‘The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away,’ intones the minister in the words
of the King James Bible; ‘Blessed be the name of the LORD.’ As the mourners stand
morosely together, obliged by the nature of the event to listen dutifully, the minister
quotes again: ‘Manthat is born of a womanis of few days, and full of trouble. He
cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth
not.’ Sobering stuff.
But the book of Job isn’t all like that. It signals hope, too, and the minister moves
on to a more positive quotation: ‘I knowthat my redeemer liveth, andthat he shall
stand at the latterday upon the earth: Andthough after my skinworms destroy thisbody, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes
shall behold, and not another.’
Most Christians, if they are honest, will admit to never having read the book of
Job—at least, not right through. I can’t blame them, because it isn’t the easiest
of reading even in a modern translation. But it really is worth the effort because
it attempts to answer the question we all ask at some time: ‘Why me, Lord?’ It’s
the question that springs to our lips when setbacks, sicknesses, sorrows and tragedies
Let’s put the emphasis on the ‘me’ for a moment: ‘Why has this happened to me, Lord,
rather than to someone else? The question reflects your deep conviction that you
are the centre of the universe. In moments of rational thought, of course, you know
that isn’t true but, in the emotion triggered by bad news or a serious diagnosis,
rational thought goes out of the window. So don’t beat yourself up on that score.
Even Job, the hero of this book, asked the question—time after time, it seems.
Let’s now push the emphasis back to the word ‘why’: ‘Why me, Lord?’ You can’t stop
yourself wanting to explain what has happened. The answer will reflect your theological
scheme. The Buddhist or Hindu will say, ‘It’s karma’—my fate, my destiny. The Muslim
will respond, ‘It’s the will of Allah.’ And the Christian? Depending on what influences
have shaped your theology, you could answer in several ways, like, ‘It’s the devil
having a go at me’, or ‘It’s the sovereign will of God’, or ‘I’m not sure, but I
do know it’s a challenge I must overcome by faith’, or ‘It’s a chance to believe
the healing promises of God.’ Or you may answer the question with another question
that betrays your viewpoint, as my grandmother once did. As a youngster, I remember
her suffering dreadfully with arthritis and saying to the family, her face twisted
with pain, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ She assumed that ‘deserving’ was somehow
an element in the situation. She was mistaken, bless her.
The book of Job deals with these very issues, which we can summarise in the question,
‘Why do the righteous suffer?’
Before we rush to an answer, let’s take a moment to review the book’s background.
The author is unknown. The setting is ‘the land of Uz’, which is northern Arabia—present-day
Syria or Jordan—and the time-frame seems to be the patriarchal period. As for
the book’s content, the bulk of it records Job’s debate about his sufferings with
three of his friends—traditionally known as his ‘comforters’—and with a younger man
named Elihu. And it’s all in poetry.
What was Job like? His character is important, because if he was an absolute reprobate
he couldn’t fairly ask, as he did time and again, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’
He was in fact as far from being a reprobate as you could imagine: ‘This man was
blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil,’ says the writer. Even
God made similar observations about him. A finer man, in fact, you’d be hard pressed
to find. He took his fatherly responsibilities seriously, acting as a priest to his
children. He was highly respected in local society. He served as a fair and
honest judge and had proved a wise counsellor. As an employer he was honest.
He was hospitable and generous.
Yet he suffered terribly. The catalogue of sorrows is almost unbelievable. Under
their onslaught his wife understandably advised him that it was time to give up on
God—to curse him and die.
It is in response to suffering that a person’s true heart is revealed, so how did
Job respond? The book records that he ‘did not sin in what he said.’ If James
is right, and a person who can control his tongue is well on top of the rest,
Job was an outstandingly godly man. Here, then, was an all-rounder in exemplary character.
There’s no way we can sensibly claim that he brought his troubles on himself. And
Clearly something was going on at a higher level than Job could understand. We who
read the book know what that was, because the first two chapters spell it out. But
Job himself, it appears, was never privileged with the same insight. He remained
ignorant of the activities in the heavenly realms that accounted for his suffering.
