Suffering and the Book of Job

We all suffer, and many of us suffer most of the time. How can we live despite the pain?

By Mark D. Harris

The Background of the Book of Job

Uz was the first born of Nahor, brother of Abram (Genesis 22:20-21). Since Terah, the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran, lived near Ur of the Chaldeans, it is likely that Uz did as well. Job was probably a child of Uz, living in the lands of his father. Alternatively, the “Land of Uz” could have been near ancient Edom in modern day Jordan. Notably, Genesis 31:53 refers to God as “the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor.” Since Job was not a child of Abraham he was by definition a Gentile, and the Book of Job is therefore the only Gentile book in the Old Testament. Given the timing it is likely that Job was a contemporary of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson.

Some argue that Job is not history but rather a fable. Bible writers treat Job as history (Ezekiel 14:14, James 5:11) and there is no reason for modern readers to behave differently. Job may have been written by Job in his later years. If so, it is the only Old Testament book written by a Gentile.

The Structure of the Book of Job

Prologue (Chs 1-2)

Dialogue (Chs 3-41)

Epilogue (ch 42)

Job’s righteousness and success (1:1-5)

Job’s opening lament (ch 3)

Job repents (42:1-6)


The First Arguments


Conflict in heaven (1:6-12)

Eliphaz (ch 4-5)

Job (ch 6-7)

God’s anger against Job’s friends (42:7-8)

Destruction upon Job’s family and wealth (1:13-19)

Bildad (ch 8)

Job (ch 9-10)

They repent (42:9)

Job’s faithfulness (1:20-21)

Zophar (ch 11)

Job (ch 12-14)

God restored Job double (42:10-17)


The Second Arguments


Conflict in heaven (2:1-6)

Eliphaz (ch 15)

Job (ch 16-17)


Sickness upon Job (2:7-8)

Bildad (ch 18)

Job (ch 19)


Job’s continued devotion (2:9-10)

Zophar (ch 20)

Job (ch 21)



The Third Arguments


His friends arrive (2:11-13)

Eliphaz (ch 22)

Job (ch 23-24)



Bildad (ch 25)

Job (ch 26-31)



Elihu (ch 32-37)




Concluding Argument – the Words of God (ch 38-41)


A Survey of the Book of Job

The book of Job, the subject of our current study, is the most famous and most useful study of suffering in the world. In it Job, a righteous and prosperous man who lived during the days of the Patriarchs in Genesis, is struck with disaster. In one day his wealth is stolen, his servants massacred and his 10 children killed (Job 1). Shortly thereafter he is struck with painful boils; probably what modern medicine would call follicular abscesses, from head to toe (Job 2). He had attributed his prosperity to the work of God, and true to his character, he attributed his disaster to the work of God as well. However throughout all of this, Job never cursed or renounced His Creator.

Three of Job’s friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, and Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite, arranged to come to him and provide solace. After arriving they spent seven days in silence, mourning with their broken brother (Job 2:11-13). This is Job’s friends at their finest. They did not try to minimize his pain, their shared in it. They did not try to force Job to “get over it”; instead they went into the pit of despair with him. They did not, at least at this time, afflict him with foolish or insensitive words; instead they wisely avoided words at all. Their presence was the best thing that they could give.

Mired in the slough of despond, Job gave words to his thoughts in Job 3. He let his emotions run their course, not pretending to be coping when he was actually heartsick. He also shared his feelings, no matter how dark, with his three dear friends. Both of these actions evince a level of courage with himself and with others that few match; especially in the modern world. If one thing characterizes modern man it is deception; in a television world we feel the need to look as good as the characters do, no matter how we really are. Job’s curses betrayed poor logic and a lack of faith in the Lord, but at least they were truly his.

Job’s friends were highly educated, devoutly religious, and dazzlingly successful in their pursuits. They were leaders in their communities. When Job, one of their peers, began talking what they considered foolishness, they felt compelled to respond. Eliphaz, probably the oldest and most distinguished, began. The account of his rebuke to Job in chapters 4 and 5 is 840 words long (KJV), and his theme was that God does not punish the righteous. Since Job had been severely punished, he must have been severely unrighteous. If Job repented from this hidden wickedness, God would restore him.

What had been unrestrained misery (Job 3) turned to contentious self justification as Job replied to the accusations of his friend (Job 6). In the next chapter (Job 7), Job remonstrated God Himself. How many of us blame God, or even curse Him, when disaster strikes? God is sovereign over His Creation and, as in this story, suffering and pain do come ultimately from Him (Job 2:10). However when a man’s life plunges into sorrow, he can decide to accept God’s will with faithful obedience or reject the One who allowed it to happen. The first path acknowledges that man is subordinate to God, cannot fully understand the ways of heaven, and still honors the Lord’s power, justice and goodness. It maintains and even strengthens the relationship between man and God. The second path does none of these. For all of Job’s protestations of his righteousness before the Lord, he never rejected His Creator (Job 13:15).

