Job: When the Righteous Suffer, Part 1

Desiring God 2008 Regional Conference

Job: When the Righteous Suffer

This is a serious topic. Some people here are dying — I have the emails. Some of you know people who have recently died. This is a timely and serious topic. I have compiled a list of reasons for why I have come to discuss suffering. Here they are:

  1. Hundreds of you have suffered or are suffering and are looking for light in your darkness.

  2. Suffering is coming. For sure. Basic discipleship means tribulations.

  3. Persecution, disease, war, disability, disaster, freak accident, assault — all are alike in this: Satan aims to destroy your faith, but God aims to strengthen it.

  4. Natural disasters put theodicy in the news: tsunami, Katrina, flooding, tornadoes, avalanches.

  5. God is rejected by many because of the suffering in the world.

  6. There are Christians who openly question the sovereignty of God over all suffering.

  7. God’s wise, good, just, absolute sovereignty is pastorally precious beyond measure. Being able to say, “Satan meant it for evil, but God...” gives hope and strength. Nothing is wasted. Nothing surprises God.

  8. Suffering is appointed as one way the Gospel is spread.

  9. The supreme value and glory and admirableness of Christ is shown most clearly when Christians treasure Christ more than they treasure what they’re losing — health, wealth, family, or life.

  10. Job is the main book in the Bible dealing with suffering. It can help us in all these ways.

(The remainder of these notes is adapted from the sermon manuscripts for “Job: Reverent in Suffering” and “Job: Wrestling with Suffering.”)

Job’s Character and Blessing

Verse 1 introduces us to the man Job and his character. He was “blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil.” If suffering is intended as a punishment for evil, Job is not a likely candidate. He turns away from evil because he fears God. He pursues right and avoids evil. His reputation is blameless. His reverence for God governs all he does.

Verses 2–3 describe the way God had blessed him in his righteousness. He had seven sons and three daughters and huge numbers of sheep and camels and oxen and servants. He was the greatest of all the people of the east.

Verses 4–5 describe a specific instance of Job’s fear of God and uprightness toward his children. Every time that his sons and daughters gathered for a feast, Job would get up early the next morning and offer burnt offerings for each one just in case any of them had sinned or cursed God in their heart. In other words he was extremely jealous for the honor of God’s name, that it not be profaned, and he was extremely vigilant for the sake of his children, not wanting any of them to come to ruin. He was a good man.

Job’s Calamity

Then the calamity came. Skip down to 1:13. It was on one of those feast days when all ten of his children were gathered in the home of the oldest brother.

First a messenger comes to Job and tells him that the Sabeans had attacked and stolen all his oxen and asses and killed all the servants with them (verses 14–15).

Then another messenger comes and says that the fire of God had fallen and destroyed all his sheep and the servants with them (verse 16).

Then another messenger comes and says that the Chaldeans had raided the camel herd and taken them all and killed the servants (verse 17).

And finally the message comes that all of his children were crushed to death when a tornado caused the house to collapse (verses 18–19).

A Glimpse into Heaven to Understand Events on Earth

All Job’s prosperity is gone in one afternoon. What in the world is going on here? To see what is going on we have to look outside the world. This world alone never answers the great questions of life. The answer is found in heaven. So the writer gives us a glimpse into heaven to understand better what is happening on earth.

A Meeting Between God and Satan

Verses 6–12 describe a meeting between God and Satan. In verse 7 Satan says that he spends his time going to and fro on the earth. Then God puts on display a trophy that he delights in very much. He says, “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?”

It’s as though a diamond thief should meet the owner at the back of a jewelry store late at night. The owner says, “What are you doing?” And the thief answers, “Just walking around in your store.” And then the owner says, “Did you see our most precious diamond up there at the front?”

God Sets Job Up for Trouble

Now I rule out the possibility that God is a bumbler. God never says, “Oops.” That leaves us with one possibility: He is setting Job up for trouble. He is manifestly proud of Job. Job’s fear of God has endeared God to Job in a very deep way.

Satan is not impressed. In verse 9 he insinuates that Job is not such a great specimen of reverence for God. He says that the only reason Job fears God is to get rich. “Does Job fear God for no reason?” Job fears God because it will mean health wealth and prosperity, that’s all. So Satan says to God in verse 11, “Stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”

This is what the book is about: Is Satan right? Will it become evident that Job values what he has more than God?

God could have said, “I don’t need to prove anything to you or anybody else. I know the heart of my servant Job and that is enough for me.” He could have, but in this case he didn’t. God chooses to get an open victory over Satan for his own glory. A test will show that in the heart of Job God himself is more highly esteemed than any possession or any family member.

So God says in verse 12, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only against him do not stretch out your hand.”

Job’s Reverent Response

Verses 20–21 record the victory.

Then Job arose, and rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon 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.”

Satan proved to be wrong. Job did not curse God when he lost his wealth and his children. He worshiped and he blessed God. And so the superior worth of God became evident to all. And the purpose of God in setting Job up was fulfilled — the revelation of the value of God.

Job’s Disease

But just as Job was recovering from the shock of losing his wealth and his children, he contracts a dreaded disease. In 2:7–8 it says that he was afflicted “with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.”

