Read Part 1: The Suffering of Job and Divine Justice
People reading the book of Job today will encounter a strange and disturbing view of God, a view that reflects a theology which affirms that God was the source of both good and evil. This theology is behind the words of Job’s four friends who came to sympathize with Job in his time of distress. The dialogue of the four friends with Job was aimed at comforting him, but in the end they concluded that Job was suffering because he had sinned against God.
The friends’ inability to understand the real cause of Job’s suffering prompted them to accuse Job of being like the wicked: he was reaping the consequences of his wickedness. Their words of accusation were based on their experience and knowledge of God. However, they accused Job because they were unaware of what was transpiring in the council of God. In their attempt at defending God, Job’s friends overstated their case by putting the blame on Job.
In their dialogue, Job’s friends presented a lofty and unyielding view of God, a view that makes God appear to be removed from the arena of human experience. According to Job’s friends’ theology, God was so removed from humans that unless a mediator served as a go between God and humans, that separation would leave human beings hopeless when confronted with unyielding justice.
The theology of Job’s friends was not all wrong, but neither was their theology right enough to explain Job’s suffering. Notwithstanding their words of wisdom, Job’s suffering continued. Thus, in the end, human wisdom could not bring the healing or the answers Job was so desperately seeking.
At the end of the dialogue between Job and his friends, God revealed himself to Job. Awed by the divine presence, Job forgot all the bitterness and complaints of his soul. The presence of God required Job’s attention. Finally, Job’s request to present his case directly to God was granted. As Job had already expressed, he knew that he could not contend with the awesome majesty of Almighty God.
Speaking to Job out of a whirlwind (Job 38:1), the Lord answered none of Job’s questions, neither did God explain the reasons he had to endure such torment. No mention was made in God’s response to Job of the events in the heavenly court as narrated in the prologue of the story. God had a more powerful way to demonstrate his justice.
The Almighty God revealed himself to Job. How simple that encounter seemed to be, and yet, how profound were the implications of that revelation. In a moment, Job’s attitude changed. His life was flooded with purpose, with hope, and with the expectation of healing. God healed Job by bringing him out of his anxiety into acceptance of his situation, an acceptance that brought peace to Job’s life.
God’s purpose was not only to heal Job, but also to instruct him. God asked Job several rhetorical questions which were beyond human capability of answering.
God wanted Job to catch a glimpse of his work in creation so that Job could realize that his suffering was insignificant when placed next to God’s work in the world. At the end of God’s questioning, Job recognized the vast gulf between God’s wisdom and power and his own ignorance of the many mysteries of life. The greatest lesson Job learned was that God was sovereign over his creation and that divine sovereignty governs all reality, including Job’s own life.
At the end of God’s encounter with Job, Job humbly repented of his presumption, that he could contend with God. He also repented of his pride in seeing only himself while failing to recognize that God’s purpose for his life was much more than he could understand. He bowed in recognition of his insignificance before his sovereign Lord.
Job confessed his unwavering faith in God’s sovereignty and his total submission to that sovereignty. Job admitted that he was unable to understand the marvelous work of God, and asked God to grant him wisdom and understanding. Job’s repentance signals the end of his intense suffering and the restoration of God’s blessings on his life.
The issue that vexes people with such an intensity, the problem of evil, is presented in the book of Job in the form of the suffering of a good and righteous man. His friends tried to console him, but they failed. Their words were not totally wrong. To the contrary, what they said made sense, but not in the case of Job. So, at the end, God himself told them they were wrong in their accusation of Job.
However, at the end of the book, the reader is still perplexed. Why did a good God allow Job’s suffering to happen? This question presupposes one very important assumption: whoever asks this question believes in a God of justice. Atheists cannot ask this question. Since they do not believe there is a God, they cannot say God allows this kind of evil to happen.
The problem of the suffering of the innocent is a problem for believers, because they believe in a caring and loving God, a God who is in control of his creation. Those who do not believe in the providence of God, find reasons for human misery by denying or diminishing the God of the Bible.
Many people explain the problem of human suffering by denying the existence of God, by limiting the power and the sovereignty of God, or by affirming that God is not good. Many people are like Job’s friends. When people are confronted with the limitations of humanity to understand or explain natural disasters, such as Katrina, Haiti, and Chile, disasters that take hundreds and thousands of human lives, they blame God for these disasters.
When people are challenged by the helplessness of one individual such as Job, a man who suffered and agonized for days and months with an incurable disease, they lose their faith in God and blame the deity for allowing violence, disease, and disasters to occur in the world.
But it is precisely because we know that the Lord is good that we insist that this goodness be shown in the world. It is because we know that the Lord is a righteous judge that we demand that justice be adjudicated in the world. But when we look at the world in which we live, we recognize that goodness and evil are not rewarded evenly. The wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. This was the problem Jeremiah had with God: Jeremiah said: “LORD, you have always been fair whenever I have complained to you. However, I would like to speak with you about the disposition of justice. Why are wicked people successful? Why do all dishonest people have such easy lives?” (Jeremiah 12:1 NET).
In light of such a disparity, how can we continue to believe that God is good? The presence of evil and suffering in the world is evidence to many people that either God is not good or that God is impotent to deal with the problems of the world. But the Bible provides ways of reconciling the problem of suffering with the goodness of God.
The Bible affirms that the God of the Bible is a God of justice: “For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him” (Isaiah 30:18). Isaiah says that God’s justice will be revealed, but that the believer must wait for it. However, human beings do not have the patience to wait for divine justice to be manifested, either in the near future or at the end of time. People desire to see divine justice manifested while they are alive. Few are willing to wait for divine justice to be done in the life to come. People want justice done in the land of the living.
Human questioning and reasoning about divine justice are important for humans. Job questioned divine justice until he was confronted with the presence of the sovereign and omnipotent God. Job understood the reason for his sufferings no better after his restoration than he understood it when he sat upon the heap of ashes.
Job found wisdom and understanding when he encountered God. The book of Job demonstrates that wisdom is not found in seeking answers to life problems, but in experiencing God. God’s justice lies not in what a person perceives as fair, but in God’s willingness to justify that person. Perhaps God’s justification of Job was the deepest significance and meaning Job found for his suffering. God provides for each person a Justifier and an Advocate, the one whom Job earnestly desired.
To Job, his witness was in heaven: “my advocate is on high” (Job 16:19). Job’s words indicate that he saw God as his vindicator. But it is clear that Job saw no vindication in this life. Job believed he was going to die but he knew that he would be vindicated: “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (Job 19:25-26).
To Christians, Jesus Christ is the answer to all Job’s questions and to ours. Jesus is the culmination of all that Job wanted God to do for him: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). Only through Jesus can human beings be justified, and only in justification will human beings learn the true meaning of divine sovereignty and divine justice.
NOTE: For other studies on the Book of Job and the problem of suffering, read my post, An Introduction to the Book of Job.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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