Some time ago I listened to a Maxwell Institute podcast with Mark Larrimore about how the Book of Job hasbeen viewed through the ages, and I found it interesting to see how the way Job is read could change so much over time. (I highly recommend the podcast, by the way; the hour it takes is worth it, though don’t be afraid to skip forward a few minutes at the beginning to get to the meat of the discussion.)
One line of thought in the podcast that was suggestive of further avenues of studying Job was that these three friends talking to Job instead of just one suggests they all have slightly different views, and since they explore the difference between the righteous and the wicked, that suggests their views on that are slightly different as well. It challenged me to go back and look at what Job’s friends say, all with the understanding that ultimately God is not pleased with what they say, since God rebukes them at the end.
What became pretty clear to me is that Job’s friends speak in sweeping generalities about what happens to the wicked, and yet, they also claim to tell what they have observed. So they each have specific cases of people in mind that they talk about, people they consider wicked. And we may know people like this, which makes us often agree with them. But the fact God is not pleased with their views should warn us that our views are just as morally skewed as Job’s friends’.
So ultimately, if we can figure out where Job’s friends go wrong, we will also be able to correct our own wrong views about how God’s justice plays out in this life and not be so quick to judge others.
First let’s look at what Eliphaz says in Job 5:2-7, 12-14:
2 For wrath killeth the foolish man, and envy slayeth the silly one.
3 I have seen the foolish taking root: but suddenly I cursed his habitation.
4 His children are far from safety, and they are crushed in the gate, neither is there any to deliver them.
5 Whose harvest the hungry eateth up, and taketh it even out of the thorns, and the robber swalloweth up their substance.
6 Although affliction cometh not forth of the dust, neither doth trouble spring out of the ground;
7 Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward….
13 He taketh the wise in their own craftiness: and the counsel of the froward is carried headlong.
14 They meet with darkness in the daytime, and grope in the noonday as in the night.
Eliphaz refers to the foolish, the silly one, the crafty, the wise, and the froward. But what is going on in their lives, if we ignore all the name-calling by pretending the name-calling is just blanks?
Someone is killed by an angry man (v2). Another is killed out of envy (v2). Another person’s children die in accidents where no one is there to save them (v4). Another person’s crops are stolen secretly (v5) or they are robbed of their produce (v5), taken by force. Another person makes plans and then can’t carry them out (v12-13). Another has no idea what to do when to everyone else it is completely obvious (v14).
Are we to reason that because these things happen, the people they happen to were wicked? Eliphaz seems to argue it is so. Really? I don’t think so.
This tells us that we should read carefully to distinguish whether Job's friends are describing a sin or whether they are describing what they consider to be a consequence of sin.
Next let’s look at what Bildad says in Job 8:11-19:
11 Can the rush grow up without mire? can the flag grow without water?
12 Whilst it is yet in his greenness, and not cut down, it withereth before any other herb.
13 So are the paths of all that forget God; and the hypocrite’s hope shall perish:
14 Whose hope shall be cut off, and whose trust shall be a spider’s web.
15 He shall lean upon his house, but it shall not stand: he shall hold it fast, but it shall not endure.
16 He is green before the sun, and his branch shooteth forth in his garden.
17 His roots are wrapped about the heap, and seeth the place of stones.
18 If he destroy him from his place, then it shall deny him, saying, I have not seen thee.
19 Behold, this is the joy of his way, and out of the earth shall others grow.
Note that Bildad refers to these people as “all that forget God” and as “hypocrites” in v13. But if you just look at what occurs in their lives, he’s talking about people who seem to prosper very early on and then fall just as quickly (v12, 16-17). Or these people hoped for something that doesn’t come to fruition (v14). Or they depend on their families to help and their families let them down (v15, 18). But that could happen to anyone.
