“How then comfort ye me in vain, seeing in your answers there remaineth falsehood?” (Job 21:34).
The biblical book of Job is well-known both to the New Testament (Jas 5:11) and to the Church today as being about suffering. But there are other significant issues at work in the Book of Job besides the issues arising from suffering – one of them is that there are two theologies which try to explain inexplicable suffering. These explanations clash with each other and, in the Book of Job, cannot be reconciled.
The background and origin of Job’s suffering
There is an unusual and fascinating account in Job chapter 1 where Satan comes before God and the sons of God (i.e. angels) and God tells him about Job – it’s as if God was boasting about Job’s righteousness. Indeed, the account opens with a remarkable statement, saying of him: “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God and eschewed [turned away from] evil” (Job 1:1).
God asks Satan where he’s been, and Satan replies “From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it” (Job 1:7). This, of course, was only partly true. It’s what he didn’t say that was the lie; what we would call a lie of omission. Satan left out the details of what he was actually doing as he “walked up and down” on the earth. Elsewhere in scripture we’re told what Satan really does at these times: “…your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet 5:8). Satan neglects to tell God that he walks about the earth with malicious and deadly intent, that is, to destroy human beings wherever and whenever and however he can. But God wasn’t fooled of course and, at first glance, appears to pass over the lie by bringing attention to Job. “Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God and eschews evil?” (Job 1:8). But it is likely that God is challenging and mocking Satan by saying that for all his efforts and malice, Satan has either failed in his attempts to cause Job to sin, or missed him, a man so godly that there was none like him in the earth.
Satan was stung by this mocking challenge, this boasting about the righteousness of a mere human being – a fallen creature at that – and he replies with his own challenge to God, and his own boast, that Job is only godly because God protects him; and that if God were to allow Job to suffer the loss of everything he held dear, he would curse God to his face (Job 1:11). So God hands Job over to Satan, saying: “Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thy hand” (Job 1:12).
“Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them to present himself before the LORD” (Job 2:1). And again, God asks Satan where he’s been. And again, Satan lies by omitting what he had really been up to. And again God introduces Job into the discussion. But he updates it by adding about Job: ”…and still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause” (Job 2:3b). In response Satan sneeringly challenges God: “Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face” (Job 2:4-5). And God, who knows all things, and who was going to allow Job to be tested to the extreme for his own (God’s) purpose and glory, replied: “Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life” (Job 2:6). No doubt Satan thought he’d gained a victory here. Job was in his power and he could do to him whatever he wanted to, short of killing him.
“So went Satan forth from the presence of the LORD, and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown. And he took him a potsherd to scrape himself withal; and he sat down among the ashes” (Job 2:7-8).
False comforters rob the bereaved
I remember reading a book by Elisabeth Elliot in which she told of her grief at the death of her husband. People were offering condolences with scriptures and platitudes, assuring her that God would comfort her, and to trust him. But she knew all this – after all, she’d been a Christian for years, and a missionary – but she pleaded that all she wanted was for somebody to sit alongside her and cry with her. She was grieving. She was in no state to process information and simultaneously, inwardly and graciously, make excuses for the well-meaning but false comforters who were only adding to her burden. She simply wanted someone to weep with her (Rom 12:15). I imagine she would have loved the way Job’s friends sat with him in his pain and sorrow. “Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that was come upon him, they came every one from his own place; Eliphaz the Temanite, and Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite: for they had made an appointment together to come to mourn with him and to comfort him. And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads towards heaven. So they sat with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great” (Job 2:11-13). If only Job’s friends had left it at that.
Job’s thoughts must have been like an emotional storm raging within, his thoughts and emotions swirling in his mind as he tried to come to grips with the immensity of what had happened to him – the loss of not only everything he owned – and he was the richest man in the east (Job 1:3) – but his beloved children (7 sons and 3 daughters). His physical pain, grief, loss, humiliation and the pain of rejection from the taunts of his wife and his servants, misery, bewilderment, confusion, and sorrow – who can measure the extent and the depth of his surging emotions and thoughts? – must have been overwhelming.
