Prologue (Job 1-2)
At the beginning of the Book of Job we are introduced to an exceptionally prosperous farmer/rancher named Job. He is described as “the greatest man among all the people of the East” (Job 1:3). Like the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, his wealth was measured by his many thousand head of livestock, numerous servants and large family. His seven sons and three daughters (Job 1:2) are both a personal joy to him and an important foundation of his wealth. In agricultural societies, children supply the most reliable part of the labor needed in a household. They are the best hope for a comfortable retirement, the only pension plan available in the Ancient Near East, as is in many parts of the world today.
Job regards his success to be the result of God’s blessing. We are told that God has “blessed the work of Job’s hands, and his possessions have increased in the land” (Job 1:10). Job’s recognition that he owes everything to God’s blessing is highlighted by an unusual detail. He worries that his children might inadvertently offend God. Although Job takes care to remain “blameless and upright” (Job 1:1), he worries that his children may not be so fastidious. What if one of them, addled by too much drink during their frequent days-long feasts, should sin by cursing God (Job 1:4)? Therefore, after every feast, to forestall any offense to God, “Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all” (Job 1:5).
God recognizes Job’s faithfulness. He remarks to his Satan (a Hebrew word meaning simply “accuser”), “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8). The accuser spots an opening for mischief and replies, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” (Job 1:9). That is, does Job love God only because God has blessed him so richly? Is Job’s praise and his burnt offerings “according to the number of them all” just a calculated scheme to keep the goods flowing? Or to use a modern image, is Job’s faithfulness nothing more than a coin fed into the vending machine of God’s blessing?
We could apply this question to ourselves. Do we relate to God primarily so that he will bless us with the stuff we want? Or worse yet, so that he won’t jinx the success we seem to be achieving on our own? In good times, this may not be a burning issue. We believe in God. We acknowledge him — at least theoretically — as the source of all good things. At the same time, we work diligently, so God’s goodness and our work go hand in hand. When times are good, and we do in fact prosper, it is natural to thank God and praise him for it.
In Job, the Hebrew term ha-satan (“the accuser”) seems to be used as a title referring to the function performed by of one of the “heavenly beings” in God’s retinue (Job 1:6), rather than a personal name for the devil. The meaning of this is much debated among scholars. It not our purpose to take a stance in this debate, so we have accepted the term used in all the major translations, namely, “Satan.”
The problem of pain comes when times are hard. When we are passed over for promotion or lose a job, when we become chronically ill, when we lose people we love, what then? We face the question, “If God was blessing me during the good times, is he punishing me now?” This is a hugely important question. If God is punishing us, we need to change our ways so he will stop. But if our difficulties are not a punishment from God, then changing our ways would be foolish. It might even oppose what God wants us to do.
Imagine the case of a teacher who gets laid off during a school budget cut and thinks, “This is God’s punishment because I didn’t become a missionary.” Taking her layoff as a sign, she enrolls in seminary and borrows money to pay for it. Three years later, she graduates and begins trying to raise support for her mission. If indeed God caused the layoff to punish her for not becoming a missionary, she has ceased the offense. She should be in good shape.
But what if her layoff was not a punishment from God? What if God actually has no intention for her to become a missionary? While in seminary, she may miss an opportunity to serve God as a teacher. Worse yet, what happens if she fails to raise support as a missionary? She will have no job and tens of thousands of dollars of debt. Will she then feel abandoned by God if her mission plan doesn’t work out? Might she even lose her faith or become bitter towards God? If so, she would not be the first. Yet it would all be because she mistakenly assumed that her layoff was a sign of God’s punishment. The question of whether adversity is a sign of God’s disfavor is no light matter.
The accuser — Satan — hopes to set just such a trap for Job. Satan says to God that if he removes the blessings he has so richly bestowed on Job, “He will curse you to your face” (Job 1:11; 2:4). If Satan can get Job to believe he is being punished by God, Job may be caught in either of two snares. He may abandon his righteous habits in the mistaken assumption that they are offensive to God. Or, better yet from the accuser’s point of view, he will become bitter at God for his undeserved punishment, and abandon God altogether. Either way, it will be a curse in the face of God.
God allows Satan to proceed. We are not told why. One harrowing day, nearly everything Job treasures is stolen and the people he loves — including all his children — are murdered or killed in violent storms (Job 1:13-16). But Job neither assumes God is punishing him nor becomes bitter over God’s treatment. Instead he worships God (Job 1:20). At his lowest moment, Job blesses God’s authority over all the circumstances of life, good or bad. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord”(Job 1:21).
