This Sunday Morning (11th March) we will be starting a new series ‘When God’s People Suffer’ based on the book of Job. It’s not an easy book to read or understand so sometimes it’s helpful to have a ‘big picture’ view before we start into the smaller detail. Below is an overview of the book which I trust will help us know what Job is all about and what to expect. It’s quite long (It’s hard to condense 42 chapters!) so my suggestion is you read it in two parts. Your comments and questions are always welcome. Jonny
The problem is not if we suffer but when we suffer. Live long enough in this world and we will suffer. This is the message of the bible and this is the reality for Job. Suffering may be experienced in different ways. It can be physical as we deal with chronic pain or an incurable disease. It can be emotional as we come to terms with the loss of a loved one be they young or well on in years. Suffering can also be seen in natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes and floods and it can be witnessed through human evil like terrorism, genocide and corruption. The cold reality is we live in a world of inevitable suffering. While there is much that is beautiful in creation and while there is so much to enjoy in life, we live with the fact that so much of what we see and touch is terribly broken and disordered.
Of course the issue is further complicated when experience tells us that it’s the innocent that seem to suffer most. That’s the big theme of Job. Those who are corrupt and wicked and care nothing for God seem to live better than those who seek justice and show compassion and love the ways of God. (21v7-15)
Job is introduced to us as the ‘greatest man among all the people of the East’ 1v3. Materially he was wealthy but it’s his spiritual health that is the focus. He is ‘upright and and blameless, he feared God and shunned evil’ 1v1,8. Job even takes time to pray for his children after there parties ‘perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts’ 1v5. In fact at the very end of the book God commends Job as speaking what is right 42v7.
Because Job is so righteous it makes his subsequent suffering all the more difficult to comprehend. Within the space of a few days Job’s wealth and health is destroyed (1v13ff). His livelihood is wiped out by invading armies, his children and their families have all been killed in a natural disaster and his health has been snatched away. None of it makes sense. Why does God allow it? Why does God not intervene? These are questions Job begins to ask as he lives with the reality of such awful suffering (3v11-12, 20-23). As we read through Job we are left asking the big question: ‘What kind of God runs a world like this?’ From chapters 1-3 we are left to conclude that God is either Not Loving or Not powerful or perhaps both!
Unknown to Job, but known to us the reader, Satan has come to God. Surprisingly it’s God who reminds Satan of Job: ‘Have you considered my servant Job?’ 1v8. Behind the scenes and in the control room of power God gives Satan ‘permission’ to pursue Job. It seems Satan is convinced that Job only loves God because he has a good life. But upset his life, bring some suffering and he will soon turn his back on God. While Satan wants to cause harm to Job’s life with the intent of turning him away from God – in everything that happens – Job remains true to God. Amidst all his questions Job can say: ‘I know that my redeemer lives…and after my skin has been destroyed yet in my flesh I will see God.’ 19v25-26. Apart from chapter one and two we hear no more from Satan. It seems the writer wants our focus, not on Satan but on God.
Despite all the suffering and all the questions about suffering God remains in absolute control. No where are we to think that this world is in ‘free fall’ or that somehow Satan is a force that God is struggling to cope with. In fact the opposite is true. Behind all the suffering stands a God who remains firmly in charge of Job’s life, Satan and the world in which we live.
While Satan pursues Job, it’s at God’s initiative and under God’s control. In fact the writer wants us to see that Satan is on a leash – he can only do what God permits him to do. ‘Very well then everything he has is in your hands,…’1v12, 2v6. Job himself recognises that his life is under the Sovereign care of God, ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away…1v21′ ‘Shall we accept good from God and not trouble? 2v10′. While Job knows it in his head he only comes to experience it in his heart as he listens to God speak to him. The concluding chapters remind us that God alone is the creator of the world and is therefore in change of all that happens in the world (Ch 38-41). We are left to conclude that there is just one God with absolute power and supreme authority. The creator God stands behind both good and evil, but yet God is never charged with evil. In ways that remain a mystery God is seen to allow, permit and even cause suffering in the world and in the lives people – even innocent and righteous people like Job. That God stands behind all suffering raises many questions but it also provides our hope.
With these introductions we are now better placed to understand the structure and therefore the message of Job.
Chapters 1-3: Job and his suffering
The first three chapters introduce us to Job and the suffering that invades his life.
While much suffering is the direct consequence of sin the suffering of Job is what we might call ‘innocent suffering’. It does not mean Job was sinless, rather he was a man who loved God and sought to do good. This kind of suffering is the hardest to deal with. In seems irrational and threatens to destroy our understanding of God and the world in which we live.