Shoot first, ask questions later
But what his friends hadn’t seen because they arrived too late was his righteousness and stedfast faith being demonstrated in the face of it all. After the first occasion, having lost everything, we’re told that so far was Job from cursing God, that he humbled himself and worshipped and blessed him (Job 1:20-22). And after the second occasion, and when Job’s wife urged him to curse God and die (Job 2:9),Job, still trusting God, rebuked her and said, “Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:9-10).
And perhaps because they hadn’t seen this – but more likely because of their undoubtedly already-held wrong theology – they concluded that he must have sinned very greatly; and they came at him with guns blazing. This was the beginning of their attacks on Job’s integrity, his defence to them of his innocence, and his desperate but futile pleas for their understanding and pity.
Wrong theology produces sin
Job’s friends held to wrong theology and it resulted in tormenting an innocent man and their sinning against God by making false claims both about Job and God. Christians today seem not to have much care for right doctrine, for the Truth as it is revealed in the Bible. It is common for preachers today to disparage theology, some proudly and pietistically trumpeting “No creed but Christ”. But such a statement reveals the ignorance of those who state it, and is impossible. Jesus made no such claim and Paul’s letters are filled with statements essential for us to believe if we would be Christians. The Truth is revealed from heaven in narrative, in statements, in songs and prayers, in commandments, and in creedal forms (e.g. 1 Cor 15:1-8; 1 Tim 3:16), and God expects that we believe and obey it. The Church taught believers these truths, and others which were formulated as a result of attacks by false teachers, in creedal form following the form of the scriptures. They were essentially theological statements succinctly stated to aid memorisation; and they were to be received and understood before a believer could be baptised and received into the visible Church.
Other pious fools disparagingly call theology “religion” and denounce it, while praising experience. Indeed, a Pentecostal Christian man once told me that he cared little for doctrine, and that experience was everything for him. The non-canonical book of Sirach (so-called in the Greek version but Ecclesiasticus in the Latin version) accurately observes, “Doctrine to a fool is as fetters to the feet, and like manacles on the right hand“ (Ecclesiasticus 21:22 DRB).
Wrong theology about sin leads to sin. And because theology is so lightly regarded, the state of Christians and the churches is appalling at this time, with immorality in all its expressions taking down many church leaders and church members, and destroying individuals, families, homes, and churches. And pastors have been caught with their hands in the church till, embezzling church funds; and so on.
Right theology promotes godliness
Paul teaches Titus the importance and necessity of sound doctrine because it glorifies God (Tit 2:1-6-10). Notice that the instructions in these verses are to holiness of living and obedience to God, and that it is required of all who profess faith in God. They associate right doctrine with right living. They are practical instructions to be followed by all believers. They show that doctrine is not philosophical and designed only for scholars and academics; nor is it secret knowledge for the initiated. The doctrine which God has given to the church is simple to understand and follow, and it is given that our lives may be transformed and glorify God.
Job’s three friends, because of their wrong theology, had a wrong understanding of God and of grace, and this led them into serious sin. Holding wrong theology, or treating it lightly, is sin because right doctrine is God’s will revealed to us so that we may know how to live acceptably to him. The apostle Paul called down a curse on those false teachers who blasphemously corrupted the gospel (Gal 1:8-9).
Wrong theology comes from Hell
This is demonstrated in the next few chapters in a series of dialogues between Job and his friends.
Eliphaz the Temanite
In chapter 4 we’re shown the origin of all wrong theology, but particularly that of Job’s friends. The first of these friends to speak was Eliphaz; it was in response to Job’s bitter complaint about his suffering. Job cursed the day he was born and wished he was dead. And he said, “For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me” (Job 3:25). Despite his wealth and his righteousness, Job knew he was a sinner and offered sacrifices accordingly. He knew he could fall and that trials could come to him. The blessings that were his were by grace and could be taken back at any time; his response to Satan’s attacks reveals that he well understood this (1:21). He reveals he understood grace and that God has the right to withhold his blessings.
And it is here that the difference between Job and his right theology, and his friends and their wrong theology, is manifested; the two collide with serious consequences. Here is the difference between them, and it is what they argue about for the next few chapters. Here is the battle between God’s revelation of truth, and Satan’s philosophy of works and merit, displayed. Eliphaz gets straight into it and states his doctrine of works and merit in his reply to Job: “Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished, being innocent? or where were the righteous cut off? Even as I have seen, they that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same. By the blast of God they perish, and by the breath of his nostrils they are consumed” (Job 4:7-9). Not only is this theology wrong but life itself demonstrates the error of this point of view.
