Job: When the Righteous Suffer, Part 1

Desiring God 2008 Regional Conference | Austin

Thank you so much for being here. It’s a great, fearful honor to me that you would come to hear about these things because it is so easy to get it wrong — wrong theologically and wrong emotionally. Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar got it mainly right theologically, not always, and they just got it so wrong practically. So I hope you’ll be praying for each other and praying for me that we won’t get it wrong either way — that we’ll be faithful to the word and what it says, and will in our speaking and in our dealing with each other between the sessions, be very, very alert to where people are on this issue.

People are here because they’re dying. You need to know that. I have emails. People are here because others have died. So if it felt from the beginning like there was an unusual seriousness about this, there is. I have 11 reasons for why I’ve come to talk to you about suffering from Job, and I’ll list them off. They don’t take long, but I’m going to give you these.

Reasons for Speaking

If you wonder, “Why did you come to this place to talk about this to us?” Here they are:

Number one, hundreds of you have suffered or are suffering and you are looking for light in the darkness. For example, one of you wrote me, “I prayed that God would show me how to respond. That he would anoint John Piper this weekend. I am praying that God would speak through John Piper in his words about suffering, and that this would help me better understand God’s purpose for me and my family now after that.”

Number two, your suffering is coming for sure. Basic discipleship included, for the apostle Paul, coming back on the missionary journey and going to every church, strengthening the souls of the disciples, saying, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

There is no other path. That’s basic discipleship. If you work discipling people, that should be on your agenda early. You come to Christ, you come to suffer. There is no other path to heaven.

Number three, persecution, disease, war, disability, disaster, freak accident, and assault are all the same with regard to two things, which is why I don’t want anybody to start making distinctions like, “Oh, that’s just relating to persecution, not disease.” They’re all the same with regard to two things.

First, the design of the devil is the same in all of them. He wants to destroy your faith. Second, the design of God in all of them is to strengthen your faith. It doesn’t really matter whether somebody’s putting a gun to your head or cancer is in your head, it’s the same issue. The faith issue is the same and that’s why I’m here. I want to deal with that. I want your faith to be stronger. I don’t want the devil to win in your life.

Theodicy and Unbelief

Number four, natural disasters have put theodicy — that is, the justification of God and his ways — in the news more in the last five years than ever in my lifetime, since 9/11 or the tsunami or the cyclone in the early 1990s. We just forget these so fast. Half a million people were swept away in Bangladesh in 1991, which was way bigger than the tsunami, and we just forget them. There are tornadoes down in your neck of the woods here, and there is flooding up in my neck of the woods.

These are strange days, and almost whenever anything like that happens, NPR and the news stations are on the phone to a Jew, an Imam, an evangelical to tell us where God was. This is news, and therefore we need to think about it. It’s not private. It’s not a private issue that only Christians talk about.

Number five, God is rejected wholesale by many because of suffering in the world, and because of these issues. The other day, I was listening to a debate between Doug Wilson and Dan Barker, an atheist. It was valuable for me to listen, not because of what Doug said — I knew what he’d say, and I liked it all — but because of what the atheist said, which simply took my breath away.

It is so good for me to be exposed to the horrors inside people’s heads that come out in blasphemous words tripping off the tongue as though the earth would not open up underneath, which, in mercy, it didn’t. One of the things he said was that any God who creates hell deserves to go there, and many other such things.

Now hell simply represents the worst suffering, the worst in intensity and the worst in length, and therefore dealing with that is what many people simply cannot handle. Therefore they write God off. He just does not exist, at least the God of the Bible doesn’t. We’ve got to deal with it because people reject God because of these issues.

Critics of the Sovereignty of God

Number six, there are Christian critics of the sovereignty of God. Oh, how they spoke loudly after the tsunami, and in regard to personal suffering. Here’s a page from Mission Frontiers, which is one of my favorite missionary magazines in which my good friend, Ralph Winter, wrote:

Insofar as we automatically attribute all misfortune, all disease, all sickness to the mysterious mind of God, that perspective cuts the nerve of any intense, intentional fighting back. For example, Charles Colson is as brilliant and dedicated a Christian as they come, yet after his daughter had struggled for many years with an autistic son, called Alex, Colson praised her when she came to the conclusion that, “Alex is exactly the way God wants him to be.”

