Be comforted, small immortals. You are not the voice that all things utter, nor is there eternal silence in the places where you cannot come.
—C. S. Lewis, Perelandra
A Man Named Job
The book of Job is set chronologically before the Exodus and the publication of the Torah, the five books of Moses. It is an ancient story. Long-lived forebears, barbarous cavemen, and terrible monsters populated the world Job knew. Ice and snow were common then in the Near East and more common still in the regions to the North, a hint perhaps of a waning Ice Age. There were still whole communities that feared the Creator God, as idolatry was a wickedness “to be punished by the judge” (31:28).
Job lived in the land of Uz, east of Palestine. He was not an Israelite. He and his friends knew Adam and the Flood, but they never mention Abraham, Moses, or the nation of Israel. Job was a wealthy and prosperous Gentile in an age that had not wholly forgotten the God of Noah and Shem. Job was the greatest man of his age: God said so. In fact, he told Satan this as they were talking one day.
The Argument of the Book
As the story begins, God draws Satan’s attention to Job, a very righteous man even by his standards. Satan scoffs at Job’s character. He says in effect, “Of course he serves You now, you shower him with stuff and protect him from adversity.” God consents to a test. In a day Job loses his oxen, his sheep, his camels, his servants, and his ten children. Though moved to profound grief, Job worships, and blesses the name of the LORD (1:20-21).
A short time passes, and God again draws Satan’s attention to Job. Satan continues to scoff and accuse: “Touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face” (2:5). God lets the test continue. Satan smites Job with boils that prove painful and disfiguring. At this point, three of Job’s friends come to comfort him. They fail miserably. What ensues is a lengthy theological debate on the nature of suffering. Three propositions are on the table:
- God is sovereign.
- God is just.
- Job is innocent.
Job’s friends insist on A and B. They reject C. Job, they believe, has all this coming. They suggest possible secret sins. When Job rejects their conclusion, they find in that rejection even more evidence of his guilt. He is proud, blasphemous, and theologically deviant, according to his friends. He will not humble himself before God, they say.
Job, on the other hand, accepts propositions A and C, though he doesn’t claim to be sinless. He doesn’t deny B, but he doesn’t understand it either. His terrible sufferings seem inconsistent with absolute justice. Why should the wicked prosper and the godly suffer so horribly? Job wishes for the opportunity to question God on this point. At other times, he simply wishes to die and be done with it all.
Moderns and post-moderns are more likely to question A. There may be a good and just God somewhere, but He is extremely limited in what He can do. It is a mistake to expect too much of Him. Writing in When Bad Things Happen to Good People (2004), Rabbi Harold Kushner says, “It is too difficult even for God to keep cruelty and chaos from claiming their innocent victims” (49). And so we should not be angry with God, or fear His disapproval. “We can maintain our own self-respect and sense of goodness without having to feel that God has judged and condemned us. We can be angry at what has happened to us, without feeling that we are angry at God” (51).
Who Are the “Good People”?
Before we go any further, we need to consider the words “good people.” We use those words often and far too loosely. We apply them liberally to all humanity including well-dressed bank robbers and well-meaning socialists. The anti-heroes of pop culture, from Dirty Harry to Harry Potter, are “good” people. In fact, anyone this side of Sauron has probably been reckoned “good” by someone somewhere.
Scripture sees things differently, however. God is good. He is absolute in His perfections: He is holy and He is love. His nature is the final ethical standard for the moral universe. In other words, goodness is what God says it is, precisely because it is God who has said it. For man, then, goodness must consist of complete, whole-hearted obedience to God’s law at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances. But by this definition, there are no good men because all mankind sins. “As it is written, ‘There is none righteous, no, not one: there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.’” (Rom. 3:10-12)
Our understanding of suffering then must be reconciled with our sin nature. Sin calls for the judgment of God. And, sin is itself vicious and destructive. “Good people” do a lot of damage. Sooner or later, God brings judgment. This is moral reality.
But in spite of all this, the Scriptures do, in fact, speak of good men and women, but in another sense. The good man, the good woman, is the one who (imperfectly) fears and loves God and lives by faith in terms of His word. The good person is the forgiven and the justified, the person who serves God out of joy and thankfulness for His salvation.
A Portrait of Godliness
Job was a apparently a “good” man. God delighted in pointing this out. In his book, Missing in Action, Vanishing Manhood in America (1987), Weldon M. Hardenbrook discusses nine character traits that mark Job as a godly man. He finds them in Job 29.
