This work is not the result of pre-planned research, for at no time did I consciously decide to study Job. This work is the result of compulsion. In fact, writing an extensive analysis on anything was by no means a desirable idea. A medical condition has limited the use of my hands: often the right hand provides no function at all, so the majority of this work was typed with one hand, which was frankly exasperating.
But I was becoming increasingly fascinated with the book of Job: that famous, arguably infamous, Biblical drama by which a man is, for reasons not explicitly explained, subjected to the most intense forms of suffering by God. God’s question: “Have you considered my servant Job?” reverberated around my mind. I realized that frankly, in depth, I had not. I had read the book of Job many times, but in truth I had not isolated the character for special mental meditation or study. The rising compulsion was also unusual — why should I trouble myself to consider Job anyway? After all I was familiar enough with the text to know that God had directed His question to Satan, not me.
Existing expositions of Job
The book of Job is evidently presented as a dramatic play (although one I also believe happened in real life), which means that the plot hinges on a relatively small number of key events and key characters. Many serious questions are raised, perhaps chief of which is: “How can a loving God abuse His own disciple in this way? Why is it okay for God to seemingly experiment in human lives, willfully introducing intense pain otherwise not present, apparently for reasons of conducting some sort of philosophical experiment? Is human life so unimportant to this Deity that this is what we should come to anticipate?” There can be no doubt that these are hard-hitting questions that arise from the text, perhaps questions that are all too often dodged.
For this reason, humanist expositions sometimes employ the book of Job as ammunition to demonstrate the apparent folly of appreciating the God of the Bible as a loving or caring Father. Likewise Christian expositions of Job often populate the defensive portion of the spectrum. Some are outright depressed, having somewhat ceded in defeat to the notion that God’s conduct could ever be seen in a praiseworthy, or even justifiable, light. These expositions may postulate as a last ditch defense the highly dubious caveat that the God of grace is solely the God of the New Testament: as if to use that latter Testament as the rug under which to sweep the events of the former. Even those expositors who intend to present God in a good light still largely come across as caught on the back foot, seeking to defend a God whom they can understand as being justifiably under fire. Often they seem keen to the point of desperation to point to Job’s restoration as the justification of that which has gone before. From what I see in the book of Job, the need for defensiveness goes away.
I want to offer an explanation of the drama of Job which is consistent with the broader Bible message concerning God, man, the nature of evil and the source of suffering; and which will carry the message of God’s goodness from an undistorted appreciation of the plot.1
For context, I read more than forty expositions of Job, many of which are referenced here, so that I could both refine my thinking and present this work in the light of existing ideas on the subject. A few principal works are referenced more frequently than others, to provide the reader with a ready sense of the backdrop against which my exposition sits.
From the broad spectrum of literature I have selected, for both comparative backdrop and my own edification, the work of Gustav Gutierrez,2 a Catholic priest in South America; the library of works compiled by Nahum Glatzer,3 an Austro-Hungarian scholar of Jewish theology; the exposition of David Atkinson,4 an Anglican minister in England and the commentary of J. Vernon McGee,5 an Evangelical preacher from midwest America. I also set this work alongside the expositions offered by other Christadelphian expositors: of these I mainly reference the works of the Australian brothers David Baird6 and Ted Spongberg,7 as well as the English brothers Jack Balchin8 and L. G. Sargent.9 I include a few thoughts extracted from each exposition below to demonstrate the variety of different opinions Job generates and yet still highlight the absence of the main points I see in the book. I wish to share these précis with you so that when the names of these authors crop up during these articles, you will be familiar with the particular flavor of their expositions.
Gutierrez is a Catholic priest who ministers in rural communities inAyacucho,Peru, inSouth America. His writing is heavily influenced by a sense of sympathy for, and duty towards, the poor. Throughout his exposition he holds faithfully to his central view that the poor earn special favor with God. In that vein, Gutierrez understands Job as representing the archetypal innocent who suffers, and he sees a comparison between Job and the South American poor by correlating material poverty with spiritual innocence.
Glatzer has composed an enormous compendium of opinion on Job spanning centuries of thought. He reproduces a number of lengthy excerpts from texts expositing Job, which he groups according to the Judaic, Christian and humanist ideologies utilized by the writer. He offers brief thoughts of his own as an introduction to this library, in which he mainly communicates the view that Job is a depressing tale of an emotionally distant God, who strong-arms Job into submission to His will and recognition of His greatness. Glatzer is unimpressed with many expositions which he feels fail to address the chilling questions which the drama raises.
Atkinson’s approach is very straightforward: he directly concerns himself with the issue of Job’s suffering and how, or indeed if, it can be understood in the light of a loving God. He quickly broadens his approach to incorporate consideration of contemporary cases of hardship alongside Job’s case. Atkinson’s exposition is based on studies that were initially presented at Bible reading sessions during morning worship at Wycliffe Hall Chapel at Oxford,UK.