Winter replies to that and says:

The idea that God would want any child to be brain damaged is inconceivable. Even more important, this fatalistic perspective, no matter how brave and noble, cuts the nerve of anyone wanting to join the increasing number of parents who want to get to the bottom of why autism is skyrocketing.

I don’t believe either of those statements is true. I don’t believe it’s true that it’s inconceivable that God should will your child’s disability. And I don’t think it’s true that those who believe in the absolute sovereignty of God are less involved in fighting evil and sickness and every other kind of horror in the world than those who don’t believe in it are. I don’t think historically that’s true, and I don’t think it’s true today, but that’s what some Christians are saying.

David Hart, in The Wall Street Journal, said after the tsunami, “No Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable councils or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends.” Well, I do utter that, with no fear in the presence of God Almighty that it is blasphemy.

The Precious Comfort of God’s Sovereignty

Number seven, the wise, good, just, absolute sovereignty of God is pastorally precious beyond measure. I’ve been a pastor for 28 years. I have buried many people. I know that one of my 17 year olds is still in a coma from the accident last week. I know these things. I live with this every day of my life. I also read the newspaper and look at the internet.

I am inundated with pain — my own and my people’s — and I testify and don’t just argue that after 28 years the absolute, good, wise, total sovereignty of God over our lives is pastorally precious beyond measure. It’s not an embarrassment in the hospital. I promise you, it’s not. The words “Satan meant it for evil and God meant it for good” has sustained many a broken heart.

The Spread of the Gospel

Number eight, suffering is appointed as one way for the gospel to spread. This is what I’m going to talk about at a conference here later on the weekend called The Purpose-Driven Death. That’s a very, very, very biblical title, and it’s rooted in Colossians 1:24. Do you remember what Jesus said to Peter when they were talking at the end of the Gospel of John about Peter’s death? It says: “This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God” (John 21:19).

That’s a purpose-driven death. The point here is that God doesn’t just use the aftermath of the event of suffering to spread the gospel; God designs to spread the gospel by the suffering of his agents. The suffering of his agents is one of his appointed means by which he will make himself look magnificently superior to life. The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life (Psalm 63:3). How can you show that if you only prosper? Talk won’t do it.

One of the best histories of the totality of missions since Jesus is Stephen Neil’s book A History of Christian Missions. He has a few pages which I copied out here on why it was under God that the Christian movement virtually conquered the Roman Empire in 300 years. What was it about these simple people that so vitally spread throughout the Roman Empire? He lists six reasons, and the last one was this: “Under the Roman Empire, Christians had no legal right to exist.”

We Americans just get bent out of shape when our rights are taken away. Why do we think Christians should have any right for anything? This country is a footnote on the future reality, a weird one. And we act like it’s the thing, and get upset, saying, “We can’t post our commandments and we can’t preach our sermons, why?” Read your Bible. We don’t have any rights in this world. We are aliens and exiles and refugees. Satan is the god of this world. We testify unto death. Now I’m starting to paraphrase. Let me get back here and read the rest of what Neill says:

Under the Roman Empire, Christians had no legal right to exist. Every Christian knew that sooner or later, he might have to testify to his faith at the cost of his life.

That’s why it spread. American, wimpy Christianity won’t spread. It’s those who know it may cost them their lives, who treasure Jesus more than they treasure life, let alone any lifestyle, that will make it spread. The rest will just shrink into its little comfortable enclave.

The Beauty of Christ Displayed in Suffering

Number nine, the beauty, the admirableness, and the glory of Jesus Christ is displayed, demonstrated, shown, and revealed most clearly where Christians treasure Christ more than they treasure what they’re losing, whether children, health, life, or marriage.

If you get in God’s face and begin to demean him or belittle him or dis him because of something that’s being taken away, you’re showing where your treasure is, and it doesn’t speak well to the world about him being our supreme treasure. There’s the big issue. In this seminar, that’s the big issue of the Book of Job. That’s what Satan wanted not to be known — that God is more valuable than Job’s family. He desperately didn’t want that to be known.

