BIBLE STUDIES IN SUFFERING

©Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2002

6. SUFFERING AND THE BELIEVER

A STUDY IN THE BOOK OF JOB

We come now to studies in the Book of Job, and as we do so it is essential that we recognize the form of literature in which this book is written: it is Hebrew Wisdom literature. What does this mean? Wisdom literature:

  1. addresses the complexity of human existence.
  2. has two forms: [a] proverbial - short, pithy sayings stating rules for personal happiness and welfare (the Book of Proverbs); and [b] speculative wisdom (Ecclesiastes, Job), attempting to delve into such problems as the meaning of existence and the relationship between God and man. These are written as monologue or dialogue.(See The New Bible Dictionary, IVP, for further information).

In the Book of Job we must recognize:

[1] The prose sections (chapters 1, 2 and 42:7-17) are written by the narrator as a factual report of events.

[2] The poetry sections (chapters 3 to 42:6) are an accurate report of the dialogue between Job and his three friends in which various opinions are given concerning Job's suffering, of Job's testimony in which he expresses his emotional and mental suffering and the confusion and despair resulting from his inability to see what God is doing, of Elihu's speech in which he expresses his opinion about what is going on, and of the dialogue between God and Job, in which God reveals himself to Job as far bigger than Job had ever imagined.

[3] We must remember that, while these dialogues are accurately reported, the opinions expressed in them are not all true. This is clearly stated in 42:7. Because Job is wisdom literature we cannot pick out any verse from anywhere and say 'God says ...'. If Eliphaz, Bildad or Zophar said it, we actually know that it is not true!

Thus the Book of Job is an accurate report of how these men chewed over Job's problem. Obviously God wants us to understand how easily wrong conclusions can be drawn about suffering, and how these wrong conclusions actually add to the suffering. He also wants us to understand that faith and suffering are not mutually exclusive. They can exist together. They do exist together. Indeed genuine faith has the potential to be the cause of suffering. Importantly, the Book of Job teaches us that genuine faith endures and survives, indeed is enriched by, the experience of suffering.

Now to our study, where the first, and very important question that confronts us, is 'Was Job a believer?'

In chapters one and two of the Book of Job the scene is set and the three main characters - Job, God and Satan - are introduced. The information given here is of utmost importance for an accurate understanding of the book. From this Prologue we gain the perspective which we must keep in mind throughout the entire book. Without the Prologue and the Epilogue (42:7ff) Job would appear to us obnoxiously self-righteous, and the opinions of his friends would seem completely valid. We would go away from the Book of Job convinced that God does indeed reward righteousness with prosperity and peace, and punish wickedness with suffering and calamity.

But here in the Prologue God himself introduces Job to us as he presents him to Satan: 'Have you considered my servant Job?' God asks, then presents him to Satan: 'There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.' (1:8, 2:3).

A. What does this approbation mean?

  1. It cannot meanthat Job is sinless and has thereby merited God's approval, because the Scripture denies the possibility of a sinless man (Romans 1:18-3:18; 3:23; 1John 1:8-10), and Job himself lays no claim to sinlessness; rather, as we shall see later he freely admits himself to be a sinner.
  2. Satan immediately knew what God meant: 'Does Job fear God for nothing?' (1:9) However imperfect Satan's understanding of the situation was he has at least, without realizing the deep significance of what he is saying, pinpointed this: Job is a God-fearer. It is this to which God is drawing his attention; and it is this aspect of Job's life against which all of Satan's attacks are directed.

B. What does it mean to 'fear God'?

What is this quality, this characteristic in Job that elicits both the commendation of God and the antagonism of Satan? The Bible teaches:

[1] The fear of the Lord is a gift from God.

Jeremiah 32:39-40 says 'I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me ... I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away form me.' God here promises to work in the hearts of his rebellious and unrepentant people, changing their hatred and mockery of him to reverential fear. The fear of the Lord was not in them, nor did they merit any favour from God. Yet God promises 'I will inspire them to fear me'. This instructs us clearly that the fear of the Lord is a gift from God. We cannot create or produce it of ourselves. If a man fears the Lord he has been given it by God. All men stand before God in rebellion and antagonism until he puts his hand upon them and grants them this gift. This is verified in Romans 5:8,10 where Paul classifies us as sinners and God's enemies at the very time when God was putting our salvation into effect in the death of Christ.

[2] The fear of the Lord is generated and motivated by God's redeeming and forgiving actions towards man.

Moses, having led the Hebrews to the frontiers of the promised land, charges them to fear the Lord (Deuteronomy 6:2,13;10:12, 20; 13:4). The motivation is clear - the character and activity of God: 'For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lords of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome ...'  (Deuteronomy 10:17). This God has chosen, loved and redeemed the people of Israel (10:12-22), therefore they are to fear him. This thought deepens in Psalm 130:3-4:

'If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness;
therefore you are feared.'