Let’s see what Eliphaz says in Job 15:20-35:
20 The wicked man travaileth with pain all his days, and the number of years is hidden to the oppressor.
21 A dreadful sound is in his ears: in prosperity the destroyer shall come upon him.
22 He believeth not that he shall return out of darkness, and he is waited for of the sword.
23 He wandereth abroad for bread, saying, Where is it? he knoweth that the day of darkness is ready at his hand.
24 Trouble and anguish shall make him afraid; they shall prevail against him, as a king ready to the battle.
25 For he stretcheth out his hand against God, and strengtheneth himself against the Almighty.
26 He runneth upon him, even on his neck, upon the thick bosses of his bucklers:
27 Because he covereth his face with his fatness, and maketh collops of fat on his flanks.
28 And he dwelleth in desolate cities, and in houses which no man inhabiteth, which are ready to become heaps.
29 He shall not be rich, neither shall his substance continue, neither shall he prolong the perfection thereof upon the earth.
30 He shall not depart out of darkness; the flame shall dry up his branches, and by the breath of his mouth shall he go away.
31 Let not him that is deceived trust in vanity: for vanity shall be his recompence.
32 It shall be accomplished before his time, and his branch shall not be green.
33 He shall shake off his unripe grape as the vine, and shall cast off his flower as the olive.
34 For the congregation of hypocrites shall be desolate, and fire shall consume the tabernacles of bribery.
35 They conceive mischief, and bring forth vanity, and their belly prepareth deceit.
What have we got here? Eliphaz seems to think that those who suffer in constant physical pain all their days without knowing how long their life will last has to be an oppressor (v20), probably reasoning that a person suffering chronic pain must have caused chronic pain to someone else and is just getting a taste of karma. Then he describes the pessimistic rich man (v21-24). He also seems to think in v25-27 that a person is directly fighting against God if they become really fat. (Huh?) Then he describes the rich man who lives all alone in a big house (v28) or in a house that is falling to pieces (v28), or who has sudden financial reverses (v29-33).
He ends with a scatter-shot of curses—the hypocrites will be made desolate, those who take bribery will be burned, as well as the mischievous, vain, and deceitful. Okay, we know hypocrisy and bribery is definitely bad.
But the thing about hypocrisy is that the bad stuff usually happens in secret. It is usually pretty difficult to detect hypocrites, so it is a good bet Eliphaz is referring more to people who say one thing and do something different, but all in public. And there are degrees of this behavior inconsistency, as there are to all things.
Bildad gives his contribution in Job 18:5-21:
5 Yea, the light of the wicked shall be put out, and the spark of his fire shall not shine.
6 The light shall be dark in his tabernacle, and his candle shall be put out with him.
7 The steps of his strength shall be straitened, and his own counsel shall cast him down.
8 For he is cast into a net by his own feet, and he walketh upon a snare.
9 The gin shall take him by the heel, and the robber shall prevail against him.
10 The snare is laid for him in the ground, and a trap for him in the way.
11 Terrors shall make him afraid on every side, and shall drive him to his feet.
12 His strength shall be hungerbitten, and destruction shall be ready at his side.
13 It shall devour the strength of his skin: even the firstborn of death shall devour his strength.
14 His confidence shall be rooted out of his tabernacle, and it shall bring him to the king of terrors.
15 It shall dwell in his tabernacle, because it is none of his: brimstone shall be scattered upon his habitation.
16 His roots shall be dried up beneath, and above shall his branch be cut off.
17 His remembrance shall perish from the earth, and he shall have no name in the street.
18 He shall be driven from light into darkness, and chased out of the world.
19 He shall neither have son nor nephew among his people, nor any remaining in his dwellings.
20 They that come after him shall be astonied at his day, as they that went before were affrighted.
21 Surely such are the dwellings of the wicked, and this is the place of him that knoweth not God.
Bildad seems to be describing those who don’t know what to do (v5-6), those who can’t catch a break and those who are hampered by their own weaknesses (v7-8), those who are victims of others’ wickedness, (v9-10), those who suffer from generalized anxiety (v11, 14), and the weak (v12), even those who have no sons or who lose all their children, extended relatives, or even progenitors (v13, 16-17, 19)..
