In “God’s answer to suffering” (Barnabas Aid, November/December 2021 pp.12-14) we saw how suffering came into the world when Adam and Eve, tempted by Satan, sinfully rebelled against God. Genesis 3:15 explains how Satan became our enemy but God provided an answer to both sin and suffering through Christ’s death and resurrection. Until Christ returns, however, Satan continues to hurt and destroy, causing as much suffering as he can.
How does this suffering manifest itself? God has given us a detailed case study in the book of Job. Here we are confronted with an unfolding panorama of human suffering – suffering later fulfilled in the suffering of Jesus Christ during His life on earth. Job is representative of all humanity and there are aspects of his suffering with which every human being can identify, for he experiences catastrophic economic loss, death of loved ones, physical illness, social alienation and spiritual turmoil.
The challenge of the book of Job
Job is a challenging book. The graphic descriptions of Job’s profound suffering, and his vehement agonised speeches, must distress any reader. Furthermore, it gives no answer to the question of why we suffer. It is an oriental book about a concrete example, written mainly in poetry, which creates difficulties for Western readers used to thinking in general and abstract terms and analysing texts phrase by phrase.
Scholars cannot agree who wrote Job or when. Nor can they agree on the geographical location of Uz, which was clearly not in Israel. But perhaps this vagueness helps to make his story more universal.
The suffering of the man Job
Job’s terrible afflictions are summed up in 1:13-19 and 2:7-8. First, four messengers bring reports of disastrous loss and bereavement. His oxen and donkeys have been seized and the men looking after them killed, his sheep and the shepherds have been killed by “fire from heaven”, his camels have been taken and the servants with them killed, and a wind has blown down the house of his eldest son, killing all ten of his children inside. Later Job’s skin breaks out in painful sores from head to toe.
This first set of afflictions led to more. We know that Job was a tender-hearted man, concerned for the weak and poor (Job 30:25). He must have been greatly distressed by the sufferings of others caught up in “his” disasters – his wife and the loved ones and dependants of the slaughtered servants. To watch others suffer is a dreadful experience. We remember Mary, watching her son’s crucifixion; surely this was the sword piercing her soul foretold by Simeon (Luke 2:35).
When Job falls sick he goes to live on a dung heap, created by years of excrement piled up and periodically burned. In this despised and filthy place, all he can do to ease his pain is scratch the sores with a piece of broken pottery.
Further suffering comes from the reactions of those around him. From a position of prominence and respect (chapter 29), Job’s misfortunes have brought him down to the lowest possible place. “He has stripped me of my honour” (19:9). People mock and ridicule him, even spitting in his face (30:1,9-10). His wife finds him repulsive (19:17). His close family, his extended family, most of his intimate friends, his acquaintances, his house guests all reject and abhor him. His servants refuse to obey him. Even young children scorn him (19:13-19). He feels excluded and alienated.
It is interesting to note the similarities with the sufferings of the Lord Jesus, the “man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3 AV) for whom it was “the will of the Lord to crush him with pain” (Isaiah 53:10 NRSV). He too was despised and rejected (Isaiah 53:3).
The responses of suffering Job
Job’s initial responses are reasoned, wise, humble and faith-filled – the outcome of many years of walking with God. He is, at this point, able to govern his emotions. When he hears of the loss of all his children, and most of his servants and riches, he falls to the ground in worship saying,
Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised (Job 1:21).
When his hideous illness begins, he responds, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10)
But before long Job’s emotions overwhelm him and can no longer be reasoned into submission. Chapter 3 is the first of many cries of extreme anguish. A recurring theme is his effort to retain some shreds of hope. He loses hope (7:6), then clutches hold of it again: “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15).But by chapter 19 Job is saying that God has completely taken away his hope. It has gone forever like an uprooted tree (19:10).
It seems to Job that God is furiously angry with him, an anger that has passed into enmity.
His anger burns against me; he counts me among his enemies (Job 19:11).
We readers know that God was not angry with Job at all. On the contrary, God was very pleased with him and had every confidence in him. But it was an essential part of Job’s testing that he should not know the reason for it.
Meanwhile poor Job thinks that God has co-ordinated all His forces to attack him simultaneously (Job 19:12 NRSV). He feels not only excluded by his community but also cast off by God, a spiritual pain worse than his physical suffering. We are reminded of our Saviour’s cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
But Job rallies his faith and suddenly bursts out with the staggering declaration: “I know that my redeemer lives” (19:25).
The Hebrew word translated “redeemer” is go’el, the kinsman-redeemer whose duty was to avenge wrong done to their close relatives, or to buy them back if they were sold into slavery. From our side of Calvary, we think of Jesus redeeming us from our sins (Galatians 3:13; Titus 2:14; Revelation 5:9). But Job has in mind the restoration of his good name, which had been dragged into the mud by afflictions that everyone assumes are a punishment for sin. God is his go’el.
It is striking that Job claims kinship with God, for he is not even an Israelite. Despite this and despite his present experience, he believes that God, in His mercy and love, will not cast him off forever and will ultimately clear his name. As Henry Ellison, son of a Jewish convert to Christianity, says,
Job … discovers in the furnace of affliction that he has been so bound up with his God that he can turn to Him and call on Him for vindication as a right, for God has made him His.
