Reflections on Job, Part 6: What Job Wants

Job’s Despair, by William Blake

Throughout the course of Job’s speeches, both in his dialogues with the three friends and in his final monologue, there is one thing that Job repeatedly says he desires: an audience with God. Job believes that God is punishing him unjustly. Given his commitment to the Principle of Retribution as the mechanism of God’s providence, that’s the only conclusion an “upright and blameless man” like Job could draw. While his confidence that the Principle of Retribution is the comprehensive explanation of God’s governance does begin to waver in his later speeches, Job’s desire to bring his case beforte God does not.

Here’s a selection of these requests for redress with God.

From Job 9-

32 For he is not a man, as I am, that I might answer him,
that we should come to trial together.
33 There is no[a] arbiter between us,
who might lay his hand on us both.
34 Let him take his rod away from me,
and let not dread of him terrify me.
35 Then I would speak without fear of him,
for I am not so in myself.

From Job 13-

3 But I would speak to the Almighty,
and I desire to argue my case with God.
4 As for you, you whitewash with lies;
worthless physicians are you all.
5 Oh that you would keep silent,
and it would be your wisdom!
6 Hear now my argument
and listen to the pleadings of my lips…

18 Behold, I have prepared my case;
I know that I shall be in the right.
19 Who is there who will contend with me?
For then I would be silent and die.
20 Only grant me two things,
then I will not hide myself from your face:
21 withdraw your hand far from me,
and let not dread of you terrify me.
22 Then call, and I will answer;
or let me speak, and you reply to me.

From Job 23-

3 Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his seat!
4 I would lay my case before him
and fill my mouth with arguments.
5 I would know what he would answer me
and understand what he would say to me.
6 Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; he would pay attention to me.
7 There an upright man could argue with him,
and I would be acquitted forever by my judge.

From Job 31-

35 Oh, that I had one to hear me!
(Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)
Oh, that I had the indictment written by my adversary!
36 Surely I would carry it on my shoulder;
I would bind it on me as a crown;
37 I would give him an account of all my steps;
like a prince I would approach him.

In contrast to these repeated desires to see God and talk with Him, it is quite glaring that Job never indicates he wants any of his losses to be reversed. He never asks for his possessions, his health, or even his children – though all of these losses were incredibly painful (29:1-6). Job is singleminded in his desire to make his case before God.

Whatever else we make of these requests by Job, I think it is fruitful to consider them in light of the key question of the book – “Does Job fear God for no reason?” (1:9). And it seems significant to me that at the climax of the book, God gives Job exactly what he wants – a personal encounter with God.



Reflections on Job, Part 5: Job’s Breakthrough

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.

Reflections on Job, Part 4: The “Triangle of Tension”

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.


Reflections on Job, Part 3: Are God and Satan Playing a Game with Job’s Life?

If you read the first two chapters of Job from a cynical vantage point, it would be easy to conclude that God and The Accuser are playing a game with Job’s life. The LORD asks The Accuser to consider His servant Job, The Accuser responds by claiming that Job is only pious because God gives him stuff, and the LORD says that The Accuser is free to take away that stuff. But where does Job fit into this apparent contest? What about the horrible toll he will pay, not to mention his children? It almost sounds like Job is nothing more than a pawn in a celestial chess match.

That isn’t what’s going on here, though. The events of this book have a higher purpose than a mere contest between The Accuser and God. And to explain what that purpose is, consider this prayer from Psalm 139-

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
    Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23-24)

Last spring I had some heart palpitations that led to a series of tests. First an EKG, then a stress test, and finally a heart cath. I’ve reached the age in life where I now have a cardiologist! Those tests were nerve wracking, and in the case of the heart cath, quite invasive. But I was happy to go through that battery of tests because I wanted to know if there was a serious problem with my heart, and to get it fixed if there was one. Fortunately the tests revealed nothing but a slight arrhythmia.

The psalmist in these verses is pleading with God to test his inner, spiritual heart. And his motives were much the same as mine in my medical tests – he wants to know if there is any “grievous way” in him, so that ultimately he can walk in “the way everlasting.” So he virtually demands that God try his deepest motives.

But what does it look like for God to test our heart? May I suggest that it sometimes looks just like the story of Job. Later in the book Job expresses some sense of awareness that he is being tested –

But he knows the way that I take;
    when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.
My foot has held fast to his steps;
    I have kept his way and have not turned aside. (Job 23:10-11)

Adversity is not the only way that God tests us. His word is so powerful that it can dissect our deepest motives (Hebrews 4:12-13). But adversity provides another means for God to test us – not to crush us, but to purify us.

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)

In suggesting that Job’s suffering was a means by which to demonstrate the purity of his faith, I don’t mean to sound insensitive to what Job or his family suffered. Anguish drips from nearly every page of the book. But if it is important to have a pure heart (and it is), and if the way to know whether our heart is pure is to test it (and it is), then we must acknowledge that more is going on here in Job than a crass game of wits between the LORD and The Accuser. We are seeing a godly man’s golden faith pass through the fire to be proven and purified.

I bet that everyone who reads this post can describe a similar episode in his or her life, some painful experience that led to deep introspection. And by sifting the motives of the heart before the Lord, your faith became purer and richer. I’ve had this kind of heart test as well, and it was even more invasive than the cardiologists (!), but it was worth it. And by the end of the book, Job will say the same.

Aside from the value of this experience for Job, let me suggest one other perspective to consider. It is only a hunch, really, since the text doesn’t explicitly deal with it. But I am thinking of the purpose of Job’s suffering as it relates to The Accuser. The Accuser maligned God as well as Job when he declared that Job’s piety is due only to God’s blessings. After all, the implication of such a charge is that God, in and of Himself, is not worthy of love and reverence. By the end of the book, The Accuser is totally undermined. God is indeed worth love for His own sake.

