By the Venerable Dr. John Course
There is perhaps no greater stumbling block to faith in a loving, all-powerful God than the vexing problem of human suffering. One oversimplistic explanation is to say those who suffer have brought it upon themselves, a position supported by the following proverb: “Misfortune pursues wrongdoers, but prosperity rewards the righteous” (Proverbs 13:21). This understanding has become known as the law of retribution: do good and God will bless you; do evil and God will punish you.
The Book of Job was written to contest this troubling supposition. In the prologue, Job is presented as the epitome of an innocent person, however, after the Adversary questions his integrity as self-serving, God allows Job to be severely tested to the extent that, amongst a number of tragedies inflicted on him, all ten of his children are killed. Nevertheless, the prologue ends with Job, saying, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?” It’s good to know this section of the book is likely based on a folktale, otherwise this is one scary portrayal of God!
Having misgivings with the approach to innocent suffering upheld by this folktale, the author rends it in two, inserting a lengthy midsection. It consists of a series of poetic speeches in which an utterly different Job, who, in his opening speech, rails that he wishes he had died at childbirth.
His three friends who have come to console him are of no help whatsoever. Eliphaz, the first to speak, tells Job he is overreacting. Bildad argues that Job will be restored if he is truly upright. Zophar enters the fray last to accuse Job of wrongdoing that warrants even harsher treatment.
Job defends his innocence throughout this disputation, while his so-called friends only intensify their attack on his integrity, driving him away from them. Job concludes his only recourse is to take God to court for treating him so unjustly.
God finally makes a surprising appearance and bombards Job with a series of questions that reveal Job’s lack of insight concerning the inherent design of the cosmos. God then challenges Job to demonstrate how he would equitably apply the law of retribution.
Job, in response, recants his accusations directed against God for not upholding this law as he and his friends believe God should.
In the epilogue, which brings the reader back to the limited folktale used to frame this debate, God vindicates Job yet condemns his friends for their flawed understanding of God’s ways. This resolution indicates that despite Job’s misrepresentations of God, his overall stance of maintaining his innocence lies closer to the truth than the positions held by his friends.
God then restores Job, awarding him with twice as much wealth as he previously had. God also replaces Job’s children who had been cruelly taken from him, which falls well short of a satisfactory resolution.
Beyond rejecting the law of retribution, no overall explanation to account for human suffering emerges from this work. The poem on wisdom strategically placed earlier (chapter 28) is instructive on this point, as it implies the degree of wisdom required to understand the why of human suffering is beyond reach for the finite mind. And here I might add, I like to think in the next life we will gain the wisdom required to comprehend such intricate matters.
The significance of God’s appearance to a suffering Job should not, however, be overlooked. Although God does not address the ‘why’ of Job’s suffering, that God shows up portrays God as caring enough to come to Job in his time of need.
It is also notable that Job, who accuses God of being a hostile and violent assailant (e.g., 16:9-14), is nevertheless pronounced in the right at the end of the book, for it sets a helpful precedent. Would it not be better to follow Job’s lead and direct our rage at God rather than taking it out on one another or ourselves? If any being can absorb our aggression and help us heal, it is surely God.
Finally, the book underscores the value of loyal friendship. Had Job’s friends stood with him and listened compassionately to his protestations, perhaps they too would have been exonerated at the end.