STUDY 1: INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOK OF JOB

© Rosemary Bardsley 2020

A. WHY STUDY JOB?

There are all sorts of opinions about the book of Job. And about Job, the person. These opinions reveal a number of the issues that divide people who identify as Christians.

For example,

Questions about the Bible: Is the whole Bible, including the book of Job, the inspired, authoritative, infallible word of God? Something that we should regard as God revealing himself and his ways to us, even now in the twenty-first century? Or, is the book of Job just another human writing with no particular authority except any authority the church or the individual chooses to give it?

The question of grace: Does God relate to believers on the basis of personal merit, or on the basis of his grace? Does grace reign? Or, does the law of sin and death reign? Is grace so powerful that it protects believers from all and every personal judgment or condemnation from God that would otherwise fall upon them?

The question ‘what is faith?’ Does ‘faith’ mean, as Charles Finney taught, ‘a return to full obedience to the moral law’? Or is faith a relationship with God that includes both believing in God and believing God?

Was Job a self-righteous sinner who obviously deserved all he suffered? Or did Job have absolute confidence in God’s forgiveness, in God’s acquittal? Did he know that God is a God of mercy who justifies the wicked, who acquits the guilty? Even though he had never read Paul’s definitions of ‘righteousness’ as ‘apart from works’, ‘apart from law’, ‘God’s gift’, ‘freely given’ and ‘justified by faith’?

Is it possible for a human being to be sure that he is beyond God’s judgment? Is Job’s attitude that of a brash, obnoxious person? Or does his confidence in God’s presence, and in the presence of his accusers, rebuke our personal lack of such persistent and unquenchable faith?

We all suffer. We all ask questions about suffering. We all get asked suffering-related questions - about the goodness of God, about the love of God, about the power of God. How can a God who is good, loving and powerful allow all the suffering we see around us and the suffering we feel in our own mind, soul and body?

The book of Job answers some of the questions, but not all. But for those it does not answer it does something far greater. If we have ears to hear and hearts and minds soft and open to receive its message, it takes us to a place where we are so overwhelmed with the sovereignty and power of God that we no longer need to know the answers. It is enough to know him. Because once we know him we will also trust him, even when we do not understand and cannot explain the ‘why’. Even in the darkness of our suffering.

And our questions change from ‘What is God doing?’ and ‘Why is he doing it?’ to ‘How can I best glorify God in the midst of this circumstance, this suffering?’ and ‘How can I by my faith and my faithfulness make known the manifold wisdom of God both despite my circumstances and through my circumstances?’ (See Matthew 5:16; Ephesians 3:10; 1Peter 2:12.)

A true story

The diagnosis was terminal cancer.

A year to live. Physical pain. Anticipation of separation from loved ones. The unwanted premature confrontation with death. These were more than enough to handle.

But her fellow Christians who gathered around her made it worse. Far worse.

They said to her ‘If you had enough faith, the Lord would heal you.’
They stated their belief that this sickness was the result of some sin, some failure in godliness.
The urged her to confess that hidden sin then she would be made well.
They demanded healing on her behalf.
But healing didn’t come. The prayers had no effect.
God seemed silent.

And since the Lord makes no mistakes, the fault was obviously in her, either some sin, or some breakdown of faith.

Guilt was added to her pain.
A feeling of failure multiplied her sadness.

Then into the depths of her pain, her guilt, her despair, her depression, came the liberating message of the book of Job.

The terminal cancer was still there. Pain was still there. Death was still imminent. But …

The burdens lifted.
The guilt was taken away.
The sense of failure ceased.
The confusion was dispersed.
The depression was replaced with confident peace and joy.

[The above story is excerpted and adapted from an article by the author published in Christian Woman, March/April 1995, © Christian Women Communicating International.]

 

B. BACKGROUND INFORMATION

About the book of Job:

B.1 Author and date
Nobody knows who wrote the book of Job or when it was actually first recorded in written form. The story of Job was obviously well-known by the time of Ezekiel – Job is referred to as a significant person, along with Noah and Daniel in Ezekiel 14:14 and 20.

B.2 Setting
Regardless of when Job’s story was put in written format, the events and circumstances it reports reflect the time and culture of the patriarchs. There is no reference to the law of Moses. There is no reference to the descendants of Abraham as the chosen people. Job, as head of the family, filled the role of priest, offering sacrifices on behalf of his family. Job’s wealth was measured by his flocks and herds. All of this strongly suggests that Job and his friends lived sometime between the flood and the end of the Genesis era, either before God’s call of Abraham, or in the same era as Abraham and his son and grandsons, but not connected to them.

Job 1:1 tells us that Job lived ‘in the land of Uz’. No one knows exactly where this is. But we do know that people called ‘Sabeans’ attacked Job’s oxen and donkeys (1:14, 15), and ‘Chaldeans’ carried off his camels (1:17). This places ‘Uz’ in the Middle East, some scholars suggesting Bashan as the most likely area.

B.3 Genre
The book of Job belongs to a genre known as ‘Wisdom literature’.

What does this mean? Wisdom literature:

[a] addresses the complexity of human existence.