All he knew was that life was treating him abominably.
What was it, then, that was going on at that higher level? Satan the accuser was
there, we are told, a restless spirit ‘roaming through the earth, and going back
and forth in it’. He suggested to God that Job only worshipped him because he
knew which side his bread was buttered—because God had prospered him and Job wanted
to keep it that way. God, the book informs us, thought otherwise and went out on
a limb over the issue, permitting Satan to afflict Job, though only within strict
limits. That’s reassuring. It tells you that the devil can only trouble you within
the limits that God lovingly permits. As I recall Ern Baxter once commenting, ‘The
devil is God’s devil’—he remains under divine constraints.
First to go were Job’s possessions. Rustlers and bandits stole some of his livestock
and natural disasters killed the rest. Then a tornado swept in from the desert, demolishing
the house in which his children were having a party and killing them all. Next to
go was Job’s health: his body broke out in painful sores from head to toe. Again
God imposed limits on Satan’s attack: ‘You must spare his life.’ Modern medics
think Job’s affliction was a form of elephantiasis, a disease whose symptoms, both
physical and psychological, are revealed progressively throughout the book: itching
and open sores; feelings of terror; maggots breeding in the ulcers; sleeplessness;
nightmares; depression; stinking breath; failing eyesight; rotting teeth; weeping;
emaciation; fever; corrosion of the bones; the blackening and falling off of skin.
At this point Job’s famous ‘friends’ arrived. They hardly recognised him, so changed
was he by his sufferings. They sensitively kept quiet for a while, just sitting alongside
him in silent sympathy. Then began the big debate that takes up most of the book.
There was only one question: why had all this happened to Job?
The debate proceeded in three cycles, Job alternating with his friends in speaking.
The friends tended to speak out of their cultural background, where the accepted
wisdom was simplistic: wickedness always leads to sickness, poverty and trouble,
whereas righteousness always leads to health, prosperity and success. On that basis,
of course, Job must have been a terrible sinner. But one unmistakable lesson that
would emerge from the debate is that the reality is nothing like as simplistic as
that, and that not all suffering is the result of sin, even though some of it may
Poor Job wished he had never been born, or that he had been stillborn, but since
neither had happened and he was still alive he now wished he could die. I find
it encouraging that a man like Job, whom Scripture holds up as a paragon of godliness,
lost the will to live. You may plummet to such depths yourself and remain a solid
Christian. The enormous mood-swings induced by his illness doubtless made him feel
that way, and these would also account for some of the strong words he blurted out
against God and his treatment of him, words that at times came close to blasphemy.
Throughout, he insisted on his innocence—not claiming to be perfect but maintaining
that he had never sinned enough to deserve such awful suffering.
The oldest of his three friends was Eliphaz the Temanite, and maybe it was his age
and experience that made him the most gentle of the three with Job. But his experience
had a downside: he appealed to it to justify the traditional view that ‘there’s no
smoke without fire’—that the smoke of suffering points to the fire of sin. Another
part of his experience had been a personal vision, one that confirmed this very viewpoint.
So he was adamant: Job was suffering because he had sinned. And the biggest sin of
all, he added with a final knife-thrust, was to fight against God, and that’s what
Job was doing in protesting his innocence.
So much for Eliphaz’s contribution. It didn’t do much for Job, and it shows that
experience of life isn’t always a safe guide to what is right.
Next to speak was Bildad the Shuhite. He was more forthright than Eliphaz in expressing
the same opinion. But whereas Eliphaz had appealed to his own experience, Bildad
appealed to tradition—to trans-generational experience. ‘Ask the former generation,’
he suggested, ‘and find out what their ancestors learned…Will they not instruct you
and tell you? Will they not bring forth words from their understanding?’ He quoted
proverbs of the day that backed up this position. ‘You must have been sinning,’ he
maintained. The tragic death of Job’s children was clear proof of it. If he had
been as upright as he was claiming to be, God would have restored him long before
this. There was only one conclusion Bildad could reach: Job was a hypocrite,
stridently claiming to be without sin yet evidently in trouble because of it.
