The book of Job is where our Old Testament reading track takes us this week and keeps us for the rest of February.
Of all the books of the Bible, Job has the simplest title. It’s title is far simpler than titles like Philippians or Ecclesiastes. It is just a three-letter, one-syllable, incredibly-simple word. And yet I still couldn’t pronounce it correctly as a child. I was introduced to Job when a Sunday School teacher had me read through a list of the books of the Bible. I came to Job in the middle of the Old Testament books on that list, and I thought it was the word job (as in “get a job”). I had never heard the name Job before and did not know that it was pronounced with a long O and not a short one. I thought the book was about working.
Things I Learned About Job
I learned at that moment how to pronounce the book’s title, and as the years went on I learned several other things about the book. I learned it is one of the earliest written books of the Bible. The events of Job are undatable, but it seems like they were written sometime in the Genesis period as there is no mention of the nation of Israel or the Temple worship established in Exodus.
I learned it far longer and tells a far larger story than I learned in Sunday School. When I read Job for the first time as a nineteen-year-old, I discovered the Sunday School “temptation of Job” story ends in chapter 2, and that there were still 40 more chapters to go. I couldn’t imagine what would be in those chapters, but I immediately knew there was something more going on than what I had been taught.
And I learned that Job is constructed of several related but distinct sections. This is probably the most important fact about the book I’ve ever learned. That’s because the message of the book is communicated or coded in those sections and the way they interact with each other.
And those sections/that message is what I want to share with you now.
The Debate Cycle
The first of these sections is the “Debate Cycle” section. This section runs from roughly from chapters 3-31. It starts when Job curses himself in chapter 3. This entices his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar to try to “comfort” Job by delivering speeches which accuse him of sinning and encourage him to repent. Job then counters their speeches with speeches of his own in which he asserts his innocence.
There are three “rounds” or turns in this debate (chapters 1-14, 15-21, and 22-31). In each round, Eliphaz gives a speech and is refuted by Job, then Bildad gives a speech and is refuted by Job, and then Zophar gives a speech and is refuted by Job. So each round is basically friend #1-Job, friend #2-Job, friend #3-Job. The only difference is the third round, in which Zophar does not speak, and the ending of the cycle, in which Job delivers a long discourse which shows his rejection of everything the friends said.
When I first read this book, I found the speeches so bizarre that I thought the book might not be history but rather fiction, that is, a play written not to record an actual incident but to make a theological point. After more study, I am convinced that this is not the case. I have learned since that first reading that it was common in that time and place for wise men like Job and his friends to publicly debate ideas in rounds very much like these. That being the case, it is likely these speeches not only actually happened but happened publicly, that is, in front of a crowd. It is also likely that someone in this crowd would understand the importance of these speeches and write them down, which (I believe) is how the Holy Spirit delivered them to us today.
The Wisdom Chapter
In Job’s final speech of the Debate Cycle is a chapter so unique that it should be set apart as its own section. That chapter is chapter 28. I call it this chapter “The Wisdom Chapter”. It is a short poem about the importance of true wisdom and the great need to find it.
We are not certain how this chapter fits into the Debate Cycle or the entire book. On the surface, it looks just like something else Job said to his friends, and it might well be.
There is another possibility, though, one I like better. It is possible this chapter is an insertion, something the author of Job shoehorned into the text at this moment to make a point. In other words, this is not part of Job’s speech, nor is it anything that was said by anyone at that time. Rather, it is something being said in retrospect as a comment on these events and the implications these events have for us today.
This possibility makes a lot of sense. The book is about wisdom, particularly the wisdom to interpret the difficulties or “downs” of life. And this chapter points to that wisdom in a powerful way. Not only so, but the ancient biblical authors liked to put important things in the middle of their books rather than the end, and this is close to the middle of Job. So that is what I think we have here: an incredibly important commentary from the author about our need to study this book and understand what it is telling us.
The next section is chapters 32-37. These chapters record “Elihu’s Speeches”, that is, the speeches given by a young man named Elihu who was witnessing these events. Elihu was not one of Job’s friends, and his speeches are not part of the Debate Cycle. Rather, they are something that occurs after the Debate Cycle.
To be honest, I don’t understand these speeches. Since they are not part of the Debate Cycle, and since they come from a person who is very different from the friends, so it is reasonable to think they are different from the speeches of that cycle and those friends. But they don’t seem to be. Elihu seems to be saying the same thing the friends say. While I could be wrong, it looks to me like he is accusing Job of sinning and encouraging Job to repent.
It is possible that he is doing exactly that. But there are other possibilities as well. It is also possible that this speech is setting up other things. My Bible college professor believed Elihu was really just introducing God here, which he does seem to do; he senses God coming, tells everyone God is coming, then gets out of the way. I think it is also likely that Elihu is the author of this book. I think he is the witness who recorded the Debate Cycle and then compiled that cycle and the events around it into Job as we know it today. So this may simply be his way of introducing himself to us. Not only so, but his age may be a factor here as well. It may be that Elihu is just God’s way of showing us that young and old both fail at understanding life.
The final major section, and the most important one, is God’s speeches. These speeches run more or less from chapters 38-42. As Elihu said at the end of his section, a storm moves in and God speaks from it.
The interesting thing is that though God speaks, He does not say what Job hoped He would say. Job’s main question in his speeches is, “Why did this happen to me?” God could have answered that question easily. He could have said, “Well, Satan and I had a bet, and you won!”
But He doesn’t. I think He couldn’t. I think Job would not be able to understand that truth and would reject it even if it was explained to him. Consider this for a second: if God told you that you would be brought to the edge of ruin and death in order to encourage generations of people you never met, would you accept that? Would you think that was just great? Probably not. I don’t think Job would have accepted that, either, even though it is logical and true.
So God does not do that. Instead, He talks about Creation, using it to show Job how intelligent and powerful He is. Now I have always thought God was telling Job, “There are simply things you can’t understand.” And He may be saying that here. But Pastor Doyle suggests that God is trying to get Job to trust Him, showing Job that He is worthy of faith. That is certainly a part of these speeches as well.
And these speeches do their job (that’s job with a short O). Though Job never heard what he wanted to hear, he still bowed before God and confessed that he has been answered, saying in 42:5:
Faith For Today
Several years ago, I came across a book in Barnes & Noble called Gods Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer. As soon as I read that title, I knew it was incorrect. The Bible does answer the question of why we suffer. It may not answer that question the way we want, giving us every detail for every situation we experience, but it does answer question. It does so right here in Job. This book gives us the answer or “wisdom” that suffering is largely unfathomable from our perspective but that God remains trustworthy. It tells us there are whys, but it also tells us we wouldn’t understand them and directs us to think about things greater than them, that is, to think about God Himself. That’s what Job and his friends and Elihu needed to do. That’s what we need to do as well. That is the wisdom Job passes on to us.