Penetrating Questions from the Book of Job
The Book of Job is one of the most profound pieces of literature ever to grace human existence. Little wonder, then, that renowned novelist Victor Hugo once suggested that if all the world’s literary efforts were to be destroyed, and he could save but a solitary sample, it would be “Job.”
In this article, we will challenge ourselves with four intriguing questions that arise from a study of this sacred document.
“Does Man Serve God For Nothing?”
On a certain occasion, when the sons of God assembled before the Lord, Satan entered the assembly (obviously by permission and consistent with a divine plan).
Jehovah asked this enemy a question: “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is no one like him on earth—a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (1:8).
Satan’s response was: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Or, to bring the matter into sharper focus, the thrust of the sarcastic query is this: “You don’t think he serves you for nothing, do you?”
There is an insidious two-fold implication in the adversary’s question.
First, it suggests that no man has a noble motive in serving God. Satan projects his own diabolical disposition onto the whole of humanity. He hates the Almighty, and so it must be the case, he reasons, that everyone else does as well. It never occurs to this wretch that, in spite of a man’s less-than-perfect conduct, there could be a longing in his heart for fellowship with his Maker. And that he would strive to serve the Lord out of gratitude for his humble existence, and the host of blessings that adorn his life. In his assumption, the evil one (Mt. 13:19) was wrong.
Second, Satan’s question had the built-in allegation that Jehovah is unworthy of human service — on the basis of his intrinsic nature. If he did not dole out bribes; if he did not “grease the palm,” man would see nothing in the Lord deserving of devotion. But Job will become a model who demonstrates otherwise. In spite of the fact that he will lose virtually everything that men generally value (e.g., wealth, health, etc.), and he will even weaken at times, he will not abandon God.
Yes, he will say things of which he later will be ashamed (42:3-6); nonetheless, this man of integrity will cling to his faith. For, as the psalmist elsewhere observes, Jehovah “is worthy to be praised” (Psa. 18:3). Job recognized this great truth — as all men should. Thus, based upon his nature alone, quite apart from the blessings he bestows, God is deserving of our adoration.
His call for human submission is not because he needs anything from us (Acts 17:25). Rather, the Lord’s commands arise from his love (1 Jn. 4:8). He wants us to be happy. And the omniscient God knows that human happiness can be achieved only by a surrender to the Creator of mankind (Eccl. 12:13), and the reception of forgiveness from him.
“Why Do the Righteous Suffer?”
When Satan’s initial blows hit Job (loss of prosperity and the deaths of ten children) in brutal, rapid-fire succession, the patriarch exhibited a remarkable fortitude. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21).
Even when he was stricken with a loathsome disease, and his wife urged him to bid God “farewell,” he replied, if one may paraphrase: “Are we willing to serve God only in good times; can’t we honor him even when hardship comes?” (cf. 2:10).
Likely, after months of agony (cf. 7:3), Job’s well-known “patience” (cf. Jas. 5:11) began to wear thin. He openly expressed the wish that he had never been conceived. Or, since he was born, why had he not died at birth (3:1-26)? Why, he wonders, has he been kept alive for this living death!
When Job’s friends — Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar — heard of his calamity, and came to visit him, after an appropriate period of mourning, they began to argue their “theology” to him. It was a misguided dogma, but, unfortunately, one to which Job himself subscribed to a degree.
The ideology was this: A man’s suffering is always the result of his personal sin. Further, the more one has sinned, the greater he will suffer. Based upon these premises, the application was perfectly clear: Job was suffering tremendously; obviously, therefore, he was guilty of grievous sins — sins he had concealed, refusing to confess his wrongs to God.
That Job’s ideas are skewed likewise is evidenced by the fact that he commences to argue a flawed case against the Lord. Suffering is sent by God as the result of personal sin. But Job was certain that he had committed no sins that deserved this degree of punishment. The fault must lie, therefore, with Jehovah. He is not administering justice fairly in this world. The tents of robbers seem to prosper, and the innocent are subjected to calamities. And God turns his back on these inequities! If these injustices are not the Lord’s fault, who else is responsible (9:24)?
Job could not make sense of this haunting problem. Neither can we — totally. However, in the light of a more complete revelation (cf. 2 Tim. 1:10), we can construct a case that allows us to live the thrilling, confident life — in spite of life’s distresses.
