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The consolation of Job

A sermon by Rod Benson for Seniors Week.

Martin Luther called it “magnificent and sublime as no other book in Scripture.”[1] “Considered from a purely literary perspective, the book of Job is the supreme literary achievement of the Old Testament.”[2]

Job is a biblical book like no other. Its themes invite philosophical speculation. Its story invokes empathy and frustration. It asks hard questions about God, and the sovereignty of God, and the nature of evil, and the problem of human suffering, all focused in the tragic experience and tortured thought life of one godly solitary individual named Job.

As we understand it, Job stands outside the faith tradition of Abraham, outside all of the biblical covenants except the covenant of creation, but he is keenly aware of the reality of the one true Living God, and strongly committed to personal fellowship with this God who has graciously revealed himself to Job.

In terms of human experience, and his capacity for thinking deeply about his situation, and his freedom to relate to his transcendent creator, Job represents every man and every woman.

We can learn much from Job. Why do good people suffer? What is the nature of evil and suffering in this world? Where is God in my suffering? Is God really good, and loving, and Almighty? Why are my prayers for healing or relief not answered? Why does no one seem to understand my situation? How can I make sense of this sometimes glorious, often mundane, occasionally awful life I experience?

These are the questions of Job, and the book of Job offers not only a fascinating glimpse of a bigger cosmic picture than we could dare to imagine, but also wise answers to some of the biggest and most difficult personal and existential questions imaginable.

We neglect Job at our peril.

Read Job 30:12-23. In his suffering, Job is bedeviled by three earnest but flawed friends who arrive to sympathise with him and comfort him. Shocked by his appearance, they sit with him in the rubbish tip for seven days and nights – silent, observing, assessing (2:11-13).

Chapters 3-27 record the words of the three friends (Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar), and Job’s responses. Then, in chapters 28-31, Job makes an eloquent speech on the source of wisdom, and makes his final defence. In chapters 32-37, a young man named Elihu appears, and offers his perspective and thoughts.

Then, in 38:1-42:6, God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind and a storm, and Job responds to the voice of God. See especially 40:1-7; 42:1-6. And in 42:7-17, God graciously restores Job’s fortunes.

But back in chapter 3, before anyone tries to rescue him with their words, Job breaks the awful silence, revealing his inner torment and the depth of his depression, cursing the day of his birth (3:3-10), and asking a series of existential questions: “Why? Why? Why?” (3:11-19).

Job concludes with a cry of bewilderment, pushing his formerly robust faith in the goodness of God to its limit, to the point of despair, but not finally abandoning his faith:

Sighing has become my daily food;
my groans pour out like water.
What I feared has come upon me;
what I dreaded has happened to me.
I have no peace, no quietness;
I have no rest, but only turmoil” (3:24-26).

It is not hard to see why Job cursed the day of his birth (3:3ff). We can understand why he came to believe that God was his enemy despite his blameless record (3:25). We may even empathise with Job as he arrives at the point where he believes that death would be more desirable than life (3:20-21).

“Living in paradise, Adam and Eve faced a best-case scenario for trusting God, who asked so little of them and showered down blessing.  In a living hell, Job faces the worst-case scenario: God asks so much, while curses rain down on him.”[3]

It is a long way from Garden of Eden to the rubbish tip outside Uz.

How can an Almighty and loving God permit suffering like this – especially innocent suffering? This is a vital question that millions of people have asked through the centuries, and are asking today. The book of Job does not directly answer the question. But there are some important truths to discover here – some unpalatable and discomforting truths – to recall when we suffer.

First, this world is no paradise. This is not some kind of Edenic paradise adapted for technology and capitalism. Even at its best, our world is certainly not heaven on earth.

We live in a “fallen” world (Gen 3). Our physical environment, our physical existence, our psychological health and our spiritual identity will be buffeted from time to time by waves of our own making, and by waves whose source we know, and by other waves whose origin we know nothing about.

Second, we are not the centre of the universe. At times we may think we are, and we may certainly wish to be. But we are not.

God has a multitude of concerns that have nothing to do with us, and he cares for living things we cannot begin to imagine (see Job 38-41). We are made in God’s image, and he loves us, but we are part of his great creation, not separate from it.

Third, we rarely see and understand the big picture. For example, try as he did to comprehend the reason for his suffering, and to discern some cosmic meaning in it, Job seems never to have learned what the narrator tells us in chapters 1-2.

There is no suggestion from Job’s dialogues that he is even aware of the existence of evil angels or malevolent spirits seeking to increase his suffering and shipwreck his faith for their own diabolical ends.

You and I do not see everything either.

We learn from Scripture, and from history and experience, that God allows suffering but is not the cause of it. We learn that suffering is not necessarily punitive: Job’s suffering does not arise from any sin he has committed. Your suffering probably isn’t your fault, nor is it God’s fault, nor is God punishing you. We learn that our response to suffering is a test of our faith. In Job’s case, his suffering served “the redemptive purpose of deepening Job’s faith in God and drawing Job closer to God.”[4] See Job 19:23-27

Fourth, God is merciful. Note God’s fatherly pride in the exemplary righteousness of Job, his personal awareness of Job’s existence and situation, and the way in which, to defend his honour, God puts a “fence” around Job that the Satan is forbidden to cross (1:12; 2:6).

Elihu, the younger man who appears in chapter 32, doesn’t have all the answers, but he makes this profound statement: “Those who suffer (God) delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction” (36:15).

God meets us where we are, and ministers to us, and bears us in his loving and everlasting arms. God is merciful. “In the face of the darkness, light is near” (17:12b).

Finally, we learn from Job that we can speak honestly, candidly and bluntly to God.

In his book Disappointment With God, in reference to Job, Philip Yancey writes, “you can say anything to God. Throw at him your grief, your anger, your doubt, your bitterness, your betrayal, your disappointment – he can absorb them all.”[5]

Come what may, let us all grow to become people of vibrant faith, like Job. Come what may, let us all grow to know the true and Living God, as Job did.


Sermon 665 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Thursday 7 April 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Quoted in Leland Ryken, Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), p. 182.

[2] Ibid., p. 171.

[3] Philip Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), p. 51.

[4] Ryken, Literary Introductions, p. 174.

[5] Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God (New York: Harper Collins, 1988), p. 284.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

2 replies

  1. Thanks Rod. For anyone who suffers, in any kind of way, Job is an absolute must. I’ve found understanding in studying Job, that was not available anywhere else. You have expressed it very clearly and succinctly here. I really appreciate being able to read your sermons, even if I can’t hear them.

    1. Thank you, Helen. I do appreciate your feedback, especially as that sermon raised issues that some will find sensitive or offensive. And you speak from personal experience.

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