by Paul Hazelden

1.   Introduction
  1a.   True literature
  1b.   Wealth
2.   The Revelation of Job
  2a.   Ezekiel and Job
  2b.   The God we cannot grasp
  2c.   Learning from Scripture
  2d.   Your story too
3.   Three Aspects of Suffering
  3a.   Understanding God
  3b.   Pastoral care
  3c.   Answering questions
4.   The Story of Job
  4a.   Prologue
  4b.   Dialogues
  4c.   Interlude
  4d.   Monologues
  4e.   Epilogue
5.   Conclusion
  5a.   Complaining
  5b.   Suffering

1.   Introduction

This morning we continue our brief skip through that part of the Old Testament called the 'Wisdom Literature'. As we look at the book, we need to keep in mind two quite different aspects.

1a.   True literature

Firstly, it is a work of literature. It has a very clear literary structure, and the structure builds in a very careful way to support and embody the message of the book. As a piece of literature, it is a fantastic achievement. As a piece of theology dealing with the question of suffering, it has never been surpassed. If you are suffering, you need to understand the message of this book. If you know someone who is suffering, you need to understand it. If you have suffered in the past, or might suffer at some point in the future, you need to understand it.

But secondly, we have to remember it is presented to us as a true story. It is not a parable. Job is shown, not as a stock character, an embodiment of suffering, but as a real person who really suffered. God is revealed in the life and suffering of one of His children. This is the way the Bible handles theology: not as a series of abstract, academic statements, but in living description of real things which happened to real people who lived in real places. A friend of mine at work has visited the tomb of Job in Oman.

However, this is a work of literature, not a piece of history. Unlike the history books, it does not give us a list of his ancestors. It does not pretend to place Job precisely, by describing either where he lived or when. It does not tell us everything what happened or was said. The dialogue is split into three cycles. Perhaps in real life, they went over the same ground thirty times. It does not matter: what we are told is true, and is all we need to know.

In some ways, the book is like an inside-out sandwich: you have two interesting and tasty bits at the start and the end, and in the middle you have a large, solid and - to be honest, at times almost indigestible - lump of dialogues and monologues which are both essential and irrelevant to the overall message. What I will try and do this morning is to give you enough understanding of the central passages to enable you to appreciate something of the depth and richness of this remarkable book.

1b.   Wealth

Before we start on the content of the book, what background do we need to understand? One aspect of the story which does not fit with modern thinking is the attitude to wealth.

We are familiar with rich business men who are essentially crooks who never got caught. We are familiar with people who have inherited wealth and have neither the talent to do anything with it nor the character to see beyond keeping themselves amused. Things were very different when Job lived.

Job is a wealthy man at the start of the book. In the original setting and culture, wealth was seen as a blessing from God and a sign that He approved of you and your lifestyle. This is why the loss of Job's wealth was such a blow: it was not just the normal setback that anyone who loses money would experience today.

2.   The Revelation of Job

2a.   Ezekiel and Job

The difference between Ezekiel and Job could not be much greater. Ezekiel shows the covenant community restored and renewed; Job shows one sick and bereaved person sitting in a pile of ashes. Ezekiel is caught up with the glory and wonder of God right at the beginning of his ministry, while Job has to go through a long period of pain and misery before God reveals himself at the end.

So does the story of Job contradict the message we took from Ezekiel? In a sense. In one sense, like the book of Ecclesiastes, Job stands against all the neat theories we build up. It stands as part of, but apart from the rest of the Bible. The God revealed in this book and the truths taught by it are recognisably the same as in the rest of the Bible, but they are seen in a very different light.

2b.   The God we cannot grasp

Imagine someone you have known for years - perhaps a middle aged man you have worked alongside. You know him to be shy, inoffensive and retiring chap. And then one day you go to a pantomime, and there he is, dressed up in a colourful costume, laughing and larking about, playing the fool on the stage and having a wonderful time. It is a shock, isn't it? Did you really know him, after all? Well, yes, you did, but only in part. You now realise there are parts of his life you know nothing about: there is far more to him than you ever suspected.