Epicurus (342-270 B.C.) is credited with formalizing the argument that, supposedly, negates the proposition that there is a God who is both good and powerful. This Greek philosopher contended that if there is a God who is good, he would not want there to be suffering. Additionally, if he were all-powerful he would eradicate this evil. Since suffering is a perpetual affliction for humanity, this alleged God either must not will to remedy the matter, in which case he would not be good, or else he cannot alter the circumstances, which would imply his impotence. In either case he would not be “God.”
There are two fatal flaws in this argument that frequently is employed against the existence of God.
First, though God is all-powerful, his power is limited by the full complement of his attributes. For example, because Jehovah is completely holy (Isa. 6:3; Hab. 1:13), he cannot lie (Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). His power is limited by his goodness. One must never attempt to isolate one of the divine attributes from others.
Here is an important point. The Creator fashioned man as a being of true choice. Would we have it otherwise? Would we be happy to be mere robots — mechanically programmed to do only the divine will? How would that honor the Almighty? If, then, God grants us that freedom of choice, he cannot block that freedom each time we choose to do wrong. One cannot be endowed with freedom, and non-freedom, at the same time. Freedom of choice, therefore, for finite beings, necessitates the ability to make wrong choices.
At the same time, because God is good, he wants for us the very best. When he grants us the freedom to exercise choices (even bad ones), he also permits us to suffer the consequences of those evil choices. If all decisions (good and bad alike) produced identical results, one would never be motivated to choose the good over the evil. And so the suffering that men reap, as a consequence of their foolish choices, does not, in fact, reflect upon God’s ability.
Second, the Epicurean argument assumes that suffering is entirely incompatible with goodness. This is a seriously mistaken notion. We will not develop a full response to this assumption at this point, but let us briefly note this. The example of Jesus of Nazareth is a dynamic rebuttal to the assertion that divine goodness and human suffering are mutually exclusive propositions. Christ was absolutely pure; he did not sin at all (Jn. 8:29,46; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 1:18-19). And yet, God allowed him to suffer (Heb. 5:8).
Or consider the sacrificial life of Paul, one of the noblest characters to grace the pages of Scripture. He enjoyed the approval of Jehovah, yet his godly service on behalf of Jesus Christ was fraught with much suffering (see 2 Cor. 11:23-28). Clearly, there can be a divine plan in which goodness and suffering are compatible.
“How Can God Allow the Righteous to Suffer?”
In considering “why” the righteous suffer, attention must be given to the reality that, ultimately, suffering is man’s responsibility. Ideally, it was never the divine will that human beings be heir to misery. When Adam and his offspring walked away from God, heartache was bound to follow in the wake of that tragedy.
In an abbreviated format, let us consider how sin, both directly and indirectly, produces human hardship. A classification of the sin and suffering problem, from the viewpoint of man’s culpability, may be discussed under the following headings.
(1) Personal sin can bring heartache and misery. The book of Judges is a commentary upon the reality that apostasy from God can be directly associated with hardship (cf. 6:1). In the New Testament, Peter argues that suffering can descend upon the evil-doer (1 Pet. 4:15).
(2) Suffering may result from the wickedness perpetrated by one’s contemporaries. When terrorists made the vile decision to crash planes into New York’s twin towers on September 11, 2001, hundreds of innocent people suffered. Human rebellion can have a ripple effect. Should God honor your freedom of choice but no one else’s? If a man is free to do good, so that others are blessed, can he not also abuse his power of choice, and, as a result, others will suffer? There are cause-and-effect operations that are a part of the price of human free will.
(3) There is considerable suffering upon our planet as a consequence of the disobedience of ungodly people in ancient times. The sins of Adam and Eve unleashed disease and death among the sons of men (Rom. 5:12). In fact, the whole creation was affected by human transgression (Rom. 8:18ff).
In the aftermath of the Genesis “flood,” earth’s features were so altered that geophysical and climatic conditions were created that facilitate natural disasters on occasion (e.g., earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, storms, etc.). These traumatic events, though commonly called “acts of God,” ultimately are traceable to human resistance of Heaven’s will.
(4) Another element that must be taken into consideration in surveying the reasons for human misery is the reality that some suffering is the by-product of cause-and-effect relationships in a world governed by natural law. There is, for example, the principle of “gravity.” This phenomenon wonderfully accommodates so many of our activities. Yet, it is a grim reality that if an airplane’s engines fail, it will go down, and scores of people may lose their lives.
Jesus once mentioned the collapse of a tower in Jerusalem. Eighteen men were killed. The Lord noted that this tragedy was not an indication of their excessive wickedness; rather, they were incidental victims of a natural law circumstance (Lk. 13:4).
