Weaknesses of Satan as the Three Friends’ Pride
How does the conversation between God and Satan take place? By the same token, how can the three friends have knowledge of the events of the prologue? Surely if they knew of the conversation they would know why Job is afflicted, so the resulting debate would not occur. (This point alone is enough for some commentators to immediately reject an association between the Satan and the three friends.1)
I understand the “conversation” between God and the Satan as a literary device. The following is suggested as an explanation:
The three friends “came to present themselves before the LORD,” the same way a modern believer might simply go to church. I’m not suggesting God is only encountered in a formal church setting, but it is a Biblical principle that God’s presence is heightened by a congregation of believers (Matt 18:19,20). It also neatly explains why the Satan appears in the presence of the LORD on a regular basis (Job 1:6; 2:1).
While ‘in church’, the three friends bring their slanderous beliefs before the LORD — simply in their meditations. They see wealthy Job in the assembly and their blood boils with perceived injustice. God sees these thoughts as clearly as if they had been shouted aloud. His response to the jealous slander of Job is recorded in the text, but, I suggest, God’s words are not heard by the three friends. In other words, Satan is unaware he is in conversation with God, even as the conversation proceeds. This satisfies the essential requirement that the three friends have no knowledge of the ‘barter’.
This allows God to be in Heaven, and the three friends on Earth (as per Job 1:7) as the ‘conversation’ takes place. The ‘conversation’ is a poetic recapitulation of events; an attractive way to reveal to the reader how God works in human lives, bringing situations we need to experience to bear as He works to fashion more godly disciples from prideful sinners.
How does affliction come upon Job from the Satan if the Satan is the three friends’ pride?
I suggest the drama proceeds this way. The friends see Job and think: “How could God allow this injustice? Doesn’t He see that the only reason Job is pious is because of all the material blessings He has given him?” God ‘replies’ — though the friends never hear the words — “I see what you’re thinking. You think if Job loses his material possessions he’ll curse Me? I have something to teach you. I’ll empower your wicked thoughts and act on them. I will bring destruction on Job just as your wicked thoughts wanted and you will see, through the continuing righteousness of my servant, the type of God I am and what I am working to ultimately achieve.” This demonstrates that God was the one who caused the affliction, but the Satan is the one who is to blame for the affliction arriving, exactly as the text demands (Job 2:3).
When the friends hear of Job’s catastrophes, they express heartfelt sympathy for him (Job 2:11-13). Why would they react this way if they had deliberately and consciously conspired to bring destruction against him?
The explanation I describe requires that humans be sufficiently complex as to harbor bitterness against a man, but then in the face of his suffering feel genuine compassion. It requires that evil thoughts within human hearts can be displaced by tragedy, or that contradictory thoughts can be in the heart at one time. The Joban tale bears out the truth of this, as does everyday experience. An example is seen explicitly in the case of Eliphaz the Temanite’s comments: he flatly contradicts himself between 4:3-6 and 22:5-11. As a further poignant example we will also see Job’s pain cause him to contradict himself when speaking of whether he wants God to be near to him or far away (Job 7:16-19; 29:2-6).
Human history details the veracity of this trend also. We are by nature schizophrenic creatures, harboring thoughts of ill-intent and love side by side, often for the very same person! It is possible for someone to be embittered against a work colleague, yet when that same colleague is involved in a significant road accident the bitterness vanishes, replaced with genuine sympathy and compassion. James reinforces this idea when he denounces the human mouth being used as a spring of both blessing and cursing (James 3:9-12).
I see a physical analogy in boiling food on a stove. One brings water to the boil over a flame and then plunges the (relatively cold) food into the boiling pot. Immediately the water ceases bubbling. But the source of the boiling is the flame beneath the pot and, unless that too is removed, it won’t be long before the pot, even with the food in, is bubbling once again. I suggest we see exactly the same thing happening in the book of Job. The three friends harbor bitterness and resentment against Job, fueled by the flame of their own pride (the Satan). When disaster strikes Job, the shock is sufficient to submerge their embitterment temporarily in genuine care for their friend. All thoughts of willing destruction upon Job, either to see him abandon his faith or for any other reason, are gone — at least for now. And at no point do they realize there is a connection between their bitterness and Job’s suffering. But the flame of their pride is still burning and so, slowly but surely, their slanderous evaluation of Job bubbles back to the surface as the debate proceeds.
