Debating the Justice of God
Job is a book about the suffering of man and the sovereignty of God, and specifically how those two subjects relate. In a world where “good people” seem to suffer disproportionately to others, how are we to understand the providence of God? It is a question for the ages, but the Scriptures have not left us in the dark. Unlike Job’s well meaning friends who came to “comfort him” and to “show him sympathy” in the midst of his extraordinary time of adversity, we are not left to our own limited insight to propose answers for which human wisdom has only insufficient ones.
I remind you that Job is introduced to us in the first verse of the book as a man who “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” Although a sinner like the rest of us, Job “worshiped” the Lord (cf. Job 1:20) to the extent of the revelation he had received...which was miniscule when compared to the full revelation that you and I have been given through God’s written Word and His incarnate presence with us in the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Remarkably, Job’s immediate reaction to the loss of his possessions and his family in a single day was one of praise. Though his heart was broken and his eyes filled with tears, he was able to say, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). In fact, the name for God that Job used in that statement is YHWH, God’s covenant name. Interestingly, other than the narrator to the story, Job is the only character who employs that particular name. None of Job’s friends seemed to even be aware of it, and that is significant.
Even when Job’s health was taken from him and he was racked “with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head,” (Job 2:7) Job held fast to his integrity, saying, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” And it was added, “in all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10).
We must keep this background in mind, as we witness in the chapters that follow Job and his friends carrying on a verbal dialogue over the question of “Where is God when it hurts?”
His loyal companions had traveled great distances to be with Job when they learned of the tragic calamities that had befallen him. After many weeks or months, when they finally arrived to be by his side they were startled by his appearance. So taken aback were they that they sat near the pile of ashes with him and remained silent for a full week.
It was Job who broke the silence in chapter 3 and verse 1. We read, “After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.” And, as we saw last week, what follows is a twenty-six verse soliloquy in which Job does just that...wishing that he had never been born; but since he had, longing to die. It was the honest lament of a lonely man who was enduring suffering at a level—I believe we can say—that we never will.
It is a point well worth remembering, because only One other Person who ever walked this planet has experienced suffering at a comparable level. In fact, that One exceeded it. To this day, Jesus Christ continues to ask those who would be His disciples, “Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering that I drink?” (cf. Mark 10:38).
The answer to Jesus’ question is, of course, “No.” We cannot drink from that cup, which is precisely why He drank it for us. Nevertheless, as Colossians 1:24 points out—a verse you will want to bear in mind as you go through your own level of suffering—there is a sense in which those “sufferings” serve to be “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” We’ll come back to that verse later.
For now, we enter the first of three rounds of discussions between Job and his companions. As we shall see, each round of debate increases in emotional intensity. Chapters 4 through 14 contain the first series of responses to Job’s lament. There is a lot here, and a great deal of it appears to be overlapping material. The only way to keep it from getting confusing is to allow each of Job’s friends have his say, and then to pay attention to Job’s response. It will be of great help to you if you are already somewhat familiar with these chapters. We can chart this section in the following way:
The First Round of Debates (Job 4-14)
Despite their best intentions, Job’s friends are not able to share in his sufferings. Instead, they jump to conclusions about its source. Their counsel is actually more condemnatory than pastoral. While offering theological solutions, all three base their reasoning upon a simple syllogism that goes something like this:
All suffering is the result of sin.
Job is suffering.
Therefore, Job is a sinner.
They saw God as a God of justice, but a justice that was based solely on retribution. To all three friends, God was punishing Job for some sin in his life. So what we find within each of the speeches from Job’s companions is a rebuke, a line of reasoning, and a recommendation. In reply Job will repeatedly argue for his innocence, and therefore his responses will also contain words of disappointment for his friends, a defense of his character, and despair that no helpful answers seem to be forthcoming.
Eliphaz speaks first in all three cycles, probably because he is oldest and, therefore, most respected member of the group.
Eliphaz’ first speech (4:1-5:27)
...is found in chapters 4 and 5. He speaks with kindness and courtesy, stating a principle that will run throughout the speeches of all three men. It is stated in verses 7 and 8 of chapter 4: “Who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.” In other words, trouble comes to those who sin, but the innocent do not suffer the consequences of evil. Centuries ago, Eliphaz was preaching “health and wealth theology!” According to him, prosperity is the outcome of righteous living, and suffering is the result of sin...pure and simple.