But why, the critic asks, could not God intervene, thus preventing such “accidents”? It is scarcely possible to imagine what the conditions of our planet would be like, if God intervened, suspending a natural law, each time some human being found himself in a state of peril. Such intervention would render the law-system of our globe wholly undependable and leave human existence a sphere of hapless confusion. As one scholar has noted, such chaos would negate the effect of the orderliness of our environment, which argues for God’s existence (Rom. 1:20), and tend more toward the confusion of atheism (Horne, I.117).
In addition, one can only imagine the reckless abandon that would characterize people’s lives if they knew that no matter what they did, no negative consequence would occur? Some suffering, therefore, is simply the price we pay for the kind of world in which we live.
But this discussion would not be complete if one did not examine the “other side of the coin,” and reflect upon the benefits that suffering can bring, if a person is willing to learn from adversity. This is an area that Bible critics are prone to ignore.
There is a way to harmonize God’s benevolence with his tolerance of human woe. Elsewhere we have discussed this issue in greater detail (Jackson, Mental Health", 97-106); for now we must be content to summarize.
It is beyond controversy that much of the suffering we endure is remedial in nature. There is an education to be achieved in the “University of Hard Knocks.” Would anyone propose taking an infant, confining it in a secure place — with no contact with the outside world — under the guise of shielding him from all possible adversity? Such an action would be viewed as abuse, rather than benevolence.
Let us briefly consider some of life’s lessons, learned only in the crucible of agony.
(1) Suffering throws a floodlight upon human frailty. If one is wise, adversity will drive him to his knees and impel him to search for the noble meaning in life. As Israel’s king once confessed: “In my distress I called upon Jehovah, and cried unto my God” (Psa. 18:6).
(2) Suffering can sharpen our awareness of the real value of things. It can bring family members together and underscore the value of precious friendships. The poet John Dryden wrote: “We, by our suff’rings, learn to prize our bliss.”
(3) Suffering can bring forth the finest moral and social qualities of which the human being is capable. For example, we are able to show compassion for others who are hurting when we have passed through the fires of pain ourselves (cf. Heb. 2:18).
And think about “courage.” Who among us does not honor that admirable trait? Yet courage could never exist but for the presence of danger. And what of “patience”? Is this rich quality, so coveted by rational people, ever needed — except in an environment of distress? It is a foolish person indeed who sees suffering only in a negative light.
“Who Is Man to Judge God?”
George Bernard Shaw, the immoral and irreverent Irish poet, once quipped that there was enough suffering on a London street on any given day to negate the existence of God. Pity the arrogant critic who thinks he is in a position to pass judgment upon the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe.
But that is what Job did, in a measure, as he languished under the sustained and numbing blows of Satan (and yes, it was by the permission of Jehovah). Job questioned the way the Lord was governing the Earth, and he did not hesitate to tell his Maker a thing or two about that matter. The patriarch challenged God to meet him in “court,” as it were. He would act either as the defense attorney (on behalf of himself), or as prosecutor (of the Lord); it mattered little to him (cf. 13:17ff). He was positive he had a clear picture of how Earth’s affairs ought to be administered.
After an appropriate period of time, the Lord proceeded to “answer” Job (38:1). He warned the man of Uz to “gird up your loins,” meaning, “Get ready for some vigorous activity; you asked for it — now here it is.”
Jehovah then began an interrogation, pounding Job with a series of very difficult questions (roughly sixty). This “final exam” was designed to reveal to the patriarch how very little he knew about Earth and its environment. Job had been more than willing to criticize and advise his Creator on how to run the business of this planet, yet he actually did not understand the most fundamental elements about how it operates. With a rigorous cross-examination, the Lord will appropriately humble his critic. To his credit, Job will listen and learn.
The narrative in 38:1 through 41:34, rather easily divides itself into several sections. First, there is the opening challenge. Jehovah warns Job of the encounter that is about to commence, and urges his servant to brace for it (38:1-3).
Second, there begins a series of mind-numbing queries regarding the origin and design of Earth’s features and creatures. These inquiries probe whether or not Job understands how his Maker operates with reference to the natural order of the creation (38:4-40:5).
When that is established, the Lord will employ a form of logic that reasons from the “lesser” to the “greater.” He will demonstrate that if the patriarch does not comprehend certain elementary matters pertaining to our earthly domain, he certainly is not qualified to pass judgment upon how the Creator is negotiating the moral order of the planet’s population (40:6-41:34). This narrative constitutes a crash course in the ignorance of humanity versus the knowledge and wisdom of the Almighty.