Number ten, Job is the main book in the Bible for dealing with this issue straight up. It can help us with all of these things. It was written unlike any of the other books, mainly for this. The issue is all over the Bible, but Job is where it comes to a head as we heard Scott quote from James 5:11. I wrote down one more as I was coming over here.

Number eleven, in my own name, I have no right to address suffering people about suffering. I haven’t suffered much, and as I reflected on that today I thought, “There aren’t two classes of people in the world — sufferers and non-sufferers. There are hundreds of classes of people, namely everybody suffering at different levels.” Some more one day and some less another day; some more one year and some less another year. And therefore, if we start saying, “Who can talk to whom about how much they’ve suffered?” Almost nobody will talk to anybody about this. Besides that, I do not speak to you in my own name, and I would encourage you not to believe anything John Piper says that is not warranted by the Bible.

If I cannot show you what I say in the Bible, you have a full reason to say, “Not sure about that,” and put a question mark on it and go home and think about it. Mainly we’re going to be looking at the Bible in this session. So if you have a Bible, which I hope you do, let’s go to Job. It’s almost in the middle of the Bible, right before Psalms. We’ll maybe get through chapter 31 tonight. Do you believe that? I’ve never gotten through 31 chapters in years, let alone minutes. But that’s my goal, and if I don’t reach it, I’ll quicken the pace tomorrow.

A Blameless and Upright Man

Job 1:1 begins:

There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

The author sets up the book with a very good man. There was nobody like him. He was blameless and upright, and he feared, reverenced, and treasured God. I don’t think the word fear is slavish. It doesn’t work in the context if it’s a cowering, slavish fear.

It’s a kind of trembling, wonder, awe, and delight to come into the presence of God and the fear that you would do anything to dishonor him or demean him or belittle his value. Job fears him, and the implication or the result of that in his life was that he turned away from evil. Job 1:2–3 continues:

There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He possessed 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 female donkeys, and very many servants, so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.

So his goodness had been blessed with prosperity, as many of yours has.

Job 1:4–5 says:

His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each one on his day, and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and consecrate them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually.

Now what comes out there are two things about Job. First, he has a jealousy for the name of God. He thinks, “If my kids cursed the name of God I want to make that right, as right as a dad can make it.” And second, he has concern for his kids. If they’ve cursed God he prays, “Oh God, would you receive this offering? Would you have mercy upon my children?” This is what dads do. They get up in the morning and they pray for their kids, right dads? We get up in the morning and we lay hold on God and say, “Preserve those marriages, oh God. Keep their faith, oh God. Guard their orthodoxy, oh God. Protect their children. Guard their hearts. Fight for my kids, God.”

You pray a lot more when they’re adults, or maybe most when they’re teenagers. Although now, I don’t think that’s true because I only have one teenager. She’s 13 and all my boys are grown, and I’m mainly concerned about them.

Calamity Comes Upon Job

Then the calamity came. I’m going to skip over Job 1:6–12 and come back to it in a moment. Job 1:13–18 says:

Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and there came a messenger to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The Chaldeans formed three groups and made a raid on the camels and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

Well, so much for Job’s prosperity. In one afternoon all of his possessions are gone and all of his children are dead. This happened to the most upright, God-fearing man in the east. What happened? This makes no sense, right? This is absurd. This is unintelligible. We would ask, “What on earth is going on?” And the answer of the book is that earth will never give you the answer. Heaven will give you the answer — not the whole answer that you want maybe, but it will give an answer.

Have You Considered My Servant Job?

Let’s back up now to heaven and see what happened. This is Job 1:6–8:

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And 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, who fears God and turns away from evil?”

That’s weird. A thief sneaks into the jewelry shop at night looking to steal diamonds while the owner is in the back room, and he runs into the owner and the owner says, “What are you doing here?” And he says, “I’m looking around for diamonds to steal.” And the owner says, “Have you seen the biggest one? It’s up front under glass. Here’s the key.” This is strange. Now, I assume that God’s not a bumbler, as if he would say, “Oh, I didn’t mean to say that. I didn’t mean to draw attention to Job. I should have brought attention to some carnal Christian over here.”

