RESPOND WITH FAITH

 

Week of November 6, 2005

 

Bible Passage:  Job 1:1-3, 8-12, 20-22, 2:7-10.

 

Biblical Truth: People can trust the Lord even when life caves in.

 

Overview of Job.

 

God sometimes ordains that we walk in the valley of the shadow, perhaps because it may be that there is no other way of discovering the power of his comforting rod and staff. Or perhaps it is because of some inscrutable providence of his own in which – in all his love and grace, and not in the slightest manipulatively – he calls on us to be his servants through our pain and our frailties within wider purposes in heaven than we on earth can discern. This seems to be part of the point of the book of Job.

 

There are problems and questions in this book but there is precious little that will count in the way of an ‘answer’ as we usually understand that term. We are face to face with a good and godly man who suffers. He catches us up into his pain, into his misery, into the injustice of it all. He covers us with his sense of abandonment – by family, by friends, by God himself. And there is nothing that we can say to ease his plight; there is nothing we can do which makes things any better. The book of Job brings us to the edge. It confronts us with failure, and with suffering for which there is no explanation. And though at the end of the day, the book brings us back to the all-sufficiency of divine grace, and stands out among the Wisdom literature in the Bible as a plea to see things from a divine and not a human perspective, there is a long, painful and arduous path to climb before we hear the Lord speaking, as he does at the end of the book, from the whirlwind.

 

The major theme of the inscrutable mystery of innocent suffering is one which all of us have to encounter. Why did God allow this? Where was God in all this? And why does God seem so capricious in his care? Why will he heal one person’s illness, but not another’s? These are questions we have all asked. The book of Job will not give us easy answers. But it will open up for us ways into the struggle for people of faith. It will show us how one man at the end of the day was enabled by grace to live with his questions without receiving satisfactory answers. As John Calvin has written: “Let us, I say, permit the Christian man to open his mind and ears to every utterance of God directed to him, provided it be with such restraint that when the Lord closes His holy lips, he also shall at once close the way to inquiry. The best limit of sobriety for us will be not only to follow God’s lead always in learning but, when He sets an end to teaching, to stop trying to be wise” (Commentary on Deut. 29:29). When God chooses not to give us a satisfactory answer to our question, it is the duty of the believer to rest in the knowledge of God’s perfect goodness and wisdom.

 

The Pattern of the Book.

 

The book of Job falls into three clear sections. It starts [1-2] with a prose prologue in which the scene is set, and in which earthly and heavenly realities are placed side by side. This section informs the reader that the imminent sufferings of Job are not due to any fault in him.

 

Matching this, the book ends with a prose epilogue [42.7-14] which serves a particular purpose at the end of the story, and brings the book to its conclusion. Job marvels at how great God is and how small he is. Satan is defeated, conspicuous by his absence from the scene. It is the day of glory for God and his faithful ones.

 

In between there is the body of the book which is a long poem [3.1-42.6] in which Job and his friends try to argue out the situation, and in which eventually Job hears the voice of God. There are three cycles of speeches. In the first two cycles [4-21] the friends speak in turn and a reply from Job follows each one. In the third cycle [22-27] only two friends speak and Job replies to each of them. The friends always speak in the same order (probably reflecting their ages): Eliphaz, then Bildad, then Zophar, and their speeches all rest on the assumption that Job has brought the sufferings on himself. Each cycle becomes more critical of Job. Initially more polite and guarded, the criticisms develop into open confrontation. Eliphaz is the gentlest of the three, while Zophar is the sharpest, coarsest and most dogmatic. Job endures their repeated thesis that phenomenal suffering is due to phenomenal sin in the sufferer. And he denies this repeatedly. Modern readers can wonder what these three would have said to Jesus on the cross. His was phenomenal suffering in phenomenal innocence. On the other hand, Job sometimes says some very foolish and ill-advised things, although he later regrets doing so.

 

The situation gets terribly tense. That is why chapter 28 is so welcome, an artistic interlude built in by the skilful author. A magnificent poem on the elusiveness of wisdom and its true sources, the tranquility of this meditation contrasts with the turbulence before and after it, providing welcome relief for the reader.

 

Then we come to the two most stupendous moments in the book. We see Job’s final intrepid challenge where he begs God to answer him [29-31], and God’s dramatic, powerful and awesome replies [38-41]. In between them comes another tranquil break. We hear a new and fascinating character, Elihu, making four speeches [32-37]. He freshens the air with a far more perceptive and accurate view than the others. He essentially tells Job that he needs to humble himself before God and submit to God’s process of purifying his life through trials and hardships. Job came to agree with that. Significantly, God does not rebuke Elihu as he did the others. As we shall discover, Elihu’s speeches are quite profound. They accord with the mind of God and they answer Job’s needs. They provide the ideal prelude for the momentous whirlwind speeches of God that follow.

