Job: Wrestling with Suffering

It's one thing to experience a sudden tragedy—like the loss of a child or the discovery of some dreaded disease in your body. It's quite another thing to experience the relentless misery of that loss for months or even years afterward.

When Misery Drags On for Months

Women have been known to lift automobiles off of their pinned husbands after an accident and then later collapse under the shock of what's happened. There is a spiritual counterpart to this physical phenomenon. In the stunned moment of tragedy many a Christian has been given the grace to sustain the burden with a genuine word of faith: "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." But then later under the relentless sequence of empty rooms and chairs and shirts and arms, the Christian collapses in sobs of baffled dismay.

Soldiers have been known to get a leg blown off by a land mine and run on the raw stump back to safety, but then cry like a baby at the pain of surgery and healing.

It is one thing to bear a sudden tragedy. It is quite another to suffer its pain for weeks and months and even years afterward.

In one afternoon Job had lost his ten children and all his wealth. Shortly afterward he was afflicted with a horrid skin disease. In both these tragedies he kept his faith and revered the sovereign hand of God. In 1:21 he said, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." In 2:10 he said, "Shall we receive good at the hand of the God and shall we not receive evil?" He affirmed the absoluteness of God's control over all things, and he bowed in submission to these heavy blows.

Sarah Edwards' Loss

He did what Sarah Edwards did when she received word that her husband Jonathan had died at the age of 54 from a smallpox inoculation one month after becoming the president of Princeton College in 1758. She picked up her pen and wrote to her daughter Esther whose husband Aaron Burr had died six months earlier:

My very dear child, What shall I say! A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands upon our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness, that we had [your father] so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left us! We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be. Your affectionate mother, Sarah Edwards. (Marriage to a Difficult Man, by Elizabeth Dodds, p. 196)

Why Such Long Misery for Job?

But Job's faith and reverence were not rewarded by a quick healing of his disease. He says in 7:2–3, "Like a slave who longs for the shadow, and like a hireling who looks for his wages, so I am allotted months of emptiness, and nights of misery are apportioned to me." Job's misery had dragged on for months.

So the question now arises: Why? Had not Job shown that God was his most precious treasure, even more precious than health? God's honor had been upheld. Why does not God now restore the fortunes of Job? Why not now skip to chapter 42 where the happy ending comes?

The answer is surely that Job (and we!) has much yet to learn about suffering and about God. And those among us, like Agnes Starkey, who have had to endure month after month of misery would feel that the story is naïve and inauthentic if it ended at chapter 2.

Job's Months of Misery

So 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 condole with him and comfort him. And when they saw him from afar, they did not recognize him; and they raised their voices and wept; and they rent their robes and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. 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 Conversation

For the next 29 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)

Elihu's Speech and God's Speech

After this extended conversation comes a long speech by a young man named Elihu (32–37) which we will look at next week. Then the Lord himself speaks to Job (39–41) which we will look at in two weeks. And finally the last chapter describes the reversal and restoration, which we will look at in three weeks.

But today our question is: what does the author of this book want us to learn from the speeches of Job's three friends and from Job's responses to them as he endures month after month of misery?

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).

Eliphaz Breaks 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' 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, "Thou dost seek out my iniquity and search for my sin, although thou knowest that I am not guilty."

Zophar Harsh Rebuke

Zophar repeats the party line more harshly yet (chapter 11). He rebukes Job for claiming to be innocent (vv. 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.

But 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. And 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.

A Change in Job's Talk About Dying

Something happens to Job through this long conversation with his three friends. He begins in chapter 3 with utter dismay and he cries out against the wisdom of God in giving him birth. The duration of his disease had almost defeated the initial stand of faith that he took at the first (1:22; 2:10). But little by little you can watch his faith regaining its strength as he fights against the superficial theology of his friends. His faith finally breaks out into victory in chapter 19.

In every speech up till then Job had expressed the conviction that he would certainly die and go to Sheol in misery. He longs for it. But there is a gradual change in the way he talks about dying. At first in 7:9–10 (his response to Eliphaz) he is sure that death is the end of everything, "As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up." In 10:20–22 (his response to Bildad) he is still sunk in despair about death, "Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort before I go whence I shall not return to the land of gloom and deep darkness, the land of gloom and chaos, where light is as darkness."

Then in 14:7–14 (his response to Zophar) Job again faces the certainty of his death in suffering and cries out to be released to die (v. 13). But this time he asks a question in verse 14: "If a man die, shall he live again?" Also in his second response to Eliphaz (17:13–16) the reference to Sheol is one of question rather than despair.

In 19:25–27 Job reaches an answer. "For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh (or: apart from) I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side and my eyes shall behold, and not another."

Job is finally sure that beyond the grave he will meet God as a Redeemer and not an angry Judge. He will be redeemed from all his misery—even if it will only be after death. There will be life and light not just death and darkness.

This confidence does not answer all Job's questions or solve all his theological problems. He still is utterly perplexed as to why he should have to suffer as he does. His suffering goes right on. God seems utterly arbitrary in the way he parcels out suffering and comfort in this life.

Job Silences His Friends

But Job's confidence of new life after death does enable him to hold fast to three of his cherished convictions, namely, the sovereign power of God, the goodness and justice of God, and the faithfulness of his own heart. With those convictions he holds out against the simplistic doctrine of justice in the mouths of his three friends. He finally puts them to silence.

And we are left with the voice of Job (chapters 26–31) magnifying the mysterious power of God:

Lo these are but the outskirts of his ways;
and how small a whisper do we hear of him!
But the thunder of his power who can understand? (26:14)

And magnifying the unsearchable wisdom of God:

But 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)

And affirming relentlessly his own integrity:

I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go;
my heart does not reproach me for any of my days. (26:6)

Five 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. "A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierien spring" (Alexander Pope, "Essay on Criticism"). "Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of fools" (Proverbs 26:9).

We put a high premium on good theology at Bethlehem. But 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 a person does.

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)

We see through a glass darkly, even from our New Testament perspective (1 Corinthians 13:12). But faith always affirms that no matter how chaotic and absurd things may seem to our limited view they are in fact the tactics of infinite wisdom.

5) Therefore let us hold fast to God.

If thou but suffer God to guide thee,
And hope in him through all thy ways,
He'll give thee strength, whate're betide thee,
And bear thee through the evil days:
Who trusts in God's unchanging love
Builds on the rock that naught can move.

All are alike before the Highest;
'Tis easy to our God, we know,
To raise thee up though low thou liest,
To make the rich man poor and low;
True wonders still by him are wrought
Who setteth up and brings to naught.

Sing, pray, and keep his ways unswerving,
So do thine own part faithfully,
And trust his Word, though undeserving,
Thou yet shalt find it true for thee;
God never yet forsook at need
The soul that trusted him indeed.