Therefore, I do assume God is setting him up. Use whatever words you want. God is manifestly proud of Job, and I use that word carefully. I’m very hesitant to use that word of humans feeling about humans because pride means you have some stake, you’ve got some causality in what they are like. God had a huge stake in what Job was like, and therefore I say he was hugely proud of Job. Job feared God, and his fear of God called so much attention to the worth, value, power, truth, justice, goodness, wisdom, and grace of God that God beamed over Job in the front, in the presence of Satan.

Satan Demands Job

Well, Satan is not impressed. Job 1:9–11 says:

Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”

Do you see what he’s doing? This is the setup. This is what’s at stake in the book. This is what the book is about. Will it become evident that Job values his possessions more than God, or will it become evident to the devil, all the host of heaven, and all the people of Uz that Job values God more than he values his children, his sheep, his oxen, his camels, and his donkeys? That’s the issue of the book.

God could have said, “I don’t need to prove anything to you, Satan. I know the heart of my man. I see everything. I know Job better than Job knows Job or anybody else knows Job. He doesn’t need to prove anything to you or me, be gone.” That’s what he could have done. Just like Jesus said “Be gone” to the demons and they obeyed him. Satan always obeys God. He commands the unclean spirits and they obey him.

Satan is in God’s presence by massive sovereign permission, but God evidently has already set this up. He’s not going to change his mind. He knows where he’s going. So when Satan says, “The only reason he worships you, the only reason he fears you, and the only reason he treasures you is because you give him stuff.” Then in Job 1:12 it says:

And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

Somebody killed the servants and the kids. God is in the process here of demonstrating to the heavenly hosts and to any others who have eyes to see that he himself is paramount in the heart of Job. That’s what he’s aiming to do. That’s the most important thing in the world to God. I didn’t throw that sentence out quickly. His being paramount in the hearts of his people is the most important thing in the world to God. Everything else is a means to that end — his supremacy in the hearts of his people.

Job Holds Fast

All right, in round one Job is the victor. Let’s read it. Job 1:20–21 says:

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job’s answer to the question, “Who killed the kids?” is God. That’s what it says. The Lord took them away, and he took all his donkeys and all his camels. Now, you could argue hermeneutically, “Oh, this is like Ecclesiastes; ninety-nine percent of the book is false.” That won’t work here. And there are numerous reasons why, but the biggest one is in the next verse where the author foresees that objection and answers it. Job 1:22 says:

In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.

In other words, when he said that the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, that wasn’t wrong; it wasn’t sin. He wasn’t saying anything about God that would be sinful. That’s why that verse is there, because it’s so breathtaking. Job, you’ve shaved your head, you’ve ripped your clothes, you’re weeping your eyes out for weeks, and you’re saying, “God did it,” and you’re worshiping him? That’s what it says.

Skin for Skin

Scarcely, could the victory be over, it seems, and he is covered with sores. I don’t know how much time elapses between chapter one and chapter two, it doesn’t say. But we’re given the impression it wasn’t long. In Job 2:7–8 it says that loathsome sores covered him from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head, and he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.

Now, these were horrible sores. If you read the rest of the book, just looking for instances where they’re described, there’s one place where they get so grimey with dirt that they get worms in them. You’ve never experienced anything like these sores, and it was from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. They were loathsome and they were horrible — horrible to look at, horrible to touch.

He wouldn’t even touch them with his fingers. He took a piece of broken pottery just to scrape the pus out and try to get the worms and the dirt out. This was horrible, and so we ask again, what is going on? He passed the test and he was the best man to start with. He worshiped you when his kids were killed. What more do you want? What is going on? And the answer is given in Job 2:3 again:

And 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, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.”

