This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.
Q: Is the book of Job about suffering?
A: That may seem a silly question with which to begin. “Of course, the book of Job is about suffering,” many will say. “That’s obvious.” Plenty of books, articles, Bible studies, and discussions assume that this is the reason why we study it: we hope to learn something about human distress and how to respond to it.
But it’s not so clear. Sure, there is a huge amount of suffering in the book. In almost every verse there is pain or some allusion to distress. It is an agonizing book to read. But to say that it contains suffering is not the same as concluding that it is fundamentally about suffering.
The central character, Job himself, is not just everyman, a human being in general. No, he is most emphatically a man who is “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). The narrator tells us this in the first verse and God says it twice more (Job 1:8; 2:3). That is to say, Job is a believer walking through life with a clear conscience. The book of Job is—to quote the title of a book that first helped me get into studying Job—about how God treats his friends. It is about the struggles of a suffering and yet innocent believer. It is about more than that, but it is certainly not about human suffering in general, much as we might wish that it was.
Q: What are we to make of Job’s comforters?
A: Nine of its forty-one chapters consist of eight speeches in the mouths of Job’s three friends, his so-called comforters (although they bring him precious little comfort). These three men come to comfort Job right near the start (Job 2:11–13). They take it in turns to speak, and they say a great deal. Much of what they say seems to make a lot of sense. For example, Eliphaz says that God “frustrates the devices of the craftiness . . . catches the wise in their own craftiness” (Job 5:12, 13). This is remarkably similar to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:19 (although Paul may actually be quoting from Isaiah 29:14).
But at the end of the book, God says they have not spoken rightly about him (Job 42:7). So, God says we can’t entirely trust them. The overall verdict on their speeches is a great big divine thumbs down. When we read their speeches we need to think carefully. Sometimes they say things that are true but that don’t fit Job. They accuse him of being an unforgiven sinner, and he isn’t. Most seriously, there is no place in their thinking for innocent suffering (e.g., Job 4:7), which means that, in the end, there is no place in their theology for the cross of Christ. Their system is very simple: good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people—full stop. But it’s not like that in this age, as the Bible story makes clear.
Q: Did Job deserve his sufferings?
A: His comforters certainly thought he did (e.g., Job 22:5). They deduced that, since he is suffering, he must be being paid back for some hidden sins, rather as Jesus’s contemporaries assumed that the man born blind must have sinned, or possibly his parents (John 9:2). But the emphatic, three-times-stated fact that he is blameless and upright and that he fears God and turns from evil (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3) contradicts this. He is not being punished for some unforgiven sin. He really isn’t. So, no, he does not deserve his sufferings.
Nevertheless, Job does sin. He is not suffering because he has sinned; but because he is suffering, he does sin. He says some things about God that he ought not to say (e.g., Job 9:23 where he says that God mocks when the innocent suffer calamity). This is very clear at the end of the book where God twice rebukes him for speaking words without properly understanding what he is talking about (Job 38:2; 40:2). So there’s something of a paradox: he speaks rightly about God, unlike his friends (Job 42:7); and yet he needs to repent of some of the things he has said (Job 42:2–6).
We need to hold both these truths together as we read the book. No, Job does not deserve what he suffers; he is indeed an innocent sufferer (and that is much of the point of the book). But he does need to repent of some of what he has said.
Q: Why is the book of Job so long?
A: Everybody who has come to the book of Job in a Bible reading plan has wondered this. Things happen fast and with great intensity in Job 1 and 2. I may not understand them all, but I am gripped. And my attention is riveted when God makes his two magnificent speeches (Job 38–41) and by the vivid and surprising conclusion (Job 42). But in between? Ah, in between! Now there’s the rub. Page after page of speeches that—on first reading—seem quite samey, and certainly not easy to understand.
Why? Why not have an abridged book of Job with the long, dull bits cut out? Answer: the book is just as long as God knows it needs to be. You and I need time and space and the slow challenge of hearing and grappling with many words if we are truly to engage with the massive issues of the book. You can’t summarize the book of Job in a tweet; you need the time that pages of poetry give you to engage, not only your mind but also your emotions with these painful and difficult questions. You need to be prepared to struggle with paradox and nuance and swirling cross-currents of intense feeling. That’s why it’s so long.
Q: Who or what is Leviathan?
A: In Job 41 there is a magnificent, and spine-chilling, description of a terrifying monster called Leviathan. Who is he? There was a time when it was fashionable to try to identify Leviathan (and the similarly frightening Behemoth in Job 40) with creatures such as the whale, hippopotamus, or crocodile. The suggested identifications varied, but the idea was that these two creatures in God’s second speech are really just two extras in the list of wild creatures we find in the first speech (Job 39).
The reason there is hope is that the sufferings of Job foreshadow the sufferings of Jesus, the supremely innocent sufferer.
It’s a very important question because Leviathan is the climax of God’s two speeches. Immediately after Leviathan, Job finally repents of the wrong things he has said (Job 42:1–6). Although it is possible that Leviathan is a creature one might find in a zoo, there are good reasons to think that Leviathan is a vivid way of talking about Satan, the Satan who plays such a prominent role in Job 1 and 2. In Job 3, Leviathan seems to be able to remove a day from the calendar (Job 3:8), which would be a tall order for a crocodile. Elsewhere in the Old Testament Leviathan is described as a monstrous creature with probably supernatural powers whom only God can destroy (e.g., Isa. 27:1). In the book of Revelation the language of the serpent in the garden in Genesis 3 is linked with the language of a dragon and identified with the devil or Satan (Rev. 12:9). It seems most likely therefore that Leviathan is Satan. When Job realizes that God can tame Leviathan, he finally grasps that God can do anything (Job 42:2). (It is possible that Behemoth stands for Death personified, but this is not so certain.)
Q: Is there any hope in the book of Job?
A: Yes! Most emphatically, yes! And the reason there is hope is that the sufferings of Job foreshadow the sufferings of Jesus, the supremely innocent sufferer. Again and again in Job, as in the sufferings of the psalmists, we hear the sounds that will later find their full meaning in the passion of Jesus. The cross of Christ is the fulfillment of the struggles of Job. Christ is the man who is blameless and upright, who fears God and turns from evil every day of his life. Christ is the man who endures lonely grief and agony for us.
The wonderful restoration of Job at the end of the book is a picture of what will happen when the Lord Jesus returns. Until then we are to expect to suffer with Christ, to walk in the footsteps of Job, and to experience something of undeserved distress. Like Job, our sins are forgiven. Like Job, we are called upon to wait and hope and trust and pray, confident that “in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26), as Jesus did on that first Easter Day. The book of Job is realistic in the sufferings it sets before disciples of Jesus, and full of glorious hope because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Christopher Ash is the author of Trusting God in the Darkness: A Guide to Understanding the Book of Job.
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