On The Purposes Of Job’s Suffering

Yesterday in his latest installment in a series of sermons relating to the book of Ephesians, our pastor made an offhand comment that a fellow member of our church’s Council of Elders had stated that the purpose of the book of Job was to encourage believers to question themselves and to justify God.  Without wishing to go into further detail about the matter at this time, I was sufficiently disturbed by the implications of that comment that I was unable to sleep for some hours last night, during which I wrote the text for a sermonette to be given to the speaker’s workshop in about four weeks or so, and perhaps to our congregation after that, if it is not judged as being too fierce in subject matter about the seriousness of justifying God.  Nevertheless, I thought it worthwhile to discuss the question of the purposes of Job’s trials as seen by various beings within the book of Job and to see if the statements attributed to my pastor’s fellow member of the Council of Elders is a reasonable simplification of the multi-layered purpose of the book of Job.  Given that the book of Job has frequently [1] ended up causing intriguing discussions, I suspect I will have a lot more to say about this book in the future, so this is neither the first nor the last word on the subject.

Let us first begin with Job’s own recognition of his trials in Job 42:1-6:  ““I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You.  You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’  Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.  Listen, please, and let me speak; You said, ‘I will question you, and you shall answer Me.’  “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You.  Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.””  When we look at Job’s place at the end of the book of Job, we see that he has abandoned any sort of adversarial intent against God.  He withdraws his demand to know why God has brought the trial upon Him, and has accepted that God can do whatever He wants with the universe.  Having thus repented of his opposition to God and his searching criticism of divine providence and God’s justice, God is free to bless him without any sense of appeasement, and God so blesses Job with more money and more children and great honor, so that Job was vindicated and honored not only in God’s eyes but in the eyes of others.

Yet it is not only Job who speaks about the purposes of his trials, but throughout the book there are a lot of different answers given to the question of why these trials had come upon Job.  To be sure, Job’s own questions are not answered.  He is not told, although the reader is aware, that Job’s sufferings were not as a result of any moral failing of his own but were the result of a cosmic dare made between God and Satan.  We know from Job 1:6-12 that the sufferings of Job are the result of God bringing Job up to Satan as an example of faithfulness and Satan’s own challenge to Job’s faith, which Job passes with flying colors.  As it is written:  “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.  And the Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?”  So Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it.”  Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?”  So Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for nothing?  Have You not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.  But now, stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face!”  And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person.”  So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.  We can see, if we read further on in the prologue to Job, that not only did Satan lose the first bet, but also the second bet.  For Satan, the purpose of the trials was to demonstrate the shallowness of Job’s faith, and for God, the purpose of the trials was to vindicate the righteousness and uprightness of Job.  As is often the case in such matters, the purposes of God were fulfilled, and the purposes of Satan were thwarted.

But these do not exhaust the answers given in the book of Job for the meaning of his suffering.  For Job’s wife, we may note, the meaning of the suffering was that Job should curse God and die, which would have the result of ending the trials but without vindicating Job’s righteous character.  As it is written in Job 2:1-10:  “Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them to present himself before the Lord And the Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?”  Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it.”  Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil? And still he holds fast to his integrity, although you incited Me against him, to destroy him without cause.”  So Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! Yes, all that a man has he will give for his life.  But stretch out Your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will surely curse You to Your face!”  And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand, but spare his life.”  So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and struck Job with painful boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.  And he took for himself a potsherd with which to scrape himself while he sat in the midst of the ashes.  Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!”  But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.”  We might think of Job’s wife as giving a meaning for suffering and trials that is completely ridiculous, but the movement in Europe and in more decadent parts of the United States and other nations to encourage euthanasia and assisted suicide as a way of dealing with incurable illness demonstrates that the folly of Job’s wife in seeking to curse God and die by refusing to persist in integrity in the face of terminal illness is alive and well in contemporary society.  For all too many, trials are simply something to end by any means possible so that one does not have to endure them.

