Tomorrow morning, I’ll be a guest teacher in my Bible class, where we are currently perusing the book of Job in our church family’s year-long study of the entire volume of scripture, Genesis to Revelation, called Project 4:4.
In reading through the entire book this morning, what impressed me most – and for the first time – was that Job’s three friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar all shared a strong opinion which had become a conviction. Their opinion was unsupported by scripture (which, since the actual events of the story seem to be set in patriarchal times, probably did not exist). As F. LaGard Smith points out in his introduction to the work,
They try to convince him that the answer lies in a simple syllogism: God always punishes sin; suffering is the result of sin; therefore Job is more of a sinner than he is willing to admit.” ~ The Daily Bible, page 1156.
There’s only one problem with this tidbit of human wisdom: both of the premises upon which it is built prove to be false. Job points out that the wicked frequently escape punishment by suffering. And, in the prologue to the work, we discover (though Job and his friends are unaware of this discourse in eternity) that God does not cause the suffering, though He does permit Satan to inflict it, and it is Satan who suggests it. It is also Satan who accuses God of being unfairly protective of Job, and accuses Job of being faithful only inasmuch as he is being blessed by God.
Here’s what stood out to me in this morning’s reading of Job:
There is a serious danger involved in allowing a human opinion to become a conviction; a conviction that one loudly professes to be the very truth of God. The three friends become Job’s “Satans”; his accusers. Out of their own perceived self-righteousness (after all, they’re not being punished by God with suffering for their sins), they taunt and goad him to confess his sins. After having sat silent with Job in his grief a full seven days and nights, they become testy, combative, even sarcastic and insulting in reaction to his defense of his own personal integrity.
In the denouement, God declares that the three have not spoken correctly about Him, and they must offer sacrifices of penitence through Job’s righteous prayer in order to be forgiven.
And here’s the kicker:
Each of them supported his argument against Job with items that were true about God and His sovereignty, and logic that seemed to be sound.
Each of them came to the same, dead-wrong conclusion.
What about Elihu, the fourth and youngest friend who claims to speak by inspiration and proclaims God’s sovereignty and wisdom in permitting suffering to test and shape the human spirit?
The Lord makes no word of commendation nor condemnation toward Elihu.
In a film I watched as a teenager – Donald Pleasance was cast in the role of Job – I seem to remember that young Elihu called attention to the gathering storm in his address the Job and his friends … but when the Lord spoke from it, he fainted dead away. Maybe that was the director’s choice in explaining why God doesn’t even mention Elihu in His response. Or maybe Elihu just spoke what was to God the obvious truth.
Like Satan, Elihu simply disappears from the narrative after his discourse. Elihu has used Job’s own words against him, with the implication that Job has no right to question God; no cause to accuse Him (thought he has not done so); no reason to be treated any differently than anyone else. This is also an opinion that has become a conviction with Elihu. And it has some merit … we are all sinners, and none of us is justified by his own righteousness. In this life God shows no favoritism; yet He is ultimately just.
But that may have been – at the time – a truth to be held for a later time; a prophecy to be sealed up for another day. Or it may have just been an insufficiently-stated truth.
Job, out of his Abraham-like faith, has already spoken a more fully-expressed truth: for the righteous of God, there must be a resurrection, a day of accounting, a judgment, and a redemption.
Job’s conviction of faith is no mere opinion; it is affirmed by God in those closing chapters. Out of his humility, he has confessed his humanity and God’s divinity; that he is insufficient to fully grasp the fullness of God. Never has his questioning accused God, nor has he presumed a superior righteousness to God’s. He has only asked why God is making it look that way.
I believe that Job’s faith is an encouragement for us to seek God, question God, discuss God with our friends – even if all of us are wrong – to grow closer to Him through suffering; to feel free to express our lament in pain; and to live humble and righteous lives in His view whether rewarded in this life or not.
The enigmatic ending? What should we make of God restoring Job’s earthly wealth and blessing as a coda to a work which affirms that God does not play favorites in this life?
Perhaps because that restoration does demonstrate in a tangible way that God ultimately does reward righteousness; that it is His gift given at His discretion rather than the wages of our works; that He is sovereign and wise enough to test Job’s faith with blessing as well as with suffering.
But that’s my opinion … not a conviction.