The book of Job has fascinated readers over the years because the book deals with the problem of suffering, a problem that sooner or later will touch every human being. The plight of Job has a universal appeal because it raises the question of how a just God can allow a good man to suffer so intensively.
The message of the book is focused on the issue of God’s justice: why must a good and devout man suffer undeservedly? However, although the book of Job is a study of the suffering of the righteous, the book also deals with the character of God, primarily in God’s dealings with Job. Three aspects of God’s character are dealt with in the book.
The first is the justice of God, which is the focus of Job’s argument. The second is the sovereignty of God, which is demonstrated in God’s dealings with the adversary. The third is God’s treatment of Job, an issue that is raised by those who read the book.
At the conclusion of the book, although these issues were not fully addressed and remain partially unsolved, the sovereignty of God was affirmed and divine justice was upheld and it was recognized by Job. The conclusion of the book of Job shows that, although the reader and even Job himself cannot fully comprehend what happened and why it happened, God holds and controls the events in absolute sovereignty, wisdom, and justice.
The story of Job’s suffering begins with a brief introduction of the man Job, who is presented as a righteous and devout man, one who fears God. According to the introduction of the book, Job was “a man of perfect integrity, who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1 HCSB). In addition to being an upright man, Job was also very rich and “greatest man among all the people of the east” (Job 1:3).
According to the text, Job was blessed with a large family of seven sons and three daughters (Job 1:2). The writer of Job stresses these moral and religious aspects of Job’s life in order to demonstrate his righteousness. Job’s wealth was evidence that he was blessed by God. Job’s righteousness was constant, essential, and stable. Job’s wealth was temporary, accidental, and not essential to his righteousness. What the writer of the book was trying to demonstrate was that without his righteousness Job was nothing; without his wealth Job remained everything.
The word tam in Job 1:1, translated “perfect integrity” (“blameless” in other translations) comes from a Hebrew word taman, a word that suggests completeness. The reason the writer used this word was to introduce a person who had integrity and who tried to please God. Thus, Job was not the kind of person that Satan, and after him Job’s three friends, insinuated Job was: one kind of man on the surface and another man in his real self. Although Job was not a sinless man, Job was a righteous man whose integrity of character showed itself in his relationship with God and in his dealings with people with whom Job came in contact.
It was important for the writer of the book to establish the upright character of Job, for had Job not been righteous and blameless, there would be no meaning to the book because Job’s suffering could have been understood by the reader as God’s judgement on Job’s iniquity. But Job was a righteous man, and the fact that Job was blameless and righteous gives rise to the puzzle of the book of Job. Since Job’s suffering was not the judgement of a righteous God on a wicked man, what then was the purpose of Job’s suffering?
In the prologue of the book, the author introduced his readers to a part of the big picture of the story which Job and his friends never saw. The story of Job begins when the sons of God appear in heaven to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came and joined the assembly of the sons of God. In the ensuing conversation between God and Satan, the Biblical writer emphasizes the subordination of Satan to God.
The text shows that the adversary was subject to God and could not act without the approval and permission of the Lord. The text also shows that it was Satan and not God who caused the disasters to Job’s life that caused his suffering. As a member of the divine assembly, Satan was the accuser of human beings before God, and it was in that role that he came to report human failures to God. To Satan’s accusations of the failure of human beings, Yahweh addressed the adversary with a pointed question: “Have you considered my servant Job?” (Job 1:8).
God’s question was important to the development of the story because it was God who drew Satan’s attention to Job’s character. So confident was God of Job’s perfect integrity that God challenged the accuser to find any flaw in Job’s blameless character. Satan knew that Job was a righteous man but contended that Job was a mercenary behind his upright behavior. Satan said: “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence 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” (Job 1:9-10).
Satan insisted that Job would not be so stupid as to do anything that would compromise a relationship that worked so well in his favor. The adversary believed that if Yahweh would change his treatment of Job that Job would certainly reverse his conduct toward Yahweh, that is, when piety would no longer pay, Job would become defiantly profane and would deny and even blaspheme God.
The adversary then proposed a challenge to God: “But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face” (Job 1:11). This proposition of Satan was a challenge which God confidently accepted. Yahweh knew the heart of Job and demonstrated his faith in his servant by staking his honor on the way Job would respond to the loss of his children and all his possessions. The development of the story affirmed God’s confidence in Job. Job’s integrity held strong and God’s honor was upheld by Job’s righteous words: “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1: 21b).
After Satan’s first attempt at forcing Job to deny God, the author returns to the scene in heaven. Satan and the sons of God came again to present themselves before the Lord. Although no time is given, it is possible that one year had passed. As the accuser again prepares to list the failures of human beings, the Lord asked Satan: “Have you considered my servant Job?” (Job 2:3).
God again expressed his confidence in Job: “He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason” (Job 2:3).
Satan, however, was not convinced. He wanted nothing less than to impute God’s honor by demonstrating that Job served God only out of selfish motives. So the accuser proposed another challenge to Job’s integrity: “Skin for skin! All that Job has he will give to save his life. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face” (Job 2:4-5, slightly paraphrased). Once again the Lord agreed to Satan’s evil request. Satan immediately proceeded to inflict Job with inflamed loathsome sores all over his body, which eventually become breeding places for worms (Job 7:5), gnawing pains (Job 30:17), blackened, scaly skin (Job 30:30), intense pain, and feelings of terror that lasted many excruciating days.
As the story progresses, the writer begins to describe the different aspects of Job’s response to the sufferings and the terror he faced. Initially, Job remained steadfast in accepting his suffering: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:l0). As time passed, however, two issues became the focus of his dialogue with his friends: his misery and his view of God’s justice. All that Job said in chapters 3 to 31 of the book are the result of his pain and suffering and his bewildered spirit.
At first Job desired the escape of death, even wishing that he had never lived. The life he once lived was now reduced to months of futility and nights of suffering (Job 7:3). He failed to understand the reason God considered him so important that he would not let up on his desperate situation. Job began to believe in the hopelessness of his situation. He also began to believe that he could not contend with the Almighty, although he desired to defend himself by presenting his case before the Lord. Job declared: “If it is a matter of strength, he is the strong one! If it is a matter of justice, who can summon him?” (Job 9:19).
As his suffering increased and his requests for an audience with God remained unanswered, Job became more and more convinced that God was against him, that God had become his enemy: “My enemy sharpens his eyes against me” (Job 19:11). In the midst of his doubts and suffering, Job clung to his integrity. In his misery Job’s consolation was that he had “not denied the words of the Holy One” (Job 6:10). Confident of his innocence, Job declared: “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face” (Job 13:15).
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Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary