By Mark Johnston
The book of Job is full of enigmas. The man who gives the book his name is an enigma. The book’s style is enigmatic. Its entire structure and drama raises all kinds of questions. And, of course, its central theme is the greatest enigma of all: theodicy – how do we relate a good and sovereign God to the reality of evil and suffering in his world?
Each of the wide range of commentaries on Job adds its own insights into all the issues just mentioned, but most if not all overlook one of the biggest of them. Why did God see fit to include Job in his revealed word and, tied in with this, why is it so long?
Some commentators suggest Job may have been one of the earliest of the Old Testament books to appear in written form. This can only be a matter for speculation; but what is clear is that it has been ‘filed’ in the Wisdom section of the Old Testament canon. This provides an important clue as to why it is part of divine revelation. Given that ‘wisdom’ [hochma] in Scripture is more than just a body of knowledge but, rather, ‘skill for living’, understanding Job is intended to be a significant factor in nurturing that skill for the people of God.
This has particular bearing on the range of questions raised by Job – not least that of why it confronts us with some 37 chapters of unremitting suffering and unresolved wrangling over why it is happening and also where God fits into how we make sense of it. The combined weight of suffering and the questions it throws up that we see in Job – which every sufferer experiences – is not as alien as we may feel it to be.
Even when it comes to the last five chapters in which God speaks into Job’s situation, he does not answer the one question the reader, as much as Job himself, wants answered: ‘Why?’ So a significant component of the wisdom of Job must be that finding the skill we need for living does not necessarily mean we must have all our questions answered.
God did not answer the questions surrounding Job’s suffering. Instead he chose to raise his horizons above them to remind Job of his greatness, love and faithfulness towards all his creatures. As preachers often rightly point out, God’s message to Job was that, though it was not for him to know the specific details bound up with his troubles, it was enough to know the God in whom he trusted and be assured of his trustworthiness. Even though Job’s trials threatened to obscure his vision of God and weaken his faith, God’s self-revelation was sufficient to remind Job that he was well able to keep him through all he was experiencing.
This takes on even more significance when we remember that Job lived before the Hebrew Bible had begun to be written. Like Abraham, the Father of the faithful, he had no Scriptures to which he could turn and find comfort in the midst of his struggles. So the faith he had placed in God and his promise of salvation was based on a much more limited revelation than that enjoyed by the generations after Moses. It fell into the category of the ‘many times and various ways’ in which God spoke to our spiritual forefathers in times past (He 1.1). Nevertheless it was sufficient for salvation and provided enough of a glimpse of God’s promised Messiah to know that God would provide all that was needed to make it a reality.
Perhaps the biggest thing that arises out of the sheer size of this book is that even as God’s people we must learn to live with the unanswered questions thrown up by evil and suffering in our own experience. Indeed we need to realise that they are the kind of questions that may never be answered because God is under no obligation to do so.
This is not something we may want to hear, but it is hugely significant pastorally. It is a reminder that the strength and understanding we need to survive our sufferings in life do not ultimately reside in us. Job came through his troubles not because he was a man of strength and character, but because God would not let him go. The God who had already revealed himself to be the God of covenant to Noah and to Abraham – pledging that he himself would save and keep his people – was the God who Job both knew and trusted.
Suffering by its very nature turns us in upon ourselves and makes us acutely aware of our own weakness and inability. They bring us to an end of ourselves. But, as God makes clear to his trusting servant Job, his purpose through them all is not to crush us through what happens, but to turn us out from such inward self-focus and self-reliance to see and rest on him as the One who alone can rescue us from all our troubles.
Our Lord in his incarnate life on earth not only proved this to be true in his own experience – ‘he learned obedience through what he suffered (He 5.8) – but he secured and sealed God’s promise for all his people. And that is the greatest enigma of all. The enigma of grace: that the race which brought suffering upon itself through Adam’s rebellion against God should find the answer to its suffering through the sufferings of God’s own Son who was sent for our salvation. When we realise this we understand why the central exhortation of Hebrews is to fix our eyes on Jesus and find in him the grace we need to endure to the end (He 12.1-2).
Mark Johnston is a Presbyterian pastor in Wales and a Trustee of the Banner of Truth.