But Eliphaz, despite his experience and authority, is inconsistent, for he rightly asks in verse 17, “Can mortal man be in the right before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?” The answer, of course, is “No.” So he admits in chapter 5, verse 17 that some suffering is the result of the “reproof” and “discipline of the Almighty.”
Unfortunately, the application he makes of his theology is insensitive and shallow. He rebukes Job in chapter 4, verses 5 and 6 for being impatient and dismayed after Job had counseled others in that regard. This was an unnecessary rebuke to a righteous man in agony. In addition, he insinuates that Job had not really sought God as he should, and he offers this advice in verse 8 of chapter 5: “As for me, I would seek God, and to God I would commit my cause,” adding in verses 18 and 19 that Job would be delivered of his misery if only he would commit his way to God. That is superficial application. It is far too simplistic to say, “Just commit it to the Lord and your fortunes will be restored.”
Stated briefly, Eliphaz viewed Job as a pious man who had gone astray. He saw him as being punished by God for some sin or sins that he had committed. Ironically, Eliphaz’ counsel encouraged Job to fear God for exactly the reason that Satan said that he had always feared God...for the rewards he would receive from God.
On the surface Eliphaz’ advice would seem to have merit. And if that is what you are thinking, then you haven’t yet looked deeply enough into Job’s experience. The problem is that Job’s sufferings are not the result of the loving discipline of God. His experience is extreme, not like anything that we experience. It takes the cross of Jesus to fully comprehend what Job was called upon to endure. In fact, as we shall learn, apart from the cross Job cannot be understood. His was an undeserved suffering, but the suffering of Christ was even more so.
There are times when every Christian will suffer as well. And when we do, any counsel that omits the cross will be insufficient. Oh, it may be the best counsel the world has to offer, but it will fall far short of providing the help that we truly need.
Job’s response to Eliphaz (6:1-7:21)
...is given in chapters 6 and 7. Here Job recognizes that his friend’s answer is simplistic because it doesn’t address the hard questions. For example, it doesn’t explain why some people suffer in an extraordinary way even though they have not sinned in an extraordinary way, but may in fact be Godly and morally upright people. And on the reverse side, it doesn’t explain why some prosper in an extraordinary way even though they are extraordinary sinners.
So Job protests his innocence in chapter 6, verse 10, declaring, “I have not denied the words of the Holy One.” And he sarcastically returns the rebuke of Eliphaz in verse 24, saying, “Teach me, and I will be silent; make me understand how I have gone astray.” Job agrees with his friend that God is just, but Eliphaz’ understanding of justice is much too simplistic. So far, his counsel has been a major disappointment.
In chapter 7 Job turns from answering his friends to addressing God. It is a return to the lament that began in chapter 3. In verse 6, he believes that his days are approaching “their end without hope.” And in verses 17 through 21, he poses a series of questions to God:
“What is man, that you make so much of him,
and that you set your heart on him,
visit him every morning
and test him every moment?
How long will you not look away from me,
nor leave me alone till I swallow my spit?
If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of mankind?
Why have you made me your mark?
Why have I become a burden to you?
Why do you not pardon my transgression
and take away my iniquity?”
Job is discovering that the wrath of God is a terrible and painful thing. And yet in his heart of hearts he knows what has befallen him is undeserved. In essence, Job is asking God what significance there is to his life if living “blameless and upright” results in such suffering. If this is all there is, he would prefer to be left alone. But God will not let that happen because the point of it all has not yet been revealed. As all of us must learn, it is only when we grapple with the perplexities of faithfulness and obedience that we arrive at the door of understanding. As one writer put it, “God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick.”
Bildad is the next to speak, and his response to Job is less gentle than Eliphaz’ counsel had been. We find...
Bildad’s first speech (8:1-22)
...in chapter 8. Like Eliphaz, he too emphasizes God’s principle of justice. He asks with callousness in verses 3 and 4, “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right? If your children have sinned against him, he has delivered them into the hand of their transgression.” In other words, “Job, the law of cause-and-effect suggests that your children got what they deserved. They had to have been guilty of some sin, for why else were they crushed to death in their house?”
And the same goes for Job, as suggested in verses 11 through 13. Obviously, he is not as “blameless and upright” as others have perceived him to be. God’s punishment falls heavy on those who “forget” Him. So Bildad admonishes Job to repent in verses 5 and 6, pontificating, “If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation.”
