One of the most challenging books in the Bible helps us examine some of humanity’s greatest questions.
The book of Job presents some of the most challenging questions faced by humans throughout history: What is God like? Why does He allow suffering? How should we respond to trials? What should we do when we are treated unfairly? And even, what should we say to someone who is suffering?
The book leads us to explore these questions through a tragic story and some poetic dialogue. It stands as one of the most thought-provoking and magnificent pieces of literature of all time.
French author Victor Hugo said, “The book of Job is perhaps the greatest masterpiece of the human mind.”
British poet Alfred Tennyson called it “the greatest poem, whether of ancient or modern literature.”
In the Hebrew Bible the book of Job is part of the Writings section, and it is generally grouped with the books considered wisdom literature, though it is unlike the other wisdom books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
Modern readers find that much is not revealed clearly in the text, including the author, the exact time period and the location. Some see Moses as the author, and the events do appear to be during the patriarchal period before the Exodus. Many connect some of the place names to the descendants of Esau.
But none of these factors are essential to the messages and significance of the book.
Outline of Job
The story of Job is told in prose form in the short prologue and epilogue, while the main middle section is Hebrew poetry.
Here is a brief outline of the book of Job:
- 1:1 to 2:13: Prologue: Satan’s challenges to God and attacks on Job.
- 3:1 to 31:40: Dialogue between Job and his three friends (three cycles).
- 32:1 to 37:24: Elihu’s speeches.
- 38:1 to 42:6: God’s speeches and Job’s responses.
- 42:7-17: Epilogue: God rebukes the three friends and restores Job.
Overview of the story
The story begins with Job, a wealthy man blessed with 10 children, living a godly life. Then we are taken behind the scenes to see an interaction between God and Satan, the rebellious spirit who is seeking to prevent humans from reaching the awesome potential God has for us.
God points out Satan’s failure to corrupt Job: “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?” (Job 1:8).
Satan, the enemy, claims that Job is only obeying because of God’s blessings. If God stopped protecting Job, Satan said, Job would “curse You to Your face!” (verse 11).
But Satan’s horrific destruction of all Job had and murder of his children failed to turn Job.
So Satan pushed further, attacking Job with “painful boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (Job 2:7). Job’s agony was so great, even his wife encouraged him to “curse God and die” (verse 9). Still “Job did not sin with his lips” (verse 10).
The bulk of the book involves Job’s conversations with three of his friends—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite—who came to comfort him. But it turns out their reasoning and accusations gave him little comfort.
After speeches by a younger man, Elihu, finally God speaks to Job from a whirlwind. Job’s humble repentance is followed by his receiving even greater blessings in the end. But God reprimands Job’s friends.
The problem of human suffering
Many people throughout history have faced the troubling question of why God allows suffering, and Job’s friends threw out every answer they could think of.Many people throughout history have faced the troubling question of why God allows suffering, and Job’s friends threw out every answer they could think of.
Job’s friends erroneously thought he was suffering because he was guilty of hiding a sin. That was a mistaken assessment. (We also must be careful about assuming someone’s misfortunes are because he or she is worse than others, or that he or she is concealing some great sin.)
Henry Halley writes, “And I don’t know that we understand the problem one bit better than they did in Job’s day. … And the older we grow, and the more we see of the world’s Inequalities and Injustices, the bigger grows the question mark, How a Good God could make a world like this” (Halley’s Bible Handbook, p. 242).
For believers, the dilemma is especially acute. Why does God allow bad things to happen to someone who is trying to do everything right?
The rest of the wisdom literature of the Bible makes clear that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between what we do and the results. There are blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. But the story of Job highlights that in Satan’s world, these results are not always immediate. Satan is able—for the short term—to turn everything upside down. The wicked can prosper, and the righteous can suffer—horribly. And not understand why. (See more in our article “Why Am I Suffering?”)
Satan’s unseen influence
If you read only the poetic middle of the book without the prologue and epilogue, you would have a limited perspective—the view Job had. But God has chosen to give us a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes activity of our enemy, Satan. We are allowed to see God’s praise of Job and Satan’s accusations. We know Satan was behind the terrible tests Job faced, and that God allowed this.
Job had no clue of what was going on in the midst of his trials, just as we are unable to see what is happening behind the scenes in our own trials. But perhaps the overview the book of Job gives us can help open our spiritual vision to the bigger picture.
Though Job did not know what was happening in the spiritual realm, he came to know what his friends thought. Their understanding of cause and effect led them to unfairly accuse Job of all manner of evil. On top of Job’s physical suffering came this additional burden from his “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2). (See our article “What NOT to Say When Someone Is Suffering.”)
Job’s speeches are a fascinating study of agonizing grief, desire to understand, unwillingness to accept unjust accusations—all mixed with faith.
When the all-powerful sovereign God does address him, Job recognizes in a much deeper way the tremendous gap between human power and understanding and the power and eternal wisdom of God.
Knowing God on a deeper level
The book of Job examines from various perspectives the question, What is God like? Both the uniqueness of Job’s situation and the complexities of the arguments defy easy, surface answers. This is a book that requires deep examination and meditation.
In the end Job says, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).
In the end, perhaps it’s less important for us to identify Job’s sin than to identify the growth areas his story uncovers in our own hearts and minds.What did Job repent of? Many ideas have been proposed: Self-righteousness. Questioning God’s justice. Not fully recognizing God’s immense sovereign power.
In the end, perhaps it’s less important for us to identify Job’s sin than to identify the growth areas his story uncovers in our own hearts and minds.
Those who apply themselves to studying the book can, like Job, come to a greater understanding of our Creator.
Even in the midst of our upside-down world of confusion, pain and suffering, we can trust in God’s ultimate purpose. In the end, God’s will is going to be done for eternity. Satan’s attacks will be but a fleeting blip in the history of the family of God.
This overview article can’t plumb the depths of the meaning of the book of Job, and in fact, many find that with each reading they come to a deeper understanding of this graduate-level book of wisdom.
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