That’s an amazing verse. Now not only is it Job, but God saying, “I did it. You incited me against my boy, and I did it without reason.” Now that’s not a helpful translation. In the RSV, it says “without cause” and that’s closer. The point is this: “If you take the man Job and look at his life, there’s nothing there that explains why this came down on him.” And that’s right, there isn’t. There’s nothing there that explains the magnitude of this suffering coming down.

But when you translate it without reason, it sounds like you might be saying there’s no purpose. We’re going to find out that is not the case, but it sure looks irrational and absurd. If you’re going to ordain that boils come on a person, pick a bad person, which is exactly what Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar are going to hammer Job with very soon. Job 2:4–6 continues:

Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.”

Do you see God’s sovereignty there? He says, “Thus far and no farther you may go. I draw the lines for Satan everywhere he goes. I pull him back and I let him out. He’s never free from my sovereign rule.”

Receiving Good and Evil from God

Then Job 2:7 says:

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.

Now, what’s the result? His wife can’t take him anymore. I feel sorry for his wife. In the poem that I wrote, I created a conversion for her. I have a lot of sympathy for this woman, and I think the author and Job do too because of the wording here. Look how he words it. She’s just lost her kids, right? There were 10 children. And she’s watched her husband, who valiantly worshiped God, be struck with boils. This is not easy. We’re going to cut her a lot of slack if words come out of her mouth that shouldn’t.

There’s this beautiful verse in chapter six that talks about words for the wind. It says, “Do you think that you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind?” (Job 6:26). There’s a lot of words for the wind in the midst of tragedy. Pastors need to discern what are words for the wind. He doesn’t correct them; he just lets them go off into the wind. He knows they will say better things tomorrow. I hope she does too, although we’re never quite made clear, but here’s what it says:

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” (Job 2:9).

And then here’s what he did not say. He did not say, “You are one of the foolish women.” He didn’t say that. He replied, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak” (Job 2:10). I just think that’s intentional. He’s giving her a break. He is saying, “You’re not one of them honey. This isn’t you.”

A Thought for Family Life

Let me just put in a little parenthesis here. This has almost nothing to do with anything in the passage. It’s just here in my brain. I have a 13-year-old daughter who often says things to her mother that she shouldn’t. I hear the tone of voice from the living room. She’s storming out of the kitchen, and on the way upstairs I stop her in the middle of the steps, and I say, “Talatha, wait a minute before you go up. That wasn’t you Talatha. That’s your old nature honey. You’re a believer. You’re a new woman in Christ. That’s not the way the new woman talks. Just go up and get right with your Lord and your Savior, and then come and talk to your mom.”

I just mentioned that to you because I think if you don’t build into your kids an understanding of how they as Christians can sin, they will become class A legalists from the get-go. Just make sure you have a way of doing the correction and doing the rebuking if the child has made a profession of faith. I’m assuming not every child is a believer, but if they have you should try to do that.

The Ultimate Cause of Calamity

Here’s what he says. This is Job 2:10:

But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

You have an exact parallel to Job 1:22 in this verse. There it says, “Job did not sin or charge God with wrong here,” and here it says, “Job did not sin with his lips,” when he said, “Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord and not receive evil?”

Now here’s a catch. He said, “I have received evil from the Lord,” meaning, “I have received calamity. I’ve received my disease from the Lord.” Look at Job 2:7 again. It says Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and struck Job with loathsome sores. Satan struck him with loathsome sores. Is one of those verses wrong? No. It’s very right to give Satan his due here. Satan was evidently the immediate agent, however he does it, like the woman that was bent over for 18 years, remember? Jesus healed her and said, “Shall not a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bent over for 18 years, be healed on the Sabbath?” (Luke 13:16).

Satan does that kind of thing in your life and in my life, but what Job knows — and he knows it because of all these things we’re seeing — is that Satan is on a leash. He can’t do anything without God ordaining and permitting it, and therefore he’s looking right through the immediate cause up to the ultimate cause and saying, “Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord and not receive evil?”

Now, I personally have a vision of heaven at that moment in which Satan is kept on the leash with God saying, “You’re not going away. You’re going to watch this.” And those two times Job says, “Blessed be the name of the Lord. Though he gives and takes,” and, “I will not curse him, because doesn’t he have a right to give good and evil?” I see 10 million angels and 20 million hands go up, saying, “Blessed be the God of Job for his infinite worth and value in Job’s heart.” And I see Satan just seething. That’s why we suffer.