According to 7:5 Job was covered with boil-like sores that opened and ran with puss and then got clogged with dirt and infested with worms. It was not a mild case of measles. It was a horrid thing from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet.

Is this the reward of Job’s reverent response to the loss of his children? Again we ask, “What in the world is going on here?” And again the answer is not given in the world but in heaven.

Another Glimpse into Heaven

In 2:1–6 the Lord again puts Job on display before Satan. Verse 3: “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 moved me against him, to destroy him without a cause.”

And again Satan challenges the authenticity of Job’s reverence. He says that Job is only reverent because God preserves his health. Verse 4:

Skin for skin! 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 curse you to your face.

So again the worth of God is challenged. Is it God himself that Job cherishes or is it the earthly pleasures of family and possessions and health? Job has shown that God is more valuable to him than family and possessions.

But what about health? So to show that he alone is Job’s treasure, God gives his servant into the hand of Satan for the destruction of his flesh. Verse 6: “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

The demonstration of the worth of God in the faith and reverence of his people is the most important matter in the world.

Job’s Victory of Faith

But when Job’s health fails, it proves to be too much for his wife. She had endured with him the loss of her children and wealth. But now with the life of her husband draining away leaving her utterly destitute, her faith collapses. Verse 9: “Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God, and die.’” This must have made a hopeful smile come across the face of Satan.

But then comes the shattering victory of Job’s faith. Verse 10:

But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?”

Comforts and calamities come from the hand of God. This rock solid confidence in the sovereignty of God Job will not relinquish — and neither should we!

Picture Satan in heaven surrounded by ten million angels awaiting Job’s response. Then Job answers, and, unknown to him, twenty million arms are raised and ten million mighty voices shout, “Worthy is the Lord God of Job!” And what does Satan do? He flees from the presence of the praise of God.

That’s why we suffer.

Now let’s stand back and draw out from the text four theological truths and three personal implications.

Four Theological Implications So Far

  1. Satan’s aim is to destroy our joy in God.

  2. God aims to magnify his worth in the lives of his people.

  3. God grants to Satan limited power to cause pain.

  4. Satan’s work is ultimately the work of God.

Job’s Months of Misery and His Friends

Let us look together at the months of Job’s misery. We begin at 2:11.

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. 12 And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. 13 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.

Three Cycles of Speeches

For the next twenty-nine chapters (through chapter 31) Job will be responding to what these three friends have to say about his suffering. There are three cycles in the conversation.

Cycle 1
  • Eliphaz — 4 & 5
  • Job — 6 & 7
  • Bildad — 8
  • Job — 9 & 10
  • Zophar — 11
  • Job — 12–14
Cycle 2
  • Eliphaz — 15
  • Job — 16–17
  • Bildad — 18
  • Job — 19
  • Zophar — 20
  • Job — 21
Cycle 3
  • Eliphaz — 22
  • Job — 23–24
  • Bildad — 25
  • Job — 26–31
  • Zophar — (silence)

The First Cycle Prompted by Job’s Outburst

The thing that prompts Job’s friends to make their speeches is his outburst in chapter 3. After seven days of silence with his friends (and probably weeks of suffering before they came), “Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. And Job said, ‘Let the day perish wherein I was born’” (3:1–3).

The weeks of relentless pain had taken their toll on Job’s serenity. He now questions God. Verse 11: “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? Why did the knees receive me? Or why the breasts, that I should suck?” Verse 20: “Why is light given to him that is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it comes not?”

Job cannot see any reason now for why he should have ever been given life or why his life should be preserved if there is going to be so much misery. And so he protests that the day of his birth should never have been. And of course this is a protest against God, because, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away” (1:21).

The Friends Break In

When the three friends of Job hear this protest, they can’t stay silent any longer. So Eliphaz speaks in chapters 4–5 and sets the course for Bildad and Zophar as well. He spells out a principle that runs through all the speeches of the three friends.

Eliphaz’s Theological Principle

We see it first in 4:7–8,

Think now, 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. In other words, trouble comes to those who sin, but the innocent do not perish. Suffering is the result of sin, and prosperity is the result of righteousness.

But Eliphaz is careful to note in 4:17 that all men are sinners, “Can mortal man be righteous before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?” So he also admits in 5:17 that some suffering is the loving chastening of God. “Behold, happy is the man whom God reproves; therefore despise not the chastening of the Almighty.”

The Insensitive and Superficial Application of His Theology

But the application he makes of this theology is insensitive and superficial. He rebukes Job in 4:5–6 for being impatient and dismayed. “But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you and you are dismayed.” This was an unnecessary rebuke to a righteous man in agony. That is the insensitive part of Eliphaz’s application.

Then he insinuates that Job has not really sought God the way he should. He says in 5:8, “As for me, I would seek God, and to God would I commit my cause” — as though Job needs to learn from Eliphaz to do this!

And he implies in 5:18–19 that Job would be delivered if only he would commit his way to God. “For he wounds, but he binds up; he smites, but his hands heal. He will deliver you from six troubles; in seven there shall no evil touch you.” That is the superficial part of Eliphaz’ application. It is too simple to say, “Just commit it to the Lord and your fortunes will be restored.”

