Sermon by Rod Benson, Blakehurst Baptist Church, Sunday July 22, 2001 (Part 1 of 2) [continued here]
The prize for the longest expository preaching series goes to Joseph Carroll who preached from the book of Job for 29 years somewhere near London Bridge. That’s about nine months on the sea monster of chapter 41! Since most of Job is bad advice from Job’s three would-be comforters, I can imagine Carroll saying to his congregation, “Now, the next eight years of my sermons are not true, but I have to explain it anyway.”
I have prepared just seven sermons on the book of Job, to enable us to get a feel for this magnificent book, and to understand its main strands of teaching. The problem of pain, and the mystery of innocent suffering, are issues we all deal with from time to time. We experience suffering ourselves, or someone we love suffers, or someone asks us a seemingly unanswerable question about why there is such horrific pain and suffering and evil in our world.
Many people have explored these big issues through literary works, poetry and movies. Using voice-overs to capture the thoughts of soldiers, The Thin Red Line explores the origin of evil and the nature of love.
The movie Amadeus (and the play on which it is based) owes much of its plot twist to the plot of the book of Job, though in a reverse spin. Just as Job wonders why he, an innocent man, suffers God’s judgment, so Salieri is consumed by the fact that Mozart, a genius brat, earns such divine favour.
The book of Job is the most profound exploration of all. Yet Job does not explain why innocent people suffer, or where evil ultimately originates, or why God often does not withhold suffering when a righteous person prays for relief. The book begins by describing the kind of person Job is: blameless, upright, God-fearing and evil-shunning. God says of Job, “There is no one on earth like him” (1:8).
Whether it is motive, character, virtue, behaviour or spirituality, no one beats Job. He wins every award; he collects every accolade; he’s top of the class – and the class includes every living person (Job 1:1-5). This person par excellence is a type of Jesus, although the New Testament never makes that connection.
One difference between Job and Jesus is that Job has a wife, seven sons and three daughters. And he is a Gentile, probably living around the time of Abraham (about 2000BC), in the land of Uz. You could say Job is the “wizard of Uz.” He’s also the world’s richest man – the Bill Gates of antiquity (1:3).
In chapter 1:6, the narrator of this story reveals something that Job never discovers and seems never to have imagined: there is a dark side to this universe peopled by malevolent spirits, one of whom is Satan, literally “the accuser” (so it makes sense to call him “the Satan”, putting him in his place).
This Satan is a terrestrial hoodlum, roaming back and forth across the earth. But he is answerable to God, and he presents himself, along with the other angels, before the Lord explaining what he has been doing (1:6-7).
“Have you considered my servant Job?” asks God in a surprise move – a boast about human righteousness to the epitome of personified unrighteousness.
The Satan knows Job well; Job probably infuriates the Satan as much as he pleases God. So he says:
“Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face” (1:9-11).
Job, we find later, believes he is righteous; God observes that he is righteous; Satan agrees, but asserts that Job only honours God for what he can get from God. That’s the surface issue with the Satan’s challenge, but it goes far deeper:
the real struggle in the book is not between Job and his God, but rather between God and Satan. It is a celestial battle, fought on earth, a sort of duel between good and evil… A duel is a highly formal, almost civilized contest between two combatants in which the circumstances are scrupulously controlled so as to make the odds as even as they can possibly be. Neither party is to have an unfair advantage, and to that end the duelists choose identical weapons and observe a strict ritual, a code of conduct…what is on the line is that peculiar commodity known as honor…
So what is fair? In an area as subtle and abstruse as the honour of celestial beings, what are the ground rules? What possible code of ethics might apply? Where is the common territory upon which these two inscrutable adversaries can meet? And what common weapon might they employ that would be truly equitable to both? The answer, of course, is man. Human beings, soul and body, are the duelling ground where heavenly powers clash … this, finally, is the only way in which the Lord Almighty can begin to prove moral supremacy over the Devil without in any way drawing upon His infinitely greater resources of brute strength… And so in bewilderment and in exquisite torment man, through the subtle moods and shades and turnings of his own high-mettled spirit, selects the winner. He is the weapon of choice between giants.”
As the story unfolds, God allows the Satan to take away all Job’s livestock and to kill all his servants and his entire family, sparing only his wife. But the Satan was forbidden to lay a finger on Job himself. Job experiences this terrible loss, all in a very short time. How will he respond? Will he curse God to his face?
When he heard all the horrific facts of his economic destitution and the death of the children he loved,
Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head (in mourning). Then he fell to the ground in worship and said,
‘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.’
In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing (1:20-22).
Again the angels present themselves before the Lord; again the Satan arrives; again God boasts about the goodness of Job, and adds, “And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason” (2:1-3).
If the Satan felt infuriated by Job before, now he is on the verge of losing his temper before God: “Skin for skin!” he replies. “A man will give all he has for his own life. But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face” (2:4-5).
The duel continues, with the stakes higher. God places Job in the Satan’s hands, but commands him to spare his life. He can do as he pleases with Job, but he must not let him die (2:6). So he afflicts Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head.
Think about it: every part of your skin covered in seeping, pus-filled, festering sores; endless excruciating pain (30:17); peeling, blackened scabs (30:28,30); disfigurement (2:12; 19:19); excessive weight loss (17:7; 19:20); fever (30:30); nightmares (7:14). There are worse afflictions than economic ruin and the death of those we love.
Excommunicated from his home town, Job finds himself destitute, diseased, deserted and depressed, sitting in the ashes of a rubbish tip, scraping himself with a piece of broken pottery.
Then along comes Job’s wife. Remember that the Satan spared her from death in the first test? He had a reason: she was useful to him. Job survived the loss of his empire and children. So far he has survived the loss of his physical health and social networks. But can he survive revulsion and alienation from the person closest to his heart, who knows him best?
Job’s wife says to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” (2:9). This is her verse: this is the only time she is mentioned. She spurns Job’s principles and ridicules his faith, and he calls her a fool (2:10a). They alienate each other; their relationship is at a low ebb, just when Job needs his wife the most.
But, Job adds, “Shall we not accept good from God, and not trouble?” And the narrator adds, “In all this, Job did not sin in what he said” (2:10b). In the misery and squalor of that rubbish tip, Job remains blameless, upright, God-fearing and evil-shunning. Unequivocally and irrefutably, God has won.
Copyright © 2001 Rod Benson. Sermon 406a preached at Blakehurst Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 22 July 2001. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).