Those choruses ring out quietly here in hospital rooms among nurses, but they ring out with unbelievable power in the vindication of God’s purposes in the heavenly places where all the demons cower and all the angels celebrate the triumph of the worth of God in the hearts of his people.

Observations from Job

Let me just draw out a few lessons here that are real obvious. First, Satan aims to destroy your joy in God and your treasuring of God. That’s very clear here.

Second, God aims to magnify his worth. We’ve seen that very clearly, and the mirror that he chooses to show it in is the indestructible joy of his people in him even when they lose everything on the earth.

Third, God grants to Satan limited power to cause pain. He is on a leash. God says, “Behold, all that he has is in your power. Only upon him do not put forth your hand” (Job 1:12). Then in Job 2:6 he says, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.”

Fourth, Satan’s work is ultimately the work of God, that’s why it says in 2:3, “You incited me against him.” That’s why it says in Job 1:21, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” And that’s why it says in Job 2:10, “Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord and not receive evil?” And just in case we missed it, you might want to flip over to chapter 42. This is the last chapter.

Maybe you’re asking, “Are we putting too much weight on this? Is this really the way the whole book is being conceived and structured by the author?” I just want to direct your attention to Job 42:11. It says:

Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him …

So there it is. It says, “All the evil that the Lord had brought upon him.”

The Friends of Job

We’re going to turn to the three friends now. There was one thing about which the three friends and Job totally agreed, and it’s the one thing that Christians today don’t agree with, at least many of them. These four, and you could include Elihu and Job’s wife here, when they grapple with how to solve the problem of suffering, never call God’s sovereignty into question. Never. That’s the first thing we called into question. Amazing. They had other questions. Is he good? Is he righteous? Is he just? But “Is he in charge?” was never a question.

So let’s meet these fellows who show up here. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are coming, they’re in Job 2:11 and following.

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him…and they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

That was their golden moment because they didn’t say anything, and that’s probably what you should do when you show up at the hospital for a season as well. Just sit quietly. Don’t be afraid of the truth. One of the lessons we’re going to learn in this next unit, which is a big unit, chapters 3–31 is that true theology can hurt people really badly. You can use true statements very unwisely. So keep your eyes peeled for that.

Talking in Circles

Now, I’m going to have to do some really big overviewing here, right? We’re going to go all the way through chapter 31 in the next 15 minutes or so. What you have in these chapters is three cycles of speeches. What I mean by cycles is this. Eliphaz speaks, Job speaks. Bildad speaks, Job speaks. Zophar speaks, Job speaks. Then it repeats itself again. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar speak with Job in between. When you get to the last cycle, it’s Eliphaz, Job, Bildad, Job, and then it’s over.

Now the structure itself, Zophar dropping off the end of the three cycles and breaking the symmetry, is not an accident. In fact, the speeches of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar get shorter and shorter and shorter. And Job becomes increasingly faith-filled and increasingly strong as you move through these chapters. Bildad’s last speech is a mere six verses, and Zophar can’t open his mouth anymore. Job silences his friends.

So what we want to see here is what were they saying? What’s the big picture of what they were saying and why were they silenced by what Job was saying? Neither of them is saying very good things because God really gets in Job’s face. Who is this that darkens counsel against me? And he’s talking to Job, who had it better than the three friends. So that’s what we want to do in these next few minutes.

Now these fellows break out of their silence because of Job’s breaking out of his silence in a way that really makes them upset. In Job 3:1, he opens his mouth. For seven days, they’re sitting together just groaning in aching silence, and then Job opened his mouth and cursed the day he was born, saying:

Let the day perish on which I was born …

Then in Job 3:11–12 he says:

Why did I not die at birth,
   come out from the womb and expire?
Why did the knees receive me?
   Or why the breasts, that I should nurse?

