[I wrote this sometime in the 1990s, then found an undated paper copy last week and decided it is still relevant, so I scanned it in and corrected (hopefully all) the scan errors]
I recently had a conversation with Eliphaz the Temanite. Or perhaps it was only his spiritual heir. You remember Eliphaz, who with his two friends Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, came to comfort Job at the time of his personal crisis. And what comfort it was: "Job, you are obviously a sinner, or this would not have happened to you. Repent and God will forgive you and restore your prosperity." Only they were much more eloquent than this, and it took nine chapters to capture the whole of their sage advice.
Eliphaz has become somewhat more subtle over the centuries, and also quite a bit more skillful at dividing Scripture. With his own mouth Job now confesses his sin: "What I feared has come upon me." [Job 3:25] Eliphaz was quick to remind me that "There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear," [1John 4:18] and "Whoever does not love does not know God." [1John 4:8] Great are the wonders of syllogisms, bringing truth to shine in the dark corners of our existence when the plain teaching of Scripture fails to support our favorite theology.
The plain teaching of Scripture in this case disagrees most vehemently with Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. From the very beginning of the book we are told that Job did everything right. "Have you considered my servant Job?" brags God to Satan. "There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil." Does this sound like a sinner who deserved all these calamities? Hardly. God himself speaks to Eliphaz, "I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has." [Job 42:7] In fact, they were so wrong that God refused to accept their apology directly: Job had to mediate. "My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer." [Job 42:8]
The fact is that Job did make a small mistake in the course of the book, but it was an ignorant blunder, not the kind of defiant spit-in-God's-face wickedness that would deserve punishment of the magnitude that came upon him. And God responds with the most magnificent dressing-down I have ever seen or heard anywhere, directed precisely to the exact error in Job's thinking. "Job, you just need a little more faith to believe that these calamities won't happen to you." Not at all. "Job, this punishment hurts me more than it hurts you." Where have I heard that one? Could it have been at my father's knee when he lovingly administered painful but well-deserved discipline? But God does not say that either. In fact, there is no evidence that God ever told Job that all his troubles came about solely so God could win a stupid bet with the Devil. Double or nothing.
What God did say addressed Job's one fault, when in his discouragement he cries out: "I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God," [Job 13:3] as if God were somehow unaware of the harm he had brought on innocent Job. Even Job's famous affirmation of the Resurrection, "I know that my Redeemer lives," is encased in the lament "Oh, that my words were recorded, engraved in rock forever!" [Job 19:23] so they could thus come to God's attention and he could give Job's condition proper consideration.
"Even today my complaint is bluff; his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning. If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say. Would he oppose me with great power? No, he would not press charges against me. There an upright man could present his case before him, and I would be delivered forever from my judge. But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him. [Job 23:2-9]Job never doubted God's justice or mercy, there was no question that the Righteous Judge would do right -- if only God knew!
And God answers this precise point: "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea... Have the gates of death been shown to you? Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Do you know when the ibexes mate? Does the eagle soar at your command and build his nest on high?" [Job 38:2-27] On and on he goes. Job wilts before the Lord, "I am unworthy -- how can I reply to you?" but God does not stop. "Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? Look at the behemoth, which I made along with you and which feeds on grass like an ox... Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope?" If God only knew? Job couldn't hold a candle to the sun of God's knowledge and power. And that is the only thing Job got wrong. Rabbi Kushner [The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person] got it wrong also.