Verse 8 indicates that Bildad’s argument is based solely on traditional wisdom and observation. After all, he suggested, God is “fair” in His dealings with man. Those who live uprightly get rewarded, and those who don’t get punished. It would be “unfair” of God to permit Job to suffer if he, in fact, had done nothing wrong.
But Job will have none of that. Like Eliphaz, his second friend’s counsel is much too simplistic and too “neatly packaged.” He was not about to repent for sin that he had not committed. So in chapters 9 and 10, we see...
Job’s response to Bildad (9:1-10:22)
Repeatedly in verses 20 and 21, Job asserts his innocence before God: “Though I am in the right, my own mouth would condemn me; though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse. I am blameless.” And then he immediately follows up that statement by nullifying the law of retribution, when he adds in verses 22 through 24, “He destroys both the blameless and the wicked. When disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent. The earth is given into the hand of the hand of the wicked; he covers the faces of the judges—if it is not he, who then is it?”
Job never surrenders his steadfast belief in the sovereignty of God. He asks in verse 12, “Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?” He knows that it is far too simple to say that things always go better for the righteous. And yet, he insists that he is not guilty as charged. He is “blameless and upright,” remember. Therefore he longs for a mediator—an “umpire” or “referee,” if you will—someone who will plead his case. In verses 32 and 33, he acknowledges that God “is not a man, as I am, that I might answer him, that we should come to trial together. There is no arbiter between us.”
So he clings to his innocence in chapter 10, verses 6 and 7 by praying, “You seek out my iniquity and search for my sin, although you know that I am not guilty.”
When we listen to Job’s responses, we need to bear in mind the distinction between His faith and what he is experiencing. It is the disconnect between the two that he is seeking to understand. At the close of the message last week I shared this statement with you: The account of Job clearly demonstrates to us that the bad things that happen to us are not necessarily related to our sin anymore than the good things that happen to us are related to our righteousness. I hope that you have given some thought to that over this past week because I want to amplify it a little more.
You see, our sovereign God governs the world through the intermediate agency of a number of natural and supernatural forces. We saw an example of that in chapters 1 and 2, when the Lord granted permission for Satan to test Job in terrible ways. As ironic and incongruous as it may sound, the only logical conclusion we are able to draw is that God at times uses evil for the ultimate purpose of defeating evil. That is not meant to be understood to mean that God acts in a manner that is inconsistent with His character...only that at times His ways remain a “sovereign mystery” to us. Therefore, not all of God’s acts are intended to reveal His character...some are designed to bring to fulfillment His providential plan.
As we strive to comprehend those counterintuitive concepts, it is helpful to know that the Lord does not censor our honest questions. And Job’s honesty should inspire our own. “Why are You against me?,” “Why do You watch me?,” “Why did You create me?,” “Why don’t you let me die?”...these are all questions that a “blameless and upright” person poses to God in the midst of severe crisis. If you deny that, then you have probably never gone through one.
There is one more friend with whom Job must deal before this first round of debates in concluded. In chapter 11, we listen in on...
Zophar’s first speech (11:1-20)
“Friend number three” repeats the “party line” with regard to God’s retributive justice. His argument is harsher still. He calls Job “a man full of talk” in verse 2, and refers to his responses as “babble.” In verse 6, he insults Job even further by adding, “Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” So much for the gentle and comforting words of a friend.
Like the others, Zophar calls on Job to repent. In verses 13 through 15, he tells him,
“If you prepare your heart,
you will stretch out your hands toward him.
If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away,
and let not injustice dwell in your tents.
Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish;
you will be secure and will not fear.”
“It’s only logical,” he adds, echoing the counsel of the others. “Repent and your former blessings will be restored.”
Sadly, much of the counsel Job is receiving sounds eerily similar to what we sometimes say to one another as Christians. And when we do, we are just as wrong and presumptuous as were Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Take for instance the loss of Job’s ten children. They will never be restored. Much of our well meaning advice is as irrelevant to our suffering friends as that which was given to Job by his.
In fact, when we urge others to repent of sin they haven’t committed for the sole purpose of removing the affliction, relieving the pain, and restoring the loss, we are unintentionally arguing along the same lines as the adversary. John Hartley, in his commentary of Job, expresses it this way: “Zophar unwittingly aligns himself with Satan’s position found in the prologue by encouraging Job to seek God for personal gain. Unfortunately Zophar is blind to the implications of his own reasoning.”
