STUDY SIX: SUFFERING AND OUR KNOWLEDGE OF GOD

© Rosemary Bardsley 2002, 2020

The focus in Job is on two key subjects: knowledge of God and faith in God.

These two go hand in hand. The first determines the second. The second confirms and has the potential to expand the first. Unless we have both we will never come anywhere near finding a livable response to the question ‘Why do the righteous suffer?’ Unless we have both we will be no better off than people trapped in the various ideologies briefly presented in the appendix in the Suffering Revisited sutdies. Suffering, apart from knowledge of and faith in the true God, renders life absurd and meaningless.

The book of Job only gives us, the reader, one clear answer to the question ‘Why do the righteous suffer?’ - that Job’s suffering is instigated by Satan and permitted and limited by God. As we have seen, this permission by God was in the context of Satan’s accusation that Job did not really believe in and honour God. He alleged that Job’s ‘faith’ was a self-centred attitude on Job’s part aimed at maintaining the level of health and prosperity he enjoyed as a result of God’s goodness towards him. In the hidden context of Satan’s sustained and permanent opposition to God and to all God approves and loves Job’s suffering has a deep purpose: the demonstration of the greatness and endurance of God-given faith.

But all of this is unknown to Job. He cannot say ‘Oh yes. Satan is up to his tricks again. This is another of his deceitful schemes pressuring me to deny God.’ He knows nothing about that. But he does know God. How much he knows, and how his suffering draws out and expands his knowledge and his faith, we will discover as we continue through this book of Job.

The book of Job has much to say about knowledge of God and faith in God. When our knowledge of God is biblical, and when our understanding of faith in God is biblical, we are set free from the necessity of having an explanation of suffering.

 

A. WHERE DOES KNOWLEDGE OF GOD COME FROM

Each of Job’s three friends got their knowledge of God from different sources. Interestingly, they all came to the same conclusion about why Job was suffering.

Read these verses. Where did each friend get his knowledge of God?
Eliphaz
4:8, 9

4:12 – 16

5:1 – 7

15:17, 18

22:15, 16

 

Bildad
8:8 – 10

18:4.

Zophar
11:7ff.

 

Eliphaz based his knowledge of God on dreams and visions and on his own observations of the experiences of the wicked and the righteous. Bildad got his knowledge on tradition - that which had always been believed and taught about how God dispensed blessing and suffering. Zophar, an agnostic, asserting the impossibility of man knowing God, had his opinion anyway. (His was the ‘I’m-no-theologian-but-I’ll-say-what-I-think-anyway approach). He does acknowledge that God could give knowledge of himself to man (11:5 – 6a), but anticipated that God’s self-revelation would ratify the traditional opinion (11:6b; 11:11).

Such are the opinions of the three friends concerning the knowledge of God. Their faith in God was based on and restricted by that knowledge.

 

B. WHAT IS GOD DOING TO JOB?

The three friends’ knowledge of God, and their faith, was this:

God would work as they had always understood his manner of working.

He would not work in a different way from what everyone believed.

His manner of working in the past, according to their knowledge (that is, according to dreams, experience, tradition, and the ‘you can’t know’ approach) was that prosperity and long life were the lot ordained by God for the righteous, and suffering and calamity the lot ordained by God for the wicked.

Their faith was that God was at the moment working in this way in the life of Job. Their knowledge of God did not permit any other explanation or any other belief.

Read these verses. Based on their knowledge of how God worked, what did they conclude or infer was the reason God afflicted Job with suffering?
Eliphaz
4:8, 9

5:2 – 6

5:12 – 13

15:2 – 6

22:4 – 5

22:23

Bildad
8:2 – 4

18:5 – 21

25:4 – 6

Zophar
11:1 – 6b

11:10, 11

11:14

20:1 – 29

At first they were a little bewildered because they had thought Job to be righteous, but rather than change their idea about God, they decided they must have been wrong about Job:

Eliphaz started off rather conciliatory and hopeful (4:3, 4), but progressed to extreme condemnation..

Bildad, began hopeful of restoration (8:5, 6, 21, 22), but progressed to including Job among the wicked who deserve punishment, then as involved in the general condemnation of all mankind.

Zophar alone asserted from the outset, without doubt or qualification, that Job’s suffering was because of sin. He speaks of the short-lived prosperity of the wicked, obviously including Job in that category. Note that he ran out of arguments before the others, not surprising when you consider the basis of his knowledge.

Assuming that God was punishing Job for some sin they urged him to confess and repent, assuring him that God would restore his health and prosperity if he did so. But the more Job rejected their verdict and advice the harsher they (particularly Eliphaz) became towards him.

 

C. JOB’S RESPONSE TO THE THREE FRIENDS

Job refused to accept as absolute the knowledge of God and the basis of that knowledge, asserted by his three friends. Before his suffering, that was what he also had assumed to be true. But he knows, with bold assurance, that that is not what is happening to him. He does not know why God has done what he did, but he knows that what his friends are saying, and what he himself had always accepted as truth, cannot be applied to his situation.