Bildad, irked by Job’s implicit accusations of injustice against God, spoke second (Job 8). His theme was “how dare you accuse God of injustice”, and “if you repent you will be delivered”. Job counterattacked with accusations that God had abandoned him and with reminders of his misery (Job 9-10). Job 11 featured Zophar, the last of his three friends, joining the fray.  He opined that Job only indicted himself by questioning the goodness and justice of the Lord.  In Job 12-14, Job gave an eloquent reply. The debates continued in chapters 15-31 with much the same focus. Job’s friends finally ended the conversation in Job 32, because they weren’t getting anywhere, and because “Job was righteous in his own eyes” (cf. Luke 18:13).

Job’s three friends had differing thrusts for their arguments. Eliphaz was arguing from his personal experience (4:8), Bildad was arguing from cultural tradition (8:8), and Zophar was arguing from his assumptions; his strongly held personal dogmata (20:2). Much of what they said was true. God does punish the wicked and bless the righteous. Job did err in his focus on himself and his righteousness rather than focusing on the person and purposes of God. Experience, tradition and dogma are valid bases on which to argue, but it is possible to do more harm than good, unintentionally speaking half truths in judgment rather than whole truths in love. This was the crux of their failure. 

A fourth man, Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the kindred of Ram, joined the discussion (Job 32-37). He was angry at Job for promoting his own righteousness at God’s expense, and angry at Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar’s failure to give Job sound guidance. Job had not rejected God but had questioned His character.

God Himself spoke to Job to end the discourse (Job 38-41). He gave Job no answer for his suffering, and didn’t even reveal to him the conflict in heaven that the reader was privileged to read. Since it is in the Bible God must have revealed it to someone, perhaps Job later, but at the time God kept Job in the dark. God’s response to Job had little to do with Job at all – it had everything to do with the Lord’s own power and glory. Job had spent so much breath proclaiming his innocence and righteousness that he had failed to recognize that Jehovah, not Job, was the center of the story. The All-Knowing One has plans and ways that Job could never imagine, much less understand. The All-Powerful One orchestrates events that Job could never see, much less comprehend. God is so high above man that the only reasonable, healthy and proper response to suffering is trust and obedience.

This does not mean that Christians should fail to do what we can to prevent and mitigate disease, suffering and disaster. We are not to eschew modern medicine when confronted with disease or injury, use poor construction methods when building in earthquake, fire or flood zones, or let wrongdoers commit crimes without penalty. It does mean that despite our righteous obedience to the Lord, and sometimes because of it, we will suffer. When that happens, we rest our souls on Him.  

Following the words of God, Job repented of his sinful selfishness and prideful heart. As a man who truly knew the Lord, there was no other course of action. Satisfied with Job’s faithful response, the Lord turned His focus to his friends. Their sin was in speaking half-truths to a man who was suffering, thereby increasing his pain. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar had come to comfort their friend but the ended up attacking him. Their words added to the weight of his pain; they did not subtract. God demanded that they also repent and that Job pray for their forgiveness. Job could have been spiteful and refused to pray for his friends, perhaps wanting to return a little of the pain that they had caused him. Readers know that Job’s healing and deliverance was right around the corner, but he did not. As far as we know, at the moment that God asked Job to pray he was still wracked in pain, penniless and without heirs. Nonetheless, Job forgave his friends and prayed for them.

The end of the story is that God restored Job double the property he had lost, and gave him seven more sons and three more daughters. As any parent knows the new children could never compensate for the loss of the old, but the younger ones were themselves great blessings. Finally an old and satisfied Job died and was reunited with his older children in everlasting life. Eventually his descendents joined him before the throne of God.

Other Truths in the Book of Job

Job contains one of the earliest references in Hebrew literature to the bodily resurrection from the dead. Satan is also mentioned. He appeared as the serpent and in the antediluvian era in Genesis, and then reappeared after the Babylonian exile. Between Moses and Zedekiah, though, the devil is largely absent.

An important theme of Job is that man needs a mediator between himself and God (Job 9). Job understood his powerlessness before the Almighty, and yet knew that he had done nothing to deserve his disaster. God is infinite in power, in glory, in knowledge, in love, and in goodness. Man is finite. Therefore a gulf exists between God and man which is itself infinite. We would despair of knowing Him at all, much less receiving anything from Him, were it not for the One who is finite man and infinite God. This man-God, Jesus Christ, is the mediator between humanity and our Creator that Job longed for (1 Timothy 2:5). The great and mighty God of the Universe used even this ancient, Gentile-focused book to prepare for the coming of His Son and the salvation of man.

Another remarkable theme is Job’s development in faith. In chapter 9 he asked for a mediator, but in chapter 19 Job asked for a redeemer (Job 19:25-27). Early in his suffering, Job wanted someone who would argue for him against God. Through the pain of his life and the accusations of his friends, his weariness grew to the point that he no longer wished to argue against God; he wanted to be saved by God.

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