I (Helen) never really appreciated the book of Job. Earlier this year I was working on a Bible reading schedule that had me reading four books at one time. At the beginning of our time in Mexico, one of the books scheduled was Job. I struggled every day to motivate myself to read it. If I were going to list the books of the Bible from my “favourite” to my “least favourite” (very spiritual, I know), Job would probably have been hovering around the “least favourite” end of the spectrum, if not in last place altogether. Upon completing the book in my devotional time, I had the thought, “I really don’t appreciate the book of Job! I probably should teach it some day.” This might seem like a strange conclusion to come to, but I find that if there is a book I under-appreciate, I typically fall in love with it when I study to teach it. Studying through a book I have overlooked can really make me appreciate its value and beauty.
The very same day I had this thought about Job (this was during the lecture phase of Titus, before we were on outreach), I happened to sit at the same lunch table as the Chronological School of Biblical Studies (CSBS) director, Brodie. Brodie asked me about the different outreach opportunities we had as a school, and then mentioned he had asked the Titus staff if one of the Titus participants would teach the book of Job in CSBS. God certainly has a sense of humour! After this conversation, I approached our school leader about teaching Job, and sure enough, I was given the opportunity to teach this book.
Studying to teach Job resulted in the most radical heart change I have experienced about a book of the Bible. There have been books I’ve under-appreciated in the past, that I’ve grown to love through teaching, but not on the same level of Job. I went from struggling to read one chapter of this book a day, to loving the heart of this book and recognizing the incredible message it offers, a message that is just as applicable today as the day it was written. That message? God is trustworthy in the midst of suffering.
We see this message take shape from the very beginning of the book. We tend to get extremely caught up in the first two chapters of Job, and with good reason. The dialogue between God and Satan is somewhat perplexing, and there are many questions to be asked of the text, with little certainty as to the answers. Two of the most important things to note, however, are that a) Job is declared righteous by God, and b) Job is completely unaware of this dialogue between God and Satan. When we don’t understand these two ideas, we can be tempted, like Job’s friends, to suspect Job of foul play. From Job 3-27, Job’s friends argue with Job, determined to find fault in this righteous man.
It’s also important to observe that God is the One who begins the conversation about Job. Satan responds to God, believing Job is only righteous because he has been blessed, but God is the One who brings up Job in the first place. Many people view the book of Job as a sort of “court case,” and while this is valid, it’s key to know that Job is not on trial in this court case. God is on trial. Job is the case study, or star witness in this trial, but God and His policies are under scrutiny. By venturing the question, “Have you considered my servant Job…,” God is allowing Satan to take Him to “trial” and to afflict Job, for the purpose of clarifying His character. Satan believes God’s policies are weak and easily-manipulated, but God is going to show He cannot be reduced down to a formula; His wisdom is beyond our limited understanding.
I find Job 3-27 to be the most challenging chapters to interpret. It can be difficult to trace the arguments of Job and his friends; it’s easy to get lost in the repetition, and without understanding the worldview of Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, it can be challenging to understand their rationale. Knowing about the Retribution Principle is vital in understanding these chapters, as well as Elihu’s discourse (Job 32-37). The Retribution Principle is the idea that the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer. In addition to believing this about the way the world works, Job and his friends believed that if one was prospering, he/she must be righteous; if one was suffering, he/she must be wicked. As Job suffers, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar conclude that there must be some sin in his life, whether he is aware of it or not. The Retribution Principle was a way of understanding the world and how suffering was a part of it, both in Israel and in the rest of the ancient near East. This is not an idea that has gone away with the passing of time, however. It is a theory many continue to hold to today, and can form the foundation of our frustration when we see the righteous suffer.
Something I found especially challenging about Job before studying to teach it, was reading some of Job’s statements throughout his dialogue with his friends, and in his discourse (Job 29-31). God declares Job as righteous at the beginning of the book, and Job clings to that righteousness when every blessing is removed from him (thereby proving Satan incorrect), but Job certainly has some misconceptions about God’s character. I struggled with reconciling how God could call this man “righteous” when he didn’t always speak of God accurately. When God approaches Job in the whirlwind (Job 38-41), God comes with a corrective tone, turning the tables on Job, asking him the questions after Job had lobbed query after query in God’s direction. While Job is righteous, this doesn’t mean his understanding of God is perfect. God’s response? A discourse on His incredible wisdom. Job has been longing for a day in court before God, but when God shows up, Job recognizes he is of small account, and can only humbly listen while God highlights His character, majesty, and wisdom.
God created the heavens and the earth (38:4-38); the ways of His creation, specifically the animal kingdom, are beyond Job’s comprehension (38:39-39:30); Behemoth and Leviathan cannot be tamed (40:15-41:34). His wisdom is beyond human understanding. God is knowable – we can have relationship with Him – but His ways cannot be reduced down to a formula, whether the Retribution Principle, or another way we try to fit God into a box. Job has questioned God’s justice and His wisdom, because God has not acted in a way that fits Job’s idea of how He should behave. Job has looked at the small puzzle piece of his life and suffering, and has believed he knows the full picture of who God is – unjust, and of questionable wisdom. But just like we cannot look at a glass of salt water and decide we know what the ocean looks like, we cannot reduce the Creator of the ocean to a formula.
It’s easy to be critical of Job, but how often do we try to fit God into a box, so we can understand Him? How often do we wrestle with manipulating our sense of who God is when we endure a time of suffering or confusion? So often we shelf God until we need Him, and then when He doesn’t respond to our prayers in the way we want Him to, we shelf Him once again. As God questions Job about whether or not he could control the cosmos, understand His creation, and the intricacies of His ways, we should in turn be reminded that God’s ways are beyond our ways, and we must trust Him, no matter what season of life we find ourselves in. He is completely wise; whether we ever know the reasons behind our own suffering or not, we need to trust Him, and He is worthy of that trust.
We will all suffer. Chances are, you have already experienced suffering in your life. If you haven’t, unfortunately, seasons of suffering come to all of us. We cannot reduce God down to a formula, believing that our righteousness will spare us from trials. We live in a fallen, broken world, a world that is characterized by sin. While the Kingdom of God is breaking through, and we have great reason to hope and to live righteously with our eyes on God, we should not be surprised when we suffer. The message of Job is to trust God in the midst of trials. To believe that though our suffering may never make sense, God is still God, and He is completely wise and trustworthy. His character does not change when we suffer, and rather than shelfing Him or questioning Him in difficult times, we must look to Him, and trust in Him.