Read these verses. How do they express that:
Job was well aware of the prevalent view of the way God worked
16:1,2

31:2 – 3

He refuses to accept that this is what’s happening to him, and points out that the evidence shows that this is not always what happens
6:24

6:28 – 29

12:5 – 6

19:2 – 3

21:7 – 34

 

 

 

 

24:1 – 25

 

 

 

 

D. WHERE DOES TRUE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD COME FROM?

D.1 From experience ...? No. Experience is personal and subjective. It varies from person to person. Our interpretation of experience is also subjective and relative: it varies according to our presuppositions, our expectations, our feelings, the state of our health or our finances, our role satisfaction, our relationships, and even the weather. Experiences happen, that cannot be denied, but how experiences are interpreted is what is in question. They can never teach absolute truth.

Just as Eliphaz referred to things he had observed in human lives – that the wicked suffer, Job pointed out that, while he knew that the wicked suffer, he had also observed exactly the opposite: that the wicked prosper.

The book of Job teaches us very clearly not to define truth by our experiences. Rather God’s truth should determine how we interpret our experiences.

Consider these facts. How do they deny the conclusions about suffering reached by Eliphaz?
God affirmed Job as a person of genuine faith.

 

Jesus was affirmed by God … ‘my Son, in whom I am well pleased’.

 

Jesus’ affirmed that his followers would suffer.

 

Paul’s taught that people of faith have escaped the wrath of God and condemnation (Romans 5:9; 8:1).

 

God’s affirmation of the heroes of faith who suffered (Hebrews 11).

 

[2] From traditions ...? No. Traditions are simply the build up over time of human ideas. They are either formal (as in some church traditions) or informal, as in personal habits and beliefs, or family or community traditions. Sometimes they are human corruptions of God’s word. They have no built-in authority to teach absolute truth. They are usually quite legalistic and guilt-generating, arising as they do from the natural inclinations of our human hearts.

Study these New Testament verses. What do they say about basing our understanding of truth, and of our lives, on human traditions and the principles of this world?

Matthew 15:1 – 9

 

 

Galatians 4:3

Galatians 4:9

Colossians 2:8

Colossians 2:20

 

[3] From the agnostic, I’m-no-theologian approach ...? No. This approach restricts knowledge of God, and thus God himself, to limits of the human mind. It also denies that God has revealed himself. This impoverished perspective is really an escape from accountability that says: “no one can know; everyone disagrees with everyone else; all ‘truth’ is just personal human opinions; so I am not even going to try to find out if there is any truth to know, or, if there is, what that truth is. But here’s what I think anyway.”

In a way, this position is true at one level: no one knows, and no one has ever seen God. But this position is soundly condemned by the Scripture which affirms that God has made himself known.

How do these verses outlaw the ‘I’m no theologian’ approach?
Psalm 19:1 – 4a

John 1:14

John 1:18

John 5:37 – 47

John 14:6 – 9

Romans 1:18 – 20

Ephesians 4:11 – 16

2Timothy 3:15 – 17

2Peter 1:16 – 21

1John 5:20

The problem of those who adopt the ‘I’m no theologian/you just can’t know’ approach is not that God cannot be known, but that they either do not want to know and to believe, or do not care what the truth really is.


Our focus in this study has been on how our knowledge of God affects our view of suffering. Where we get our knowledge from is of key significance. Can we find out the truth about God through our human understanding? Are we able to find and interpret the truth about God for ourselves? To assume that we can, as Eliphaz and Bildad did, or to form a personal concept of truth on the basis of ignorance, as Zophar did, is foolish, idolatrous and non-biblical.

It fails to take into account

[1] the utter otherness of God. God is infinite and God is holy. He is one of a kind, unique, immeasurable. He is not something that we can compare to something else that is known and understood. He is beyond that. And,

[2] both the finiteness and corruption of the human heart and mind. We know that the human heart and mind is sinful and deceitful and has distorted all that God has revealed. We know also that Satan has blinded the human mind so that left to itself it cannot know the truth about God.

How do these verses reveal the holiness and infiniteness of God and the contrasting inability of humans to know him, without his intervening self-revelation?
Isaiah 40:12 – 31

 

 

Jeremiah 17:9

Romans 1:18 – 21

 

 

Ephesians 4:17ff

 

2Corinthians 4:4 – 6

 

SUMMARY
Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar failed to correctly understand what was happening to Job because their perception of God and his government of the world came from within the limits of their finite human understanding. It was also corrupted and distorted by the sinfulness of their hearts which always idolatrously fashions a god after the image of man.

Job, having previously believed as they did, now sees that this interpretation of God and his working cannot be true. He does not know what is true about his suffering. But he knows what is not true. He knows what God is not doing.

It is good here to take a quick look at the Epilogue, which, like the Prologue, puts a boundary around our understanding of the whole book. In 42:7 & 8 God said to Eliphaz:

‘I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has …You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.’

Note the repetition. Twice God says that what the three friends said about God was not right, and what Job said was right. Note also that God said ‘I am angry with you and your two friends.’ Angry.

In other words, the conclusion drawn by the three friends, on the basis of their human knowledge, that God was punishing Job for some sins which he had cleverly hidden from everyone, was wrong. That is not what God was doing. And we, the readers, know that, because the Prologue told us that very clearly, and in several different ways.

And, what Job said – that his suffering was not God punishing him for his sins – was right. And that we also already knew from the Prologue.

In addition, so angry is God with the three friends, so wrong, so actually sinful, are their allegations, that God required them to bring a sacrifice of seven bulls and seven rams as a burnt offering. They must bring these animals to Job who will offer them to God on their behalf. Not only is Job innocent of their charges, he is also the only one qualified to represent them, to intercede for them, in the presence of God.