In my previous post I discussed what one commentator calls the “Triangle of Tension” in the Book of Job. Given the principle of retribution (the law of sowing and reaping), these three points cannot co-exist: God’s justice, Job’s righteousness, and Job’s suffering. If the wicked always suffer and the righteous always prosper, then either Job must not be righteous, or God must not be just. Job’s friends deny Job’s righteousness, and Job denies God’s justice.

Toward the end of the cycle of dialogues between Job and his friends, it seems to me that Job has a bit of a breakthrough moment. In chapter 21, Job counters the relentless defense of the principle of retribution made by the friends by pointing out that he has seen exceptions. Sometimes wicked people prosper:

Why do the wicked live,
    reach old age, and grow mighty in power?
Their offspring are established in their presence,
    and their descendants before their eyes.
Their houses are safe from fear,
    and no rod of God is upon them. (21:7-9)

Similarly, Job has also seen innocent people exploited and oppressed:

Behold, like wild donkeys in the desert
    the poor go out to their toil, seeking game;
    the wasteland yields food for their children.
They gather their fodder in the field,
    and they glean the vineyard of the wicked man.
They lie all night naked, without clothing,
    and have no covering in the cold.
They are wet with the rain of the mountains
    and cling to the rock for lack of shelter.
(There are those who snatch the fatherless child from the breast,
    and they take a pledge against the poor.)
They go about naked, without clothing;
    hungry, they carry the sheaves;
among the olive rows of the wicked they make oil;
    they tread the winepresses, but suffer thirst.
From out of the city the dying groan,
    and the soul of the wounded cries for help;
    yet God charges no one with wrong. (24:5-12)

This is a significant departure from Job’s own acceptance of the principle of retribution implied by his offerings in 1:5. Perhaps his own experience of suffering as a “blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (1:8; 2:3) opened his eyes to the reality of unjust suffering that had always been around him but that his prosperous circumstances had filtered out of view. Since it is the assumption that the principle of retribution unconditionally governs reality that lies behind the agony of Job, the unraveling of that assumption is the first step toward Job’s eventual comfort.

What, then, are we to make of the principle of retribution? After all, Scripture does say,

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7-8)

How does this square with what we have learned in Job? The key here is the frame of reference. Paul’s frame of reference in this passage is eternity. What Paul means is that from an eternal perspective we will reap what we sow. “The one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” Paul believes that there is more to our existence than this life, that there will be an afterlife, and what that existence will be like is going to based on God’s judgment of how we have lived in this life (2 Corinthians 5:10).

But what Job is dealing with is the question of reaping and sowing in this life, not in eternity. The concept of an afterlife and eternity was not yet revealed to Job and his friends, so the only consequences they could envision were in this life. But that’s the rub – in this life, things don’t always work as smoothly as the simple principle of retribution suggests. Sometimes wicked people prosper, and sometimes righteous people suffer. On balance it is indeed more likely that you will prosper as a righteous person – the Book of Proverbs is filled with statements to that effect. But proverbs by their very nature are general observations, not iron-clad laws. And as books like Job and Ecclesiastes show, there are significant exceptions to such proverbs.