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The Cross in the Old Testament: Job

January 17, 2010
Sermon:  The Cross in the Old Testament: Job 
Text:  Various Readings from Job

Today, we continue our series of messages The Cross in the Old Testament. I invite you to turn with me to the Old Testament book of Job, a remarkable piece of literature and a very important part of God’s Word. You can best understand the book of Job if you read the entire book from start to finish. If you pick out a verse here and there, you will inevitably take something out of context. Almost everyone agrees that this writing is one of the finest examples of ancient literature. The language is so eloquent. The literary style, though somewhat complicated, is straightforward. About two-and-a-half chapters of Job are written in prose, while forty chapters are written in poetry.

We do not know the identity of the author, but the fashion in which it was written indicates that the author was a well educated person, one who understood plant and animal life, constellations in the sky, precious gems and jewels, and faraway lands. We do not know when the book of Job was written. Some think that perhaps it is the oldest book in the Old Testament, even older than the book of Genesis. Others say that it must have come much later. When the book was written is also of little consequence. The story itself is so important to our lives, to our understanding of God in relationship to His world.

In the first two chapters, we read of a cosmic contest, a conversation or dare that takes place between God and Satan. Their conversation has everything to do with the way the story unfolds. Those two chapters provide information that none of the characters in the story have. Job, his wife, and his friends have no knowledge of that conversation. They have no idea of what has taken place between God and Satan in the heavens. It has happened beyond their view. Knowing this fact greatly helps our understanding.

In a way, the book of Job challenges some of the truths in other parts of the Bible. For example, prosperity is often connected with righteousness in the book of Proverbs. People who suffer and have misfortune are so often linked to some ungodly behavior. The book of Job challenges that concept by offering what is sometimes called the “Problem of Evil.”

In the Prologue of Chapter 1, we read that Job is a righteous man, righteous and upright. According to God Himself, Job is different from other people. He is found blameless. He is also one of the wealthiest men in the ancient Near East. To illustrate Job’s prosperity, Scripture provides a checklist of Job’s possessions: 500 yoke of oxen, 500 donkeys, 3000 camels, 7000 sheep, a beautiful family with a wife and ten children, and many servants. Job seems to have everything going for him.

During the discussion between Satan and God, Satan points out, “Of course, Job worships you. He is faithful and blameless because you have prospered him so much. Look at all that you have given him. If you take all of that away from him, I am not sure Job would be faithful to you at all.”

God answers, “OK. You do whatever you choose to do with Job. Only do not hurt him.”

Someone has said that trouble comes in three’s. For Job, it came in four’s. In the course of one day, four different messengers come to Job, each in turn. The first messenger says, “The animals – the oxen that were plowing and the donkeys that were grazing – were attacked and carried off. All the servants there were put to the sword. I am the only one left to bring this bad news to you.”

No sooner does that messenger finish speaking, than another comes to Job and says, “Fire fell from heaven and destroyed all of your sheep and all of the servants tending your sheep. I, alone, am left to bring you the sad news.”

While this messenger is still giving his report, a third messenger tells Job, “A raiding party came and carried off all of your camels. The servants were put to the sword, and I am the only one left to bring you the bad news.”

The final messenger comes almost immediately and reveals, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house. A mighty wind swept in from the desert, destroying the house and killing all of your children.”

After hearing all that has happened to his possessions and family, Job shaves his head and goes into mourning. He is in great distress. Notice that he says in Chapter 1, Verse 21, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” In all of this misery, Job does not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

God and Satan resume their conversation, with Satan telling God, “Sure, Job lost everything, but you really did not let me touch him. He remains faithful to you now, but what will happen if he is afflicted? Skin for skin!” Satan says. “But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones and he will surely curse you to your face.”

God answers, “Have at it, but don’t take his life.”

Satan tests Job a second time. He becomes afflicted with a painful disease, one that covers his entire body with open sores and boils. He suffers terribly, and he is miserable; but he does not turn away from God.

