To understand the ebb and flow of Job’s exchanges with his friends, we must first understand the assumption that they all share. Compare these two statements, first regarding Job-

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. (Job 1:4-5)

Second, from the first speech of Eliphaz-

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. (Job 4:7-8)

Anytime his children get together Job continually makes sacrifices on the mere possibility that they may have cursed God and drawn divine ire. In other words, if they do something wrong, God will punish them. Eliphaz argues that there is a simple explanation for suffering – you reap what you sow. “Plow iniquity and sow trouble” and you will reap a horrible harvest.

Job and Eliphaz believe in what some commentators call the Principle of Retribution. Good people prosper, bad people suffer.  We are probably more familiar with the terminology of Paul in Galatians 6:7, “whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” This principle is plainly taught in Scripture. It undergirds many of the proverbial statements about successful living, like these:

The reward for humility and fear of the Lord
    is riches and honor and life.
Thorns and snares are in the way of the crooked;
    whoever guards his soul will keep far from them. (Proverbs 22:4-5)

But the question of the Book of Job is this: does the Principle of Retribution comprehensively explain all suffering?

At the start of the book, it is clear that Job and his friends believe that it does. But this presents a problem. Job is suffering, and yet he is righteous. If God is just, and the Principle of Retribution describes His governance of the world without exception, how could Job be righteous and suffering at the same time?

In his commentary on Job, John Walton describes this as the “Triangle of Tension.” Given the Principle of Retribution, how can all three of these facts be true at the same time?

Well, all three can’t be true – at least not on this view of the Principle of Retribution. If you’ve ever dealt with a building contractor, he may have used a similar triangle – good, fast, and cheap – and explained that you can only pick two of those three options! Well, given what Job and the friends believe about the Principle of Retribution, only two of the three points of the Triangle of Tension can be true.

From the point of view of the friends, what must give way is Job’s righteousness. In their view, God’s justice can never be questioned, and therefore Job’s suffering is manifest evidence that he is not righteous. By the end of the cycle of dialogues between Job and the friends, Eliphaz will allege:

Is not your evil abundant?
    There is no end to your iniquities. (Job 22:5)

From Job’s point of view, since he assumes the Principle of Retribution is the exclusive explanation of God’s providence, and since he knows he is righteous, his only option is to conclude that God is not just. Here’s a sample of that outlook-

It is all one; therefore I say,
    ‘He 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 9:22-24)

This is why Job longs to speak with God, to “take God to court,” so to speak. He is convinced that God has it wrong about him, and that if he could make his case before God, then God would see that Job is indeed just and undeserving of divine retribution. The friends? Well, Job thinks they are mere “yes-men,” willing to justify anything God does because they are afraid of Him.

But I would speak to the Almighty,
    and I desire to argue my case with God.
As for you, you whitewash with lies;
    worthless physicians are you all.
Oh that you would keep silent,
    and it would be your wisdom!
Hear now my argument
    and listen to the pleadings of my lips.
Will you speak falsely for God
    and speak deceitfully for him?
Will you show partiality toward him?
    Will you plead the case for God?…
Though he slay me, I will hope in him;
    yet I will argue my ways to his face.
This will be my salvation,
    that the godless shall not come before him.
Keep listening to my words,
    and let my declaration be in your ears.
Behold, I have prepared my case;
    I know that I shall be in the right. (Job 13:3-8, 15-18)

And so through three cycles of speeches Job and the friends debate which point of the Triangle of Tension is to be denied. No real breakthrough can happen until they recognize that the underlying assumption they all share – the Principle of Retribution – is not the answer to everything.