Book of Job, Part 1

Studies in Suffering: The Book of Job

Since the inauguration of the current series of my blogs in September, we have surveyed the story line of the Bible from creation to the birth of the Hebrew nation, to their rebellion and discipline in the exile to Babylon and Persia, and finally to their return from exile. It has been a fascinating review for me that confirms the truth that God is sovereign and has a plan to rescue fallen humanity from sin and to accomplish his original intent for creating in the first place. But we now move from historical chronology to theological and philosophical contemplation. Today I begin a survey of the OT Poetic literature, often called the books of Wisdom—Job, Psalms (some scholars separate Psalms from the Wisdom genre), Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. These works address the meaning of life as they contemplate the problems, experiences, beliefs, philosophies and attitudes of God’s people. I will deal with them in the order they appear in the Hebrew Canon. First is Job.

There is probably no subject that raises the interest of believers like pain and suffering. To be certain, there is some pain and suffering that is the direct consequence of foolish or rebellious decisions—such as was noted when we surveyed the discipline of the Lord on Israel. But Job takes the discussion of pain and suffering to a new level—that is, undeserved pain and suffering, or what some have called irrational suffering. The Book of Job tells the story of an extremely pious man, one who would put most of us to shame for his devotion to God. Yet, he suffered unimaginable pain and suffering because of the permissive will of God. (This term needs to be unpacked in order to be understood in the framework of a responsible biblical theology, an unpacking that I will attempt in future posts. I use it here because of the obvious permission God gave Satan to attack Job.) Lest I get ahead of the story, we begin with the opening scene which describes a conversation between God and Satan.

Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”  “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the LORD. (Job 1:8-12 NIV)

Notice that even though God gives permission, there is a limit beyond which Satan may not go (vs. 12). Satan responds with a whirlwind of destructive events resulting in the loss to Job of all he had that was of this world. But his integrity remained when he declared:

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.” In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. (Job 1:21-1 NIV)

In characteristic devilish persistence, Satan approaches God again with the challenge that if Job lost his health, he would curse God to his face. God again gives Satan permission to attack Job, once more with a definite limitation, and Job is faced with boils and sores from head to foot. Nevertheless he responds the same way. Now, the reader is faced with all sorts of questions and feelings when reading this account. Is humanity simply a pawn in the hand of God? It looks like this is a game to him. God initiated conversation about Job and put the idea of Job’s piety in Satan’s mind, which he undoubtedly knew would raise Satan’s ire. It appears that Job is an innocent victim and that God just stands by and lets this terrible suffering happen.

May I suggest that nothing God ever does is gratuitous and that this book addresses issues that have profound implications on how we understand biblical theology, all the while demonstrating God’s faithfulness to himself and love for us. Complicated ideas and concepts can be discussed very effectively by telling a story. I suggest that by telling this story, Job is given the immense privilege of being known in history as the one chosen to demonstrate how to understand the universal experience of undeserved pain and suffering.

For today, an application from the introductory scenes is that no matter what happens in life, God always sets limits. This may not be of much comfort to those of us who are presently suffering, but for those who are able to think with some measure of objectivity, consider that no matter how bad things are, they could always be worse. The world is evil, but it is not as evil as it could be. I am much taken at what appear to me as miraculous interventions in many of the pivotal battles in various wars of history. For example, why was Hitler taking a nap at the time of the invasion of the Allies on D-Day? A simple order from him and German tanks and aircraft could have wiped out the entire allied force. But his generals were afraid to wake him from his sleep. Then there is catastrophic death due to disease. Why did the plague stop before wiping out all of humanity? And how did Alexander Flemming just happen to discover penicillin?

“When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer,” Fleming would later say, “But I suppose that was exactly what I did.”

In both cases, I suggest that God was setting limits on pain and suffering. In similar fashion, I suggest that he sets limits on your pain and suffering. Be assured of his sovereign orchestration of all the events of your life. Suffering does fall within the boundary of God’s sovereignty, but take comfort that there is a boundary. Admittedly, this doesn’t answer some of the deeper questions of suffering. Next time I will begin to address these questions, utilizing the text of the Book of Job as our source for inquiry.

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