Then in Job 3:20 he says:

Why is light given to him who is in misery,
   and life to the bitter in soul …

Questioning God

Now Job is questioning whom here? God. Because the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. The Lord gives. He is saying, “I’m born by the design of God. Why did you do that to me? I don’t like the idea that I was born. Far better not to have been born than to have these boils.” That’s what he’s saying.

Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar don’t like that. And so they begin their work. Eliphaz speaks in Job 4:7–8 and says:

Remember: who that was innocent ever perished?
   Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity
   and sow trouble reap the same.

That is the principle unpacked in the next 25 chapters. The wicked suffer. Now, they say it soft at first, but by the time they’re done they’re going to be brutal. This shows you where an inadequate theology will take you. They are going to be brutal. Job 5:17 says:

Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves;
   therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty.

Now the reason I quote you that is to cut Eliphaz some slack here. Eliphaz is willing to hold out the possibility, this is discipline and not punitive. That Job is good and God is disciplining him, not punishing, but that vanishes in a hurry. I just want to show you the complexity of this writer, and how he does not make it easy for us the way he puts things together because things are nuanced and you think somebody’s all bad and suddenly they’re not all bad, or you think somebody’s all good and they’re not all good. It’s a very complex book. Eliphaz doesn’t have a totally haywire theology, that would make it easy if he did, but it’s not that easy.

Teach Me, and I Will Be Silent

Job 5:8 says:

As for me, I would seek God,
   and to God would I commit my cause …

As though Job weren’t. It’s too simple, Eliphaz. Job protests in Job 6:10, saying:

This would be my comfort;
   I would even exult in pain unsparing,
   for I have not denied the words of the Holy One.

He’s protesting his innocence here because he says in Job 6:24:

Teach me, and I will be silent;
   make me understand how I have gone astray.

He’s saying, “So you say this is owing to my sin. Show me my sin.” He was an upright man, he was blameless, he feared God. He turned away from evil. His reputation out in the land was that he was a good man, so he says, “Show me my sin.” Bildad comes in now and responds in Job 8:3–4:

Does God pervert justice?
   Or does the Almighty pervert the right?
If your children have sinned against him,
   he has delivered them into the hand of their transgression.

I put an exclamation point in my margin way a long time ago. I thought, “Can you talk like that to this man?” He is saying God killed them because they sinned. Maybe. He continued in Job 8:5–6:

If you will seek God
   and plead with the Almighty for mercy …

Both Wicked and Righteous Suffer

Job responds that this is the party line and he’s tired of it. Job 9:22 says:

It is all one; therefore I say,
   ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’

You say the blameless get rewarded and the wicked suffer, but I’m telling you they both suffer. He continues on Job 9:23–24:

When disaster brings sudden death,
   he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.
The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;
   he covers the faces of its judges
— if it is not he, who then is it?

In other words, what Job is bringing to bear against the artificial theology of his opponents is reality. Just reality. He is saying, “I can point to a thousand good people who are suffering, and I can point to a thousand wicked people who are prospering. Don’t give me your platitudes of the righteous prosper and the wicked sufferer. That’s a lot of crap.” And so is contemporary prosperity theology, because that’s what this book is about.

Let Zophar have a word here. In Job 11:14-15 he says:

If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away,
   and let not injustice dwell in your tents.
Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish;
   you will be secure and will not fear.

They only have one solution for Job’s suffering: You’ve got hidden sin. That’s it. And he’s getting tired of hearing it because it is so out of sync with reality. Job knows it and they can’t see it for the nose on their face. And so he begins to use sarcasm in his responses. In Job 12:31, he talks about these moral common places. In Job 13:12, he says, “Your Proverbs are of ashes.” And in Job 13:4 he says, “Worthless physicians are you all.” Then in Job 13:3 he says:

But I would speak to the Almighty,
   and I desire to argue my case with God.

In other words, I might get something right from him, but not from you.