Job Protests His Innocence

Job knows it is too simple because it doesn’t answer the hard questions. It doesn’t answer why some suffer in an extraordinary way even though they have not sinned in an extraordinary way, but in fact may be godly and upright people. It doesn’t answer why some prosper in an extraordinary way even though they are extraordinary sinners. So Job protests his innocence in 6:10, “I have not denied the words of the Holy One.” He returns the rebuke of Eliphaz in 6:24, “Teach me, and I will be silent; make me understand how I have erred.” He cannot see how Eliphaz’ simple principle of justice answers his own case.

Bildad’s Harsh Response and Admonition

Bildad responds in chapter 8, much less gently than Eliphaz. He vigorously insists on Eliphaz’ principle of justice, even for Job’s children. In 8:3–4 he says, “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right? If your children have sinned against him, he has delivered them into the power of their transgression.” Your children were guilty of some unknown sin, Job, that’s why they were crushed in their house.

And the same goes for Job (8:11–13). The problem must be that Job is not pure and has not called on God as he should. So Bildad admonishes Job in 8:6–7: “If you will seek God and make supplication to the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and reward you with a rightful habitation.”

Job Doesn’t Surrender

Job regards this party line as utterly out of sync with the way things really are. In 9:22–24 he says,

It is all one; therefore I say, [God] destroys both the blameless and the wicked. 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?

Job never surrenders his belief in the sovereignty of God, but he knows it’s too simple to say that things go better on this earth for all the righteous.

Job insists that he is not guilty as charged. He is righteous. He prays in 10:6–7, “You seek out my iniquity and search for my sin, although you know that I am not guilty.”

Zophar’s Harsh Rebuke

Zophar repeats the party line more harshly yet (chapter 11). He rebukes Job for claiming to be innocent (verses 4–6) and he tells him to put away his sin so that God might restore him (11:14–15): “If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and let not wickedness dwell in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure, and will not fear.” So according to his friends, Job is suffering because he refuses to put iniquity far from him.

Job’s Sarcastic Response

Job responds in chapters 12–14 with sarcasm.

  • Everybody knows these moral commonplaces (12:3)!
  • Your maxims are proverbs of ashes (13:12)!
  • Worthless physicians are you all (13:4)!

He longs to argue his case with God because he knows God is just and he is convinced he is innocent. “I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God” (13:3).

The Following Cycles of Conversation

That is the end of the first cycle of speeches. The next two do not reveal any new arguments, but they show the three friends becoming more harsh and less credible in the face of Job’s integrity and realism.

Again and again the three friends insist that suffering follows wickedness. Eliphaz: it is the wicked man that writhes in pain (15:20). Bildad: it is the light of the wicked that is put out (18:5). Zophar: the joy of the wicked is short (20:5).

The Impotence of the Theology of Job’s Friends

In the last speech of Eliphaz in chapter 22:5ff., the former gentle friend attacks Job with brutality:

Is not your wickedness great? 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 . . . You have sent widows away empty, and the arms of the fatherless were crushed. These are not facts. They are imaginings in the mind of Eliphaz, forced on him by the inadequacy of his theology to deal with reality.

All of this is so preposterous that when Bildad makes his last speech in chapter 25, he can only manage six little verses about the general sinfulness of man. And when it is finally Zophar’s turn to round out the third cycle, he has nothing to say at all.

The symmetry of the book is broken because the theology of Job’s friends cannot sustain itself to the end. Their simple principle of justice has not been able to stand. Job is a good man. Yet he suffers far worse than many wicked people. The correlation of wickedness and suffering in this world simply does not hold.

Four Lessons

Now what lessons can we summarize from this lengthy passage of Scripture?

1. True theological statements can be false.

If you take most of the statements of Job’s friends separately, they sound like good theology. But their application is shallow and insensitive. Let us be warned: It can be made false by the way it is applied, and can even be destructive in the mouth of fools. Drink deep at the fountain of God’s truth. And let love stand as a watchman at the gate of your mouth.

2. Suffering and prosperity are not distributed in the world in proportion to the evil or good that people do.

Job is right: The wicked are spared in the day of calamity (21:30). But the just and blameless man is a laughing stock (12:4). Therefore let us not judge one another before the time. Those who suffer most may be the best. And those who prosper most may be the worst among us.

3. Nevertheless God still reigns over all the affairs of men, from the greatest to the smallest.

It is amazing that the most common means used by people today to solve the mystery of suffering never occurred to Job or to his three friends — namely, the limitation of God’s sovereign control over all things. Today we limit God at the drop of a hat (he couldn’t have willed that sickness, or that explosion, or the death of that child!). So he must not be in control. He is a limited God.

But Job and his friends have this great common ground: God reigns. And no solution to the problem of suffering that questions this will ever satisfy the heart of a saint.

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 wisdom;
the deceived and the deceiver are his. (12:13–16)

4. There is wisdom behind the apparent arbitrariness of the world, but it is hidden from man.

Where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
Man does not know the way to it,
and it is not found in the land of the living . . .
God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place. (28:12–13, 23)