Here the Psalmist attributes the fear of the Lord to the knowledge of his forgiveness. This is something deep, reaching down to the very roots of our being. This man is aware of his utter destitution before God (3); he knows himself to be rightly condemned in the presence of the holy and almighty God. But he is aware also that his God is one who forgives iniquity, who removes our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west. He knows that this forgiving activity of God is utterly unexpected and undeserved. And so he stands amazed, awestruck, that such a holy One should forgive such a sinner: and he fears the Lord.

Let us progress further: there is a parable of Jesus in Matthew 18:21-25 where forgiveness did not produce this reverential, thankful fear. That man failed to appreciate the greatness and graciousness of his master's forgiveness. He took it carelessly, thoughtlessly. He did not really receive it unto himself at all. And so he went out full of nothing but himself. No thankful heart; no reverential fear. And he lost out. This hard saying ties up the parable:

'And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you, unless you each forgive your brother from your hearts.' (Matthew 18:35)

We may say then that the fear of the Lord is not only motivated by God's redeeming and forgiving activity towards us, but is also the necessary consequence of it.

[3] The fear of the Lord is accompanied by God's pity and mercy.

Behind God's forgiveness is his compassion. We see this in the parable mentioned above. We see it also in Psalm 103, in which God's forgiveness and compassion are the focus of the Psalmist's praise. Of particular note is this: God's mercy, God's pity, God's compassion, God's deep-seated tender-heartedness, call it what we will, has a specific direction: it is towards those who fear him. Read verses 11, 13, and 17.

There is yet an even closer connection between God's compassion and the fear of the Lord. Psalm 14:7 reads:

'The Lord delights in those who fear him,
who put their hope in his unfailing love.'

When we remember that Hebrew poetry expresses parallel thoughts we realize that we do not have here two different thoughts but two expressions of the one thought. From this verse we learn that those who fear the Lord are those who hope in his unfailing love (that is, his mercy). The Biblical meaning of hope is this: it is a sure and certain confidence; it trust and dependence; it a commitment of oneself to the sureness of the thing hoped in. Those who fear the Lord are those who have committed themselves to his mercy. They are those who trust him, in the fullest and deepest sense of the word. Those who fear the Lord are those who believe him: they believe his promises; they believe his commands. They are men and women of true faith.

[4] The fear of the Lord is evidenced by obedience to God's commands.

Study these passages to see how the Scripture makes this: Proverbs 8:13; Ecclesiastes 12:13; Deuteronomy 6:2; 10:12-13; 13:4.

Again we see here the unity of the Bible's teaching. These passages from the Old Testament affirm that the man who fears the Lord, that is, the man of faith, will be obedient to God's commands. In the New Testament, James makes it clear that the man of true faith is one who can point to the evidence of that faith in his life (James 2:14-26). The Lord Jesus Christ also stressed that the man in a right relationship with God will be an obedient man (John 14:15: 15:7-14). This is not to say the God-fearing man is a perfect man; perfection is not attainable in this life (1John 1:8,10). Rather, the fear of the Lord, put in his heart by God himself, motives him to obedience; it produces in him a new mind with a built-in hunger to please God. Read Jeremiah 32:39-40 and Ezekiel 36:25-27.

[5] The fear of the Lord and knowledge of the Lord go hand in hand(Proverbs 1:7,28,29; Job 28:28).

Here again we are dipping right down to the bedrock of Biblical truth. We have seen that the fear of the Lord is a gift of God. Now we must acknowledge this also: that unless a man is a God-fearer he cannot know the Lord. It is impossible. If then the fear of the Lord is wisdom, then that wisdom, that knowledge of the Lord is also itself a gift from God. Consider these Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:34; Matthew 11:25-27; 16:17; Luke 8:9-10,18. We can claim nothing ourselves: it is all of God (Romans 11:33-36).

C. And this is Job.

Job, the God-fearer. That description says nothing of Job, and yet it says everything. It tells us that this man has been blessed by God with a gift far surpassing his material and physical prosperity: the fear of the Lord. And along with that, yes part and parcel of that fear of the Lord, are knowledge of God's forgiveness, confidence in God's compassion, desire for God's honour through obedience to his commands, and knowledge of God. This man of faith stands now before us. A remarkable man. A man of whom his God stated 'there is no one on earth like him.' (1:8). It is this godly man upon whom all the onslaughts of Satan are about to be unleashed in an attempt to prove his faith invalid. Will he still stand when all is done? Or will he turn and, as Satan predicts, curse God to his face? In his response the nature of true faith stands or falls. Can true faith be undone? Or does true faith, God-given faith, endure, no matter what?