The theme of the book
We all know, in reading this magnificent book, that its theme is the problem of suffering. But what exactly is the problem of suffering? To many people it is the question: Why does suffering happen? What is its origin and cause? Or, to put it more personally: For what reason has this particular suffering happened to me? But perhaps these ways of putting the question mainly reflect our obsession, in the modern world, for discovering the origins of things—as if by that means alone we can come to true understanding.
To the question of the origins of suffering, serious though it is, the book of Job does not give any satisfactory answer. The question is certainly raised and partial answers to it are given by Job’s friends. Suffering, they say, is usually a punishment for sin and sometimes a warning against committing sin in the future. The book as a whole adds that sometimes, as in the case of Job himself, suffering comes for no earthly reason at all but simply in order to justify God’s claim that humans can serve him without thought of reward. But just because the book offers these different reasons for the origin of suffering, readers cannot learn from the book what is the cause of their own suffering; they are in the same position, then, as Job himself, who never becomes aware of the origin of his suffering. To him it remains a mystery to the last. We may conclude that the book does not regard this question of origins as the primary question about suffering.
There is a second problem about suffering: Do innocent people suffer, or is suffering always deserved? Now this is a question that is both raised and convincingly answered by the book. It speaks out clearly against the idea that suffering is always a punishment for wrongdoing by insisting that the Job who suffers is a righteous man. It is not only the narrator (1:1), and not only Job himself (e.g. 6:30; 9:15) but also God (42:7–8), who affirms that Job is an innocent man. All the same, it is a very natural human tendency to ask, when one is suffering, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ The book of Job admits that suffering may sometimes be fully deserved, but its main response to this question is to say that perhaps you have no need to blame yourself; suffering is not always what ought to happen to you. But even this question and its answer are not the essential point that the book wants to make about the problem of suffering.
The third, and essential, problem of suffering that is addressed by the book of Job is a more personal one. It is: How can I suffer? What am I to do when I am suffering? In what spirit can I go on suffering? By comparison with this question of how we can actually respond to suffering, the first question (about the origin of suffering) seems merely an academic one, and the second (whether there is innocent suffering) can be quite easily answered. This third question is the hardest one; it takes the whole book of Job to answer it.
The book of Job gives two different but complementary answers to the question as it portrays Job’s reactions to his suffering. The first answer is expressed in the prose introduction to the book in the first two chapters. Job reacts to the disasters that come upon him with calm acceptance of the will of God; he can bless God both for what he has given and what he has taken away (1:21), both for good and for harm (2:10). If sufferers can identify with Job’s attitude of acceptance, they are fortunate indeed. If, like him, they do not try to ignore the reality of their suffering by escaping into the past, and if they do not become so burdened with the present grief that they forget past blessings they have had, they have gained a benefit from the story of Job. Many sufferers, however, do not come to acceptance so easily; they are rather a blend of Job the patient and Job the impatient.
The second answer to the question, What am I to do when I am suffering? emerges from the distress and turmoil of Job’s mind as it is revealed in his poetic speeches (between ch. 3 and ch. 31). When he can no longer simply accept what is happening to him, and he becomes bitter and angry as a sense of isolation from God overwhelms him, and he even feels he is being persecuted by God, Job does what he must do. He does not try to suppress his hostility towards God for what has happened to him; he says that he will speak out ‘in the anguish of [his] spirit’ and ‘complain in the bitterness of [his] soul’ (7:11). And he does not complain or shout into the air to express his anger and frustration; his bitterness is directed towards God.
Even though Job is at times rash and unjust in the way he speaks of God, his protests are spoken in the right direction; for he realizes that it is God himself with whom he has to do. It is just because he keeps on addressing himself to God that in the end God reveals himself to him (chs. 39–41). Job’s suffering does not cease because God responds to him. He discovers that he has misjudged God, but his anguish has in some way been calmed by his encounter with God. And, despite Job’s bitter words against God throughout the book, at the end, amazingly enough, God actually praises him for speaking of him ‘what is right’ (42:7–8). That can only mean that Job has directed himself to God in his suffering and has demanded an explanation.
