Overview: Here’s a bare-bones outline of the book: It begins with a quick sketch of Job and his idyllic life as a good and very blessed man, with a big happy family and great wealth. In the next scene, God is meeting with his angels, and God brings up to Satan (!) the subject of Job and what a good man he is. Satan replies that Job is good only because God has blessed him, and that if he loses those blessings, “he will surely curse you to your face” (1:9). So God gives Satan leave to destroy all Job has — but not to harm Job himself — and Satan does so, possessions and family alike. Then, at a second heavenly council, God again brings up Job to Satan, noting how he still maintains his integrity, and Satan says that this is only because Job remains physically unafflicted, and so God gives Satan live to torment Job physically as well, and that’s what Satan does. Job, impoverished and covered “with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head” (2:7), laments his state, wondering why this all has happened to him. He is visited by three friends who lecture him on how he must have done something wrong to merit his punishment; Job responds to each and they go back and forth. Later, he is visited by a fourth and younger man named Elihu, who also lectures him. Then, abruptly, God appears out of a whirlwind, and answers Job by asking him a series of questions, the point of which is how little Job knows of God’s creations. Job apologizes, and then God restores Job’s wealth and gives him a new family, so that he is even more blessed than before. He lives to be 140, and finally dies, “old and full of years” (42:17).
In his translation and commentary, Robert Alter says, “Job, apart from the prose frame-story of the first two chapters and the last one, is composed entirely as poetry, and it often proves to be poetry of a highly innovative and sometimes deliberately disturbing kind.” As I recall, he also observes that, while all the poetry is good, far and away the best is when God speaks.
Who Do You Trust?: The long soliloquies by the three-plus-one friends are not of course to be taken at face value, but neither can they be ignored: All fall short of stating the truth, but there’s no reason to think that they are completely false either. And even what Job says has to be treated rather like the Psalms: He is a good man, and the way he talks with God is certainly worth studying, but he is a human talking with God and so he might not always be unimpeachable in what he says or how he says it.
And so it is only the four chapters (38-41) where God is speaking that we can trust completely, along with whatever conclusions we can draw for ourselves from the facts stated in the book’s narrative prologue and epilogue.
The Main Lessons: So what is the takeaway from what God tells Job? And, relatedly, to what extent did Job sin in his questioning of God’s allowing him to suffer so?
With regard to what God tells Job, to me it boils down to the simple point that we cannot expect always to understand why God does what He does and allows what He allows. The universe is complicated — duh — and with the New Testament we now know that God is playing a long game indeed that includes for us not only this (short) life but also the next (eternal) one. Now, my NIV study Bible says, “We sin when we angrily ask, ‘If God is in control, how could he let this happen?'” Really? On this point, while it is the human condition that we can’t know why everything happens and have to trust God’s will (cf. Jesus’s prayer at Gethsemane), simply expressing bewilderment and anguish to God is not a sin, in my humble opinion. I think that He is not offended in our sometimes crying out to Him and even complaining and even doing to in a questioning way. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” cried the Psalmist — and Christ. There’s a line here we are not supposed to cross, where we become disrespectful or insubordinate or doubting/unbelieving, and perhaps Job crossed it: God rebukes Job, but a few words from Job and he is blessed anew.
It’s interesting that God tells Job to pray for his friends (Robert Alter, as I recall, highlights this, too).
Is suffering good or bad and, relatedly, why do bad things happen to good people? C.S. Lewis discusses this in The Problem of Pain, and it’s an understatement to say that much else has been written and said on the topic. I’ll just note briefly that here I like what my NIV study Bible has to say:
Suffering is helpful when: (1) We turn to God for understanding, endurance, and deliverance; (2) We ask important questions we might not take time to think about in our normal routine; (3) We are prepared by it to identify with and comfort others who suffer; (4) We are open to being helped by others who are obeying God; (5) We are ready to learn from a trustworthy God; (6) We realize we can identify with what Christ suffered on the cross for us; and (7) We are sensitized to the amount of suffering in the world.
Suffering is harmful when: (1) We become hardened and reject God; (2) We refuse to ask any questions and miss any lessons that might be good for us; (3) We allow it to make us self-centered and selfish; (4) We withdraw from the help others can give; (5) We reject the fact that God can bring good out of calamity; (6) We accuse God of being unjust and perhaps lead others to reject Him; and (7) We refuse to be open to any changes in our lives.
Here are some additional thoughts, prompted by “John Paul II at 100: A Protestant Appreciation of His Theology,” by J. Daryl Charles in the September/October Touchstone: Job’s friends, and one supposes to some extent Job himself, have trouble imagining that suffering serves any purpose except punishment. But, when you think about it, it seems quite possible that God has other reasons, and not only one’s that we cannot hope to fathom. And, indeed, in this book we know the reason: God has made a bet with Satan, and it is in the nature of a test for Job (which he passes). So perhaps at other times, too, God uses suffering to test us, and He may also use it to improve us: Pain forges character.
Satan’s Role: What are we to make of Satan’s relationship with God, as recounted in the prologue? For example, to what extent does it matter that, after all, it is Satan not God who torments Job? On the other hand, to what extent does it matter that, after all, God is allowing Satan to torment Job, and may even have precipitated the torture? Again, there’s a big question lurking underneath, namely why God permits evil.
