Discovering Job

Historical Setting
The events of this book occur in patriarchal times, which is that period during or near the lifetime of Abraham. We conclude this in because of Job’s lifespan (42:16), how he offered sacrifices to God on behalf of his children and friends (1:5; 42:8), a practice typical of that period, and that neither the Mosaic law or Israel are mentioned, placing the account before Moses. So, Job may have been contemporary with Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, whether knowing of their existence or not.

On one hand, this period dates after Noah, the Flood, and the resettling of the Earth but on the other hand, it dates before Moses and the enslavement of the Hebrew people in Egypt. Though Moses recorded in Genesis accounts from the pre-patriarchal period, he wrote after the patriarchal period, which means that the book of Job may be the first-written, oldest Old Testament (OT) book.

Key Persons
The main characters of this book are as follows (in order of appearance):

  • Job
  • God
  • Satan
  • Three critics (called “friends”)
  • Elihu

In addition, Job’s wife and children (all unnamed) and some foreign raiders from Arabia and Chaldea appear as minor characters.

Regarding Job, we should be careful not to uphold him as a prototypical representative of every believer. I say this because the book presents him instead – and quite deliberately – as a special, unique person who was wealthier and more righteous than anyone else and who also suffered more excessively than anyone else (Job 1:8). In his day, no one compared to him in either his righteous living, wealth, or degree of suffering. Even to this day, few can say they compare to him in either category.

Knowing this, we should be careful to conclude that Satan is giving any one of us the same level of focus and treatment or that any one of us are suffering or have suffered to the same degree as Job. That said, we can look to Job’s example as a matter of “greater to lesser,” concluding that if what Job experienced in life and discovered about God is true, then we have no good reason or excuse to think otherwise.

We don’t know much about the other characters in the book, except that his three primary critics came from different locations (Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuah, and Zophar from Naamah). And we know that that Elihu, Job’s fourth and final critic, was son to Barachel of the family of Ram, from Buz (32:4). Details like this demonstrate that the book records an actual historical account of real, historical people and that it is not some merely some folklore or myth.

Structure of the Book
The book follows a clear structure, in which the relatively brief prologue (beginning) and epilogue (ending) material is written as narrative and the extensive material in between is written as poetry.

  • Prologue: God allows great suffering for Job. (Chs. 1-2)
  • Job and his three friends debate the purpose for his suffering. (Chs. 3-31)
  • Elihu offers a speech on the purpose for Job’s suffering. (Chs. 32-37)
  • God provides the ultimate perspective on Job’s suffering. (38:1-42:6)
  • Epilogue: God grants great blessing for Job. (42:7-17)

The book provides clear explanations of who is speaking and when, making it easy to know when changes in speaker have occurred. Job’s speeches generally encompass two or more chapters (Chs. 6-7; 9-10; 12-14, etc.) while the speeches of his friends generally last only one chapter at a time. Elihu is an exception; because he was younger than the others, he waited for them to finish talking before he spoke up: and when he finally spoke, he had a lot of things to say!

Rob Bell (Theological Messages of the OT, 200) recommends the following structure to the book from an organizational standpoint:

  A (prologue)
    B (soliloquy)
      C (three rounds of dialogue)
         D (the central poem)
      C′ (three monologues)
    B′ (a prayer parallel to the soliloquy)
  A′ (epilogue).

In this arrangement, he highlights Ch. 28 as the central poem because this chapter features a noticeably unique vocabulary and style from the rest of Job’s speeches in this book. This chapter also features four of the book’s eighteen uses of the Hebrew word for wisdom and acknowledges that people are looking for answers to key questions in life, that only God has the answers (v. 23), and that above all else, God is most interested in our relationship with him.

Plot of the Book
This book opens with a “behind the scenes” view of some interaction between God and Satan regarding the personal testimony of Job. God drew attention to Job’s highly commendable character, but Satan dismissed Job’s integrity as nothing more than a polite response to the family, prestige, and wealth that God had given him. Satan was convinced that if God took these things away, then Job would turn his back on God (Job 1:9-11).