If the book could be heard as speaking to sufferers in Job’s position (people who are suffering, that is, for no reason they themselves can think of), what it would be saying is: Let Job the patient sufferer be your model, so long as that is possible for you. But when you cannot bear that any longer, let your grief and anger and impatience direct you towards God, for he is ultimately the origin of the suffering, and it is only through encounter with him that the anguish can be relieved.
Job is, of course, the central character in the book, but he is not the only one. What have the friends of Job to offer him in his suffering? What help for themselves can other sufferers reading their words find? Eliphaz says that if you are innocent your suffering can only be temporary and asks, ‘Who, being innocent, has ever perished?’ ‘Where were the upright ever destroyed?’ (4:7). If Job is basically a godfearing man, he has a right to confidence that he will not suffer for long. Bildad, a firm believer in the doctrine of retribution, finds his theology confirmed by the deaths of Job’s children, who must have been great sinners (8:4). Job himself still lives, so the sin for which he is being punished cannot have been so severe, and he may take comfort from the fact that his life is spared. Zophar believes suffering is always the result of sin, but believing also that God is merciful, he can only suppose that Job’s suffering is less than he really deserves from a just God (11:5–6). Elihu wants to value suffering as a channel of divine communication, a warning against future sin.
No-one in the book of Job says that the friends are entirely wrong. Even when God reproves them (42:7), it is because they have ‘not spoken of me what is right’—in Job’s case, that is, for Job was not a sinner, and his suffering was in no way God’s punishment. What the friends say about suffering in general may well be true in other circumstances. But where they fail Job is that they take their cue from their doctrine instead of from the evidence of their eyes and ears. They know that Job is a good man, and they wrong him by thinking that his suffering is a witness against his goodness. The book of Job is not against the friends, but it wants to say that suffering happens to good people who do not deserve it as well as to people who deserve all that happens to them.
The origins of the book
We cannot put a date on the composition of the book of Job, except for the outer limits, perhaps the seventh and the second centuries bc. A folk tale of a righteous sufferer probably existed long before the present poem came into being. The theme of the suffering of the innocent is found also in texts of Jeremiah and Isaiah stemming from the sixth century. So it is possible that the suffering of Job was intended to be symbolic of the suffering of the Jews in the time of the exile.
The author of the book was no doubt an Israelite. Job’s own homeland is depicted as northern Arabia; his story is set in a distant patriarchal age; and Job himself does not know God by his distinctive Israelite name, Yahweh. The author, however wants to suggest the universal character of Job’s questions, even though it is obvious that the influences on his thought and literary style are Hebrew through and through.
Among modern students of the Bible, the book of Job is reckoned to belong to the group known as ‘Wisdom Literature’. It is doubtful whether there was a common social setting of the ‘wise’ from which these books (Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes) originated, but it is useful to compare them theologically. Proverbs is a stalwart defender of the doctrine of retribution. Its basic principle is that wisdom leads to life and folly to death, and it takes for granted everywhere that righteousness is rewarded and sin is punished. Ecclesiastes does not doubt the value of the quest for wisdom, but it in effect inscribes a challenging question mark in the margin of Proverbs. For it asks what happens to wisdom at death? Death cancels all values, including wisdom, and the meaning of life cannot lie in gaining something that is going to be lost. It is better, says Ecclesiastes, to regard life as an opportunity for enjoyment (Ec. 2:4); for enjoyment is not a cumulative possession that can be ultimately destroyed, it is used up and spent in the process of living. The book of Job also confronts the ideology of Proverbs but in a different way. In the thought of Proverbs, a man like Job is an impossibility. If he was truly righteous, he would find life, wealth and health. The book of Job, however, depicts someone who is both righteous and a sufferer. And at the same time it shows that a truly religious attitude is not passive resignation to misfortune, but includes the courage to enter into dispute with God.
D. Atkinson, The Message of Job, BST (IVP, 1991).
F. I. Andersen, Job, TOTC (IVP, 1976).
N. C. Habel, The Book of Job, OTL (SCM, 1985).
J. E. Hartley, The Book of Job, NICOT (Eerdmans, 1988).
D. J. A. Clines, Job 1–20, WBC (Word, 1989).
BST The Bible Speaks Today
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
OTL Old Testament Library
NICOT The New International Commentary on the Old Testament
WBC Word Biblical Commentary
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Job 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.