Maybe just to add insult to injury, Job’s wife, his marriage partner, is not very supportive of her husband’s faithfulness to God. She is not in this with him. “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die,” she says (Job 2:9).

Job refuses to listen to his wife. Though distraught, he will not take his own life. Though in great pain, he will not curse God. Though filled with despair, he remains faithful to God. He does, however, curse the day of his birth. Chapter 3, Verse 3: “May the day of my birth perish, and the night that it was said, “A boy is born!’ That day may it turn to darkness; may God above not care about it; may no light shine upon it.”

We move from the prose of the first two chapters into an excellent section of poetry when Job’s three friends hear of Job’s suffering and come to his home. They are so shocked by what they see, so dismayed by his suffering, that they sit in silence for seven days. They would have been better off if they had remained silent; but eventually, these friends, who think they have all the answers, start dishing out their platitudes in an attempt to explain why Job is suffering. The writer goes into great elaboration in order to give the sense of the enduring nature of Job’s pain and suffering. The dialogue between Job and these friends goes into great length, with each friend speaking a total of three times, and Job responding to each one three times.

The three friends – named Zophar, Bildad, and Eliphaz – try to explain Job’s suffering. They are convinced that Job suffers because he has done something wrong, that he has committed some sin. Job refuses to believe that he has brought this terrible misery on himself. He never declares that he is without sin; but he does say, “I just do not think I have done anything that bad. I don’t think I have done anything that would warrant this kind of punishment. I am quickly tired of hearing these platitudes from you. I am tired of hearing your explanations.” In Chapter 13, Verses 1-5, Job tells the three,

“My eyes have seen all this,
     my ears have heard it and understood it.
What you know, I also know;
      I am not inferior to you.
But I desire to speak to the Almighty
     and to argue my case with God.
You, however, smear me with lies;
     you are worthless physicians, all of you!
If only you would be altogether silent!
     For you, that would be wisdom.”

I know you have heard about “the patience of Job.” Forget it. Job is not a patient man. The book of James says that Job perseveres, and he does; but he is about as patient as some of you are when you are patients in the hospital. I have been to the hospital and seen how patient you are. Do not consider Job a patient man. He gets irritated, aggravated, perplexed, and explains that he has a bone to pick with God. Job wants to speak to God, to appeal his case directly to God. Job 13, Verses 12-15:

“Your maxims are proverbs of ashes;
your defenses are defenses of clay.
Keep silent and let me speak;
then let come to me what may.
Why do I put myself in jeopardy
and take my life in my hands?
Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.”

 That last verse is worth remembering. Job is saying, “You may think I will be punished because I am asking God, because I am contending with God. Even if He kills me though, I will not lose hope in my God.” Job is bewildered, but he is not without hope. His hope is in God.

Job raises very important questions in Chapter 14, Verses 1-5, 14, when he talks to God about the brevity of a man’s life:

“Man born of woman
     is a few days and full of trouble.
He springs up like a flower and withers away
     like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure.
Do you fix your eye on such a one?
Will you bring him before you for judgment?
Who can bring what is pure from the impure?
     No one!
Man’s days are determined;
     you have decreed the number as months
     and have set limits he cannot exceed…
If a man dies, will he live again?”

 Some read this passage and say that Job is referring to the resurrection, an event that comes much later in Christian faith. I do not know that Job is talking about that, but he does raise the question, “Is it possible that when a man dies, he will live again?” We can see that Job really believes he will see God face-to-face.

In Chapter 16, Verses 1-13, Job tells these men who would try to comfort him,

 “I have heard many things like these;
     miserable comforters are you all!
Will your long-winded speeches never end?
     What ails you that you keep on arguing?
I could also speak like you,
     if you were in my place;
I can make fine speeches against you
     and shake my head at you.
But my mouth would encourage you;
     comfort from my lips would bring you relief.
 