 

Acknowledge Earth’s Limited Perspective 1:1-3.

 

[1]There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil. [2] Seven sons and three daughters were born to him. [3] His possessions also were 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 female donkeys, and very many servants; and that man was the greatest of all the men of the east. [NASU]

 

The first and most important thing we are to notice about chapters 1 and 2 is the literary device our author uses to tell us what is going on: two stories are woven together, one taking place in heaven, the other on earth. We begin on earth. Job was blameless and upright, a good man. He could not be charged with wrong before God or man. He was pious and moral, a man who fears God and shuns evil. It is important to remember that in the Hebrew culture material prosperity was often understood as a sign of God’s blessing. Job’s piety and care extended to offering sacrifices as the priest of the family on behalf of his children [1:5]. He wanted his family to be purified from sin. He would rise early in the morning (a Hebrew idiom for conscientiously), and offer burnt offerings. This was his life-long habit, his regular custom.

 

The writer uses four synonyms together in order to describe as strongly as possible Job’s piety. Blameless describes the whole heart disposed towards God and what is good, and also well-disposed toward mankind; upright in thought and action without deviation conformed to that which is right; fearing God, having his life directed by the fear of God which is the beginning of wisdom; and turning away from evil, keeping aloof from that which is opposed to God. 

 

 

Honor Heaven’s Perspective 1:8 and Anticipate Faith’s Challenge 1:9-12.

 

[8]The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil. [9] Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? [10] “Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. [11] “But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face.” [12] Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” So Satan departed from the presence of the Lord.  [NASU]

 

[8]  The writer transfers us from earth to heaven, where everything that is done on earth has its unseen roots, its final cause. Satan is God’s adversary, and consequently altogether evil. But Satan must serve God, since He makes even evil minister to His purpose of salvation, and the working out of His plan in the government of the world. This sovereign control is the chief thought which underlies the further progress of the scene. God triumphantly displays His servant Job, in opposition to Satan. Here we have a description of Job similar to verse 1 with the exception that verse 1 describes Job as a man while God describes him as His servant.

 

[9-11]  Satan’s taunt focuses on the many material blessings that Job has received from God. Take away Job’s possessions and he will curse you is Satan’s reply to God. This question becomes one of the central issues of the rest of the book: Does Job fear God for nothing? In other words: can there be such a thing as disinterested goodness? Is Job only good because of what he can get out of it? Is your faith in God dependent only on the good you think it will do you? The distinction can be expressed by saying that for some people their faith in God serves as a means to some other end, whereas for others, God is seen as an end in himself. This question at the center of the book of Job is addressed to us all. Why do we serve God? Is it just for what we can get out of it? Or is ours a faith rooted in the reality of a personal communion with God himself – for his sake? The accusing Satan suggests that Job serves God, and worships him, only because of the material prosperity he will gain. Satan misses the fact that the really important thing for Job is that he lives, not merely uses, his faith. His communion with God is all important. As we shall see towards the end of the book, it is the reality of personal communion with God which eventually rescues Job from his predicament.

 

[12]  God’s reply is to give Satan the freedom to try Job out. God sets the bounds. There is evil here, but not dualism, and perhaps we need to pause to register that fact. A great deal of popular Christian thinking operates with a sort of dualism in which the whole of life is understood in terms of a battle between God and Satan, or between the Holy Spirit and the world of the demonic, as though these were all equal partners in a contest. But a dualism of good and evil is not the teaching of the Bible. While we must not ignore the reality of spiritual warfare, we must remember that the contest is not between equals. There is no equal and opposite force of evil in tension with the goodness of God. Such a view is not found in the Bible. Rather, God is always sovereign. And Satan is always only an adversary on a chain. Satan is always under God’s authority and control. Notice well: the divine permission (all that he has is in your power) appears at the same time as a divine command (only do not put forth your hand on him). The permission proceeds from God’s purpose to maintain in opposition to Satan, the righteousness which, in spite of the universal liability to sin, is peculiar to Job.

 

Trust God Always 1:20-22; 2:7-10.

