
And I love 12:2, Job says, “Truly then you are the people, And with you wisdom will die!” “Wow, the world will never know wiser fellas than you guys! Boy am I fortunate to have you around!” And Job says, “I know what you know. I’ve heard all this conventional wisdom of yours before. And it’s just not true in my situation. You all smear with lies. You’re worthless physicians. Your memorable sayings are proverbs of ashes. I want to talk with God.” And again he calls on God to explain, and to make known to him what sin or rebellion there is in him.
2 more cycles of dialogue go on between them. The arguments gets more and more heated. They even try to frighten Job into repentance by depicting the awful doom of the wicked. And Job’s racks his brain and searches his conscience, but can’t find anything he needs to change and he refuses to say what is not true about himself.
Throughout Job’s speeches you see ups and downs in his mood. There’s moments when he seems full of hope and confidence. And then other times he seems to be full despair and hopelessness. Like in 19:25-26, “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth. 26 “Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God; 27 Whom I myself shall behold, And whom my eyes will see and not another. My heart faints within me!” Or it could be “My heart yearns within me!” There he seems to believe in an afterlife and resurrection and that he will see God and be vindicated. But then at other times he seems to be not sure. Like 14:14 he says, “If a man dies, will he live again?” Back in Job’s day it appears that they didn’t have the great assurance and revelation about the afterlife and resurrection that we have in this day and age. II Timothy 1:10 says, “Jesus brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Jesus taught us much about the afterlife and gave us great assurance with His resurrection. But back in Job’s day they didn’t have that privilege. So Job alternates between hope and despair.
Some of Job’s speeches are incredible, some of my favorite portions of scripture. What he says about wisdom in ch28, where wisdom comes from and what it is. I encourage you to read that one. And ch31 where he defends his integrity. When you read it through you almost think that Job had heard the sermon on the mount where Jesus tells us how to live a life pleasing to God. It tells you how much understanding he had. He says if I’ve looked at a woman and lusted after her, then I would understand this. But I have made a covenant with my eyes not gaze at a young lady. If I have engaged in falsehood or deceit, if didn’t take care of the poor or orphans or widows that I’ve seen, if I’ve trusted in money, if I didn’t care about my enemies, if I rejoiced at their destruction, then I would understand this and I wouldn’t complain. But I haven’t.
And finally Job’s friends figure it’s no use to talk to Job any more. His mind is not going to be changed. And then we find out that a young man named Elihu had been present the whole time and listened to the whole debate. And Elihu thinks he’s got the answers. Imagine a young man thinking he’s got it all figured out. And so Elihu goes on for 6 chapters explaining the way that God deals with people and how they should respond. And there’s a lot of truth in what Elihu says, but he still comes to the same basic conclusion that Job must be a sinner, and what’s happening to him is discipline for his sin; it is chastisement. “Job, He’s helping you mend you ways. That’s what this is.” What miserable comfort these comforters gave to poor old Job.
Then all of the sudden Job gets what he’s asked for over 30 times in the book. He’s been asking and asking God to talk with him. And Job 38:1 says, “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind.” But God doesn’t answer Job like we might expect. He doesn’t answer Job’s question. He doesn’t explain the why behind his suffering. Instead He quizzes Job with a whole bunch of questions about the universe. Roughly 60 of them. God prepares him first for it. He says, “Now gird up your loins like a man,” or as we might say, “Buckle up, Job, you’re in for some vigorous mental activity here.” “I will ask you, and you instruct Me! Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, Who set it measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on 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?” And then He kind of takes Job on a tour of nature and asks him question after question about the mysterious wonders of the world. He asks him about the sea and about the rising of the sun. He asks him about death and Sheol, and light and darkness. He asks him about lighting and about rain and hail and snow. He asks him about animals instincts and how certain creatures survive in wild wilderness, and about the flight design of a hawks wings, and all kinds of things. “Do you understand this, Job? Do you know how this works? Explain it to Me if you know.” These chapters draw a picture of a vastly complicated, intricately intertwined universe that requires a superhuman intelligence and wisdom to design and sustain. As if to say, “Job, you don’t understand even the most fundamental questions about how the world operates, let alone the spirit world. There is a lot of stuff you don’t know, but I do know all this stuff. I know better than you human beings about how to run my universe.” And God also asks Job, “Can you do this? Can you make this happen? Can you control this?” He draws Job’s attention to the incomprehensible power responsible for and sustaining this world. And he draws Job’s attention to this huge creature that people wouldn’t dare mess with called Behemoth who eats grass like an ox, huge muscles in its thighs and bell, its bones are like tubes of bronze, its tail is like a cedar tree. What is that? Well, the only creatures I know of that fit the description are extinct now. And then he describes this huge terrifying sea creature called Leviathan that nobody would dare mess with. Swords and javelins and arrows are not going to have any effect on it with its armored skin. What is that? Sounds like another now extinct creature. He draws Job’s attention to these powerful creatures as if to say, “Just as no one would dare to contend with the Behemoth or Leviathan, all the more no one should dare contend with Me the Maker of those creatures. It’s very presumptuous to criticize or argue with Me.” God just gives Job this display of His majesty, His greatness, His wisdom and His power that says our place as His creatures, small and ignorant and dependant as we are, is not to contend with God, but to just accept His dealings with us and submit to Him.
The book of Job sometimes disappoints its readers. Not because anything is wrong with the book, but because people come to it with the idea that it will explain to them why their lives are going so badly. But God doesn’t really explain it. And you know, He couldn’t have explained to Job why his suffering was happening or it would have spoiled the whole test. The test was whether Job would stay faithful without knowing why He suffering. It would have invalided the test if God told him.
But this was all the answer that Job needed to be content with God’s dealings with Him. He didn’t need to understand why God was dealing with him the way He was. He just needed this assurance that God was mindful of him and cared about him enough to talk with him and that God is in control and God knows what’s He’s doing. Job says “I hush my mouth. I accept what You allot to me.”
Job passes the test. And the book closes rather quickly. God criticizes Job’s friends and says “They did not speak of Me what was right.” Which tells us that we should be careful about quoting those portions of the book of Job from Job’s friends as if they were truth from God. And God compensates Job abundantly, doubles the wealth he had before, gives him 7 more sons and 3 more beautiful daughters, and another 140 years of life and lets him see his grand-kids to the 4th generation. And of course that was just the taste of the reward that God has for Job ultimately.
There are 2 big questions the book of Job calls us to ask ourselves.
#1 – will you serve God for nothing? Now, in a sense nobody can serve God for nothing, because God will ultimately bless all those who serve Him. But what’s your motive? Will you serve God just because of who He is, because He’s worthy, because He’s great, because He’s good, because He’s the creator and giver and sustainer of all things? Will you serve God for His sake, not just for your own sake?
And then the second question we should ask ourselves is, will you trust God even when you don’t understand why things are happening? Will you realize that sometimes things happen in the spirit realm that we don’t know about that have to do with what happens here on earth? Will you realize that there’s a lot that we don’t understand in the universe, but God does and He knows what He’s doing? Will you trust Him without having to have an explanation for things that happen on this earth?
– James Williams