What follows is a horrible and severe series of events in which Job loses all of his wealth and possessions to foreign raiders and all of his children to natural disaster (a sandstorm); this all happened in one day. Sometime afterwards, Job also suffered the loss of his physical health, contracting a severe case of leprosy. In response to these tragic developments, Job’s wife urged him to “curse God and die” (2:9), something he refused to do.

Job’s friends (or so-called friends) soon visited him after the calamities occurred, with the goal of providing comfort in his distress (2:11). Sadly, what they provided was not comfort but criticism. These men all believed that Job was suffering due to some hidden, unrepented sin for which God was judging him so severely.

Job insisted that he has done no such thing, so they debated this matter back and forth with him for the greater portion of the book. In the end, God officially declared that Elihu and the three older friends were wrong in their assessment of Job’s case (Chs. 38-39). They had wrongfully assumed that God always, automatically blesses personal godliness with material and social prosperity, therefore concluding that a sudden removal of such blessings was evidence of Job’s ungodliness.

After answering and correcting Job’s critics, God shifted his attention to answering and responding to Job’s questions (Chs. 40-41). To do this, he surveyed the animal kingdom to demonstrate his supreme power over all creation, which is beyond our human ability to fully comprehend and control. He focused especially on his power over Behemoth (40:15ff, possibly a land dinosaur or hippopotamus) and Leviathan (41:1ff, possibly a water dinosaur or crocodile).

Though Job was correct in that he had not suffered as judgment for some hidden sins, he had still been incorrect in thinking that he had any right or way to understand why had suffered at all. Such knowledge remained entirely with God and was beyond Job’s ability to know or comprehend. As Rob Bell observes:

How should Job, or more practically and particularly anyone, respond to a calamity that has overtaken him? The book presents four options: (1) complaining and questioning God’s justice (what Job did), (2) confessing to God and repenting for sin (what the three friends wanted Job to do), (3) enduring through God’s discipline in order to improve (what Elihu wanted Job to do), or (4) trusting the Lord because He is wise and good (what God wanted Job to do). (Bell, Theological Messages, 204).

In the end, Job worships God (42:1-6), God rebukes his friends (42:7-9), and God blesses Job greatly (42:10-17).

Purpose of the Book
This book provides important perspective about the nature of suffering and the importance of trusting in the sovereignty of God. At its heart, it encourages people to follow God, trust God, and do right regardless of the outcome. “True piety is to do what is right with no expectation of reward, for God is under no obligation to repay good behavior” (Goswell, Biblical Theology, 288).

In relation to other OT books, Job serves as a helpful balance and contrast to Proverbs. It reminds us that the book of Proverbs offers general principles of wisdom but not hard-and-fast rules with no variations. For instance, Proverbs frequently affirms that God blesses those who do right with material and social prosperity, and he withholds such blessing from those who live in an ungodly, unwise manner. Job reminds us, though, that this does not mean that godly, wise living always results in material and social prosperity or that poverty and suffering is always evidence of foolish and ungodly choices.

This book also provides a helpful backdrop to reading the Psalms, in which David, the Israelite nation, or other followers of God find themselves responding to intense difficulties and suffering. Though some of this suffering was the result of sinful choices (David’s sin w/ Bathsheba, Israel’s disobedience of God’s Law, etc.), not all of this suffering was the case. Some of this suffering was for other purposes and even because of godly choices. Job reminds us of this very real possibility.

Personal Takeaways
God sees and appreciates your righteous behavior and choices. Though we know we cannot earn God’s favor by good behavior, the story of Job should encourage us in realizing that God does pay attention and cherish our godly choices and lifestyle.

We should avoid presuming to know why we or anyone else suffers. While we may be able to discern some of what God may be doing sometimes (at least for ourselves), there is so much that we don’t know. We should seek to draw closer to God and more knowledgeable about and obedient to him instead.

God is sovereign over all things, so we should trust in him completely. He is sovereign over the circumstances of our lives, over all the forces and creatures of the natural world, and over Satan as well. We can trust him with the circumstances of our lives, even when things feel as though they are out of control.

We should serve God faithfully whether we prosper or not. Said differently, we should not base our faithfulness and service to God upon the circumstances of our lives. As Job himself declared, “And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). God deserves our unconditional devotion. 

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