Adding Insult to Injury

That was the end of cycle one, and the other two cycles don’t have anything new. They don’t have anything new. They just keep coming back to it again and again, only they get brutal. Consider in cycle two these words. I’ll just read them quickly instead of having you go there. Job 15:20 says:

The wicked man writhes in pain …

In Job 18:5, Bildad says:

“Indeed, the light of the wicked is put out …

Then in Job 20:5, Zophar says:

The exulting of the wicked is short …

Chip, chip, chip — all they do is talk about the same old thing. Then here comes cycle three. They’re almost done. It gets shorter and shorter. And this time they become as brutal as they can get. It might be good to look at this one. This is Eliphaz. He started pretty well and he’s ending horribly. Job 22:5–9 says:

Is not your evil abundant?
   There is no end to your iniquities.
For you have exacted pledges of your brothers for nothing
   and stripped the naked of their clothing.
You have given no water to the weary to drink,
   and you have withheld bread from the hungry.
The man with power possessed the land,
   and the favored man lived in it.
You have sent widows away empty,
   and the arms of the fatherless were crushed.

That is not true, and everybody knows it’s not true. They’re driven to lies by their theology — a theology that says a sovereign God cannot bring suffering on the righteous. That theology drives a person to lies, which is why it is so pastorally unhelpful. Well, Bildad then tries for six verses, and Zophar shuts his mouth.

Lessons from Job’s Friends

Here are some concluding lessons from this section. Number one, true theological statements can be used to harm people and become faults in their divine purpose. When you read these men, I know you’re going to stumble because they’re going to sound like certain Psalms. You read Eliphaz, you read Bildad, and you read Zophar, and they sound just like some of the Psalms, and the Psalms are good, they’re true. They’re divinely inspired, and you want to say, “Oh wait a minute, I thought these guys were bad?” They are bad, but they’re using a lot of good theology with which to do bad stuff. They’re so unkind. They’re so impatient. They’re so brittle. They make so few distinctions.

They don’t have the capacity to handle the complexity of life with their little simple boxes of “you’re bad, so you get bad; you’re good, so you get good.” That won’t work. Job has driven the point and silenced them, and we need to know that if we go to that theology, it won’t work.

Number two, suffering and prosperity are not distributed in the world in proportion to the evil or the good that a person does. Job is right in Job 21:30 when he says:

The evil man is spared in the day of calamity …

Job is right in Job 12:4, when he says that the just and blameless man is a laughingstock. And therefore brothers and sisters, let us be slow to judge each other’s hearts by whether we lost a job, or a marriage begins to falter, or a child leaves home, or a disease comes, or a reputation is sullied. Let us be slow to say, “We now know what that heart is like because this and this and this happened.” You don’t know. You don’t know. That’s the point.

God Reigns Over the Affairs of Men

Number three, nevertheless, even though suffering and prosperity do not directly correlate to how much good and evil people have done, God still reigns over the affairs of men from the greatest to the smallest. God is sovereign. That’s clear in everything that’s said. Let me read you Job 12:13–16. This is Job speaking — Job the complainer. He says:

With God are wisdom and might;
   he has counsel and understanding.
If he tears down, none can rebuild;
   if he shuts a man in, none can open.
If he withholds the waters, they dry up;
   if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land.
With him are strength and sound wisdom;
   the deceived and the deceiver are his.

Now, that’s Job in the midst of his suffering and in the midst of his complaining saying God is still sovereign.

Lastly, there is wisdom behind the apparent arbitrariness of this world, but it is a hidden wisdom by and large. It’s not totally hidden, as we’ll see when we turn to the speeches of Elihu next, but let me close by reading something from chapter 28. This is Job. He’s near the end. In Job 28:12–13, he says:

But where shall wisdom be found?
   And where is the place of understanding?
Man does not know its worth,
   and it is not found in the land of the living.

Then Job 28:23 says:

“God understands the way to it,
   and he knows its place.

I’ll show you more of this, especially from chapter 19 as we make the transition to the speeches of Elihu. Another young man appears on the scene, and he doesn’t like what Job has said, and he doesn’t like what Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar have said. Who is this man? Is what he says better, or is it more of the same? We’re going to build a bridge to Elijah by going back to chapter 19, where Job says, “I know that my redeemer lives…and in my flesh I shall see God.” (Job 19:25–26).