What was the purpose in Job’s suffering seen by Job’s friends?  A representative sample, though by no means the only example, may be found in the first statement of Eliphaz in Job 4:7-8:  ““Remember now, who ever perished being innocent?  Or where were the upright ever cut off?  Even as I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.”  From the purpose of human beings, who often seek to justify ourselves and question God in the face of trials, this answer smacks of blaming the victim, and it would be all too easy for people to point out examples in which (relatively) innocent people perished because of the wickedness of others and not their own.  In this category we would think of innocent children being the victims of sexual abuse, or the victims of the genocidal wrath of Turks (Armenians), Bosnian Serbs, Hitler’s Nazis, and other historically evil people.  But is God impressed by the efforts that Eliphaz and his two sidekicks made in justifying God while attacking the character and integrity of Job?  Not at all.  As it is written in Job 42:7-10:  “And so it was, after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.  Now therefore, take for yourselves seven bulls and seven rams, go to My servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and My servant Job shall pray for you. For I will accept him, lest I deal with you according to your folly; because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.  So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did as the Lord commanded them; for the Lord had accepted Job.  And the Lord restored Job’s losses when he prayed for his friends.”  It is interesting to note that God blessed Job not after he had repented for questioning the justice of God, but after Job had showed mercy on his friends and made an intercessory prayer on their behalf that God would forgive their folly.  It was his graciousness after having had his integrity justified that prompted God’s blessing.  This is all the more important because it put Job in a priestly role that affirmed his high place within God’s economy, and also humbled Job’s friends by putting them in the position of seeking God’s mercy through the prayers of one they had spent so long criticizing as having been a terrible sinner who deserved what came to him.  On both sides, the act brought about reconciliation, as Job’s friends had to seek Job’s forgiveness for their false accusations, and Job was not made proud or arrogant because he turned around and sought God’s mercy on them, thus showing mercy to them himself.

Nor does this exhaust the meanings found by the people within the book of Job for Job’s suffering.  Let us note one last example in discussing what Elihu has to say.  Job 34:34-37 reflects a desire to justify God:  ““Men of understanding say to me, wise men who listen to me:  ‘Job speaks without knowledge, his words are without wisdom.’  Oh, that Job were tried to the utmost, because his answers are like those of wicked men!  For he adds rebellion to his sin; he claps his hands among us, and multiplies his words against God.””  Yet even in this harsh statement, Elihu avoids crossing the line into the judgment and false accusations made by Job’s three friends, because while he says that Job’s answers are like those of wicked men, he does not accuse Job of being wicked.  Yet Elihu shows himself concerned with Job’s integrity as well, as it is written in Job 36:19-21:  “Will your riches, or all the mighty forces, keep you from distress?  Do not desire the night, when people are cut off in their place.  Take heed, do not turn to iniquity, for you have chosen this rather than affliction.”  

What, then, do we see when we look at all of these different explanations for Job’s suffering?  We do see a deep concern that all of the people involved (except for Satan) have with justifying God’s ways.  Even Job, for all of his agonized response of what has happened to him, desires to affirm the justice of God.  We see, ultimately, that God was satisfied with Job’s response to Him, distinguishing between wrestling over the question of divine justice in the face of life’s cruelties and the sort of rebellion that would merit punishment.  God was not as pleased, though, with the response of Job’s friends, who attacked Job’s integrity in an attempt to demonstrate the justice of God.  This suggests that while soul searching and repentance are appropriate responses to the trials that we suffer, accusing others of having deserved the difficulties that come to them is not a godly response.  Since Satan is the accuser of the brethren (see Revelation 12:10), it is not proper or godly to do Satan’s job for him.  Those who would accuse Job of self-righteousness and claim that he deserved his suffering, or those who point to the suffering others deal with and claim that they are certainly the result of sin are called upon to repent of their judgmental attitudes and to seek God’s mercy through those they have falsely accused.  To defend the justice of God’s behavior, to search within ourselves for that which we need to repent of in dust and ashes, and to uphold our own integrity and those of other believers, that is the task that Job provides us, a task of sufficient complexity and difficulty that there is always more to explore here.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/02/16/job-vs-god-a-covenental-lawsuit-part-one/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/02/20/job-vs-god-a-covenantal-lawsuit-part-two/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/08/10/was-david-familiar-with-the-book-of-job-the-enigma-of-psalm-139/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/01/28/for-i-am-full-of-words-the-personal-relevance-of-job-3217-22/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to On The Purposes Of Job’s Suffering

  1. Pingback: There Is A Simple Answer For Everything And It Is Inevitably Wrong | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Catharine Martin says:

    I can understand how the simple statement regarding the lesson of the book of Job being “questioning the self and justifying God” would cause concern. There is much more going on in this book and part of it, as your blog points out, shows the wrong ways that Job’s friends justified God’s actions. It also comes across, by that statement, that Job needed to question himself. He knew his righteousness and didn’t question it. God didn’t question it either, having originally brought it up to Satan. His three friends did question it and God was not pleased.

    • As is the case often in this sort of musing, the original inspiring quote would have been fine with some nuance or explanation, but as a bare statement provoked a rather pointed response.

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