That is what the book of Job does to us. We think we know God from the rest of the Bible, but this story reveals the true depth of our ignorance. Stories in the rest of the Bible often end neatly, with a clear message and moral purpose. God sometimes seems, if not predictable, at least understandable. His reasons and motives are rational, His purpose one we can understand and approve. But in this book, there are no neat solutions, no simple answers. God does not play by the rules we have come to expect.

Of course, this revelation is not unique to the book of Job, but here we see truths which are just mentioned, lightly touched on elsewhere in the Bible, presented here in stark relief. We are not offered anywhere to hide, there are no neat answers to mask the underlying fact that God remains a mystery to us, His purposes are way beyond our understanding.

We know only what God chooses to reveal to us, and there is no suggestion anywhere in the Bible that He chooses to reveal everything. He reveals what He wants us to know, and we must be content to remain in ignorance of the rest until finally we get to glory, where we will know as we are known.

2c.   Learning from Scripture

The book of Job is not a work of systematic theology: it is a story about a person. A large amount of the Bible is just this: stories about people. But not just stories, and not just true stories: they are stories with important and relevant content. I was going to say, 'stories with a message', but that is too simplistic. Yes, they do have a message, or multiple messages, but they are much more.

This is the way the Bible teaches us: it shows us an aspect of real life, and helps us understand what is going on behind the scenes, what is really happening. Not in some general, abstract way, but in this 'for instance'.

2d.   Your story too

It seems to me that the author of Job is playing the same trick on on the reader as Tom Stoppard plays on the audience in The Real Inspector Hound, asking us to think about our involvement in the play. Yes, you, like Job, are involved in this story; and, just like Job, you don't know everything that is going on.

After all, this book is in the Bible because it is relevant to you and me. Like Job, things go wrong in our lives. Does it mean that we have sinned or that God has stopped loving us? Like Job, we will probably need to address these questions. And, like Job, we will probably find some answers, even if they are not the ones we are looking for. And we need to remember that, Like Job, we may not yet know why things happen, but that does not mean there is no reason.

3.   Three Aspects of Suffering

We cannot possible do justice to this book in a single sermon. The central theme is suffering, and this message directly affects us in at least three fundamental ways.

3a.   Understanding God

Firstly, it changes our understanding of God. Some scholars have interpreted this book in all kinds of ways. They say things like: "Clearly God and Satan could never have a conversation like the one recorded here, so we must find some better way of understanding what the book is trying to say to us." I am tempted to do the same myself, at times.

It is much easier to say "I don't think God would say this" or "I don't think God would behave like that" than to say "This does not fit my understanding of God: I must be wrong. What can I learn here?" But the path to spiritual maturity requires just that - the willingness to be proved wrong, to change your understanding, to let go of your simple, childish ideas of God and work at developing an understanding which can cope with the real world. It is not easy, but then no-one ever promised it would be.

3b.   Pastoral care

Secondly, it helps us understand how to care for people. We are taught the principles, and shown examples of pastoral care in action. We need to learn from Job's comforters, what they did right, and what they did wrong, because people still make the same mistakes today.

When I was suffering very badly from eczema, a lot of people were praying very fervently for my healing. I really appreciated that. There were, however, quite a number who could not handle the fact that I was not getting healed as a result of their prayers. It didn't fit their theology. So I regularly had people trying to help me find areas of secret sin in my life so I could repent of it and get healed.

That is exactly what Job's comforters were saying. Of course, my friends did not put the matter as bluntly as we read it here. They would say, "Perhaps something is getting in the way of your healing" or, "Perhaps something is blocking God's blessing from flowing in this area of your life."

They never said, "Perhaps you have become a casualty in the cosmic battle between Good and Evil." They never said, "Perhaps this is just one of those things we will never understand until we get to Heaven." Either of these would have been perfectly Biblical responses, taken directly from the book of Job.

But it is so much easier, when we see someone suffering, to be able to point the finger, and say: "It's their own fault." It is frightening to watch Job's comforters at work, to see how easy it is to slip from trying to help and comfort to pinning the blame on the person who is suffering. And when we have recognised it in the Bible, we need to pray that we will recognise it in real life, and be prepared to do something about it.

