I was interested in reading today about an increase in people praying during the current pandemic as well as people buying and reading the Bible. Times of crisis often compel us to turn to God, and that’s a good thing. The Bible has much to encourage us in life and is a rich source of comfort and strength in times of need.

In light of this, I’ve heard some people link the COVID-19 pandemic with the story of Job, so I thought it would be timely to revisit this ancient book.

Delving Into Job

Job is probably the oldest book in the Bible dating back to the first part of the 2nd millennium BC. Moses likely discovered the book while he was in Midian (NW Arabia near the land of Uz where Job is said to come from) and sent it to the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt to bring them hope and encouragement in their suffering.

There are two interpretations we need to be wary of when it comes to understanding Job. First is the view that Job addresses the question, “why do people suffer?” Ultimately those who hold this belief will tell you we don’t know why, that God is sovereign and we shouldn’t question God. Mere mortals need to do the best they can in dealing with life’s suffering.

The second view is taught by the Word of Faith preachers. The key verse for this interpretation is Job 3:25, “What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me.” Job, they say, was in fear not in faith and so he left the door open for Satan to kill his kids, ruin his businesses and take his health. If that’s the case, we’re all in trouble – who doesn’t fear something from time to time? If fear leads to God giving permission to Satan to destroy our property, family, and health, then none of us would fare well.

Where Views Lead

It’s this belief that has led to much condemnation and unkindness amongst Christians. You’re sick, it’s your fault. You must have sin in your life. If you just had enough faith, you’d be healed. It’s interesting to note that these statements are a summary of the words from Job’s miserable comforters. At the end of the story, God censures Job’s friends “because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.”

Conservative theologian, John Piper, proclaims this view in his latest book, Coronavirus and Christ, when he writes, “some people will be infected with the coronavirus as a specific judgment from God because of their sinful attitudes and actions.”

Neither of these views of the story of Job is satisfying or accurate, as we’ll see as we delve into this marvellous story. The ultimate question posed in Job is, “Do you worship God because God is God, or do you worship God because God is good?”

Delving Into Chapter One

Job chapter one sets the scene. There’s a heavenly board meeting, and the sons of God ha Elohim bane (not angels) came “to present themselves before the Lord, and has satan also came with them.” Has satan (pronounced huss sa-tarn) is not Satan, but rather one of the lesser gods. Satan didn’t come onto the scene until much later in Judaism and Christianity.

Monotheism, belief in one God, didn’t originate until the 14th century BC in Egypt. It didn’t become a lasting fixture in the world until the adoption of monotheism by Hebrews in Babylon. The Bible’s older documents reflect a belief in many gods. The first commandment is an attempt by God to nudge people away from polytheism: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). Elohim was to be the preeminent deity among the many gods.

The Lord asks, has satan, “where have you come from?” At this time, I must point out that the Book of Job is a poetic play. It may have been based on a true story, but much poetic license and metaphor are used. Of course, the Lord wouldn’t need to ask has satan where he’s been because the Lord is all-knowing. Now back to the story.

God is the one who brings Job into the discussion by asking, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

Has satan contends that Job only worships God because God has blessed and protected him and his family. But God, “stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” God agrees to the bet but sets a limit on has satan, “everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” The rest of chapter one tells of the destruction of Job’s children, his animals, and servants. Job’s response is to worship God.

Delving Into Chapter Two

Chapter two is almost a carbon copy of the first chapter, it just happened “on another day.” God once again brings up the matter of Job like he’s just itching to have another bet with has satan. Job “still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.” Really? Does God really lack self-control? See why it’s crucial to interpret Job as a dramatic play?

“Skin for skin!” has satan replies. “A man will give all he has for his own life. But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.” God agrees, take his health, but don’t kill him. Nice!

Job was afflicted with “painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.” Job maintained his integrity. He didn’t worship God this time, but neither did he curse God, even though his wife suggested he did. Mrs. Job often cops a bad rap, but consider what these poor women has just gone through. She would have been in deep grief over losing all her children in one day. We need to cut her some slack.

The three “friends” arrive, and a bad day turned much worse. No one said a word for a week, and then “Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.” And who can blame him?

Delving Further

The next chapters record the discourse between Job and his three miserable comforters. After a while, a fourth guy arrives, Elihu, who contradicts the other three and then opposes Job. This is the Bible answer man, you know, that annoying person who knows everything? He sounds so spiritual, and yet …

Finally, in chapter 38, the Lord re-enters the picture sounding a bit like the parent who asked their child to do something. The kid asks for a reason, and dad replies, “because I said so, because I’m the parent” or something equally as unsatisfying.

It’s not until we get to the final chapter that things begin to become evident. Job’s been right all along, the four friends who’ve been saying things like “some people will be infected with the coronavirus as a specific judgment from God because of their sinful attitudes and actions,” are told they are wrong.

One of my favourite Bibles is The Jewish Study Bible. It gives a terrific understanding of the Hebrew language, culture, and knowledge of Scripture, and some interesting insights into Job. In the Hebrew language, Job’s speech to God (42:1-6) is considered satire rather than submission. Job is disappointed and disgusted with what has happened to him and is annoyed with God.

