In our first article in this series, we looked at some helpful interpretive tips for understanding and applying the book of Proverbs. In this article, we'll take a look at the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.
JOB | Wisdom for Struggling with Suffering
If Proverbs sought to give us wisdom for living wisely in the world so that we would enjoy a life blessed by God, Job serves as the counterbalance to our impulse to interpret the Proverbs as absolute promises.
If you're new to the book, Job tells the story of a righteous and blameless man who very much embodies the way of wisdom and righteousness in Proverbs. However, despite his piety, calamity befalls Job’s life. In one fell swoop, his wealth and children are taken from him and even his wife seems to desert him. The rest of the book’s story wrestles with making sense of it all.
“Job wrestles with the disorder of suffering and its relationship to piety. The friends of Job operate with a mechanical view of divine retribution so that if Job is suffering he must have sinned. This is a distortion of the view of Proverbs but it causes Job to wrestle with God’s justice and how he should respond to suffering even though he is innocent. The mystery and sovereignty of God is emphasized in God’s response to Job, showing that people understand little about God’s ways in the world concerning individual suffering and that the proper response is to fear Yahweh.” (Richard P. Belcher Jr, Finding Favour in the Sight of God, p. 14)
An Outline of Job
As we seek to understand a book, it's helpful to know its broad structure. Here's an outline of Job:
Prologue (Chapters 1–2)
Job’s lament (Chapter 3)
The cycle of speeches - Job’s friends and his protests (Chapters 4–27) 4. A poem on man’s search for wisdom (Chapter 28)
Job’s last defence (Chapters 29–31)
Elihu’s speeches (Chapters 32–37)
God’s speeches and Job’s responses (Chapters 38–42:6)
Epilogue (Chapters 42:7–17)
Genre of Job
The prologue (beginning) and epilogue (ending) of Job are written as prose, whereas the whole rest of the book is written in Hebrew poetry. Thus, Job is not a traditional narrative. The speeches are not meant to be word-for-word dictation of what the characters said. It’s not like people just burst out in spontaneous poetry and song when they’re mourning - unless you’re living in a Bollywood movie.
This is really important to remember because we interpret poetry differently from prose.
“Job is best understood as a debate about how to respond to suffering that leads to the question concerning where wisdom is to be found.” (Richard P. Belcher Jr, Finding Favour in the Sight of God, p. 77)
Thus, we should think of Job as a poetic debate about how we should respond as people of faith when hard times hit and a narrative that reminds us of where true wisdom is found. We should not interpret Job literalistically, but allow its poetry to impact us and make an impression on us as we read and empathize with the characters and plot.
KEYS TO INTERPRETING JOB
As with all books of the Bible, there is an intentional structure to the book of Job and it is really important to recognize that in order to rightly interpret it. Here are some of the major sections of Job.
The Prologue | The Heavenly Courtroom
The prose sections of the prologue and epilogue form a framework in which we are to understand what happens in the poetic dialogues between Job and his friends.
The prologue takes the reader behind the scenes into the chamber of God’s Divine council. Nowhere do we read that Job or his friends are told of this Divine Council that sets up the situation. So this is information that is meant to guide us as readers on how we interpret what comes next in the narrative. There, we see the scene that starts things into motion where the “Satan” comes into God’s presence from roaming around the earth. The Hebrew treats the word “Satan” here not as a name but as a common noun meaning “the accuser”. This sets up the Heavenly courtroom scene as the term “satan” or “adversary” is also the term for the prosecutor.
God initiates by asking the Accuser if he has considered his servant Job - holding him up as an example of true piety. It sets up the question: is there anything such as someone who worships God from pure motivation? Does God’s finest servant, Job, serve God for conscience or convenience? If the prosecution, the accuser, can prove God’s finest servant to be a hypocrite, then no one’s sincerity will be credible.
In a series of exchanges, the Accuser basically says that Job only worships God because God has blessed him and requests permission to strike at Job’s blessings of wealth, children and health. Job loses all his wealth, all his children are killed in a tragic disaster and he is struck with a painful illness - then his own wife turns on him and tells him to curse God and die. God allows this and in each of the afflictions that the Accuser brings on Job, Job responds in integrity and does not curse God. Job is on trial and so far has been vindicated in his integrity.
H. H. Rowley comments,
“We may pause to note that the cause of Job’s suffering was more than the Satan’s insinuation against him. He was suffering to vindicate more than himself. He was vindicating God’s trust in him. He was not so much abandoned by God as supremely honoured by God.” (H. H. Rowley, “The Book of Job and its Meaning”, in From Moses to Qumran (Lutterworth, 1963), p. 178)
This prologue puts the question to rest upfront that Job is NOT suffering because of any guilt or sin or fault in his faith. Far from guilt, it is actually Job’s innocence that exposed him to the whole ordeal as God makes clear by repeating twice (Job 1:8 & 2:3).
Next, in chapter 3 Job laments his birth because of his suffering. This is the honest cry of one who is suffering immensely, and Job is a place where the Bible does not flinch from dealing squarely with this reality. This sets up the challenge that the book will wrestle with and the frame for how we read the rest of Job as his friends make rash accusations against Job that his suffering is due to his sin. Job is innocent, yet they try to convince him otherwise and become miserable comforters to him.
JOB’S MISERABLE COMFORTERS | Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar
Job’s friends at first come alongside him and mourn in silence. However, this is probably the best thing they do for their friend in the whole book. For the rest of the book, they accuse Job of some hidden sin that has caused his calamity. They represent people who take a mechanical view of God’s operations in the world. If we do good, God will bless us - tit for tat - in a transactional way. Their view of God’s justice is ultimately mechanical and simplistic.