But what have they actually done that is wrong? Or is he just reasoning backward and saying that since those bad things happened, that is an automatic indication of wickedness?
Then there is Zophar’s assessment in Job 20:5-29:
5 That the triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the hypocrite but for a moment?
6 Though his excellency mount up to the heavens, and his head reach unto the clouds;
7 Yet he shall perish for ever like his own dung: they which have seen him shall say, Where is he?
8 He shall fly away as a dream, and shall not be found: yea, he shall be chased away as a vision of the night.
9 The eye also which saw him shall see him no more; neither shall his place any more behold him.
10 His children shall seek to please the poor, and his hands shall restore their goods.
11 His bones are full of the sin of his youth, which shall lie down with him in the dust.
12 Though wickedness be sweet in his mouth, though he hide it under his tongue;
13 Though he spare it, and forsake it not; but keep it still within his mouth:
14 Yet his meat in his bowels is turned, it is the gall of asps within him.
15 He hath swallowed down riches, and he shall vomit them up again: God shall cast them out of his belly.
16 He shall suck the poison of asps: the viper’s tongue shall slay him.
17 He shall not see the rivers, the floods, the brooks of honey and butter.
18 That which he laboured for shall he restore, and shall not swallow it down: according to his substance shall the restitution be, and he shall not rejoice therein.
19 Because he hath oppressed and hath forsaken the poor; because he hath violently taken away an house which he builded not;
20 Surely he shall not feel quietness in his belly, he shall not save of that which he desired.
21 There shall none of his meat be left; therefore shall no man look for his goods.
22 In the fulness of his sufficiency he shall be in straits: every hand of the wicked shall come upon him.
23 When he is about to fill his belly, God shall cast the fury of his wrath upon him, and shall rain it upon him while he is eating.
24 He shall flee from the iron weapon, and the bow of steel shall strike him through.
25 It is drawn, and cometh out of the body; yea, the glittering sword cometh out of his gall: terrors are upon him.
26 All darkness shall be hid in his secret places: a fire not blown shall consume him; it shall go ill with him that is left in his tabernacle.
27 The heaven shall reveal his iniquity; and the earth shall rise up against him.
28 The increase of his house shall depart, and his goods shall flow away in the day of his wrath.
29 This is the portion of a wicked man from God, and the heritage appointed unto him by God.
Zophar describe the rich man whose children feel the need to give restitution (v5-10), the miserly and dissatisfied rich man (v12-14), the rich man who is finally forced to give back (v15-18), the rich man who dies leaving nothing to his descendants because he spent it all himself (v19-21), the rich man who is killed and robbed of everything (v23-28).
Zophar obviously does not have a good opinion of rich people in general.
The sins that he describes the wicked having committed are that they have 1) oppressed and forsaken the poor, and 2) violently taken away houses he didn’t built. It sounds like Zophar is describing money lenders when they have to eventually confiscate collateral when people default on their debt. However, those who borrow money and don’t pay it back are technically “thieves and robbers,” according to the law of Moses, so lenders are within their rights to collect.
Then we have Elihu’s view in Job 36:9-14:
9 Then he sheweth them their work, and their transgressions that they have exceeded.
10 He openeth also their ear to discipline, and commandeth that they return from iniquity.
11 If they obey and serve him, they shall spend their days in prosperity, and their years in pleasures.
12 But if they obey not, they shall perish by the sword, and they shall die without knowledge.
13 But the hypocrites in heart heap up wrath: they cry not when he bindeth them.
14 They die in youth, and their life is among the unclean.
Elihu describes those who were warned of their wickedness by misfortune and refused to listen and who died violent deaths in a state of ignorance (9-12). Then he describes as wicked those who keep making people mad (v13), those who don’t complain when they are imprisoned or handicapped (v13), those who die young (v14), and those who live among the unclean (which I think he means spiritually unclean and dirty) (v14).