In the initial barrage of questions, the Lord focuses upon the inanimate creation (38:4-38). He interrogates the “wise” man about the original design and dimensions of the globe. Did the Creator need to consult Job about such matters? Hardly! What about the delicate balance between land and sea? Did the critic of Uz plan that? Also what about the relationship between the Sun and the Earth? Or what of the various intricate operations of the weather; who fashioned those mechanisms? Did Heaven seek Job’s advice about the arrangement of the constellations? Who is this man who proposes to advise the Architect of the Universe?
Next, the Lord takes Job on a tour of his “zoo,” i.e., the animate creation (38:39-39:30). God questions his servant about such matters as animal instinct; how do wild creatures survive in nature’s vast wilderness? How does one explain the mysterious temperament differential between certain animals of the same general family, e.g., the wild ox versus the domesticated ox? Even the curious ostrich seems to have been designed to confound the imagination of men.
Can man explain the amazing flight design and skill of birds like the hawk? Did Job chart the migration flight patterns for the flying creatures? The inability of modern science to explain many of these matters is a stunning commentary on the brilliance of the world’s Creator.
This series of questions — surveying both inanimate and animate elements of creation — is specifically intended to highlight the infinite wisdom of Jehovah. If man cannot plumb the depths of divine wisdom in the seemingly mundane areas of the creation (cf. Rom. 11:33-36), can anyone be so audacious as to question the Almighty in matters of greater importance, e.g., his dealings with man? The answer is all too obvious.
In Job 40:1-5, there is a brief interlude. The Lord gives the patriarch a moment to “catch his breath,” and to contemplate his case. Jehovah asks whether Job is able to reply to the previous interrogation. The man of Uz is subdued, but he has not yet reached a state of contrition. He meekly says that he will “stand pat” on his earlier arguments. And so, the next round begins.
The Lord openly accuses Job of attempting to “play God” (which he had done by censuring Heaven’s administration of justice upon the Earth). The Creator now will subdue his faultfinding friend with another series of questions — this time focused upon two monstrous creatures, behemoth (40:15-24) and leviathan (41:1-34).
Jehovah’s argument is rather simple. “Wisdom” and “power” are companion attributes of God. If, then, the Creator can demonstrate his power, surely his wisdom will be conceded. By the introduction of these two awesome creatures — one of the land, the other of the sea — God will argue the case for his power.
The exact identification of these gigantic beasts remains a matter of controversy. It is customary to classify behemoth as a hippopotamus, and leviathan as a crocodile (see ASV footnote), though the descriptions provided in the text scarcely fit modern specimens of these two beasts. This fact has led some scholars to suggest that behemoth and leviathan may represent two species of the ancient dinosaur kind (see Jackson, Job, 85ff; “Behold, Behemoth!”).
Man is unable to engage and control either behemoth or leviathan. They are far too powerful for a puny human being. Yet these monstrous beasts were made by God. Surely this must reveal the magnitude of Heaven’s power, in dramatic contrast to the weakness of humanity. Job will be forced to admit that his Maker is infinitely strong — and, therefore, equally wise. Since that clearly is the case, who is Job to criticize the omniscient and omnipotent God (see 41:10).
By the time this interview with the Lord had concluded, Job was completely devastated. Humbly, the patriarch confessed: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose [plan] of yours can be thwarted” (42:2, ESV).
This affirmation of God’s limitless power is significant; it acknowledges that the Lord’s wisdom and justice are faultless. Correspondingly, human beings must learn to trust the Creator, and not question his plan for the human family — even when incomprehensible things occur which appear to go against man’s sense of what is fair.
One of the great values of this thrilling Old Testament document is found in its power to help us get a grip on the frailties and ailments of the human circumstance, and to learn to trust our Maker — no matter what happens (cf. 13:15). Only in eternity will we be able to see how Jehovah has worked his marvelous plan. Truly, the final day of history will be a time of the “revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5).
Horne, T.H., An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, Philadelphia: J. Whetham & Son, 1841.
Jackson, Wayne, Behold, Behemoth, Christiancourier.com. Feature, July 1, 2002.
Jackson, Wayne, The Book of Job — Analyzed and Applied, Abilene: Quality, 1983.
Jackson, Wayne, The Bible & Mental Health, Stockton, CA: Courier Publications, 1998.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.