Eliphaz then reveals from where he got this doctrine. He describes an experience he had on a certain night: “Now a thing was secretly brought to me, and mine ear received a little thereof. In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men, Fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake. Then a spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up: It stood still, but I could not discern the form thereof: an image was before mine eyes, there was silence, and I heard a voice….” (Job 4:12-16).
This was an evil spirit, possibly even Satan himself, given that he had been instrumental in Job’s trial, planting an accusation against Job in the mind of Eliphaz, convincing him that Job must be, despite Job’s protestations and pleas for understanding from his friends, the worst of sinners suffering God’s well-deserved judgment.
Eliphaz further demonstrates his belief in wrong doctrine in chapter 15. The whole chapter consists of his worldview that those who sin reap punishment and ruin in this life, and he is pointing the finger at Job as he expresses his view.
Eliphaz also implicates Bildad and Zophar by saying they agree with his theology, and that they have examined the situation: “Lo this, we have searched it, so it is; hear it, and know thou it for thy good” (Job 5:27). No doubt they had discussed Job’s situation as they travelled together to be with him and concluded that because he had been stricken so severely, his punishment must be commensurate with the greatness of his sins.
The dialogue between Job and his three friends continues back and forth until the end of chapter 31, as first one, then the other, of his friends accuses him of gross sins, with Job defending himself against their cruel and false accusations; and he pleads with them to have pity on him (for example, Job 6:14-30). Job repeatedly emphasizes his willingness to confess and forsake any sin in his life if someone would only identify it for him, instead of condemning him in generalities (Job 6:24).
Bildad the Shuhite
Bildad then enters the fray, not only reiterating Eliphaz’ hellish theology but adding insult to injury by callously accusing Job’s children of great sin and their deaths as a consequence (Job 8:4).
He concludes his first dialogue by summarising his theology: “Behold, God will not cast away a blameless man, neither will he help the evil doers: Till he fill thy mouth with laughing, and thy lips with rejoicing. They that hate thee shall be clothed with shame; and the dwelling place of the wicked shall come to nought” (Job 8:20-22). Bildad neatly summarises in these verses the wrong theology of Job’s friends.
The mercilessness of Job’s friends is astonishing and it only gets worse as the discussion proceeds. One wonders how these men who profess to be his friends could be so callous and unrelenting in their accusations, and the injustice and cruelty of them. This is ever the way with fanaticism and wrong belief. Job’s friends were deceived by theology originating from hell and they held to it fanatically and mercilessly as they hounded and harassed Job, accusing him of being guilty of the worst of sins and deserving his punishment. Do not look to fanatics and bigots for mercy – such a concept is alien to them.
Job replies to Bildad
Job recognised and acknowledged that he was a sinner, but not in the way in which his friends were accusing him. As a human being Job vindicates God, saying that God is great and glorious and does what he will, not only with the earth and the heavens but with whomever he will, and he does no wrong; and he admits his own weakness, and unwillingness to argue with God (Job 9:20-24).
Zophar the Naamathite
Zophar then weighs in with a blistering attack on Job (Job 11:3-6).
Job replies to Zophar
Job replies with his own censure of Zophar’s statements, reminding him sarcastically that he (Job) also has understanding of doctrine, even that which his friends have been advocating. But he is innocent of that which they accuse him (Job 12:1-5).
Job expresses right doctrine
He then expresses reality and the right doctrine in contrast to the wrong doctrine his friends have been espousing (Job 12:6, 10, 14, 16). In this passage Job declares the absolute sovereignty of God over his whole creation; he gives as it pleases him and breaks down when it pleases him. In this he agrees with the apostle Paul, who wrote: “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (Rom 9:18).
And is this not reminiscent of the teaching of Psalm 73 concerning the prosperity of the wicked who seem to have it all in this life, but who will lose everything, even their souls, in the life to come? And of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 13:1-5, that disaster does not come on certain people simply because they are greater sinners than others? We are all sinners and we all need to repent.