Strengths of Satan as the Three Friends’ Pride
Most importantly, the interpretation of the Satan as the resident spirit in the three friends affects our view of who God is. If God is only wreaking havoc in the life of Job to prove that Satan is in the wrong, how capricious and heartless is this God! As if God were so insecure that He needed to prove He was right to anyone! God’s destructive intervention in Job’s life would then be reduced to a mere “cosmic experiment”, as some commentators have labeled it.2
But with this interpretation, God can no longer be seen as capricious. God’s Hand is now seen to be caring because, by the end of the book, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite are brought to salvation. God’s ‘entering into the barter’ with Satan — or such is the literary device used to portray the interaction — actually results in God working an act of salvation in ‘Satan’s’ lives. This now makes beautiful sense that God would get involved, because the salvation of any who could be saved, even whilst they opposed God, has always been His mission (John 3:16,17; Rom 5:8).
If there had been no salvation to gain from the ‘barter’, God would never have entered it, nor have entrusted such a heavy burden of priesthood to his faithful servant Job. With this interpretation alone, where the very opponents themselves are brought to salvation, the magnitude of both God’s victory and the drama’s poignancy are driven to the maximum! We also see how much trust God invests in Job to bear the necessary burden of suffering which finally results in the salvation that He is working in the lives of his three friends.
This is the Father I recognize.
Seeing the Satan as the three friends’ pride means the book of Job now evidences great internal integrity. With traditional interpretations of the Satan as either an evil supernatural being, an angel of the LORD, or some unrelated human, he disappears as early as chapter 2 and never returns. With this understanding, the Satan is a vital character who remains centrally present as the drama unfolds. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are present in chapter 1, albeit under the nomenclature ‘the Satan’, with their thoughts distilled into the dramatic persona opposing God. Similarly, the Satan is present throughout the core of the book: in the debate with the righteous man, all the way to the closing chapter, where he is rebuked.
The Satan is rebuked by God (Job 42:7,8). With any other interpretation, the Satan gets away scot-free with his slander of Job and scorn of the Almighty. It is only with this interpretation that the Satan is rebuked by God; which is in common with the other interactions between God and Satan in the Scriptural record.
The interpretation of Satan as the three friends’ pride also makes the book of Job consistent with the rest of Scripture; identifying the enemy of God as the rebellious heart of man.
The Satan’s characteristics are evidently human:
- Satan is driven by jealousy of Job’s material wealth. Although his argument concerns the motivation for Job’s worship of God, it is evident that his awareness of Job’s wealth has prompted his objection. Would either an angel, or a Mephistophelean Superpower, posing his supernatural guile and strength in eternal battle with the Almighty, be likely to get all worked up because Job has a lot of camels? No. Jealousy of material possessions is an emotional response so preternaturally petty as to indicate a human origin.
- Satan is stupid! The entire basis of the Satan’s argument is that he is actually cleverer than God and has observed something which God has missed. The Satan argues that while God can only see the surface evidence that Job is a good man, God has missed the more subtle underlying reason of why Job appears to be a good man. This underlying truth, the Satan reasons, he alone is clever enough to see, and he patiently explains to God that this is because Job enjoys material blessings at the Hand of the LORD. Is it credible that an angel of the LORD would be so arrogant to believe that he was cleverer than God? Of course not! History repeatedly testifies, on occasions without number, that it is we humans who guide our lives as if we knew better than God.
- The Satan describes his origin as “From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it”(Job 1:7, KJV). The suggestion that the Satan is realized as proud men is a very natural interpretation of this fact. In fairness, angels can also be described behaving in very similar terms (Zech 1:10,11) but Peter’s education that angels do not slander righteous men (2Pet 2:11) has eliminated the possibility of the Satan being an angel. It is relevant that the claim has a sense of pride about it. It speaks of having a worldly experience that others might not have: of having “seen a few things”, having “been around a bit”, and therefore being in a position to make informed and accurate judgments. In a later article we shall postulate that Job is contemporary with Israel’s wilderness wanderings, which would resonate very naturally, even poignantly, with why the three friends might be described as ‘wandering to and fro’ in the Earth.
- The Satan ‘shifts the goalposts’ when shown to be wrong. The initial barter between God and the Satan is whether or not Job would curse God if his circumstances were substantially afflicted. Job is destroyed on a material level, yet he does not curse the LORD (Job 1:20-22). So Satan loses the barter. But, far from humbly admitting error, the Satan shifts the goalposts, asserting that, essentially, he is still right and if different criteria are applied then his rectitude, and God’s error, will be revealed (Job 2:3-5). Again, shifting the goalposts when shown to be wrong is a behavior commonly associated with humans.3
- Ultimately, the Satan’s delight is the downfall of a righteous man: or at least the revelation of one who appears to be godly as a hypocrite. Again, this trait is well exemplified by prideful human behavior. The bloodlust to expose an apparently righteous man, such as a prominent Christian figure, as a charlatan and a hypocrite, and to revel in the schadenfreude of every failure that is exposed, is one that resides quite openly in the human populace. We have only to glance at the nearest newspaper, or online political blog, to observe it.