- Job had a sense of continuity with the past. He respected the wisdom of his fathers, the collective witness of the godly. His own life was one of spiritual discipline and continuity. He had walked with God from his youth. (v. 4)
- Job remained close to his children. In the midst of his suffering, he fondly remembered the days when his children were about him. (v. 5) Even after they had left home, Job prayed and offered sacrifices for them. He got up early to do it. Job made his children a major priority.
- He was a father to the fatherless. (v. 16) Job became a provider and guide to the orphaned children in his community. He took the place of absentee fathers and deadbeat dads.
- He was an enforcer of justice: “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me: my judgment was as a robe and a diadem.” (v. 14) Job was more than a nice guy. He took on the wicked; he defended the oppressed. He tells us, “… I brake the jaws of the wicked, and plucked the spoil out of his teeth.” (v. 17)
- He showed godly mercy to the needy and afflicted. He was eyes to the blind, feet to the lame. (v. 15) “…I delivered the poor that cried, and the fatherless, and him that had none to help him.” (v.12)
- He earned the respect of his community. Integrity, wisdom, and charity were so evident in his everyday dealings, that young and old alike showed him reverence. Job says, “The young men saw me, and hid themselves: and the aged arose, and stood up.” (v. 8 ) Even princes and nobles held their peace when Job entered the room. (vv. 9-10)
- Job was stable and rooted: “I shall die in my nest…my root was spread out by the waters.” (vv. 18-19) Job was not forever riding off into the sunset or retreating to the man cave. He was an integral part of his community and had an active interest in its past and its future.
- He was a well of wisdom to all who would listen. And everyone did. “Unto me men gave ear, and waited, and kept silence at my counsel.” (v. 21) Job always had the final word, because his words were full of godly wisdom. He knew how to apply the absolute standards of God’s law to the issues at hand.
- Job pursued the knowledge of God with vigor. That knowledge transformed him. The better he knew his heavenly Father, the more he became like Him. This explains Job’s character and the impact he had on his world.
Some think Job too good to be true. Kushner writes, “Job was so good, so perfect, that you realize at once that you are not reading about a real-life person. This is a ‘once-upon-a-time’ story about a good man who suffered.” (37) But that’s not what the text says. Job was very real. Ezekiel places him along side of Noah and Daniel as a man of great godliness. (Ezek. 14:14, 20) James names him a prophet and holds him up as “an example of suffering affliction, and of patience.” (Jas. 5:10-11)
When Horrible Things Happen to Godly People
The book of Job doesn’t directly address the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Job and his friends all agreed that there were no good people. The real question at issue was the nature of God. How can God be just when His own beloved people suffer for no apparent reason? Job and his friends don’t come up with an answer. And so, at the end of the book, God appears in a whirlwind and provides an answer. The answer was not at all the sort of response Job was expecting.
First, God points to the creation at large—light, death, stars, hail and snow, the ocean and its tides. (ch. 38) Was Job there when God spoke the universe into being? Can Job guide and maintain it? Does he understand it or its purposes? God sends rain upon the wilderness. A flower blossoms and blooms, yet no man ever sees it. (38:26-27) Obviously, man is not the center of all things.
Next God draws Jobs attention to the wild beasts—lions, ravens, wild goats, wild asses, horses, and eagles. (ch. 39) Like the wilderness flower, they are beyond man’s control and concerns. Yet God cares for them. There are profound reasons for their existence.
Finally, God comes to two monstrous creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan. (ch. 40—41) The first sounds like an apatosaurus; the second, like some sort of sea-going dragon. Where did they come from? God made them. God made the monsters and He controls the monsters. Even Leviathan, who becomes a symbol for the pagan empires and for Satan himself, is completely under God’s thumb. The pagan gods may wrestle with the chaos dragon in their mythology, but the God of Scripture has no such problems. He is sovereign. His purposes are good, but they are His own. Faith believes that the God who came into this earth to suffer does not waste the suffering of His saints. But such faith doesn’t expect a flow chart of consequences and future benefits. Faith is content for God to be God.
For further reading:
Weldon M. Hardenbrook, Missing from Action, Vanishing Manhood in America (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987).
Rousas J. Rushdoony, By What Standard? An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til (Tyler, TX: Thoburn Press, 1983).