For many years I consoled myself with the understanding that the Job affair is like the experiments performed by graduate students in psychology on college sophomores enrolled in the beginning lecture course. The rule there is that the experimenter must explain the purpose and significance of the experiment, but only after the experiment has run its course. To explain it before would obviously spoil the test. Similarly, had he known its purpose, righteous Job would surely have agreed to the temporary calamities that God allowed -- especially once he understood that God would pay everything back double (for God is no man's debtor) -- but to explain it to him beforehand would spoil the bet. And all this is true, even if a bit uncomfortable when one is in the thick of it. Does God play dice with the lives of his saints? Paul brushes aside such questions in one sweeping stroke: "Who are you to talk back to God?" [Rom.9:20]
Recently I came to the realization that there is a much deeper significance to the book of Job than the inscrutable sovereignty of God. Why should God make such a bet with the Devil anyway? What business does an altogether righteous God have with the Adversary? And why a whole book about it? Unless it is there for our instruction, not about Satan (for that is really none of our business), not to satisfy our eager voyeurism on the calamities of others, however distant in time he may have been, but instruction in our own relationship with God. This book explains to us the meaning of the First Commandment: "Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." [Deut.6:5, quoted by Jesus as imperative on us too, Matt.22:37]
Satan's taunt to God was, "Does Job fear God for nothing?" [Job 1:9] Of course Job loved God! With all that health and wealth and prosperity, who wouldn't? But when Jesus quotes the Commandment in Matthew, it is Agapaw, the strong God-like love that is commanded, not the weaker phileo. [Matt.22:37] We are to love God not merely because he first loved us, true as it may be, not simply because he showers us with every good and perfect gift from above, though indeed he does that far beyond our right or deserving of it, but despite any good or benefit that may result from it. Indeed we must love God even when no reward comes from it. The bet with Satan was over whether Job could keep the First Commandment and continue to love God with all his heart, soul, and strength, despite the contradiction evidenced by total catastrophe. And God won the bet: "Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him," Job affirms. [Job 13:15]
If you love God when he brings you health and wealth, what kind of love is that? The heathen have that kind of love. [Matt.5:46] If your faith and love are always rewarded with peace and prosperity it's not love at all, but a simple commercial transaction: value tendered for value received. That's not faith, that's business.
But if you cling to God in faith and love when everything goes wrong, when the world (in Job's case, it was his wife) is telling you to curse God and die, that's real love. That is the love that God showed us when he sent his son to die for us with no guarantee that we would love him in return -- and indeed many of us do not love God. Does the lack of response diminish God's love? Not a bit, for that is the nature of Godly (agape) love, that it is undeserved. How then can we exhibit such love toward God? Most surely God does deserve it! It is only when we cannot see the rewards of our love that it even comes close to filling the shoes of the First Commandment. And Job shows us how it is done." Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" In all this, Job did not sin. [Job 2:10]
The Book of Mormon tells a story of two brothers sent on an errand. One brother is faithful, the other "reprobate" or rebellious. At one point they cast lots to see which of them will take on a particularly dangerous task, and the lot falls on the rebellious brother. In the Bible, God tends rather to choose his most faithful and reliable servants for the difficult jobs. And so it is with Job: "Have you considered my servant Job? He is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil." Who else on earth is worthy of such an important task?
The Apostle Paul had important work to do for God's Kingdom. How did God introduce him to the Church? "I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." [Acts 9:16] God was not telling Ananias about Paul's punishment for being "chief of sinners," but "This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings." [Acts 9:15] God is bragging again. Paul agrees: "For Christ's sake I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." [2Cor.12:10]
In Jesus final words commissioning Peter, the evangelist tells us Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. [John 21:19] Is God glorified in punishing Peter for his sins? Not at all! Peter is always listed first among the disciples, Judas the Betrayer is listed last. Judas is the sinner, not Peter. "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked," declares the Sovereign LORD. [Exek.33:11] Peter and the other Apostles were soon "rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. " [Acts 5:41]
The key doctrine of Christianity is that God's people do not bear the punishment for their sins. Yet Jesus warned his disciples, and through them us, "You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death." [Matt.24:9] "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." [John 16:33] This is not punishment, it is opportunity.
For the most important, difficult, and dangerous task of all history, God chose none other than the most perfect of all men, his own Son. None other was good enough. At the climax of that awful moment in history, Jesus cried out with the same lament as Job, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" [Mark 15.341 The ultimate act of love took place when God was not there to support and carry the sufferer. And your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus. [Phil.2:5]
Of course for you and me God really is there -- that was the whole point of the four-chapter tongue-lashing God gave Job, and it is certainly a message often repeated in Scripture [Deut.31:8, Psalm 23:4, Matt.28:20, Heb.13:5] -- but if we could feel it at the time, that would spoil everything. We live by faith, not by sight. [2Cor.5:7] The faithful heroes in Hebrews were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. [Heb.11:39]
So when trouble strikes, go ahead and ask yourself the Eliphaz question: Is this discipline from a loving God? [Heb.12:10] If it is, repent and as Eliphaz is so eager to remind us, God will "ransom you from death. For he wounds, but he also binds up." [Job 5:18,20] But when you can say with Job, "I am blameless" [Job 9:21], rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven. [Matt.5:12] You have been chosen to join the faithful few in demonstrating the true meaning of the First Commandment.
This is the message of Job.
Updated 2018 June 4