[b] has two forms: [a] proverbial - short, pithy sayings stating rules for personal happiness and welfare (the Book of Proverbs); and [b] speculative wisdom (Ecclesiastes, Job), attempting to delve into such problems as the meaning of existence and the relationship between God and man. These are written as monologue or dialogue. (See The New Bible Dictionary, IVP, for further information).

This is a form of writing that addresses what we would class philosophical issues. The term ‘philosophy’ literally means ‘love of wisdom’. Philosophers look into the meaning of life – what is human? What are we here for? Where did we come from? Are humans no different from animals? When does human life begin? At one level, Darwin’s ‘origin of the species’ is a philosophical issue, not a scientific issue. His theories cannot be confirmed by scientific methods. But his philosophy, his worldview, has become the presupposition upon which contemporary secular science operates, and which the majority of non-scientific people, including many Christians, assume to be scientifically proven.

Biblical wisdom literature, that is Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, approaches philosophical questions with the presupposition of belief in God.

All three of these books exalt wisdom, the wisdom that is from God:

Job 28 asks the question ‘Where can wisdom be found?’ (v12) and asserts ‘God understands the way to it’ (v23), concluding ‘the fear of the Lord – that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding’ (v28).

Proverbs repeatedly brings us back to this same conclusion: ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline’ (1:7). ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding’ (9:10). ‘The fear of the LORD teaches a man wisdom…’ (15:33). Proverbs also personifies wisdom (chapter 8), concluding with wisdom saying:

‘For whoever finds me finds life and receives favour from the LORD.
But whoever fails to find me harms himself; all who hate me love death’ (Proverbs 8:34, 35).

Solomon, in Ecclesiastes, says: ‘I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven’ (1:13). Ecclesiastes concludes:

‘Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails –given by one Shepherd. …

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man …’ (12:9 – 11, 13).

As well as being Wisdom literature, the bulk of Job is written in poetry. Hebrew poetry is not concerned about rhyming words, but about parallel thoughts, in which different words are used to express the same thought in each of (usually) two lines. It is good to remember this as it helps us to understand what is being said. For example, in Job 3:11, each line is asking the same question as the other:

‘Why did I not perish at birth,
and die as I came from the womb?’

 

B.4 Structure
When reading the Book of Job we must recognize:

[1] The prose sections (chapters 1, 2 and 42:7 – 17) are written by the narrator as a factual report of actual events.

[2] The poetry sections (chapters 3 to 42:6) are an accurate report of:

The dialogue between Job and his three friends in which various opinions are given concerning Job’s suffering,

Job’s testimony in which he expresses his emotional and mental suffering and the confusion and despair resulting from his inability to see what God is doing,

Elihu’s speech in which he expresses his opinion about what is going on, and

The dialogue between God and Job, in which God reveals himself to Job as far bigger than Job had ever imagined.

[3] We must remember that, while these dialogues are accurately reported, the opinions expressed in them are not all true. This is clearly stated in 42:7, where God told Eliphaz and his two friends that they had not spoken of him as they ought, but Job had. Because Job is wisdom literature we cannot pick out any verse from anywhere and say ‘God says ...’. If Eliphaz, Bildad or Zophar said it, we actually know that it is not true, or at best, true but misrepresented or misapplied.

When we read and study Job, we are not just reading a story. We are reading wisdom literature, literature that asks puzzling, deep and disturbing questions, literature that looks at human answers and seeks to find God’s answers. Yes. It is the true history of a real person. But Job’s story is reported with a purpose, with massive questions in mind all the way through:

How does God oversee and govern the world, this world that is overflowing with suffering?
Is he in control or is he not?
Is there such a thing as genuine human faith?
If there is, is it possible for that faith to endure and survive the intensity of the struggles?
Are these human opinions that are brought forth valid or invalid?
What am I supposed to believe?
How am I supposed to respond?
Is it right or wrong to ask the big questions?
Is it worth the bother?
Would it not be easier just to give in and give up, as Job’s wife so strongly suggested?

B.4 The text
If you study Job in a number of different translations you will probably notice that some verses are translated in significantly different ways. This can be quite a challenge when we are trying to understand what is happening to Job. Some parts of the earliest Job manuscripts are physically damaged; (it is also suspected by some scholars that some small sections have been lost). This makes accurate translation difficult. However, the message of the book is not compromised by these issues.

It is recommended that you make use of a variety of translations when studying Job.

 

C. THE CONTENT OF THE BOOK OF JOB

The book of Job consists of three distinct sections:

The Prologue – chapters 1 and 2. This is written in prose. This tells us what actually happened to Job and why it happened.

Various responses – chapters 3 to 42:6. This is written in poetry (except the verses introducing Elihu).

The Epilogue – 42:7 – 17. This is written in prose. This tells us God’s response to what Job and his three friends said, and how God resolved the situation.

The two prose sections – the Prologue and the Epilogue – are the key to understanding the rest of the book. They are thus extremely significant. If we fail to believe and understand what God says in these two sections we will come to wrong conclusions about Job and about suffering, including our suffering.