Yet if I speak, my pain is not relieved;
     and if I refrain, it does not go away.
Surely, O God, you have worn me out;
     you have devastated my entire household.
You have bound me – and it has become a witness;
     my gauntness rises up and testifies against me.
God assails me and tears me in His anger
     and gnashes his teeth at me;
     my opponent fastens on me his piercing eyes.
Men open their mouths to jeer at me;
     they strike my cheek in scorn
     and unite together against me.
God has turned me over to evil men
     and thrown me into the clutches of the wicked.
All was well with me, but he shattered me;
     he seized me by the neck and crushed me.
He has made me his target;
     his archers surround me.
Without pity, he pierces my kidneys
     and spills my gall on the ground.”

 Some have seen in this passage another kind of insight on Job’s part, an awareness of the suffering of Christ. You can certainly see some similarities in the suffering of these two men. Job has lost everything he had, except his life. He has been tormented by people who thought they were helping. He has also been tormented by intense pain. Here we see him trying to get relief as he sits on an ash heap, scraping his boils with pieces of broken pottery. Job is convinced that, in spite of all of this suffering, he has a Redeemer, a Redeemer who lives. Two of the most important verses in the entire book appear in Chapter 19:25-26:

“I know that my Redeemer lives
     and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
     yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
     with my own eyes – I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!”

In beautiful poetry, Job contends with God. Even though Job does not understand the reason for his suffering, he never loses his hope. He never loses his faith. He never forfeits his trust.

Following that poetry, we see a poem to wisdom and a discourse between Job and a man named Elihu. Though somewhat kinder in his assessment of Job’s situation, Elihu still comes to the same conclusion as the friends: Job must have sinned.

Throughout the book thus far, Job has had the opportunity to raise questions, to hear his friends’ explanations about the reason for his misery, and to voice a rebuttal. Finally in Chapter 38, God speaks to Job out of the storm, out of a whirlwind. Of course, God would speak to Job in that manner. God asks, “Who is this that darkens my council with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.” In other words, God is telling Job that it is impossible for him to understand all that is happening. Immediately after asking that question, God speaks of His majesty for several chapters.

On the wall of the faculty lounge at Harvard Divinity School are three large mosaics written in Hebrew. The first time I saw them, I had no idea what the Hebrew said. I got my Hebrew lexicon and translated these very important words from Job 38:4: “Where were you when I founded the earth?” A paraphrase of God’s question to Job is, “Look here, Mister Smarty-Pants. Where were you when I started the whole thing? You, who think you know so much, were you were back there when I founded the earth? Why do you think you can understand all of this?” These are God’s words to Job. These are God’s words to the faculty of Harvard Divinity School, and they are God’s Words to us.

The book of Isaiah offers the same concept when God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts. My ways are not your ways. Higher than your ways are my ways. Higher than your thoughts are my thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Frederich Buechner says that for us to try to understand God is about like a dung beetle trying to understand us. God is beyond our ability to understand. He is inscrutable.

You remember that at the beginning of this message, I said that Job was unaware of the divine contest between God and Satan. He had no clue about Satan’s challenge. A lot has happened to him, and he has many questions, but very few answers. The truth is that Job never gets many answers.

After God finishes speaking, Job is submissive. He replies to the Lord,

“I know that you can do all things;
no plan of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures
     my counsel without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things that I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
     and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
     but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
     and repent in dust and in ashes.”

 With Job’s surrender to God’s sovereignty, the poetry section ends. The final prose section, the Epilogue, follows.

Virginia Wolfe, a British author, said, “I read the book of Job last night, and I don’t think God comes out very well.” On the Comedy Channel, Bill Meyer, a comedian, said “What is the book of Job? It is about a man who gets to talk to God. The man asks, ‘God, can you take away pain and misery?’ God says, ‘No, of course not. If I took away misery, no one would talk to me.’”

I certainly cannot explain the book of Job. No one can, but its contents are very important to us because suffering is part and parcel of this life that we live.

