The book of Job is about more than suffering; it’s about how to fear God through suffering. Let’s see how this main point plays out in the debates between Job and his three friends.
At the end of Job 2, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar enter stage left. The play unfolds as each man gives a long speech, and Job responds to each with a speech of his own.
- Eliphaz, Job, Bildad, Job, Zophar, Job.
- Repeat: Eliphaz, Job, Bildad, Job, Zophar, Job.
- Repeat: Eliphaz, Job, Bildad, Job…
The third cycle gets cut short, and Zophar never gets his third moment of fame.
I won’t list the main points speech-by-speech; I encourage you to marinate in the poetry and discover the main ideas for yourself. But I want to highlight the main threads that amaze me.
Eliphaz is sensitive, Bildad is logical, and Zophar is hot-headed. Their personalities clearly vary, but they are still cut from the same strip of papyrus. They have one Ace in their collective hole, and they’re not afraid to use it every which way they can.
Good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. God is holy, righteous, and good, and he will not allow his cosmic order to be upset by some self-righteous upstart like Job. On the last day, our good deeds will be weighed against our bad deeds, and God will treat us as our actions deserve. There is a place for the wicked, one filled with loneliness, despair, and terror. But it is not possible for bad things to happen to good people. And consequently, it will never be possible for God to find a way to justify the wicked.
Job begins with this same worldview, and Eliphaz begins the cycle by gently reminding him of what he already knows (Job 4:2-5). In fact, Eliphaz claims, this system of belief is what it means to fear God. And such fear of God should be Job’s confidence (Job 4:6).
Eliphaz will not be so gentle by the time he’s done with Job. He’ll accuse Job of having no true fear of God (Job 22:4), but of bereaving others, withholding generosity, and crushing the helpless (Job 22:5-11).
These three friends exhaust their arguments and end up in the same place where they began (compare Job 25:4 with Job 4:17). There are different angles on the same principles, but there is no development of their thought. Perhaps that’s why Zophar has nothing to add in the third cycle. Their tone may change as they go, but their belief does not.
Job, however, goes through a radical transformation. He begins in the same place as his friends (Job 4:2-5), but he will not stay there. He knows he is innocent, and yet he’s suffering terribly. This blows up everything he thought he knew about God. Notice how his thought progresses through his eight speeches:
- Job 7:8-10: God won’t see me anymore after I’m dead.
- Job 9:32-33: I wish I could speak to God in person, but there is no mediator to go between us and make it possible.
- Job 14:7-17: My suffering would have a purpose if I could die and have God’s wrath pass me by. Then he could resurrect me and forget all my iniquity. But that will never happen (Job 14:18-22).
- Job 16:18-22: Since I am innocent and God is good, there must be a mediator between God and me! My witness is in heaven, he who will argue my case before God as a son of man does with his neighbor!
- Job 19:23-27: Since my Redeemer lives, resurrection must also be possible! Like the dual keys required to launch a nuke, these companion truths of a mediator and a resurrection unlock Job’s hope for the first time in the book. “My heart faints within me!” (Job 19:27).
- Job 21:7-9, 29-33: God often allows the wicked to prosper. He can do as he pleases.
- Job 23:8-17: Though he utterly terrifies me, all I want is to see God.
- Job 26:6-7: Even if I die, I will be laid bare and visible before God.
Though the friends end up in the same place they begin, Job does not. He has completely changed his mind.
The Main Difference
The main difference between Job and his friends is not that Job suffers and they do not. Nor is it that Job understands suffering in a way they do not. The main difference is that Job fears God and they do not.
While Job’s suffering provides the raw material for their debate, the heart of their conflict is over what it means to fear God (Job 4:6, 6:14, 13:11-16, 15:4, 22:4, 23:14-17, etc.). The message of this book is not so much about how to deal with suffering as about how to fear God, even through suffering.
Without the fear of God, one must hold to a religious system of cosmic karma, where we’re good with God as long as we try to be good people. But the true fear of God acknowledges the possibility – no, the necessity – of innocent, substitutionary suffering. If a really, really good person can suffer terrible things, then maybe, just maybe, the wicked can somehow be justified and made right with God.
But it all hangs on both a Redeemer who lives and a tenacious hope of resurrection.