The Book of Job: A Guide in Suffering (Part 2)
(For Part 1, click here.)
One of the tough parts about understanding Job’s story is figuring out which voices to trust. We have the narrator, God, Satan, Job, Job’s wife, the three friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar), along with a fourth friend Elihu, who is the last to speak before God interjects. I find it helpful to break these voices into four categories: 1) Trustworthy, 2) honest but fallible, 3) suspect, and 4) evil.
- Category 1 includes the narrator and God.
- Category 2 includes Job, who is righteous but not sinless. While Job is a good person, many of his words well up out of deep physical and emotional pain.
- Category 3 includes Job’s three friends, who are strongly rebuked by God. They speak a mixture of truth and falsehood.
- Category 4 includes Satan and Job’s wife, which is perhaps unfair to Job’s wife, but her advice—“curse God and die”—much as it came from a place of immense suffering, is bad, and that is her only line.
Elihu is more difficult to categorize. The reader doesn’t know exactly where Elihu enters the story. We first encounter him in chapter 32; however, he says that he’s been listening to the debate in silence because he’s younger than all the others. He isn’t identified as one of Job’s friends, but he’s present the entire time, so perhaps he’s a trusted servant.
Elihu’s speech is striking. He basically refutes all four individuals, turning their own words against them. He challenges the friends for their lack of sympathy for Job and their inability to answer Job’s questions. Yet, while Elihu expresses sympathy for Job, he also has strong words of correction for Job as he defends God (I’ll say more on Elihu’s speech later).
In many ways, Elihu’s words act as an overture for God. Perhaps more notably, God doesn’t chastise Elihu the way he chastises Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Based on all this, I would place Elihu in roughly the same category as Job.
In many ways, Job’s response to his suffering provides a template for how the righteous should suffer.
Step one: Worship
Job’s response to the loss of his possessions and children is compelling. He tears his clothes, shaves his head, and falls to the ground in worship, saying,
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised” (1:21).
It’s an almost inhuman response, and reminds me of something I heard years before about worship: that worship takes our focus off ourselves and puts it on God. When Job’s wife counsels him to curse God and die, Job in essence reminds her that God gave them those blessings in the first place.
Step two: Recognize that what we had is on loan
While worshiping, Job verbalizes the truth that every blessing we have is from God. We should enjoy the blessing while we have it, and when we no longer do, we should be grateful that we ever had it. This includes all the primary blessings: possessions, family, and health.
Step three: Be honest
Job isn’t fake; rather he’s transparent in his suffering. He says good things, but he doesn’t hide his hurt behind pithy sayings. He says a number of things like this:
“…I prefer strangling and death
rather than this body of mine.
I despise my life; I would not live forever.
Will you [God] never look away from me
or let me alone for an instant?
Why have you made me your target?
Have I become a burden to you?” (7:15-20).
Step four: Trust in God
In the midst of his agony and his honesty, there are a number of moments when hope in God almost slips out of Job. He says, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (13:15), and later states:
“I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!” (29:25-27).
In the midst of his pain and his accusations against God, Job remembers where our ultimate rescue resides.
These four steps don’t remove suffering, but they do provide the believer with a template to emulate in the midst of suffering.
One of the first things Elihu does is relate to Job, saying,
“I am just like you before God;
I too have been taken from clay.
No fear of me should alarm you,
nor should my hand be heavy upon you” (33:6-7).
This stands in contrast to the divisive manner in which the three friends end up treating Job. Later he adds, “Speak up, for I want you to be cleared” (33:32).
Elihu calls Job on his claims of being clean and guiltless, not by dragging Job down into the dirt but by expressing how much higher and purer God is. He says that man is sinful and expresses the idea that life is unfair because we don’t get the punishment we deserve (33:27-28).
The overall theme of Elihu’s speech is that God is righteous and man is not, and he goes so far as to speak hard truth,
“Oh, that Job might be tested to the utmost
for answering like a wicked man!
To his sin he adds rebellion;
scornfully he claps his hands among us
and multiplies his words against God” (34:36-37a).
As blunt as these words are, note Elihu’s careful word choice. He doesn’t say that Job is a wicked man, but is answering like a wicked man. It is specific wording like this, that tries to correct without alienating, that separates Elihu from his peers. We see something similar in 36:21 when Elihu says, “‘Beware of turning to evil, which you seem to prefer to affliction.’” Elihu allows for a differentiation between how Job’s words come across and what Job truly believes.
Ultimately though, Elihu’s speech works as an introduction to God’s speech, which works in part because Elihu has introduced the primary theme: “How great is God—beyond our understanding!” (36:26). This idea takes up the last quarter of Elihu’s discourse and uses much of the same imagery that God will expand on, particularly lightning and storms.
Given that God is about to speak from a storm, I imagine that this very storm was building around them as Elihu spoke, and as Elihu looked around he found himself awed by the storm, saying in essence, “God is greater than this tempest.”
I can almost hear Elihu shouting over the wind,
“Tell us what we should say to him;
we cannot draw up our case because of
Should he be told that I want to speak?” (37:19-20).
It’s almost as if God hears his cue and speaks from the storm.
God Finally Speaks
Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said:
“Who is this that darkens my counsel
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me” (38:1-3).
It’s an incredible introduction, starting perhaps the most humbling speech in the Bible. God speaks, and there is no doubt that He now has the floor. All this time, Job has been demanding an answer, yet he is quickly set back on his heels. “I am the one asking the questions,” God indicates. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (38:4).
It’s a difficult speech to condense; I want to quote it all. It’s compelling, it’s harsh, it’s sarcastic at points, and it would be arrogant if it weren’t a simple statement of facts. It’s like God tries to give Job a rudimentary understanding of the vastness of Earth’s majesty and complexity.
The notion of a human–a being with limited experience, understanding, and perspective–passing judgment on the Creator of the world is ultimately ridiculous.
It’d be like a single-celled organism casting judgment on a human, only vastly more absurd. Humans struggle to comprehend bits and pieces of creation, but somehow we consider ourselves qualified to call God to account.
Perhaps most striking of all, God doesn’t explain His reasons for allowing Job to suffer. He doesn’t hint at His wager with Satan or a greater purpose, either for Job specifically or for humanity. It’s like a parent telling a child, “I don’t owe you an explanation.”
However, as I’ve studied God’s answer, I’m reminded that God has this unique ability to provide the exact answer that is most effective for the exact individual whom he is instructing. Some people need a meal and a good night’s rest, like Elijah after he threw his adult temper tantrum, and others need a show of cosmic force. If this all seems impersonal, consider how effective God’s instruction is in Job’s reaction.
Then Job replied to the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things;
No plan of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my
counsel without knowledge?”
Surely I spoke of things I did not
Things too marvelous for me to know.
You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.” (42:1-6)
It’s a humble, timid response, and it’s markedly absent of follow-up questions.
God has this unique ability to provide the exact answer that is most effective for the exact individual whom he is instructing.
(For more from Luke, check out postjadedmk.com.)