Whatever else we learn from this, we can’t escape the lesson that the weight of tradition
isn’t always a safe guide to what is right. A thousand church practices prove it.
The last of the three friends was Zophar the Naamathite. The others each got three
cracks of the whip but he only got two. Maybe he felt the others had said it all,
or he may just have been a man of few words. Either way, he was far less courteous
and much more dogmatic than them. In fact he began where they had finished: he simply
assumed that Job had been sinning seriously and was paying the price in his sufferings.
So, to summarise the three contributions, Eliphaz had gently said to Job, ‘If you
have sinned…’; Bildad, a bit more forceful, had said, ‘You must have sinned’; and
Zophar the blunt had said, ‘You are sinning—it’s obvious!’
In response, Job took issue with some of their views. They all claimed that only
the wicked suffer. Not so, countered Job; sometimes the righteous suffer as well.
The friends claimed that the wicked always suffer. No they don’t, responded Job;
some of them seem to escape it. The friends claimed that if the wicked prosper at
all, it is only short-lived. Not so, countered Job; the prosperity of the wicked
sometimes lasts a very long time. So he held his ground—and continued to maintain
his innocence to them in the strongest terms: ‘I will never admit you are in the
right; till I die, I will not deny my integrity. I will maintain my righteousness
and never let go of it; my conscience will not reproach me as long as I live.’
At this point Elihu came into the picture. Younger than the other three, he had been
waiting deferentially for his turn to have a say. But, once given the floor, he was
no shrinking violet, insisting that being young didn’t necessarily mean lacking wisdom.
His wisdom, in fact, enabled Elihu to draw closer to Job than the other three had
managed, and in his manner he acted more like a brother to him than an accuser. He
showed some wisdom, too, in bringing new ideas to the debate. Suffering, he suggested,
may not all be punitive; some of it could be corrective, a means that God was using
to keep Job on track and reliant on him alone. And he brought a further insight:
whereas the others had insisted that Job was suffering because of his sin, could
it in fact be the other way round: that Job was sinning because of his suffering?
It had made him so forceful in the defence of his own innocence that he was now committing
the sin of self-righteousness.
Well said, Elihu. But while he brought some new perspectives to the debate, he was
no more able than the others to bring any solid answers. What they all really needed
was for the protagonist in the whole affair to show up: God himself. Several times,
in fact, Job had expressed the desire to call God into court, so to speak, so that
he could argue his case with him. Now it looked as if his desire was to be granted,
for as the book winds to a close, God himself shows up in power and majesty, riding
on a storm.
Before we come to the answers God provided, let’s just take a moment to see how the
story itself concludes. Of the five speakers who contributed to the debate, three
received God’s strong disapproval at the end: ‘The LORD…said…to Eliphaz the Temanite,
“I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what
is right, as my servant Job has.’ Ah, so in spite of the strong language of Job’s
complaints God finds no intrinsic fault with him! Neither does he have anything to
say against young Elihu.
That’s encouraging. It means, first, that when you yourself suffer, and rail against
God as a result, he understands your situation and still accepts you. And, second,
it means that younger people can sometimes be wiser than their elders.
Anyway, the three friends repented and Job prayed for them. Amazing! Here’s Job,
a physical and emotional wreck, praying for his robust and mentally-sound friends,
and God gives heed to his prayer. Let that teach you that you don’t have to be well
before you can pray for the sick, or in comfortable circumstances before you can
pray for those with needs.
The story has a happy ending: God restores Job’s fortunes—not just to where they
were before the suffering began but way beyond that, heaping upon him blessings of
every kind. It’s good to know that you serve a God with such an attitude towards
his own. With the facts thus tidied up, how does God answer the big question? Why
do the righteous suffer?