However, not all that they say is wrong. The New Testament actually treats some of the words of Eliphaz as Scripture (e.g. Job 5:13 & 1 Cor. 3:19; Job 5:17 & Heb. 12:5). So clearly it isn’t as simplistic as that. Each of his friends is a firm believer in the One True God who is all-powerful and wholly just, who is ready to restore the penitent and bless the teachable. It is their belief in this God that causes them to struggle with Job’s suffering - it challenges their preconceived notions of God.
Challenging a Small View of God
A close look at the dialogue of the friends reveals that their basic error is that they overestimate their grasp of truth, misapply the truth they know, and close their minds to any facts that contradict what they assume. The friends know many truths of Scripture and arrogantly think they have it all figured out which leads them to misjudge Job. The book shows how small a fragment of any situation we actually perceive and how much we can ignore or distort through our presuppositions. It is thus unwise to extrapolate from our elementary grasp of truth to every situation. The book reinforces this by showing that Job’s friends “paint idealized pictures of a world of prosperous saints and destitute sinners, brushing aside all contrary examples.” (Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, p. 61)
The Conflict | Who is wise?
Each of the cycles of dialogue switches between one of Job’s friend’s accusations and then Job’s response in defence in the order of Eliphaz, Job, Bildad, Job, then Zophar and Job. This cycle happens three times. Each time cycle, the friends’ speeches get shorter and shorter reflecting the fact that they are running out of arguments. Their arguments don’t really seem to advance any other point other than a mechanistic view of retribution: God blesses the righteous and curses the wicked, therefore, Job must be a sinner in need of repentance.
Job counters the ‘wisdom’ of his friends in 9:21-24 where he boldly states that God “destroys both the blameless and the wicked.” Job repeatedly wishes that he could have an audience with God - then he could set things straight and plead his case. Then he would question God as to why he allows an innocent to suffer. In this contest between Job and his friends, the question that dominates the whole book is: Who is really wise in all of this? Is it Bildad, Zophar, Eliphaz, Job?
Job anticipates the answer to this question in the poem on divine wisdom in chapter 28 where he ascribes all wisdom to God.
Elihu | The Recent Seminary Grad
Elihu is a brash young man who thinks he has all the answers. In a lot of ways, he’s like a recent proud seminary graduate who’s got a chip on his shoulders and something to prove. This is seen in how long-winded his monologue is! He claims to have new insight that the other three friends have missed. But despite this claim and many words, he really doesn’t add anything new but just comes back up with the same theology of mechanical retribution.
After Elihu’s monologue, it is clear that human wisdom has run out. It is time for God to take the stage.
GOD’S RESPONSE | A Whirlwind of Truth
Perhaps significant is that when God finally does speak and replies to Job’s three friends, he doesn’t even bother to reply to Elihu. Perhaps this ignoring of the brash young man puts him in his place.
Throughout the book, Job had hoped for a divine interview to learn why he was suffering. However, to our surprise, God doesn’t seem to directly answer that question. Instead, He rebukes Job for casting doubt on His Divine reputation:
“Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me and justify yourself?” (Job 40:8)
Out of the whirlwind, God tells Job:
“Who is this that darkens counsel By words without knowledge? “Now gird up your loins like a man, And I will ask you, and you instruct Me! (Job 38:2-3)
Instead of directly answering Job, God responds with a barrage of penetrating questions that definitively show that God alone is wise. He shows Job how complex the world is and all the intricate details that go into running it. God’s questions demonstrate his full knowledge and control of the universe that He created in contrast to Job’s ignorance and limited knowledge.
The point of the book of Job is not that God is a Divine bully in the sky. Rather, it is that we as humans have such a limited view of all the complexities of the workings of an infinitely powerful, wise and sovereign God who is at any moment doing billions and trillions of things at once in the Universe to accomplish His good purposes. Our perspective is just limited to our short lives and incomplete perspective of things and thus unable to make a proper judgment on God’s operation of the world and all of history. It is improper of us to try to judge the Judge of all the Universe on how He runs the cosmos. I can’t even multitask brushing my teeth and walking downstairs sometimes - far less understanding everything about how God runs the Universe!
As Grant R. Osborne notes,
“The many variables and paradoxes faced in life forced the wise person to recognize his limitations and depend on God as the true source of wisdom.” (Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, p. 244)
Epilogue | Vindication
Job’s response is to repent of his quickness to presume to know better than God. However, this does not make his original assertion of innocence void. He only repents of speaking wrongly about God.
The story ends with God vindicating Job in front of his friends and restoring double to Job all that he had lost.
“Job is a wisdom debate about how to respond to suffering. Job’s initial response is patient submission. Job’s wife responds with panicked pity. The friends’ initial response is silent sympathy. Job’s response in chapter 3 can be called persevering protest. The friends will then respond by accusing Job of sin as the reason for his suffering.” (Richard P. Belcher Jr, Finding Favour in the Sight of God, p. 86)
In Job, we see the emotional rollercoaster of an honest struggle with suffering by a pious and righteous man and many find comfort in his candour and frankness. His responses sway between hopeful optimism and back to deep despair - something common for those experiencing intense suffering. Yet in the midst of honest struggle, Job still shows strong affirmations of faith, “Though He slays me, I will hope in him.” (13:15) And so, Job stands as an instructive testimony through the ages for all of us and thus God continues to use his suffering for a good purpose. In all this, Job was not forgotten by His God - God always saw and was with Job. This is the infinite wisdom of God.
The point of the book is not necessarily to exhaustively explain all of the suffering or the reasons why God might allow every instance of suffering, but rather to move us to trust God.
In our next article as we wrap up this Wisdom Literature series, we'll take a look at the book of Ecclesiastes and what wisdom it gives us.
Articles in this series:
Understanding Wisdom Literature | Job