Job: Reflections on a Suffering Servant

This post was originally written in February 2014. 

I just finished reading through Job, a chunk of scripture found towards the middle of the Bible. Job is fascinating from a literary perspective. Forty chapters of rambling Hebrew poetry sandwiched between two chapters of sparse narrative. It's an unusual context. Job, an ancient Middle Eastern patriarch, was 'blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil" (1:1) and God blessed him with offspring, livestock, possessions, and respect from his community. He was utterly exemplary in his behaviour but in verse six the curtain to the heavens is pulled back and we, the audience, are given a rare glimpse into the heavenly courts. "The sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them." Satan, ever the accuser, challenges Job's exemplary behaviour. "Stretch out your hand" he says to the Lord "and touch all that he has and he will curse you to your face."  God gives Satan permission to do this and in swift, relentless strokes, Job is stripped of his servants, oxen, donkeys, sheep, and camels (struck down by Sabeans, fire from heaven, and Chaldeans respectively). But before the news-bearer has finished giving a report of this to Job, another runs up announcing that Job's children, having gathered together in celebration, were killed when the house they were in collapsed. Soon after, Job's health falls apart, his wife urges him to curse God, and he is left covered "head to toe" in sores in an ash heap and scraping himself with broken pottery. But "in all this Job did not sin with his lips."

The narrative portion of the book ends when Job's three friends come to weep over him. After a weak of weeping, "for his suffering was very great," Job opens his mouth and forty chapters of poetic dialogue begin. The contrast is immediately apparent. Gone are the swift strokes of storytelling and the heavenly perspective. What follows is verbal violence and mud-slinging between the grieving Job, who upholds the claim that he did not sin and that's God's actions towards him are unjust, and his friends, who maintain that God is just and Job is guilty of sin.

The fact is, both these human opinions are incorrect. Job is not being punished for his sin (we know this from the prologue) and yet God's actions are always just. Endless chapters of back and forth dialogue, in which these opinions are hashed and re-hashed, end when God Himself answers Job "from the whirlwind,” accosting Job's understanding. "Where were you when

I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding" is the thrust of his argument. God uses examples of his awesome and intricate power demonstrated in his creation that literally leaves Job with his hand over his mouth. In the face of such intimate and transcendent power and knowledge and such management of the world of nature, what response can Job give? In two short speeches he demonstrates repentance and humility. 

There is plenty to learn from the book of Job and many of written on Job's response to both suffering and the character of God. But there were two aspects of the book that really stood out to me this time through. 

The first was how the frustrating and messy dialogue between Job and his friends, despite the many wrong ideas and outspoken temper, still resulted in progress in Job's thinking. Much of what Job says is wrong. But through it all, he makes more and more statements that are humble instead of arrogant and express humility and faith in God's fairness. He begins to become aware, especially in chapter 28, that he himself cannot solve his problem through his own reasoning but rather "the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom."

The takeaway for us? Conversations with friends over important issues are worth having, even if wrongheaded ideas are frequently spouted. Working through these issues may grow and mature our understanding, but nothing like the perspective of God himself. 

Yet there is a second thread running through the book that gives even more hope to the reader who notices it. Hidden between the long and often arrogant speeches are phrases that sound extra familiar to our ears, none of which are as explicate as 19:25-36 when Job declares "I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God." 

These are hints and foretastes (especially chapter 22) of the Redeemer that Job does not see and yet will one day sanctify him. Christ is the one who suffered unjustly far more then Job did, for Job was still conceived in sin and Christ was not. And it is Christ's suffering that makes ours bearable. In the words of George Macdonald "the Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His." 

Not only is God's wisdom so much higher then ours, but his empathy is routed in the suffering that Christ himself received on our behalf. And if we can learn this from an ancient book of Hebrew poetry, reading it is worth our time indeed.