McGee comments on the book of Job as part of his “Thru the Bible” radio series, first aired in 1967, which addressed every book of the Bible. Necessarily, therefore, it was not realistically possible for McGee to delve deeply into an analysis of Job; indeed, his intentions were to make the drama accessible to the common man, or, as he writes in his own words: “to put the cookies on the bottom shelf so that the kiddies could get them.”10 McGee seems quite hard on Job. He stresses the flaws of defensive self-justification to which Job’s circumstances, compounded by his friends’ accusations, drive him. He describes Job as “very egotistical about his own righteousness,” displaying “self-adulation” and “spiritual egotism,” and concludes: “He is about to break his arm, patting himself on the back.”11
By contrast, Balchin’s work puts out an explicit call for sympathetic understanding to be shown to the man Job amidst his afflictions, a thought which he extends into his work’s title: “Sitting with Job,” the same title as an earlier work by R. B. Zuck.12 Balchin references a large library in his analysis and his work is characterized by a threefold presentation of his ideas: first his thesis, followed by a separate section of detailed notes supporting that thesis; followed by a third section of excursis, considering the wider spectrum of opinion on the broader and oft-debated points of the text.
Baird works from a smaller library, restricting himself solely to Christadelphian analyses. This smaller database allows him to present a comprehensive review and his exposition is prefaced by some excellent common sense advice given to any reader intending to give serious thought to the book of Job, such as avoiding sweeping generalizations so as not to create caricatures out of the characters of the drama.
The works of Spongberg and Sargent are both shorter: Spongberg’s intention was to provide a study aid from notes of a series of Bible school lectures he presented in Queensland, Australia; while Sargent’s principal focus was the book of Ecclesiastes, alongside which he offered a relatively brief consideration of Job. Both these works were published in the 1960s and are written in the admirable style of ones viewing themselves as students of the Biblical texts, not masters of them. I am grateful for their exhortation on this point, extolling as it does the logical truth that a man who claims knowledge cannot experience revelation.
Despite the existence of this breadth of literature, I find that my study of Job still offers a different interpretation on a number of vital points. The most important difference is the identification of Satan, where my reading dramatically affects the understanding of the entirety of the remaining plot and enables unique interpretations, such as the relevance of the debate and the illumination of the goodness of God’s work with humanity; which both seem diminished using other interpretations of Satan.
The central theme of Job
After reading many expositions I’m keenly aware that many themes can be adequately expressed as central in this drama, and the breadth of suggestions in the literature was more extensive than I anticipated. I have learned that a characteristic feature of the book of Job is the rich variety of themes which can be extracted; and each one seems justifiable as a pillar of the work.
Sargent presents a profound, yet curiously neutral, opinion of the book’s theme: naming it the revelation of a man’s encounter with God. Balchin sees the central theme as a discourse addressing the connections, or lack of connections, between sin and suffering. Atkinson identifies the central theme of Job more emotionally, as a treatise to assist in coping with suffering, while Gutierrez reaches deeper to suggest it is the need to speak well of God in the presence of the suffering innocent. Luke, writing in the preface of Baird’s work, sees Job’s central education as perceiving the contrast between the vanity of man and the righteousness of God; and similarly Spongberg identifies the central Joban tenet as the problem of evil when viewed relative to God’s righteousness. McGee observes the most didactic tone of those reviewed here; for him the main message of Job is that all men, even the righteous, need to repent before God.
If I had been asked for my opinion on the central theme of Job any time prior to ten years before now I would likely have replied: “Understanding the presence of a loving God, even in the face of extreme suffering.” After my study in this book intensified in the years 2003-2007, I was particularly drawn to the fact that the whole episode provided the salvation of the three erstwhile accusers of Job, and my opinion of the central theme evolved accordingly into a more Messianic tone: “The suffering of a righteous man brought salvation to unrighteous men”, a theme I still feel as highly relevant. Yet now after completing the necessarily more intense level of study which publication of one’s thoughts demands, I refine my opinion further, seeing the central theme perhaps with most similarity to Gutierrez, as: “To speak well of God, because His loving nature always draws men to salvation.” That said, I in no way seek to disqualify any of the preceding opinions of other authors, all of which themes are strongly apparent.
At first reflection it may seem quite foolish to express the central theme of the book of Job without employing the word ‘suffering,’ since the suffering of Job is pervasive throughout, and central to, the plotline. My explanation for this apparent omission of the concept of suffering is that suffering is necessarily included in the concept of speaking well of God, simply because how we truly speak of God is only revealed under duress and not during times of ease, when we might easily speak well of God, or indeed anything at all.
What is particularly exciting to me is that this central theme eliminates the need to be defensive concerning the book of Job: I find myself enabled to see a God who is operating in a praiseworthy way throughout the unfolding events of the drama. Nor do I feel the exposition falls short in presenting God as ‘merely’ supreme, but actually as a loving Father. These facets of this interpretation can potentially provide considerable comfort and encouragement to those who are confused, troubled or even outright disturbed at the events they encounter in the book of Job. Even if this potential comfort and encouragement for those daunted or discouraged by what they read in Job were the only result of this study, I would believe it enough to justify the writing. But, beyond this, I find this exposition has a better treasure to offer: objective evidence, from the book of Job, no less, To Speak Well of God.
1. Biblical quotations are taken from the New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise marked. The NIV is chosen for its clarity of modern English and idiomatic expression; although the thoughts developed prove independent of the translation of the Bible employed. Quotations are marked parenthetically by book, chapter and verse, except in the case of quotations from the book of Job, where only chapter and verse are specified.