Job’s finely balanced attitude is remarkable. He rightly understands his previous prosperity as a blessing from God. He does not imagine he ever deserved God’s blessing, even though he recognizes he was righteous (implicit in Job 1:1,5 and stated explicitly in Job 6:24-30, et al.). Because he knows he didn’t deserve his former blessings, he knows he does not necessarily deserve his current sufferings. He does not take his condition to be a measurement of God’s favor. Consequently, he doesn’t pretend to know why God blessed him with prosperity at one time and not at another.
Job is a rebuke to the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which claims that those in right relationship with God are always blessed with prosperity. This is simply not true, and Job is Exhibit Number- One. Yet Job is also a rebuke to the “poverty gospel” which claims the opposite, that a right relationship with God implies a life of poverty. The idea that believers should intentionally emulate Job’s loss is too far-fetched to appear even on the fringe of discussion in Job. God might call us to give up everything, if doing so were necessary under the circumstances to serve or follow him. But the book of Job makes no suggestion that God inherently desires anyone to live in poverty. Job’s original prosperity was a genuine blessing of God, and his extreme poverty is a genuine calamity.
Job can remain faithful under adversity because he understands prosperity accurately. Because he has experienced prosperity as a blessing from God, he is prepared to suffer adversity without jumping to conclusions. He knows what he doesn’t know, namely why God blesses us with prosperity or allows us to suffer adversity. And he knows what he does know, namely that God is faithful, even while God allows us to experience great pain and suffering. As a result, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing” (Job 1:22).
Job is able to endure overwhelming loss without compromising his “integrity” or blamelessness(Job 2:3). But Satan does not give up. Perhaps Job merely hasn’t faced enough pain and suffering. Satan now accuses him of serving God only because he still has his health (Job 2:4). So God allows the accuser to afflict Job with every matter of loathsome sores “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (Job 2:7). This is especially galling to Job’s wife, and she asks him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die” (Job 2:9). She accepts that Job is blameless in God’s eyes, but unlike him, doesn’t see the point in being blameless if it doesn’t bring God’s blessings. Job responds with one of the classic verses of scripture, “Shall we receive the good from the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10).
Once again we find Job ascribing every circumstance of life to God. Meanwhile, Job is unaware of the heavenly activity that is behind his situation. He cannot see inner workings of heaven, and it is only the integrity of his faith that prevents him from cursing God. How about us? Do we recognize that like Job, we do not understand the mysteries of heaven that shape our prosperity and adversity? Do we prepare for adversity by practicing faithfulness and thanksgiving during good times? Job’s unwavering habit of prayer and sacrifice may have seemed quaint or even obsessive when we encountered it in Job 1:5. But now we can see that a lifetime of faithful practices forged his capacity to remain faithful in extreme circumstances. Faith in God may come in an instant. Integrity is formed over a lifetime.
Job’s adversity arises in his workplace, with the loss of his means of income. It spreads to his family and eventually attacks his health. This pattern is familiar to us. We can easily become so self-identified with our work that workplace setbacks spread to our family and personal lives. Workplace failures threaten our self-identity and even our integrity. This, plus the practical strain of losing income and security, may severely disrupt family relationships. Though they seldom cause violent death, work-related stresses may lead to a permanent destruction of families. Eventually we may experience debilitating physical and mental health issues. We may be unable to find peace, rest or even a good night’s sleep (Job 3:26).In the midst of this, Job maintains his integrity. It might be tempting to draw a moral such as, “Don’t get so wrapped up in your work that its problems affect your family or your health.” But that wouldn’t do justice to the depth of Job’s story. Job problems did affect his family and his health, in addition to his work. Job’s wisdom is not about how to minimize adversity by maintaining wise boundaries, but about what it looks like to maintain faithfulness through the worst circumstances of life.
The Hebrew word tam, translated as “integrity,” has the same root as tummah, translated in the same verse as “blameless.”
With Satan having done his worst, Job could really use some support. Job’s three friends enter the story and are depicted as sensitive, pious and sympathetic men. They go so far as to sit with Job for seven days and nights (Job 2:13). They are wise enough — at this point — not to say anything. Comfort comes from the friends’ presence in adversity, not from anything they might say to make things better. Nothing they can say could make things better.