You know, I’m not so sure that some of those things Elihu describes are actually bad things. You show me handicapped person who doesn’t complain or a person in prison who doesn’t complain and I’ll show you someone who has amazing self-control. Also, you can easily imagine some of those things happening to both good people and bad alike. (Who among us is so good that they never make anyone mad? Or never repeat an offense?)
Again, Job’s friends hardly ever describe specific acts of wickedness, but instead describe the misfortunes that happen to those they think are wicked. It is as if they reason backwards from circumstances. “You had this bad thing happen, therefore you are a bad person.”
Now, compare this with how Job himself describes what happens to the wicked:
7 Wherefore do the wicked live, become old, yea, are mighty in power?
8 Their seed is established in their sight with them, and their offspring before their eyes.
9 Their houses are safe from fear, neither is the rod of God upon them.
10 Their bull gendereth, and faileth not; their cow calveth, and casteth not her calf.
11 They send forth their little ones like a flock, and their children dance.
12 They take the timbrel and harp, and rejoice at the sound of the organ.
13 They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment go down to the grave.
14 Therefore they say unto God, Depart from us; for we desire not the knowledge of thy ways.
15 What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? and what profit should we have, if we pray unto him?
16 Lo, their good is not in their hand: the counsel of the wicked is far from me.
17 How oft is the candle of the wicked put out! and how oft cometh their destruction upon them! God distributeth sorrows in his anger.
18 They are as stubble before the wind, and as chaff that the storm carrieth away.
19 God layeth up his iniquity for his children: he rewardeth him, and he shall know it.
20 His eyes shall see his destruction, and he shall drink of the wrath of the Almighty.
21 For what pleasure hath he in his house after him, when the number of his months is cut off in the midst? (Job 21:7-21)
Job, in contrast, explores the often prosperous circumstances that the wicked enjoy. Clearly he has seen people who sin, who do not repent, and who nevertheless live long lives and gain great resources and influence (v7). He lists their pleasant position:
--They get to see their children grow up and establish families of their own (v8)
--Their families aren’t afraid of anything, nor do they seem to be chastised by God (v9)
--Their livestock multiplies like normal (v10)
--They have scads of happy children (v11)
--They make and enjoy music just like everyone else (v12)
--The live in wealth (v13)
To judge by what happens to them, they do not seem wicked at all. Yet, Job asserts they are when they don’t want to learn anything about God and they think their material prosperity means they don’t need to know God or serve him and they think there is not advantage or profit in serving God or praying (v13-15).
I think this is an important point. When Job describes the wicked here, he doesn’t even mention people who do unkind and oppressive acts. (He takes it for granted that his friends understand that is wicked.) Instead, he points out how wickedness is a matter of the heart—the disregard for God, which leads to neglect of faith, repentance, and obedience that would ensure an eternal reward.
He also points out that despite how the wicked enjoy their pleasant earthly circumstances, if they don’t repent God still lays up their iniquity, which is another way of saying that the pile of sins they are collecting is growing bigger and bigger by the day, and eventually they will know the bitter reward of wickedness (v19-20).
In another place, Job discourses on the variety of wickedness in the earth:
2 Some remove the landmarks; they violently take away flocks, and feed thereof.
3 They drive away the ass of the fatherless, they take the widow’s ox for a pledge.
4 They turn the needy out of the way: the poor of the earth hide themselves together.
5 Behold, as wild asses in the desert, go they forth to their work; rising betimes for a prey: the wilderness yieldeth food for them and for their children.