3c.   Answering questions

Thirdly, it is vitally important when we are sharing our faith. How we answer the questions asked by unbelievers really matters to them. And the fear of not being able to answer their questions is a real barrier to many Christians sharing their faith in the first place.

Of all the questions people ask, there are two big ones which come up time and time again: "What about other religions?" and "What about suffering?" The Bible does not offer us a simple, pat answer to either of these questions, but it does provide us with enough understanding to meet people's needs in these two areas.

We do not have time this morning to explore the area of suffering beyond this one simple point: most people have no problem with suffering as such. Many people choose to suffer in many ways - look at the millions who watch Eastenders each week, or look at any athlete who pushes his or her body to the absolute limit just for the sake of winning a race.

No, the problem most people have is with pointless suffering. People don't mind as long as there is a good reason for it. When something tragic happens, the immediate question which arises from the depths of their grief is: "WHY?" "Why did it happen?" "Why did God allow it?" Do you hear what they are saying? "I want to understand. Give me a reason."

Job, through most of this book, is crying out for understanding; and in the end, God grants it to him - but He does not give a reason. Job grows spiritually, and ends up understanding what he can know, and trusting God for what he cannot know at the present. His suffering is no longer a problem for him. That is the point we all need to reach, and again, we must not pretend that getting there is easy.

So the Bible does have an answer to the question of suffering. It is not an easy answer, but no easy answer would satisfy.

4.   The Story of Job

It's time we took a quick look at the book itself. This is the basic structure.

4a.   Prologue

The Book opens with a completely unbelievable scene. You are there in Heaven, and in comes Satan. Remember all the scenes in horror films where the vampire creeps up on the hero or heroine, and at the last moment a crucifix is produced and the vampire flees? We all know that evil cannot endure the symbols, let alone the presence of goodness. And here is Satan calmly strolling into the presence of the Almighty.

We all know what ought to happen next: God looses a thunderbolt and blasts Satan for his effrontery. But no. God engages Satan in a conversation. What have you been doing then? Oh, this and that, you know the sort of thing. Does this fit your image, your expectations of a meeting between God and Satan?

And then we get the most unbelievable bit of all. We see God tempting Satan, taunting him. "Have you considered My servant, Job? There's no-one like him in all the world." If you read this anywhere else, you would say this is a dreadful parody, a farce written in very bad taste. Unfortunately, it happens to be scripture.

When we meet Job, he is wealthy and righteous. Satan does not attempt to question Job's righteousness behaviour: what he does is question the motivation behind it. "Does Job serve God for nothing?" Of course not! You make it worth his while. What you see in Job is self-interest, not true holiness.

Satan's argument strikes at the core of the standard beliefs held in Job's day. If people serve God through self interest, all holiness is a sham. God allows Satan to take away Job's wealth and kill his children. Job remains firm: "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised."

Satan then takes away Job's health, and afflicts him with sores and boils. Job remains firm, but his wife is not much help. She expresses what is still today the common wisdom. She says, "Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!" What is the point in serving God if He doesn't dish out what you want? She assumes that self interest is the only basic motivation.

We need to hear and remember Job's response: "Should we accept good from God and not trouble?" I am willing to trust God knows what He is doing when I like the results. But whether I like the results is not the point: I trust God because He is trustworthy. He is the same loving God whether I enjoy what he sends or hate it. He must know what he is doing. I have to trust Him: how else can I live?

4b.   Dialogues

Job's comforters (Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophur) come on the scene. Let us not be too hard on them: much of what they did was right.

They sat with Job. Sometimes, when a person is hurting, the best thing you can do is just to be there with them.

They were completely sound in their theology. God blesses the righteous and punishes the sinful. God is punishing Job greatly, therefore he must have sinned greatly to deserve it. Just confess your sin and all will be well.

Job can only keep repeating that they are wrong. He knows he is not perfect, but he also knows that he is not suffering as a result of his sin. Note how confident he is that if he had sinned he would have known about it. God would not punish him for sins he was unaware of. We need to remember this when Satan starts attacking: we cannot sin in any important way without being aware of it.