 

[20]Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. [21] He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” [22] Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God. [2:7] Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. [8] And he took a potsherd to scrape himself while he was sitting among the ashes. [9] Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!” [10] But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.  [NASU]

 

[20-22] The first three messengers Job has heard, sitting, and in silence; but at the news of the death of his children, brought by the fourth, he can no longer overcome his grief. The intensity of his feeling is indicated by rising up; his torn heart, by the rending of his mantle; the conscious loss of his dearest ones, by cutting off the hair of his head. He does not, however, act like one in despair, but, humbling himself under the mighty hand of God, falls to the ground and prostrates himself, i.e. worshipping God. Job was not driven from God, but was driven to God. Job praised the Lord in the midst of suffering, even when, to human understanding and feeling, there was only occasion for anguish. He destroyed the suspicion of Satan, that he only feared God for the sake of His gifts, not for His own sake; and remained, in the midst of a fourfold temptation, the conqueror. Thus Satan was proved wrong. Job did not curse God. He did not go hunting around for secondary causes. He did not search for anyone to blame. He took it all as from the hand of God. And he worshiped. In a verse of great dignity, we read: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Even in all this Job sees the hand of God. Amazingly, and significantly, his first instinct is to react Godwards – in worship. Job is so absorbed by the sovereign action of God in giving and in taking away that there is a humble acceptance in blessing even the hand that has struck him.

 

[7-10] For reasons which are not clear to us, God sets the further bounds of Satan’s activities, and gives him permission for this further test. Sickness is added to all the other trials Job has to face. But once again Satan is proven wrong. God’s trust in Job has been vindicated. Job does not curse God. He retains his faith. But that now becomes his biggest problem of all!

 

The author has skillfully brought us face to face with the unchanging human perils of war, destitution, sickness, humiliation, bereavement and depression. The hand of God is hidden. We, from outside the story, can distinguish God’s permissive will from his perfect ordering of the world, and of course we need to. We cannot simply accept disaster as God’s appointment, as part of his design for the world. His perfect order is: no sin, no sickness, no satanic tests. But this world is not as God originally made it, pronouncing it ‘good’. At point after point in God’s world, the structured harmonies of God’s good creation have become discordant and harsh. This world is an ambiguous ‘fallen’ world, now marked not only by the beauties of creation, but also by disorder, pain, struggle and death. The distinction between God’s perfect will and his permissive will needs to be made. The world this side of the Fall is a broken world, and though God’s will is still made clear to us, it comes refracted through the needs of a fallen world. The first two chapters of the book of Job have indicated the divine permission to Satan to afflict Job. We cannot read that as God’s perfect will. From Job’s perspective it is simply bewildering. Satan’s involvement is not suspected at all. Job insists on seeing his misfortune as the hidden hand of God. And that is his problem.

 

Now the real major burden of the book of Job begins to unfold. Job’s faith does not relieve his suffering, it makes it worse. To some extent it causes it. Job’s faith was based on the living God who cares for his people. It was faith in Yahweh, the Covenant Lord, the God of justice, mercy and goodness. For Job, God in grace prospered the upright man and blesses the righteous. Now, however, Job has to square this faith with his own desperate situation. Everything Job believed about God was being called in question. It is important to remember that this question of human suffering could be asked in the way it is in the book of Job only because of Job’s fundamental commitment of faith. Suffering, in fact, is only a problem to the person with faith in a good God. The fact that many people perceive suffering to be a problem is itself a witness to the fact that there exists a good God, in whose light the existence of suffering poses us questions. If a good God is not in control of the universe, then suffering and evil would not surprise us.

 

So has God done something bad? Whence these inexplicable providences? Where is God’s justice? What is God doing in all this? What comfort can faith offer now? In the next section of the book, we can only watch in anguish as Job and those near him, who have nothing to go on but their faith and their experience, struggle with the question of how to keep faith and experience together. But it is only at the end of the book that we are given insight into how faith and experience are to be interwoven.

 

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.     The Book of Job teaches us to experience life as Job did: one day at a time and without complete answers to all of life’s questions. Will we trust God no matter what? Or will we give in to doubt and despair? As we go through the Book of Job this month, look for what enabled Job to remain faithful to God even in the midst of doubt and despair.

 

2.     What do the conversations between God and Satan tell you about God? About Satan?

 

3.     What do Job’s responses in 1:21 and 2:10 tell us about Job’s understanding of who God is?

        How did this understanding enable him to praise God when the Lord took away material blessings and sent adversity into Job’s life?

 

4.     One question that the book of Job confronts us with is “Why do we serve God?” It is part of our sinful nature to serve God because we hope to get something out of it for ourselves. You see that this was Satan’s accusation of Job. But the true believer is confronted with the issue of moving beyond this type of thinking. But how? How do we train our hearts only to be motivated by seeking the glory of God in our service to Him?

 

References:

The Message of Job, David Atkinson, Inter-Varsity.

Job, Peter Bloomfield, The Guide, Evangelical Press.

Job, F. Delitzsch, Eerdmans.