Job’s lament in chapter 3 reminds us that this is something we all fear: ‘What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me.’ v26
Chapters 4-31: Job and his ‘comforters’
We have all heard about Job’s comforters Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. If we want an example of how not to comfort someone who suffers then this is it! Their only positive contribution is the first week of Job’s suffering when they just sit with him and grieve with him. (2v11-13) Sometimes words are not appropriate.
What follows is three cycles of ‘advice’ from these three comforters. (ch 4-31)
Each one takes a turn which is followed by a response from Job. This happens three times with advice turning to accusation.
Their primary line of reasoning is this: Innocent people don’t suffer. ‘Who being innocent has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? 4v7. Together they counsel Job to repent of his sin and God will restore him (5v27, 8v6). In fact their accusation only intensifies – Job, they say, deserves his suffering (15v20-26).
Job’s response is to continue to claim his innocence, however his response turns to one of questioning God: ‘I desire to speak to the almighty and to argue my case with God’ 13v3. Job longs for the day when he can ask God why he is suffering when he has done nothing wrong. He wants vindication: ‘As surly as God lives, who has denied me justice, the Almighty, who has made me taste bitterness of soul…I will never admit you are in the right..I will not deny my integrity.’ 27v2-6
This is the heart of the message. Job is not denying his faith he is working out his faith. He is angry and annoyed. If God is loving and powerful then why does he not do anything about it? Like Job we are drawn in to ask and reason with God, to tell him what we think. It’s only as we do this that we begin to find a way to deal with innocent suffering.
Chapters 32-37: Job and his friend
Ironically the three ‘comforters’ only bring more suffering to job. Far from being wise they fail to understand the way in which God works.
Elihu is next up. While he is angry with Job for speaking against God, he speaks with compassion and concern. His desire is to help Job see that fighting against God and charging God with injustice is not right (33v12). God does answer, God does speak but not in the ways that we want (33v13). God is not unjust and we should never think that God is evil or vindictive: ‘It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the almighty would pervert justice. Who appointed him over the earth? Who put him in charge of the whole world?‘ 34v12-13. Elihu does not have an answer to the ‘why’ question, but he begins to help Job and us get perspective. In short he prepares Job for an encounter with God.
Chapters 38-42: Job and his God
The last time we heard God speak was to Satan back in chapter two. Now God breaks his silence and speaks to Job: ‘Who is this that darkens my counsel..? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you and you will answer me’ 38v2-3. What follows is two chapters of questions from God directed at Job … Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?….Have you ever given orders to the morning?….Do you send lightening bolts on their way? Do they report to you?….Do you give the horse his strength? The answers all lead to one conclusion, only God can do all this, we can’t control the world or nature so who are we to find fault with the ways of God? Job responds in humility: ‘I am unworthy – how can I reply to you? I spoke once, but I have no answer – twice, but I will say no more’ 40v4-5.
God does not answer Job directly but God does tell us what answers are unacceptable. If Job can’t control the *’Behemoth’ (40v15) or the *’Leviathan’ (41v1) then who are we to say we know better than God? Who are we to say what God should or should not do?
Once more Job responds: ‘I know you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted…My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes’ 42v2-5. Job does not repent because of sin but because he has been angry at God and accusing God and holding him guilty. Job has learned to let God be God to trust Him in the suffering – that He is Sovereign and in control. We might not have an answer, we may not understand God’s ways but we rest in the knowledge that God is right and he remains firmly in charge. No plan of God’s can be thwarted. This is our comfort and our hope.
*The Behemoth and the Leviathan are thought to be large land and sea creatures. They are also thought to be symbolic for the evil and destruction we see all around us.
Job and Jesus
The book of Job is long, 42 chapters, perhaps because there are no easy answers to the question of innocent suffering! We should not read Job with the expectation that we will find answers to everything we ask, however as we read Job we will find Jesus. In Job we get a glimpse of the ultimate ‘innocent sufferer’ Jesus Christ. Jesus was truly righteous, blameless and upright, the man who feared God and shunned evil. He did nothing wrong yet God was pleased to see him suffer the pain and death of the cross. Jesus took my sin your sin on himself and suffered the punishment that you and I deserve. The truly innocent one suffered for you and for me, death and hell, forsaken by the Father, so that we might live. Like Job Jesus cried out in agony and pain..’why have you forsaken me? The answer was silence. God does not always answer what we ask but he does provide comfort and hope. The book of Job ends with a reversal of all that he endured: ‘The Lord blessed the latter part of his (Job) life more than the first…’ 42v12. Perhaps this is a glimpse of all that is promised to those who love and trust Jesus – a reversal of all that we might endure. Because of Jesus we have the hope of a new heaven and a new earth. One day our short suffering life will end and ‘we will be his people and God himself will be with us and be our God. He will wipe away every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who is seated on the throne says: I am making everything new!’ Revelation 21v3-5.