Which Characters in Job Can We Trust?
In a tragic pandemic like the one we’re experiencing now, the book of Job becomes especially relevant to each of our lives. But that book poses a significant dilemma any Bible reader has to resolve. It’s this dilemma: Which characters in the book of Job can we trust? Most of the book’s characters say things we cannot trust. The question today comes from a listener named Joel to Pastor John, who joins us over Skype today. “Thank you for your wonderful podcast, Pastor John. I’m a longtime listener and now a first-time caller (as they say). In the wake of this coronavirus pandemic, I have turned repeatedly to the book of Job. As you’ve said in past sermons, the book is timeless and therefore relevant to our present suffering.
“I’ve read through Job before, and I understand the cycle of conversations between Job and his friends. But as I was reading through Job 5 (Eliphaz is speaking) and I came to verses 17–19, I began asking myself: When Job and his friends speak of God in their ranting, how do I distinguish theology that’s true about God from their own mistaken assumptions? The obvious answer is to survey the landscape of Scripture to find consistencies with other texts. But can we put any stock in what Job or his friends are saying?”
Like the book of Ecclesiastes and like some of the parables of Jesus and like the stories in the book of Judges — I just finished reading Judges this very morning as we’re recording. Oh my goodness. What a terrible book, describing what happens when there’s no king — describing sins. Job, like those three, also narrates ways of thinking and speaking and acting that are sinful.
Good Theology Misused
The speeches of Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar — and Job’s involvement with them for 29 chapters — are mingled with bad theology and good theology, and the good theology is regularly misused. In fact, I think that’s one of the main points of the book of Job: to show how good theology can become bad pastoral practice. Really, I don’t think you’d spend 29 chapters on the misuse of good theology if that weren’t part of the point.
“The wider teaching of Scripture in the Bible functions, rightly understood, as a kind of sieve.”
There’s nothing unusual in all of this in principle, in the way you’d write something. We all tell of conversations that we’ve had, and we tell about events we’ve been a part of, and some of the things we narrate in the conversations we disapprove of, and some of the things we tell about in our experiences we disapprove of. And we expect listeners, if they listened to us, to distinguish what we’re narrating as disapproved and what we’re narrating as approved. And we need to give them clues; we have to help them understand which is which.
So, what makes Job unusual is not that the book includes ways of thinking and speaking that are sinful, but that the dialogue containing these errors is so lengthy, from chapters 3 to 31, where Job and Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar interact for 29 chapters. That’s unusual.
Five Principles for Benefiting from Job
So, Joel’s question is this: Is there value in these speeches? That’s one of his questions. And how do we sort out, in this book, what to approve and what to disapprove of? What can we embrace as life lessons that God intends, and what should we chew up and spit out? And I think that there are five ways that God intends, as the one who inspired this book, to help us be able to profit from and rightly handle and interpret the book of Job. So, here they are.
1. Pay close attention to the narrator.
Not everything Job says is true, and not everything Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar say is true. But what the author says, as the inspired writer, as his own view, that’s true. And he intrudes himself at key points in this story to make us aware of what he’s trying to say through recording all the bad stuff that are not his views.
For example, all of chapters 1–2 are the express viewpoints of the inspired writer. Here’s where we can lay it down, with great confidence, how we are to view God’s sovereignty, the role of Satan, and the proper response of man to suffering and to sovereignty. They’re all laid out for us in the first two chapters. And perhaps the most remarkable example of this is the writer’s comment about Job’s response at the end of each of Job’s two tests from the devil.
Job says in 1:21, at the loss of his children — all ten of his children killed: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” And you might take a deep breath there and say, “Are you sure? Is that good theology? Should we embrace that ‘the Lord has taken away, and he’s blessed’?” And the inspired writer inserts, precisely to help us grasp this, that Job did not misspeak. Here’s what he says: “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (Job 1:22).
“When Job affirms that good and evil, health and disease come from the hand of God, he’s not sinning.”
We have exactly the same thing in the next chapter, when you come to the end of the second test and Job has got boils from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet, and his wife says to him, “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Job says, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). And you might stop there and say, “Job, don’t talk like that. That’s bad theology.” And so, the inspired writer adds, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10). In other words, when Job affirms that good and evil, health and disease come from the hand of God, he’s not sinning; he’s speaking the way we ought to speak.
Here’s another example of how the inspired writer inserts his divine perspective, his inspired perspective, on Job’s suffering. In Job 42:11, looking back over the entire event and experience, he says what I think is one of the most important verses in the book: “Then came to [Job] all his brothers and sisters. . . . And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him.”
That’s not Eliphaz talking, that’s not Bildad talking, that’s not Zophar talking, and it’s not Job talking; that’s the inspired writer putting into words what had happened really in this book. So, my first answer to the question “How does God help us discern how to read this book?” is this: he causes the voice of the inspired writer to be clear as he intrudes himself into his own narrative repeatedly.
2. Weigh differently Elihu’s words.
Here’s the second thing: God intends for us to be guided in reading this book by the appearance of Elihu in chapter 32. Elihu comes, and I believe Elihu is a speaker of truth. I don’t think Elihu is an added idiot to Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. I think he speaks straight and truth. Now, not everybody agrees with me here; you need to know that. A lot of people think Elihu is just another problem. I don’t think that’s true. Let me give you five quick reasons why I think Elihu should be listened to as a correct perspective on what has just been going on between Job and Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar.
He arrives on the scene in chapter 32 with a different perspective over and against Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Job.
The writer devotes six chapters to Elihu. Good night! That’s a lot of space. And here’s the catch: the misguided speeches of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar had been getting shorter and shorter and shorter until, by the end, they had nothing more to say. It wouldn’t make any sense in the narrator’s strategy if he said, “Now, I’m going to give you another jerk like Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. And I’m going to give him six chapters, and I’m not going to say a word of criticism of him.” No way. I just can’t buy it.
Job repents from the very things that Elihu criticizes later on in chapters 40 and 42.
God rebukes explicitly, in Job 42:7, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, but he never says a negative word about Elihu. That’s just got to mean something, right? I think this is the one that tipped me off years ago when I studied this in more detail.
Elihu really does give a different perspective on suffering than Job did. And I just commend to you chapter 33:14–19. And if you want to go into detail, I preached a sermon on this very thing. It’s called “Job: Rebuked in Suffering.”
So, I think Elihu and chapters 32–37 are given by the inspired writer to help set right some of the mistakes that were being made by Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Job as they were talking in those 29 chapters.
3. Consider carefully God’s perspective.
Here’s my third principle that I think God gives to us to help us: God himself speaks in chapters 38–41, and gives us a true perspective on his sovereignty and on Job’s repentance.
4. Look out for Job’s repentance.
The book closes with Job’s repentance and God stepping in, and we get a glimpse of what the errors were that Job repented of.
5. Use the rest of Scripture like a sieve.
This is the one that Joel himself mentioned: the wider teaching of Scripture in the Bible functions, rightly understood, as a kind of sieve to put the words of Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Job through.
All that to say: I think God has not left us without ample help and guidance as to how to sort out what is true and what is not in this book — and not only how to sort out what is true, but also how to use it rather than to misuse it. It is indeed the book we need right now, in this season of suffering in the world, to get our bearings and not to make some of the mistakes that Job made in reaction to God’s sovereignty in his life.