I see the book now cast in a wholly new light. The poetic bulk of the book, the debate, is now intimately connected to the prosaic beginning and end. The majority of the text of Job, about two thirds, is him arguing with his three friends. This is a substantial part of the Bible: it’s about the same size as one of the gospels! Job is a righteous man: his three friends voice the spirit of Satan. So the core of the book now is seen as the struggle between a righteous man and Satan. This is of supreme relevance to the initial debate between the Satan and God! I find this quite a life-changing appreciation of the book of Job, as now it is relevant to my everyday internal struggles, as well as being a fascinating and timeless drama.
Interestingly, expositors seem to have come to the threshold of determining that the Satan was an office occupied by the three friends, only to fail to spot what they had discovered. Gutierrez noted that the opinions of Satan were invariably mirrored by the opinions of the three friends,4 yet still took Satan to be a supernatural devil. Likewise Atkinson commented: “In effect what the friends have done is to continue the satanic assault on Job of which we read in chapters 1 and 2.”5 I believe these are both highly pertinent observations which should have been followed to their natural conclusion: that the pride of the three friends forms the Satanic character of the drama.
We may still ask: “But why conceal the truth? If the Satan in Job was the pride of the three friends, why doesn’t the prologue simply say so?” To me this encapsulates the beauty of the drama. To reveal the identity of the Satan slowly is to re-enact how the friends themselves discovered it. It’s plain the friends initially thought themselves pretty good disciples of the LORD God; well-educated in the principles of truth and eager to expound them at any moment. How wrong they were. And by obscuring the Satan’s (their) identity in the prologue, the text neatly retains the fact that the whole drama was a journey of discovery for them, to discover their true nature and ultimately appreciate the priest (Job) who brought them to atonement with the Father. Likewise it is a journey for us too, to discover both them as the Satan in the book of Job; and ourselves as the Satan in our own discipleships!
The three men were unaware that the disaster the LORD brought upon Job was a consequence of the embittered jealousy they held in their hearts. This suggestion, of a blindness that does not allow a man to see the destruction he wreaks upon the Earth, has clear Scriptural precedent. When David sinned with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11), Nathan the prophet recounted his sin to him as a parable from the divine viewpoint (2 Sam 12:1-4). Despite David’s godliness, which doubtless far exceeds the three friends’, he was unable to recognize himself within the analogous reconstruction Nathan presented. So in righteous anger he condemned the antagonist of the piece (vv 12:5, 6). Is David alone in possessing this spiritual blindness? I doubt it! He was one of the godliest men to walk the Earth, and logically this type of blindness will prove more severe in less godly men.
Thus I have no doubt Nathan could have reappeared before Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite and read them the prologue to the Joban drama verbatim, without any of them suspecting for one minute that they were the ones triggering the destruction that came upon Job.
Yet how easy it is to spot faults in others! I’m drawn to wonder how many times I have fallen victim to exactly the same blindness. How many times could a prophet in the LORD’s service have come to my side and recounted to me in explicit detail the interactions of my life as the LORD saw them, only for me to fail to recognize I was even present in the retelling? How many times might I, as David at his most ungodly, have thunderously denounced the Satan of the parable, only to hear the words of a still, small voice intone:
“Thou art the man.”
It’s good cause for reflection.
John Pople (San Francisco Peninsula, CA)
1. E. M. Spongberg, “The Book of Job,” 1965, private publication, 5.
2. R. Gordis, “The Temptation of Job — Tradition versus Experience in Religion,” 1955, cited in N. N. Glatzer, “The Dimensions of Job,” 1969, Schocken Books Inc.,New York,NY,USA, 76.
3. I’m not trying to say that ‘shifting the goalposts’ is necessarily a wicked practice either, merely a human one. We see examples of good men ‘shifting the goalposts’ with God too: for example Abraham, when he beautifully champions the citizens of Sodom who are marked for destruction (Gen18:23-33), and also Gideon, when he seeks to build his courage to attack the Midianite hosts (Jdgs6:36-40).
4. G. Gutierrez, “On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent,” 1987, Orbis,New York,NY,USA, 4.
5. D. Atkinson, “The Message of Job,” 1991, Inter-Varsity Press,Leicester,UK, 63.