Job’s Suffering and the Danger of Wrong Theology

“How then will you comfort me with empty nothings?  There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood” (Job 21:34 NRSV).

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 once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.  That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). 

God asks Satan where he’s been, and Satan replies “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on 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: “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to 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.  “Have you considered my servant Job?  There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from 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: “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch forth your hand against him” (Job 1:12). 

Déjà vu?

“One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came 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: ”He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason” (Job 2:3b).  In response Satan sneeringly challenges God: “Skin for skin!  All that people have they will he give to save their lives.  But stretch forth your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your 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 out from the presence of the LORD, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.  Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat 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 these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him.  When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads.  They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering 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, “You speak as any one of the foolish women would speak.  Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?  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, and immorality in all its expressions is taking down many church leaders and church members, and destroying individuals, families, homes, and churches.  Pastors have been caught with their hands in the church till, embezzling church funds; feminists have broken the God-ordained roles for men and women to the extent that women are even being trained as pastors and leaders in evangelical or fundamentalist seminaries and bible colleges; homosexuality is being promoted in churches as more and more books are being written by “Christian” leaders; and bible versions are increasingly being revised to accommodate these sins. 

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, “Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls 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: Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?  Or where were the upright cut off?  As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.  By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger 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 word came stealing to me; my ear received the whisper of it.  Amid thoughts from visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on mortals, dread came upon me and trembling, which made all my bones shake.  A spirit glided past my face; the hair of my flesh bristled.  It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance.  A form was before my eyes; there was silence; then 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: “See, we have searched this out; it is true.  Hear, and know it for yourself” (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: See, God will not reject the blameless, nor take the hand of evildoers.  He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy.  Those who hate you will be clothed with shame, and the tent of the wicked will be no more (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: “So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses” (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.  See, he will kill me; I have no hope, but I will defend my ways to his face.  This will be my salvation, that the godless shall not come before him…..I have indeed prepared my case; I know that I shall be vindicated….How many are my iniquities and my sins?  Make me know my transgression and my sin.  Why do you hide your face and count me as your 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 “…blameless and upright, one who feared God and 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….” (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 had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise 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 goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov 16:18).

The Conclusion of the Book

The final curtain to this drama is drawn. After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.  Now therefore take seven bulls 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 I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done’”  So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer” (Job 42:7-9).

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 “…blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from 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, you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done”.  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 restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.  Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring.  The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning” (Job 42:10-12).  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. 

“The Scripture quotations contained herein are made from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright, 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.”