6 They reap every one his corn in the field: and they gather the vintage of the wicked.
7 They cause the naked to lodge without clothing, that they have no covering in the cold.
8 They are wet with the showers of the mountains, and embrace the rock for want of a shelter.
9 They pluck the fatherless from the breast, and take a pledge of the poor.
10 They cause him to go naked without clothing, and they take away the sheaf from the hungry;
11 Which make oil within their walls, and tread their winepresses, and suffer thirst.
12 Men groan from out of the city, and the soul of the wounded crieth out: yet God layeth not folly to them.
13 They are of those that rebel against the light; they know not the ways thereof, nor abide in the paths thereof.
14 The murderer rising with the light killeth the poor and needy, and in the night is as a thief.
15 The eye also of the adulterer waiteth for the twilight, saying, No eye shall see me: and disguiseth his face.
16 In the dark they dig through houses, which they had marked for themselves in the daytime: they know not the light.
17 For the morning is to them even as the shadow of death: if one know them, they are in the terrors of the shadow of death.
18 He is swift as the waters; their portion is cursed in the earth: he beholdeth not the way of the vineyards.
19 Drought and heat consume the snow waters: so doth the grave those which have sinned.
20 The womb shall forget him; the worm shall feed sweetly on him; he shall be no more remembered; and wickedness shall be broken as a tree.
21 He evil entreateth the barren that beareth not: and doeth not good to the widow.
22 He draweth also the mighty with his power: he riseth up, and no man is sure of life.
23 Though it be given him to be in safety, whereon he resteth; yet his eyes are upon their ways.
24 They are exalted for a little while, but are gone and brought low; they are taken out of the way as all other, and cut off as the tops of the ears of corn. (Job 24:2-24)
Job tells his friends that for all the wickedness people do and seem to get away with, they may be exalted for a little while, but eventually they die. They may seem to live in safety, but God sees everything they do and rewards them according to their works.
13 This is the portion of a wicked man with God, and the heritage of oppressors, which they shall receive of the Almighty.
14 If his children be multiplied, it is for the sword: and his offspring shall not be satisfied with bread.
15 Those that remain of him shall be buried in death: and his widows shall not weep.
16 Though he heap up silver as the dust, and prepare raiment as the clay;
17 He may prepare it, but the just shall put it on, and the innocent shall divide the silver.
18 He buildeth his house as a moth, and as a booth that the keeper maketh.
19 The rich man shall lie down, but he shall not be gathered: he openeth his eyes, and he is not.
20 Terrors take hold on him as waters, a tempest stealeth him away in the night.
21 The east wind carrieth him away, and he departeth: and as a storm hurleth him out of his place.
22 For God shall cast upon him, and not spare: he would fain flee out of his hand.
23 Men shall clap their hands at him, and shall hiss him out of his place. (Job 27:13-23)
Further, he describes as wicked those who oppress and he says that their children will be massacred (v14) and dissatisfied (v14), that they won’t be mourned by their surviving spouse (v15), and even if they gather riches, at the end the just and innocent will enjoy those riches instead (v16-17). He also says the rich’s power is temporary (v18-19) and only confined to this life, and they are punished with fear (v20) and natural disasters (v20-22), and social storms that hurl them out of their place (v23).
I notice that Job states the final results of wickedness, and the earthly punishments that come upon the wicked, but he doesn’t make the mistake of saying that all those who experience those things are wicked.
While his friends insisted Job had to have done something wrong that made him deserve all his suffering, and while they argued that God could only be just to allow what happened, Job knew that what had happened to him was unjust because he knew what true justice was.
Job’s friends pointed out a lot of human weaknesses and labeled it wickedness. They also pointed out a lot of tragedy thinking it was indicative of wickedness. But they also said that man was born to trouble as the sparks fly upward, so there was at least an acknowledgement that man could not escape trouble.
From this exercise, I think I’ve learned that some things I’ve thought were indicative of sin were actually just human weaknesses, like those who just can’t catch a break. I also learned that some of the suspicions we harbor against the rich are unjust too. It teaches me that to condemn others because of what happens to them would be a sin. I hope I can remember what I learned so that I am less likely to judge others. It also teaches me that everyone deserves help in adversity.