Modern Day Interpretation

If I were to write this out in plain English, the interaction between God and Job would go something like this …

Job – Why did I suffer? Where were you when I was experiencing all this, God?

God – You can’t question me, I’m God.

Job – That won’t cut it with me. I am not satisfied with that excuse.

God – You’re right.

I know that our modern Christian mindset finds it very difficult to imagine God in this way. But that’s the climax of this incredible poetic play:

  • God can handle human anger with suffering, even when it’s directed at him.
  • God can handle our scrutiny about suffering. It’s perfectly fine to question God.

Job is rewarded for holding his ground, and God vindicates him. The moral of the story is this: keep worshiping God no matter what. “Do you worship God because God is God, or do you worship God because God is good?” A timely reminder in this or any other crisis.

The Book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures is one of the most misunderstood books in the Bible. And yet, when we see the purpose of God in placing this book in Scripture, its rich meaning comes alive.

Jesus’ half-brother James summarises the story: “Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:7-11).

The word steadfast comes from the Middle English word meaning, “to be fixed in place.” That is, being steadfast is holding on when you feel like letting go. That’s what Job did and 4,000 years later we’re still talking about him and learning from his story. He was steadfast in the difficulties he faced and we consider him blessed as a result.

Job is probably the oldest book in the Bible. It could date back to the first part of the 2nd millennium B.C. The book contains some of the most difficult and archaic Hebrew in the Bible. Even the name Job is known to be an ancient name. Along with the failure to mention the Hebrew’s Covenants or Law, Job probably dates back to the time of the patriarchs, around 2100-1700BC.

It’s likely that Moses discovered the book while he was in Midian (NW Arabia near the land of Uz where Job is said to come from) and sent it to the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt to bring them hope and encouragement in their suffering so they too would learn that “the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”

There is disagreement amongst Bible scholars as to whether Job tells a real story or a fictional one. There are good arguments for both. Some suggest the opening line of the Book of Job, “In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job,” is the ancient equivalent of, “Once upon a time, in a land far away…” Similarly, the declaration at the end of the book that God blessed the final 140 years of Job’s life is the equivalent of, “and they all lived happily ever after.” The fictional argument also draws upon the fact that most of Job (3:1-42:6) is poetic. Like Jesus’ parables Job may not be a true story but it is certainly a story that teaches truth.

Personally I lean towards Job being a fictional story. If it isn’t we run into the theological problems of Satan waltzing in and out of God’s presence and twisting God’s arm to let him firstly destroy all that Job has (including all of his children) and then destroying Job’s health (see Job 1:6-19; 2:1-9). This hardly teaches us “the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”

After the prologue of chapters one and two, most of the rest of the book is written as a dramatic cycle of speeches in Eastern poetry (Job 3:1-42:6). The dialogue is between Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and later Elihu, and then finally between God and Job.

Eliphaz, Bildad & Zophar, Job’s three “friends” accuse Job that his suffering is God’s punishment because of his sin and his lack of faith. For the suffering to end Job needs to repent. Does that sound familiar? Have you ever had that said to you when you’ve been suffering? Or maybe you’ve said it to someone else. This constant condemnation led Job to utter the immortal words, “Miserable comforters are you all … If you were in my place” (Job 16:2, 4). We still use the saying “Job’s comforter”. It refers to a person who tries to console or help someone and not only fails but ends up making the other feel worse.

And that’s one of the lessons we take from this book. When a person is suffering they don’t need people around them trying to work out the reason for it. They need compassionate people who put themselves in the suffering person’s place. Suffering people need encouragement not condemnation.

Job often gets a bad rap from some preachers but the Bible only ever speaks well of him (see Job 1:20-22; 2:9-10; Ezekiel 14:14, 20; James 5:11). In Job 42:8 God says to Job’s four friends, “You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” In Job 3:25 he says, “What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me.” Some have taught that Job’s fear and dread are what led to his suffering. If that’s the case we’re all in trouble ~ who doesn’t fear things from time to time? If fear leads to God giving permission to Satan to destroy our property, family and health then none of us would fare well. Instead the Bible defends Job rather than accuses him.

As a result of his steadfastness Job experienced (and we experience) that:

1. Steadfastness Refines Character: “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).

2. Steadfastness Refines Relationship: “I had only heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes” (Job 42:5,). That is Job’s trials led him to a more intimate experience of God.

3. Steadfastness Refines Potential: Job found out firsthand “the purpose of the Lord – how the Lord is compassionate and merciful”. “So the Lord blessed Job in the second half of his life even more than in the beginning. For now he had 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 teams of oxen, and 1,000 female donkeys. He also gave Job seven more sons and three more daughters…in all the land no women were as lovely as the daughters of Job…Job lived 140 years after that, living to see four generations of his children and grandchildren. Then he died, an old man who had lived a long, full life.” (Job 42:12-17). But that’s not to say that property and family can be replaced. It would be remiss to rejoice in a new family and think that the children who had been lost would not still hold a place in the hearts of Job and his wife. But certainly God demonstrates in this story that He is compassionate and merciful, and for those two qualities we can be eternally grateful.