Satan’s first appearance in the book of Job is among a group of angels before the Lord (1:6) who questions Satan about where he has been. Satan (which means “the Accuser”) replies that he has been roaming around the world, the implication being that he has been seeking those he may accuse. Then Job’s name is introduced into the conversation – not by Satan but by the Lord, who says that Job is blameless and upright, fearing (i.e. revering) God and shunning evil (1:8). Satan claims that Job’s praiseworthy attitude is only because he has been so wonderfully blessed in material terms and that Job would curse the Lord if his possessions were taken from him. The Lord replies by giving Satan permission to do his worst with everything that Job owns – “everything he has is in your power” (1:12) – but not to hurt Job himself.
Off Satan goes and wreaks havoc on Job through four simultaneous tragedies. God allowed it and Satan did it. Many believers in Job’s situation might attribute their suffering to the hand of Satan, but Job is wiser. He recognises God’s sovereignty (1:21). God made use of Satan’s malicious character, but the origin of Job’s sufferings goes back to the Lord Himself, for which no explanation is ever given. (See also 42:11.)
In chapter 2 another heavenly meeting takes place and the Lord commends Job’s response to his suffering. Satan declares that Job’s integrity will fail if Job’s own body is afflicted. God allows Satan some more power: now he can touch Job’s body but must not take his life (2:1-6). The terrible sores erupt on Job’s skin but still he does not curse God as Satan had expected. Again Job sees the hand of God at work (2:9-10).
The faithful friends of Job
Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar (2:11) were men of wealth and standing, respected for their wisdom. Yet they left their homes and journeyed to visit their disgraced friend Job, with whom nobody else would associate. They sat with him on the disgusting dung heap for a week. They wept. They tore their robes and threw dust on their heads to show that they shared his grief. With sensitivity and compassion the visitors refrained from speaking “for they saw that his suffering was very great” (2:13 NRSV). In the end it is Job who breaks the silence with the long howl of chapter 3 cursing the day he was born. Only after this first venting of his feelings does one of his friends speak, very tentatively and anxious not to offend (4:2). One could hardly ask for more devoted friends.
Yet, as the book unfolds, it becomes clear that their well-meant words are not helping Job, or at least not in the way they intended. The viewpoint of the three friends (and of Job) is that good people should prosper, as God blesses them, and not suffer.
Job’s problem is that if the theology he has always believed is correct, then the disasters that have come on him mean that he must be a terrible sinner. But he knows he is not. The testimony of his heart is in conflict with the theology on which he has built his life. Job’s friends, repeatedly urging him to repent of the sin which they believe must have brought the troubles on him, increase his anguish. But their words help him crystallise his thoughts and force him to turn from human “help” to God.
Finally, God overwhelms Job with a revelation of His majesty (chapters 38-41). Job bows before the sovereign Lord, accepts His will, drops his questions, quiets his raging and repents (42:1-6).
Drawing strength from Job
Some Christians give up the faith because of suffering. But few will have suffered as much as Job, who kept his faith, or the many martyrs who died rather than deny Christ. So what can we learn from Job?
We often feel that we could bear our suffering better if we understood why we were suffering. Perhaps we even envy our persecuted brothers and sisters, because their suffering is a direct result of their stand for the Lord Jesus and clearly glorifies Him. But one of the main messages of Job is that often there is no answer to “why suffering?”, only an answer to “what is suffering?”
Job never knew why he was afflicted, but he concluded that humankind cannot always understand God’s ways and that God does not always reveal His will. Even though we readers are privy to the discussions between the Lord and Satan (of which Job was unaware) we do not know why the Lord acted in this way. We must, like Job, be satisfied with what the Lord does reveal. For Job, that was God’s majesty as shown in His creation. We have also “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
The mystery of suffering can only be embraced, not analysed or assessed. “In acceptance lieth peace.”
The restoration of our fortunes may not happen in this life. It did for Job, when God doubled his wealth, gave him another ten children and caused his relatives to welcome him back (42:10-17). But this is rather rare. For many believers, it will happen when they are in heaven.
Wisdom cannot give an answer to “Why am I suffering?” Job’s three friends were reckoned by their contemporaries amongst The Wise, as was Job himself, but none of them had an answer. The only answer we have is to continue to trust in the Divine sovereignty and providence of God no matter what, following the example of Job:
As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job... (James 5:10-11 NRSV)
DR PATRICK SOOKHDEO
International Director Barnabas Fund
Note: translating the Hebrew of Job is highly complex, so no single Bible translation adequately represents the meaning.
- There are a variety of translations of this verse, some with very different meanings.
- H L Ellison, From Tragedy to Triumph: The Message of the Book of Job, Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1958; paperback edition, 1967, p.70.
- Amy Carmichael, Toward Jerusalem: Poems of Faith, first published London: SPCK, 1936; Triangle edition 1987 © The Dohnavur Fellowship, Dohnavur, Tamil Nadu, India, pp.40-41.