This quarter I am teaching a class on one of the most difficult books of the Bible, the Book of Job. It is not a book filled with easy answers. Instead, it unflinchingly confronts the tension of evil and suffering in a world governed by God. One of the most puzzling verses in the book is Job 2:3-
And the Lord said to Satan, “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 incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” (ESV)
What does this text mean? It almost sounds like God is saying that Satan bullied or cajoled him into doing harm to Job. Is that how we are supposed to understand this verse? Let’s take a closer look.
This is the second encounter between God and the one described in Hebrew as The Adversary (הַשָּׂטָן, haśśāṭān). In their first confrontation, God himself took the initiative in calling The Adversary’s attention to Job.
And the LORD said to Satan, “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?” (1:8)
But The Adversary was unimpressed.
Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” (1:9-11)
The Adversary maligns Job by claiming that Job only fears God because of the material prosperity God has given him. According to The Adversary, Job does not fear God for “no reason” ( חִנָּם, ḥinnam), “for nothing” (NASB) or “for no profit.” So the key issue between God and The Adversary is, why does Job fear God? Does Job fear God because God is inherently worthy of this devotion or simply because God has paid him off?
To test Job’s motives, The Adversary challenges the LORD to “touch all that he has,” certain that once Job loses his material blessings he will “curse” God.
And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord. (1:12)
As this test unfolds, the narrator makes it clear that whatever The Adversary does to Job, it is only by God’s permission. There is no question who is in charge here. God alone is sovereign.
That brings us to Job 2:3. Once again the LORD confronts The Adversary, but this time to call attention to Job’s steadfast integrity in the midst of suffering. Simply put, The Adversary was wrong. Job did not curse God.
With this background in view, let’s look more closely at the specific phrase in 2:3 that raises questions – “although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” There are three important terms here. The first is the phrase “without reason.” But we have seen this before – this is the same phrase The Adversary used in his malign accusation about Job – “does Job fear God for no reason?” This is the narrator’s way of indicating to the reader that we must read 2:3 closely in connection with 1:9.
The second key term is translated in the ESV as “incite” (סוּת, sut). This word has a range of meanings from “instigate” to “allure.” And as we know from the first chapter, The Adversary did indeed instigate the challenge of Job’s motivation for serving the LORD (“stretch out your hand and touch all that he has”).
The third key term is “destroy” (בָּלַע, bl’). It means “swallow up, engulf.” It speaks to the sudden and overwhelming nature of Job’s losses, which did indeed happen in one day (Job 1:13-22).
Putting this altogether, we can draw some conclusions.
First, we should not read Job 2:3 as if to say that The Adversary lured God into some kind of trap to harm Job which God unwittingly fell for. Yes, The Adversary instigated the trial, but he did not manipulate God into doing it. God’s sovereign control is clearly emphasized throughout the book.
Second, the LORD’S use of the word “destroy” indicates that God is very much aware of the shocking set of losses Job has experienced. This isn’t some kind of trivial game of checkers for the LORD. His great servant has suffered tremendously.
Third, when God says that he has destroyed Job “for no reason,” he does not mean that this test was pointless or futile. There is in fact a very important purpose for this trial – to demonstrate that The Adversary is wrong. The Adversary claimed that this test would lead Job to renounce God. But what did The Adversary gain by the test? Nothing. As John Hartley writes:
The use of without cause here sets up a point of tension with the Satan’s use of this phrase in the first scene before Yahweh. Whereas the Satan had conjectured that Job’s fear of God was not without cause, i.e., Job feared God for selfish reasons, Yahweh in turn rebuked the Satan with the assertion that Job’s trial had proved to be without cause, i.e., the Satan’s accusations about Job were groundless. Thus the test has proved that the Satan’s accusations against Job were “without cause” or had no inherent worth, and that Job feared God “without cause”—Job trusted God with a pure heart filled with love for God, not for the benefits God had bestowed upon him. The Satan’s skepticism about Job’s character had proved to be completely wrong. (The Book of Job NICOT, p. 80)
Here then is my interpretative paraphrase of Job 2:3-
Adversary, you instigated the idea of a test to prove Job’s motives. I permitted it – in fact, I permitted you to overwhelm him with suffering. I take ultimate responsibility for this. But in spite of this test, your accusation proved worthless. Job still holds fast his integrity!
One final point. The New Testament recommends Job’s example as one for us to follow. The very reason Job is commended to us is not because God promises us a life free from trials, but because he promises to be merciful to us in the midst of our trials, so long as we cling to him.
As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (James 5:10-11)
And as we remain steadfast, we continue the legacy of subversion of The Adversary. His slander always amounts to nothing in the face of faith.