The Bible does not leave the issue of tragedy and suffering unaddressed. The biblical story about a man named Job, drawn up in the genre of a Hebrew play, wrestles with the issue of why bad things happen to good people (Psalm 73 addresses the issue of why good things happen to bad people). This story has had such an impact on the world that even in today’s secular environment, nearly everyone has heard of “the patience of Job.”
The story begins in the land of Uz (Job 1). Job was a very wealthy man, perhaps the richest in the world. But his greatest treasure was his children, seven sons and three daughters. Every morning before the sun rose he prayed that God would protect them through the day. But one day, while Job was praying, his case came up in the heavenly court, although he was not aware of it.
Satan, the prince of evil and darkness, sneaks into the heavenly court with a crowd of “the sons of God.”
After noting his presence, God offers Satan a challenge, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He worships me faithfully and is careful to do nothing wrong.”
Satan counters, “Big deal. He’s into religion for what he can get. You’ve given him everything. No wonder he worships you. But mark my words. Take away all he has and he’ll curse you to your face!”
God responds, “OK, we’ll see. . . Everything he has is in your hands, just don’t hurt Job himself.”
The scene moves back to earth, where one disaster after another falls on Job’s estate. Bandits, fire, marauding armies and storms destroy Job’s animals, servants and possessions, and eventually even his children, leaving him destitute and childless in a moment. Job’s response? He falls on the ground, worships God and says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1:21).
After this the scene in the heavenly court reconvenes. God challenges Satan, pointing out that Job’s faithfulness has not diminished, in spite of the great losses he has experienced. But Satan isn’t finished yet.
“Big deal,” he exclaims, “Skin for skin! A man will give all he has for his own life. But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
God responds by placing Job in Satan’s control, with only one limitation. Satan must spare Job’s life. So Satan goes out and afflicts Job with loathsome and itchy sores from head to toe. Even his wife turns against him and urges him to “curse God and die.” But Job is not left alone. Three “friends” hear about his troubles and come to console him in his sorrows.
This begins a long section of the story in which Job’s friends try to convince him that God is not arbitrary (Job 4:7-11; 15:17-35). If things have gone wrong for Job, he must somehow be to blame for it (8:1-22; 15:5-6; 22:1-11). God is trying to get his attention (Job 5:17-27). So if Job would just turn to God and humble himself, things would get better (22:21-30), but if he blames God for his troubles he will end up just like the wicked (11:13-20). Great friends!
In response, Job denies the charges, crying out to God to be a friend in his emptiness (Job 7:7-21). He insists that he is an exception to the rules, that he is innocent of anything that would justify his great losses (6:24-30; 13:13-23; 31:1-40). Under harassment from his friends (6:14-23), he begins to accuse God of injustice and oppression (9:13-35; 10:1-22; 27:1-6). Job rails at the silence of God (23:1-9; 29:2-5) and mocks his friends’ theological arguments (12:2-3; 13:4-5,12; 16:1-3). Their theories that good is always rewarded and evil always punished just doesn’t square with reality (24:1-25). In the real world the wicked prosper and the righteous die (21:7-34). And God sits there and watches it all (28:24). He wishes he had never been born (Job 3:1-19).
After a lengthy, and at times tedious, debate covering 29 chapters in the book of Job, the four men fall silent and a fifth appears, named Elihu. He had been listening respectfully, but now he can hold it in no longer (Job 32:6-10, 18-22). Although he is human, he has come to speak in defense of God. Elihu starts out by mocking the failure of Job’s friends to convince him that he is wrong (32:11-17). He then goes after Job directly. Job was wrong to accuse God of being silent, God is not silent, human beings just don’t pay attention (33:14-18). Pain is one way God uses to get people’s attention (33:19-28). God never does the wrong thing, He gives people only what they deserve (34:1-15). Even suffering has a purpose, it is a discipline by which God teaches those He loves (36:22-23). God is far from silent, He is present whenever it rains, whenever the thunder roars or the lightning strikes (Job 36:24-33; 37:1-20)!
As if on cue, a mighty thunderstorm approaches the small group of men. Elihu seems to recognize the presence of God in the storm (Job 37:21-22). And sure enough, God speaks out of the storm and addresses Job and Job alone (38:1 – 42:6). At first God seems to support all that the four companions of Job had said to him. He accuses Job of questioning Him with ignorant, empty words. Then He throws a series of unanswerable questions Job’s way. “Where were you when I made the world? You know so much, tell me about it. Have you ever commanded a day to dawn? Have you ever walked the floor of the ocean? Can you guide the stars from year to year, or change their orbits?” And so on.
After Job admits his ignorance for the first time, God pelts him with another series of unanswerable questions. “Do you gather food for the lions? Did you teach the hawk how to fly? Can you tie up a whale like a pet bird? Are you trying to put Me in the wrong so you can be right?” Job offers the only possible response to overwhelming rightness and power. He offers plaintively, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” God didn’t answer any of Job’s questions, rather He asked Job questions. Nevertheless Job’s attitude has totally changed. Out of his new understanding and relationship with God he is satisfied that God is just. Knowing about God is not the answer to his questions. Knowing God is.
Then a fascinating thing happens. God turns from Job to his three “friends” and declares that he is angry with them because they didn’t tell the truth about Him, as Job had done (Job 42:7-9)! This is startling, of course, since Job has just endured nearly five chapters worth of rebuke himself. The story winds down to a strange and puzzling conclusion (Job 42:10-17).
What was God doing on September 11? On the surface the book of Job offers no answer, only more questions. The arguments of Job and his friends sound familiar, but they do not satisfy (especially when you know they have absolutely nothing to do with what actually happened between God and Satan). Then Elihu comes along and criticizes both Job and his three friends, yet says many of the same things they had said! Finally God comes along and rebukes Job for speaking out of ignorance, only to end up telling his friends that they were wrong and Job was right!
So anyone who comes to this biblical play expecting all the answers to the problem of suffering is likely to be disappointed. Job’s friends are full of answers, many of which are still offered today, but all of the answers get mocked at some point in the book. When God appears, He offers no answers but just a sense of His overpowering greatness.
Perhaps the best news in the book of Job is that undeserved suffering will not last forever. It ended for Job and it will one day end for the human race as a whole. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The earth is like a stage and we are merely players.” One day a much bigger picture will be revealed.
But that is not the end of the story. The book of Job is not the Bible’s last word on the matter of suffering. There is a much more decisive response to the issue in the New Testament. According to the gospels, there was another day that changed the world, a day whose reverberations have continued to travel down the course of time to our own day.