4c.   Interlude

After going round the same ground three times, Job gives up. He knows he is not getting anywhere, they must need more wisdom. But where can wisdom be found? We are given at least a starting point: the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom.

4d.   Monologues

Job then gives full vent to his feelings. It is a powerful passage, and his comforters fall silent. They cannot ease his pain, and they cannot make him admit to a sin which would justify this pain.

Then Elihu steps up. He has been listening all along, and is angry with all four of them. Elihu has misunderstood some of the arguments, but his heart is in the right place, and he has a better instinctive understanding of God than the three comforters. He is mistaken in detail, but fundamentally right: God is so much greater than you are. What right do you have to expect God to justify Himself to you? How absurd for you to imagine you would understand if He did so! "The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power."

And then, to prove Elihu both right and wrong at the same time, God answers Job. It sounds like God tears Job to shreds. [Chapter 38: 1-7]

God continues like this for two chapters, and invites Job to answer Him. Come on: you wanted to accuse Me of injustice. Here is your chance! But Job wisely declines the invitation, and God continues for another two chapters.

Please, if you have not done it before, read these four chapters, 38 to 41, and put yourself in Job's place. We do not have time to do it now, but it is essential to feel the message in your bones if you want to see yourself in a right relationship with God.

4e.   Epilogue

We then get the final twist. After putting Job very firmly in his place, God turns on the three comforters: "I am angry with you three because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has. My servant Job will pray for you and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly."

Now, isn't that a warning to us? They had only been repeating what they knew to be sound, Biblical theology. But they had been mis-representing God because they had misunderstood how that theology was to be used and applied.

Just repeating things you know to be true is not enough. Satan can quote scripture to suit his own ends. Biblical truth is dangerous stuff: you dare not play around with it. Biblical truth should be handled with care, in love, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He is the only one who can interpret and apply scripture in the way that God intends.

5.   Conclusion

5a.   Complaining

A lot of the book is taken up with Job complaining. Life is miserable. People don't understand him. He would be better off dead. He says this over and over again.

How true to life! People who are hurting do complain. Very often, they complain over and over again, and sometimes, if we are honest, we get sick of them. In this book, it is very easy to get sick of Job's complaints. But Job has, if not a right to complain, at least a need to do so. This is something we sometimes sweep under the carpet.

Complaining is healthy. A stiff upper lip is very British but leads to sick people. God allows us to complain, to express how we feel, and to repeat ourselves until we have said it enough times. It helps if our brothers and sisters also give us that freedom.

"Mustn't complain" sounds very spiritual, but is often unreal. If you do not complain out loud, you usually complain inside, and the trouble is that nobody hears you.

"I don't want to be a burden to anyone." Wrong! We are here to help and support each other. If you do not express your need, you deny me the opportunity to help.

"If I don't ask, I can't be let down." True. A common problem: we can be safe, or we can take risks and grow.

Another thing to note: Job complained, but he did not use his complaints as an excuse to sin.

The Jews are much better than us at expressing their feelings, both sorrow and joy. For us, it is not the 'done thing,' and we are wrong when we fail to follow their example. Instead of being restrained and British, it is better to remember Archbishop Desmond Tutu when the first elections took place in South Africa: "I want to sing, I want to dance. Yippee!!"

5b.   Suffering

And finally, I hope you can see how God's truth applies to the three areas we identified earlier.

When we take the gospel to people, we do not need to have an answer to every question "Why did this happen?" - we need to know that God has the answers, and will reveal them when He considers the time is right. I am allowed to be weak and ignorant; I am merely pointing them to a strong, loving and all-knowing God.

When we meet people who are suffering, perhaps we can be less certain about what is happening and why, and more willing just to testify to God's love and goodness, whether we feel it at the moment or not.

And finally, let us remember that suffering is at the heart of God's character. At the centre of the Christian faith is the Cross, the place where God chose to suffer and die for us so that we can be spared the suffering and death we deserve.

We worship a God Who chose suffering for Himself, to spare us, His children. And, if that does not inspire you to trust Him and love Him and serve Him with everything you have, I don't know what will.

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