Consider three great truths. First: God is omniscient and omnipotent; God can do anything because He is sovereign. Second: God is a God of compassion and mercy, a God of love. Third: Horrible things happen to people.

You can make a religion out of any two of those truths. Pair the truth that God is compassionate, loving, all merciful with the truth that terrible things happen to people. You get a God who simply cannot do anything about the suffering of the world. Like Bill Meyer says, God might care, but He does not have the power to remove that misery.

Pair the truth that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, with the truth that God is compassionate and merciful. You get something like Christian Science, where people say, “Well, God is all-powerful and all-loving. The bad things that happen to us are just a figment of our imagination.”

One day my grandfather was climbing a telegraph pole in Tennessee. The fellow on the pole next to him, a Christian Scientist, hit his thumb with a hammer. He immediately put his thumb in his mouth to try to keep it from hurting.

My grandfather asked, “What’s the matter? Does it hurt?”

The fellow answered, “No, it doesn’t hurt. It is just the thought of it.”

My grandfather quipped, “Stick it over here, and let me hit it with my hammer. I can make it hurt.”

You cannot deny the suffering. The third way of combining these truths is most often chosen.

Pair the truth that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, with the truth that terrible events happen to people. The result is the opinion that God is responsible for this pain and misery, that God must be a God of retribution who wants His pound of flesh.

This week, I saw a clip of a televangelist who said that the people of Haiti are at fault for the terrible agony caused by the major earthquake there. He said that in the effort to get away from the French, the Haitians cut a deal with the devil and brought all of this suffering on themselves. Even is that is right – which it is not – how does that attitude help? Where is the mercy in that judgment? Where is the Christian love in that opinion?

How can we make sense of what has been called the “Problem of Suffering” or the “Problem of Evil” for centuries? Let me make a suggestion. Go to Golgotha. Stand there and look at this innocent man, a man who was sinless, a man who was suffering. People could stand at Golgotha, wag their tongues, and say, “He brought this suffering on himself. He should have obeyed the empire. He should have been more considerate of the temple. He brought it on himself.” Some did say that.

We do have a sinless man, a man who is not just Mary’s son. He is the Son of God. He does not deserve that suffering, but we see him stretched out on that timber. We see the pain of God, God incarnate. We see there the supreme example of how suffering can be redemptive, how God can use human suffering for some good purpose. Understanding that concept is not always easy. Paul writes in Romans 8:28, “…God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” Paul does not mean that God causes terrible events and situations to happen. He means that when these terrible circumstances occur, God can use them for some good purpose.

At the cross, we see the great mystery of an all-powerful God, an all-loving God, an all-knowing God who joins us in our suffering. As far as I can tell, the cross is the only place where those three come together and make any sense at all. In order for me to make sense out of that, I have to go to the cross. I will tell you very quickly that even then, I do not understand all the ways of God.

The two members who have suffered the most while I have been pastor at this church were Steve Maffett and Rosemary Allen. Both of them had the best spirit though their bodies were riddled with pain. Whenever I visited them, they never complained. They ministered to me. Rosemary, in particular, told me, “Kirk, I don’t think I will ever understand why I have had to endure all this suffering, but I believe somehow God can use it for His purpose.”

I have a wise old saying I made up: Never waste a good experience of suffering. Find a way to let that misery be redemptive. If you are only asking Why questions – Why did this happen? I don’t understand. Why did this happened to me? Why? Why? Why? – you are not going to get many answers. As far as I can tell, those questions are dead-end streets. The questions to ask are, Given these circumstances, what do I do now? How can I commit this pain, this hardship, to God so that He can use it for some good purpose?

Consider the words of Bill and Gloria Gaither, who wrote, “Something beautiful, something good; All my confusion He understood; All I had to offer him was brokenness and strife, But He made something beautiful of my life.” Those words express the redemptive power of Almighty God. We can see this message of the book of Job best if we look at it from the standpoint of Calvary. We can see that God has a grand plan for Job and for Jesus and for you and for me.

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2010
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