Brace yourself: he doesn’t answer the question! At least not in any direct way. Instead,
he simply declares his own infinite controlling power over the heavens, the earth
and all created beings—he affirms that he is sovereign. And does Job complain
at this unexpected response? Not at all. He humbly acknowledges God’s greatness:
‘My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.’
Here’s the big lesson, then: when you ask ‘Why?’, God replies, ‘I AM.’
There’s much food for thought there. And what else can you learn from this book?
What adjustments might it trigger in your views on human suffering, especially the
sufferings of the righteous?
Most important, God is in control! That’s the big one, so bring it to the top of
the pile in your theology of suffering. You can learn, too, that suffering does not
mean that God is absent or unaware—Job discovered that God had been watching, hearing
and caring from start to finish. Then you must grasp that there are some things about
human sufferings that God cannot explain to you without destroying the very purpose
they were designed to fulfil. Alfred Edersheim explains this one well:
‘We cannot understand the meaning of many trials; God does not explain them. To explain
a trial would destroy its object, which is that of calling forth simple faith and
implicit obedience. If we knew why the Lord sent us this or that trial, it would
thereby cease to be a trial either of faith or patience.’
Notice, finally, the reminder in this story that knowing God is a relational matter
rather than a doctrinal one. God allowed Job to get to the end of himself, the end
of his self-righteousness, his self-vindication, his doctrinal protestations and
his own wisdom so that he could find his all in God alone. He brought Job to the
place where he trusted God in spite of seeming contradictions and without present
explanations: ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust him!’ Oswald Chambers comments:
‘Though he slay me, though my creed goes and everything is destroyed, yet I will
trust in him—not trust him to deliver me, but trust that he is honourable and just
and true, and that I shall yet be justified in sticking to my faith in his honour,
though meantime it looks as if he is deliberately destroying me.’
Some people don’t believe in God, just in their beliefs about him, and that won’t
be enough to hold them up when Job-style troubles come—especially if their beliefs
are of the shallow ‘name it and claim it’ variety. ‘A disciple of Jesus Christ is
devoted to a Person, not to principles.’
So if you forget everything else from the arguments in this less than easy book,
remember to maintain your walk with God. Stick with him. Trust him. Nothing else
This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous
buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in
the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.
The gist of this article
One of life’s big questions is ‘Why do the righteous suffer?’ This is the question
tackled by the book of Job, who debates it with some friends in the midst of his
own appalling sufferings. If you think you know the answer, you’d better read on.
1. Job 1:21
2. Job 14:1-2
3. Job 19:25-27. This passage is also known to many through its inclusion in Handel’s
4. Job 1:1
5. The main clues to this are the length of Job’s life; the fact that his wealth
was measured in livestock rather than in gold or silver; the fact that, like Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob, he was a priest in this family and offered sacrifices; the absence
of any mention of Israel, the exodus, the law or the tabernacle; and the fact that,
in the various speeches, God is referred to as El Shaddai (Almighty God) rather than
‘the LORD’ (Yahweh, Jehovah).
6. Job 1:1
7. E.g. Job 1:8; 2:3
8. Job 1:5
9. Job 29:7-11
10. Job 29:7, 12-17
11. Job 29:21-24
12. Job 31:13-15, 38-39
13. Job 31:16-21, 32
14. Job 2:10
15. James 3:2
16. Job 1:7
17. Job 2:6
18. See Job 7:13-16
19. James 5:11
20. See Job 4:7-8
21. See Job 4:12ff
22. Job 8:8-10
23. See Job 8:4
24. See Job 8:20-21
25. See Job 11:14-17
26. Job 27:5-6
27. Job 42:7
28. See Job 38:1-7; 40:1-5
29. Job 42:5-6
30. Alfred Edersheim (1825-1899), quoted in J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore The Book, Vol