Job continues to censure his friends (Job 13:1-5, 9, 12-13) and then declares his faith and absolute trust in God in one of the great declarations of right faith and right theology in the bible. The faith which he expresses and his reward is forward-looking and is opposed to that of his three friends; a gospel-faith which will be more fully developed and expressed when the Messiah, promised in Genesis 3:15, comes. And, despite the accusations of his friends, he asks God what is his sin that he should be suffering so much. “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him. He also shall be my salvation: for an hypocrite shall not come before him….Behold now, I have ordered my cause; I know that I shall be justified….How many are mine iniquities and sins? make me know my transgression and my sin. Wherefore hidest thou thy face, and holdest me for thine enemy?” (Job 13:15-16, 18, 23-24).
Then Job pleads that Man is sinful, his actions determined, and his days numbered. This is in direct contrast to his friends’ theology. Job insists that Man is already sinful – he was born so – and states the biblical doctrine of Original Sin and the consequences of the Fall to his friends as he directs his plea to God (Job 14:1-2, 4-5, 10).
Job replies to Zophar and implicates God
In answer to Zophar’s continuing accusations and attacks against him, Job pleads for his friends to just hear him out, and says that this whole situation is greater than an argument between men (Job ch 21).
Eliphaz responds to Job
But the debate gets uglier as Eliphaz makes the most outrageous claims against Job, all of which are totally without foundation (Job 22:4-9, 21, 23).
Job’s response to Eliphaz
Job says he wants to plead his case with arguments (Job 23:1, 4-7); but God is terrifying (23:13-17).
Job is puzzled as he tries to understand the severity of his suffering
Going back to chapter 7, for example, he doesn’t understand why God persecutes him seeing he had confessed such sin as he knew and had offered sacrifices accordingly (1:5); he couldn’t understand why God was being so severe with him. Job looks to the scriptures (such as were available to him at that early period) for an answer, and he finds enough to vindicate God as sovereign and who rules his creation as he sees fit; he acknowledges the finiteness and sinfulness of humanity; and he expresses both absolute faith in God alongside his bewilderment.
Job’s friends thought they had the answer to suffering and relentlessly pushed their views against Job; but the revelation of their theology was from hell, as is all heterodox theology; thus it could never be right or true and could therefore never resolve the problem of Job’s suffering.
The problem for both Job and his friends was that none of them were aware of what had happened behind the scene which began the whole episode i.e. the discussion between God and Satan concerning Job’s faith and righteousness. Job was not a worse sinner than anybody else – in fact, at the very beginning of the book, Job is declared to be “one that feared God and eschewed [turned away from] evil” (Job 1:1). Not sinless, mind you – he admits this himself in ch. 9:20 – but righteous, seeking to honour, glorify, and obey God in all things, to such an extent that all could see his righteousness.
And neither do we know why certain things happen which cause such pain. This is why, when we do suffer, we need to trust God and ride it through to the end. The suffering will end at some point and we need to be faithful and persevere, knowing that God is not capricious and does nothing without purpose. And, unlike Job and his friends, we do know what went on behind the scene; we do know why he suffered so much; and we do know who caused that suffering – not God but Satan. And we know this because God has revealed it to us in his word, the Bible. So we have less excuse than Job to complain against God when we suffer, because we have this wonderful book of Job to encourage us to faith and patience in our suffering.
The debate continues
Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar continue to attack Job relentlessly and ruthlessly, without mercy, compassion, or understanding of their own hearts and inclination to evil. And Job pleads his innocence of wrongdoing and that God would take notice of Job’s pleas and declare him innocent (chapters 23-24).
The debate continues through to chapter 32 and ends with the words, “So these three men ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes” (Job 32:1). But, in fact, Job was righteous in God’s eyes; and that made all the difference.
Elihu the Buzite
And then a new character, Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, enters the debate. Chapters 32 to 37 are, with the exception of 32:1-5, completely the words of Elihu. He was an ancestor of David (Ruth 4:19 cf Job 32:2) and thus of Christ. He was angry that Job was arguing for his own righteousness, and that Job’s friends had condemned him without specifying the sin that they claimed had brought about Job’s loss, sorrow, and grief. In 33:24, he refers to a ransom, possibly seeing himself in that role as having been sent by God to bring Job to repentance, and probably unknowingly pointing to Christ and the gospel. This might explain why he was not rebuked by God along with Job’s friends later on.
