What is the Meaning of Job?
Yesterday I was sent the following email:
Subject: JOB BOTHERS ME
Date: January 24, 2012 1:50:05 PM CST
What’s the point in the overarching storyline?
Is Job a literal guy or is he a “lesson”.
What is the point of this book?
Sent from my iPhone
This got me thinking, and I thought I would write a blog to attempt these highly touchy questions. I will address the questions in a different order, addressing the concept of Job’s identity first, and then attempt to tackle the overarching storyline of the book. I must say before I begin that it is with all humility that I write this post. While writing this I am aware of my own “finitude” and lack of understanding.
I. Job–Literal Person vs. Literary Lesson
As in most cases, I tend towards a more conservative understanding of the historicity of the Bible. Though there are, without a doubt, literary devices used in the Scriptures to convey a point, I think what makes the Scriptures radically unique is the fact that they relate historical events in a theological manner to tell the story of God’s purposes in time and space. So, in short, I do believe that Job was a literal person who lived and experienced the things retold in the book bearing his name. The prophet Ezekiel, who is giving the word of the Lord to Israel’s elders, portrays Job as a literal man:
“‘even though these three men, Noah, Daniel and Job were in its [Jerusalem's] midst, by their own righteousness they could only deliver themselves,’ declares the Lord God.” (Ezek 14:14)
However, it is also seems clear that Job himself did not write the book (just like Samuel did not write the books that bear his name–and in all likelihood neither did Joshua or Ruth). It would be nearly impossible to pin down the dating of when the book was composed because there is no internal evidence for a specific dating. This means that the story of Job had likely been passed down for some number of generations before it was written down in recorded fashion. This does not mean, however, that it is a falsified or embellished story, created to make theological points. Ancient oral history had its own sets of standards for ensuring the integrity of the source material (this is a subject that has received a lot of debate, and could be discussed at length elsewhere).
Though Job, in my opinion, was a literal man who experienced literal things, it does not mean that this book is without lesson. The very fact that it was placed within the canon of Scripture says that there is a farther reaching theological value, or a ‘lesson’, to be found within the book. There is a reason why each of the books that found their way into the Scriptures are there, and I believe that Job has profound theological value–both in the history of Israel and to the body of Christ today.
II. What is the Point?
So what is that value?
This is a question that a lot of people ask concerning the book of Job. It is a highly confusing book if you cannot pin down the ‘big idea’. Before I discuss what I believe is that ‘big idea’, I will give a brief plot summary of the book.
Job is a righteous man who has been greatly blessed of the Lord. The story begins in the courts of heaven when Satan (adversary) and the sons of God (angelic hosts) appear before Yahweh. Satan approaches Yahweh and He asks the adversary if he has considered His servant Job. Satan believes that Job’s righteousness is tied to the fact that God has only ever blessed him. Yahweh allows Satan to cause various levels of pain and suffering to touch Job–so that when it is said and done, he has lost everything and suffers great pain in his body.
The second main section of the book is a dialogue between Job and his friends. For the majority of the book the friends, and Job himself, are essentially attempting to answer the question: “why is this happening to Job?” Through all of their dialogue, it appears that each of them includes various levels of truth and insight.
However, none of them can adequately answer the question. Finally, at the very end of the book, Yahweh Himself appears to Job and unfolds His absolute sovereignty over all things. The book ends as Job humbles himself in the dust, magnifying the glory of God–and God bringing full restitution this man of righteousness.
To me the ‘big idea’ of Job is essentially two-fold. First, God does not have to justify Himself for the way that things happen. Second, in the face of the problems of life (i.e., the problem of theodicy–how/why does evil and suffering exist), opinions are cheap and trust is necessary.
1. God on Trial
This to me is one of the most profound aspects of Job. When Job and his friends are trying to figure out why God would let this happen to Job, God Himself shows up and has a discussion with the man of righteousness. The interesting part, however, is that God never answers the question “why”. Read chapters 38-42 closely. God never tells Job, “This is happening because…” It is quite unnerving if you catch it.
Why is this?
Essentially, one of the major points of the book of Job–and I think this serves to elucidate its place within the canon as well–is to highlight the perfect, holy, good and pure sovereignty of God. Who is able to put Him on the stand as if to try Him? To whom does He owe an acquittal for the way that He leads all things?
God does not seek to justify, or even explain what is happening to Job. Rather, He shows Job how utterly insufficient his limited knowledge is. Job does not possess all the information. How could Job attempt to answer such questions–he did not lay the foundations of the earth. He did not put the waters in their place, assigning them boundaries. He has never called forth the dawn to break the darkness of night. He does not know how to lead forth constellations in their right time. He does not walk on the surface of the deep, or know when the time comes for the mountain goat to give birth.
In other words, God is showing Job the insufficiency of his understanding is the reason that he cannot make sense of what is happening. However, God knows why it is happening. He knows how to orchestrate all things. He can call forth the morning. He laid the foundations of the earth and was their when the morning stars sang with joyous song. God alone is the one who possess all insight and understanding, and He alone possesses the power to work all things according to His great and glorious will.
I find it interesting at other places in the Scriptures God does a very similar thing. When Israel is accusing God of forgetting them and overlooking their just cause, God does not justify Himself–rather He highlights His infinite sovereignty and His ability to bring forth His purposes just as He had promised (see Isa 40:12-31).
2. Dust and Ashes
The understanding of the first ‘big idea’ leads directly to the second. To me one of the glaring lessons of the book of Job is the necessity for absolute humility in the face of life’s hardest questions. God actually indicts Job at the beginning of their discussion that his opinions, which hold some truth and understanding, are actually darkening counsel (Job 38:2). This means that Job’s opinions–and the opinions of his friends–may have included bits of truth, but they did not know for themselves the deep reasons why things were happening. Therefore, their opinions were actually making it harder to understand.
After three chapters of God unfolding His perfect and beautiful sovereignty to Job, the man is struck with his own ability to answer, and puts his hand over his mouth and repents in dust and ashes (42:2-6). In other words, he retracts his simple and uniformed opinions, and chooses to simply trust in the Lord who has just made Himself known.
The problems and the pains of life are complex. Often times they are too complex for our simple answers. When we face these problems and questions, we would do well to offer less opinions and more humility before the Living God who is full of goodness and kindness. When we counsel, we may do well to offer less opinions that lack knowledge, and do more pushing others into the revelation of the sovereign God who works all things according to the counsel of His will, for His glory–both with absolute kind intention and delight to bring good for those who love Him.
Does this mean that we will never have (or give) answers to these questions? No. There are times for answering, and I believe there are times when God answers. But often times our desire for answers is nothing more than a indictment against God, longing that He would justify Himself to us. Yet, as we see from Job, the answer to our plight is not always God’s justification, but God’s sovereignty.