The largest section, chapters 3 to 42:6, subdivides into the various responses to Job’s incredible suffering:

Job expresses his agony – 3

The three friends give their opinions and Job responds to each (round #1) – 4 – 14

Eliphaz – 4, 5
Job – 6,7
Bildad – 8
Job – 9 – 10
Zophar – 11
Job – 12 – 14

The three friends express further opinions and Job responds (round #2) – 15 – 21

Eliphaz – 15
Job – 16, 17
Bildad – 18
Job – 19
Zophar – 20
Job – 21

The friends have more to say and Job responds (round #3) – 22 – 27

Eliphaz – 22
Job – 23, 24
Bildad – 25
Job 26 – 27 (note some scholars believe some parts of 27 are not Job)

A chapter in praise of wisdom (part of Job’s response) – 28

Job’s testimony – 29 – 31

The good old days – 29
But now … - 30
Why? – 31

An unexpected and lengthy interruption – Elihu – 32 – 37

God responds to Job – 38 – 42:6 - (includes Job’s response – 42:1 – 6).

The various speeches in this extended section have to be understood in the light of the Prologue and the Epilogue. There we are given the facts, which none of the characters in the story, except God, knows. Each of them, except God, speaks out of their own ignorance, out of their own observations, their own history, their own conclusions. When we read the opinions of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, we need to remember that these men are not speaking the words of God. Just as the Gospel writers accurately recorded the wrong beliefs and statements of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, so the writer of Job has accurately reported the wrong perceptions of these three friends. Their speeches, like the bulk of Ecclesiastes, are an accurate record of human search for meaning. We cannot quote them and say ‘God says …’ To do so would be quite inappropriate and incorrect. God himself rebuked them for speaking wrongly (42:7, 8).

 

D. THE PURPOSE OF THE BOOK OF JOB

Here we are asking: why did God include this book in the Bible? What truth does he want us to learn from it?

Before we move into our study of Job, what is your opinion about the purpose of this book?
Is its purpose to answer the question ‘Why do the righteous suffer?’

Is it an exposure of the sin of self-righteousness?

Does is set out to tell us how God rules the world, including our suffering?

Is its purpose to defuse the generally accepted view that the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer?

Is its primary focus the integrity and endurance of genuine faith?

Is it to teach us about Satan and his deceptive, destructive purpose?

Or … some other purpose?

D.1 Is it ‘why do the righteous suffer?’
Some people think that the book of Job is in the Bible to answer the question ‘Why do the righteous suffer?’ but for Job himself that question was never answered. We, the readers, know that Job’s suffering was a result of Satan’s destructive intent, but Job is never told about that. Indeed, he seems to be quite ignorant of Satan’s existence. Job’s questions about why he was suffering were never answered. God is totally silent on that topic. It seems that this question is ultimately either unimportant or irrelevant as far as Job’s relationship with God is concerned.

This question – Why do the righteous suffer? – is answered in other biblical books. It is addressed, in part, in the studies on suffering.

D.2 Is it an exposure of self-righteousness?
Some people, ignoring the prologue (Job 1 & 2) and the epilogue (42:7 – 17), believe the book of Job gives us a demonstration of how not to behave in the presence of suffering. They characterize Job as obnoxiously self-righteous and deserving of all he suffered. But the prologue and epilogue outlaw such a conclusion about Job.

D.3 Does it seek to explain how God rules the world, including the suffering of the world?
Some, knowing that the book of Job is Hebrew wisdom literature – not straight history, prophecy or law – believe that its purpose is to help the reader reach an understanding of how God governs the world; and in fact the book of Job does do that. It records human ideas about why people suffer, it records Job’s refusal to accept these ideas as relevant to his suffering, even though he himself has no idea what God is doing, and it records God’s response to these human ideas. Yet even in God’s response, the question of why Job suffered is not addressed. See Suffering studies #4 & 5 for the Bible’s teaching on why suffering happens.

D.4 Does it outlaw the universal application of a general principle?
The book of Job gives us an individual counter-balance to a general principle found in Scripture that God sometimes rewards the righteous with prosperity and longevity and punishes the wicked with suffering and death. The book of Job makes it clear that we humans do not have the knowledge to apply this general principle to the individual case. The general principle ought not to be applied to every instance of suffering. This is for several reasons.

Check these texts. What truths do they teach that prevent the automatic application of this general principle to individual instances of suffering?

God’s sovereignty and freedom:
Romans 9:10 – 18

 

God’s mercy and compassion:
Exodus 33:19

Exodus 34:6, 7a

2Peter 3:9

God’s provision of forgiveness to people of faith:
Psalm 32:1, 2

Psalm 130:3, 4

Romans 4:5

The often hidden identity of ‘the righteous’ and ‘the wicked’
Matthew 7:15 – 23

Matthew 13:24 – 30

Luke 18:9 – 14

Romans 9:30 – 10:12

D.5 Does it address the question: Does true faith endure, no matter what?
Job is introduced to us, and affirmed by God, to be a person of genuine faith. Satan denies the integrity of Job’s faith. All that follows combines to answer the question: who is right? God, or Satan. Here in this question is the key purpose of this book, the one theme that dominates the whole.