It’s all about God
At the end of Elihu’s speech, we’re told, “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said….” (Job 38:1). God challenged Job to answer (Job 38:2-3) and enumerating his mighty works, convicted Job of ignorance and weakness. In chapter 39 he again showed his power, and man’s weakness and ignorance, using animals from creation as examples. In chapter 40:1-2 he again challenges Job, who is then humbled and confesses it so (40:4-5). God challenges Job to show by demonstrations of power that he is able to save himself; and shows again his own power by his control over behemoth (40:15-24), and leviathan (41:1-34).
Job’s response to God
Job replies to God, greatly chastened and humbled (42:1-5). God’s revelation of himself to Job is overwhelming, and he confesses: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:5-6). How vain and stupid, how ignorant and arrogant, are those who think that God will have to answer to them when they stand before him. One person I know even says that he will defy God to his face and shake his fist at him – which is not only bizarre but laughable, seeing he insists that God doesn’t exist. But Job shows us – as does the apostle Peter (Lk 5:8) – that a person’s first response when they see God, or have any inclination of him beyond our visible reality, is to be aware of their utter sinfulness and unworthiness. Our immediate awareness when we’ve seen God is the wickedness of our own hearts. “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov 16:18).
The Conclusion of the Book
The final curtain to this drama is drawn. “And it was so, that after the LORD had spoken these words unto Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath. Therefore take unto you now seven bullocks and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you: for him will I accept: lest I deal with you after your folly, in that ye have not spoken of me the thing which is right, like my servant Job” (Job 42:7-8).
Doctrine is not something we can play with. Wrong doctrine – false theology – is sin. If it were not, God would not have required a sacrifice for it. Only sin needs offering of blood as a substitute for guilty sinners. God said he was angry at Job’s three friends because of their false theology; and this book of Job warns us against holding to it. But Job was vindicated. Although he’d struggled, he held fast to the truth about God – his doctrine was true and it was practical. His theology was not academic, not something he used as a weapon or to discuss abstruse ideas which have no value; his theology guided his life, it taught him how to understand God and to relate rightly to him. It was such that at the beginning of the book, he was commended because he was “perfect and upright, and one that feared God and eschewed evil” (Job 1:1). In the next two chapters, God held Job’s godliness and faithfulness before Satan and challenged him. And at the end of the book, after his devastating trials, Job clung to God throughout, and God commended Job to his three friends with his own mouth, saying, “ye have not spoken of me the thing which is right, like my servant Job”. God said this twice (Job 42:7-8). And Job was accepted by God without having to offer a sacrifice (42:9).
Not only that. We’re told: “And the LORD turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends: also the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then came there unto him all his brethren, and all his sisters, and all they that had been of his acquaintance before, and did eat bread with him in his house: and they bemoaned him, and comforted him over all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him….So the LORD blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning” (Job 42:10-11). But we don’t read that God ever told Job why it all happened in the first place.
This wonderful book of Job teaches us that God is sovereign and does what he pleases with human beings; for we’re told that it was God who had brought all the evil upon Job (42:11). And while, at first glance, it seems that Satan was actively responsible in bringing Job’s trials upon him, if we read the text more closely, it was both God and Satan who did it (Job 1:9-12; 2:3-7). God – because he is God – has absolute control and power of his Creation; and Satan – because he is an angel, albeit a very powerful angel – has only a delegated power, given to him by God. Satan desires to destroy and to kill, but he can only do what God allows him to do.
And God exercises this power over humanity and his whole creation, without sin. Satan clearly sins as he does what God either commands or allows him to do, for he is a malicious spirit and can do no good.
Only those who believe, even if they can’t fully understand, that God is sovereign over the entire universe, can accept the fact that God brings evil upon humanity, and yet without sinning. How many are they who have walked away from God because they blame him for the suffering in the world? If only they had understood this doctrine of the Sovereignty of God, and that the whole world is under a curse because we are fallen creatures due to Adam having eaten of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden (Rom 5:12). Only they who hold this doctrine, who understand God rightly, can make sense of life. Life is wasted without right understanding, right doctrine, right theology. Our theology determines our world view and our view of God and man. Without right theology we are vulnerable to Satan’s attacks, and his deceptions.
A Final Thought
“I, Nebuchadnezzar…blessed the most High, and I praised and honoured him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation: And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Dan 4:34-35).