To such counsel Job must reply, and he does just that in chapters 12 through 14.
Job’s response to Zophar (12:1-14:22)
...is actually directed to all of his companions. He goes on the defensive, twice declaring—in chapter 12, verse 3 and chapter 13, verse 2, “I am not inferior to you.” In fact, turning the attack upon them in chapter 13, verse 4, Job tells them, “As for you, you whitewash with lies; worthless physicians are you all.” In the verse just prior to that, we find Job longing to defend himself directly before God, saying, “I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God.”
Thus far, his sympathizers and comforters have only added to his misery. Despite the charges of sin that he has been accused of, he refuses to lose hope in a merciful God. Verse 15 of chapter 13 is one of the most familiar in the book: “Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face.” And in verse 23, he opens up himself before the Lord’s scrutiny and asks, “How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgressions and my sin.” In other words, “Lord, if my affliction is the result of some sin, then please show me. Help me to identify it, confess it, and be rid of it.” But Job knows, as do we, that he is suffering for a different reason...a reason that human wisdom alone cannot detect.
So he adds a timeless proverbial truth in the first verse of chapter 14: “Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble.” Some of us can identify with that...perhaps even now as we sit in this room. Apart from divine revelation, we would be left to conclude—along with the writer of Ecclesiastes (1:2)—“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Life “under the sun” can at times seem to be devoid of meaning.
But just when we think that the description of his circumstances could not get any bleaker, a ray of light pierces the darkness and we see a flash of divine insight. Chapter 14, verse 14 reads, “If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my service I would wait, till my renewal should come.” The word “renewal” (“chaliphah”) is translated “change” (NKJV and NASV), “relief” (Holman), or “release” (NLT) in other versions. Job is clearly looking for more than what his eye can presently see.
This verse conveys a similar but less-detailed thought that the Apostle Paul would express years later in 2 Corinthians 5, verses 1 through 4. Listen to what is written there with regard to our present bodies:
“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”
Granted, Job’s insight was not as clear as Paul’s, but for him to have sensed in that early era of God’s progressive revelation that there would be a resurrection and to be able to describe it as a “change” to be anticipated is a remarkable statement of faith.
But for now, Job must endure his experience of suffering in order to fulfill God’s purpose for, you see, there is a purpose for suffering in the life of the believer. It is suffering that is undeserved. At the same time it is redemptive inasmuch as believers are called to complete “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (cf. Colossians 1:24) by walking in the footsteps of Jesus and in the shadow of His cross. Just as our Savior was called upon to suffer, so too are we.
What are we to think about “Christian suffering,” especially during an hour when pulpits all around us are filled with preachers telling us to avoid it at all cost? Let me offer three thoughts for you to consider whenever you or a fellow believer is called upon to suffer for Jesus and the sake of His Gospel:
First, as forgiven sinners, none of our suffering is the result of God’s punishment. By virtue of our repentance and faith toward Christ, the full payment for our sins has already been made. No born-again will ever feel God’s punitive hand.
Second, as forgiven sinners, some of our sufferings are God’s faithful fatherly discipline for those he loves. Hebrews 12:6 tells us that “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” Corrective discipline is a sign of the Father’s love.
And third, as forgiven sinners, some of our sufferings are for the purpose of filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Jesus. Such afflictions are neither punitive nor disciplinary. Rather, they are God’s way of testifying to a disbelieving world that God is worthy to be worshiped simply because of Who He is and not because of the blessings He gives. These God-ordained sufferings are meted out solely for the purpose of God receiving the glory and praise in a way that no other means could demonstrate as well.
Job cannot see this with clarity yet, but he is able to see it more clearly than are any of his friends. He utterly rejects the notion that a sovereign God can be explained by a simple system of retributive justice. Such a system is simplistic, narrow, and deceptive. And yet many—even in our day—subscribe to it because it seems to make sense.
Despite his suffering, Job looked higher and farther and was able to see far beyond his circumstances. He did not deny sin or its consequences, but he also knew that not all suffering and affliction were the direct result of personal sin. If the reverse were true, then the cross would make no sin, because “God made him (Jesus Christ) who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV).
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