And so maybe there are two grand purposes to this story. One is for God to test Job’s heart to vindicate Job, and the other is for God to refute The Accuser to show him how wrong he is about Job (and us!), and about God. If this idea has merit, then what we have in Job is a “preview of coming attractions.”

And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.” (Revelation 12:10)


Reflections on Job, Part 2: The Key Question of the Book

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 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?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 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. 11 But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” (Job 1:6-11)

I used to think that the Book of Job was the inspired answer to the problem of evil. Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is all-powerful, He could prevent evil and suffering. And if God was totally good, He would prevent evil and suffering. Yet evil and suffering exist. How can this be? The Book of Job will answer this question, I once thought.

But approaching the book this way always left me a little unsatisfied. I don’t mean that Job has nothing to say about these issues. It certainly does. And later in this series I will touch on some of those lessons. But as the comprehensive solution to the problem, the Book of Job is lacking. The book does not end with a great epiphany in which Job says, “Now I completely understand why there is pain and crime!”

The book does end with a great epiphany, though, one that directly relates to what I believe is the real focus of the book. And that focus is the question posed by “The Accuser” (Hebrew הַשָּׂטָן, haśśāṭān), who asks, “Does Job fear God for no reason?” By posing this question, The Accuser maligns Job, and he maligns God.

In the first place, he maligns Job. He insinuates that Job’s fear of the Lord is motivated only by self-interest – God gives him lots of stuff. In the words of John Mark Hicks, Job is a consumer rather than a communer. Job doesn’t love God for God’s sake, but only for his own sake. God means nothing more to Job than Walmart or McDonalds – He is a source of goods and services. But take those away, says The Accuser, and Job will curse You!

In the second place, The Accuser maligns God. By asking, “Does Job fear God for no reason,” he is implying that God is not worthy of such love and devotion in and of Himself. God has to “buy off” human beings to fear Him. Otherwise, no one would have any reason or desire to serve God. “In Satan’s warped mind and total rebellion against God and all that is good, there is no such thing as a pure and holy life, nor is there a service apart from pay. He sees no love in the world except self-love” (Homer Hailey, A Commentary on Job, p. 36).

The Messengers Tell Job of His Misfortunes, by William Blake (1826)

Perhaps the reason The Accuser makes these assertions is because he is projecting his own motives on Job. If we agree with Homer Hailey’s identification of The Accuser as the one called “Satan” in the New Testament, a strong case can be made that The Accuser did not believe God was worthy of adoration and devotion. No text spells this out explicitly, but putting the pieces of data together (on the basis of passages like Colossians 1:15-16; 2 Peter 2:4; 1 Timothy 3:6; Ezekiel 28:1-19), Scripture suggests that Satan fell because of pride. In the words of Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (or, for the culturally sophisticated, Khan in The Wrath of Kahn), “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”

So is God worthy of our commitment? Is it possible to be a communer with God, to seek His presence, even if we do not have any tangible rewards from Him for doing so? Or does God have to entice us to fear Him with wealth and health and happiness? Is God great enough to be desired for His own sake, or must we be bribed to bless Him?

That is what I think the book is all about.


Reflections on Job, Part 1: Reaping What You Sow

 There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He possessed 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 female donkeys, and very many servants, so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. 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 1:1-5).

Job and His Family, by William Blake (1826)

The Book of Job begins by presenting Job as “Exhibit A” of what a godly man should be. His character is unassailable as a “blameless and upright man.” He fears God – the foundational quality of a wise man according to Proverbs 1:7.  And he possesses the rewards of integrity and piety, a large family and abundant wealth. These blessings reflect many promises in the Old Testament that God will bestow favors on those who love and fear Him-

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
    the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
    are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
    who fills his quiver with them!
He shall not be put to shame
    when he speaks with his enemies in the gate (Psalm 127:3-5).

The reward for humility and fear of the Lord
    is riches and honor and life (Proverbs 22:4).

If you are good, good things will happen to you. Job’s station in life reflects this simple premise. Other passages in the Bible describe this in terms of reaping what you sow (Galatians 6:7), what some commentators refer to as the principle of retribution. Job’s abundant wealth, flourishing family, and sterling reputation (“greatest of all the people of the east”) all testify to the validity of this principle.

And Job takes the principle of retribution very seriously – not only for himself, but also for his family. So concerned is he that his children may speak unwisely about God that he offers a sacrifice on their behalf any time they all get together on the mere possibility that any of them had cursed God. And he did this “continually.” After all, “He who sows iniquity will reap vanity” (Proverbs 22:8, NASB).

So now we have the underlying principle that defines Job’s view of the world. If you are righteous you will be blessed, and if you are wicked you will be curse. As we will see, this is also the mindset of Job’s friends. It is undoubtedly true that Scripture teaches this principle. But does the principle of retribution comprehensively explain everything that happens? Are there ever any exceptions? Is it possible for those who fear God to sometimes experience tragedy instead of blessing? And if so, why?

That’s what the rest of the book is all about.


God is With Us on the Lonely Mountain

By Niagara66, via Wikimedia Commons

This past Saturday I was honored to speak at the funeral of one of the most beautiful people I have ever known, Sylvia Chapman. Sylvia loved the Smoky Mountains, and so I decided to center my remarks around the theme of God’s presence with us during times we may otherwise feel alone. Kristi and I will miss Sylvia very much. Continue reading