Here I’ll just note that, in Job, God and Satan seem to be chummier than before or later on, but I suppose there’s no reason why their relationship might have undergone a brief reconciliation of sorts between the time he was (first) thrown out of Heaven and when he is thrown out again (Revelation 12:8-9) and finally doomed to everlasting torment (Revelation 20:10). And I like this summary from my NIV study Bible:
From this conversation [i.e., between God and Satan in Job’s prologue], we learn a great deal about Satan. (1) He is accountable to God. All angelic beings, good and evil, are compelled to present themselves before God (1:6). God knew that Satan was intent on attacking Job. (2) Satan can be at only one place at a time (1:6, 7). His demons aid him in his work; but as a created being, he is limited. (3) Satan cannot see into our minds or foretell the future (1:9-11). If he could, he would have known that Job would not break under pressure. (4) Because Satan can do nothing without God’s permission (1:12), God’s people can overcome his attacks through God’s power. (5) God puts limitations on what Satan can do (1:12; 2:6). Satan’s response to the Lord’s question (1:7) tells us that Satan is real and active on earth. Knowing this about Satan should cause us to remain close to the one who is greater than Satan–God himself.
By the way, the discussion between God and Satan raises, I think more sharply than any other passage in the Bible, the question, How did the author know this happened? Human history can be observed and passed along orally or in written form, and much of the circumstances of Creation could be deduced, but the minutes of God’s council here could not have been observed by the author of Job, nor can they have been deduced from what happened to Job. God inspired it is, I think, the best answer we can offer. (I suppose that, when a prophet quotes God, that is also explicable only as direct inspiration, but that too seems different from the minutes here.)
Jew and Greek: Two things that Job does not seem to question, at least directly, are God’s existence or His sovereignty. Regarding the latter, it might be thought ridiculous for Job to do so — God’s fairness might be challenged, but surely Job is in no position to dispute His power — but some in Job’s position might conclude that Satan sometimes has the upper hand. Robert Alter writes, “Job, for all its profundity, is a theological rather than a philosophic text [Alter is explaining why, though Wisdom literature is as close as the Bible gets to Greek philosophy, it’s still different]. Its author is God-obsessed and never wonders or speculates about God’s existence but rather expresses his outrage at the spectacular injustice of a world governed by a purportedly just God.”
Speaking of “God-obsessed”: In this regard, it’s interesting that Job follows Esther, which does not mention God at all.
And speaking of parallels with Greek philosophy: On the whole structure of Job, with its back-and-forth argument, compare Plato’s dialogues.
Additional notes: Finally, here are some notes on specific passages in the book.
- Chapter 7 is powerfully heartrending (e.g., “I despise my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone; my days have no meaning. What is man that you make so much of him, that you give him so much attention, that you examine him every morning and test him every moment?”).
- Chapter 29 is also very poignant, with Job recounting how wonderful life was back in the day, the great respect and prestige he enjoyed, with the next chapter then beginning, “‘But now they mock me, men younger than I ….'” Incidentally, verses 29:7-17 suggest that Job’s job was judging.
- God’s power is beautifully described in chapter 9:
4 His wisdom is profound, his power is vast. Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?5 He moves mountains without their knowing it and overturns them in his anger.6 He shakes the earth from its place and makes its pillars tremble.7 He speaks to the sun and it does not shine; he seals off the light of the stars.8He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.9 He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.10 He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted.11 When he passes me, I cannot see him; when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.
- Verse 1:21 (“‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart …'”) is very close to Ecclesiastes 5:15 (“Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, he departs …”).
- It’s amusing that the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold in Joshua (see chapter 2) shares a name with a sea monster (Job 9:13).
- I wonder if Shakespeare took the “born of woman” line in Macbeth from verse 15:14.
- Another common quote that, I assume, has its roots in Job is, “This far you may come and no farther” (38:11, internal quotation marks omitted).
- Among God’s questions to Job, perhaps the most noteworthy is (38:36), “Who endowed the heart with wisdom or gave understanding to the mind?” God’s awesome natural handiwork, recounted at length in Job, is indeed wonderful, but His creation of human consciousness and conscience is special, is it not? It is certainly central to many apologetic arguments.
- There is some surprising humor, too. Job addresses Zophar the Naamathite with withering sarcasm in 12:2 (“Doubtless … wisdom will die with you”); see also 26:1-4 . But Job’s friends have some good lines, too (15:7-8): “Are you the first man ever born? … Do you listen in on God’s council?” Note the irony, by the way, in Job being asked that last question.
- How remarkable that, right in the middle of Job (even closer to the precise middle if you take out the Elihu chapters), he declares, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth” (19:25). William F. Buckley, Jr., ended his interview with Playboy by saying this would be his chosen epitaph, which sounds more New Testament than Old, does it not? And the following verse is, “And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (19:26), which also has a strong New Testament flavor, doesn’t it?
- Speaking of the Elihu chapters, which some believe to be a later addition to the book, it is true that the transition from their end to God’s answer to Job is abrupt and rather awkward, and why does Job not respond to him, and why for that matter is Elihu not mentioned in the book’s epilogue when Job’s other interlocutors are? Note that the fact that this might be a later addition and by a different author doesn’t mean it might not also be inspired. And speaking of the New Testament, Job is cited there in I Corinthians 3:19, where Paul quotes Job 5:13 (about how God “catches the wise in their craftiness”).