After a month of looking at Wisdom literature from a woman’s point of view, we will now spend a month in the decidedly masculine book of Job which wrestles with the question that has confounded the wisest women and men in the world. Why should a righteous person suffer in a world ruled by a good and just God? This is a fitting subject as we near the end of Ordinary Time, that season of the ecclesiastical year when we focus on the many dimensions of our walk with the crucified, risen, and reigning Christ. The suffering of the innocent has always been a major stumbling stone in many believers’ walk with Christ.
It’s a troublesome subject and our reading for today raises it in a troublesome way. Nearly all preachers know that Job directly challenges the common wisdom of ancient Israel and of modern Christianity about suffering. If you are suffering, it must be because you did something wrong. It’s a simple equation; it makes moral sense; and it is often completely wrong, as in the famous case of Job. This gut-wrenching story skewers that common sense wisdom in an unforgettable way. And that’s good.
But along the way to that helpful conclusion, Job raises some deeply troubling questions about God and Satan and us. Why was God talking to Satan at all? Does the scene portrayed here happen all the time? Does God make bets with the Devil? Why would God test Job, since God presumably already knew what Job would do? The story seems to say that God wanted to prove Job’s unfailing righteousness to Satan. But who cares what Satan thinks? He is a devil, a liar and a murderer. Why didn’t God just tell him to shut up and go back to hell where he belongs? Why give in to his taunts? To shut him up? To test Job? Or to make a point to the readers of this story throughout history? That last question probably gets at the truth, but it doesn’t erase those other questions.
Job 1:1 is perhaps the most important verse in this long book, because it declares Job’s complete innocence. Thought he was not sinless (as he himself admits later in his argument with his dear friends), he was “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” He was not just a good man; he was the best in the whole world. God says so twice (1:8 and 2:3). If ever there was a man who didn’t deserve to suffer, it was Job. Indeed, he didn’t suffer at all prior to the evil intrusion of Satan; he lived a charmed life or, more accurately, a life blessed to overflowing by God. If Job had any flaws, it would have ruined the whole moral point of the story. It is his complete innocence that make his suffering so incomprehensible to him, and to us.
Except that we are let in on a nasty little secret about the reason for his suffering. It all came about because Satan taunted God about the reason for Job’s innocence. Unfortunately, the Lectionary skips the rest of chapter one, where we encounter the strange scene in heaven’s courts and the disasters that subsequently befall Job’s possessions and family on earth. But chapter 2 picks up the story back in that heavenly court with an almost verbatim repetition of God’s conversation with Satan in verses 1-3 of chapter one.
Several things are worthy of note in that conversation. First, Satan “presents himself before Yahweh” along with the other angels. Although he is “the Adversary (the literal meaning of Satan),” he is still there among the angels (or “sons of God” in Hebrew). He is not a gatecrasher; he is a servant, albeit an unwilling one, who must give an account of himself to his Master (whom he despises). Yahweh (note the covenant name of God) is sovereign over this creature.
Second, Satan is constantly at work to ruin God’s good earth. He has been “roaming through the earth and going back and forth on it.” The word translated “back and forth” can refer to the turbulence of the ocean or the disturbance of the air when a whip is cracked. In other words, Satan is always looking to stir up trouble, to disturb the peace of the planet. Or, as I Peter 5:18 put it, he is looking for someone to devour. God is in charge, but there is this other powerful (im)moral agent at work in human affairs.
So, when God points out that there is one person in this troubled world who has not fallen into the Devil’s traps, Satan replies, as he did in the parallel scene in chapter 1, that Job serves God so well because God has made Job’s life so wonderful. Job, says Satan, is guilty of the worst sin of all, putting on a front of faith and obedience while in reality manipulating God to get God’s blessing. As Hywel Jones so eloquently puts Satan’s assumption/accusation: “Piety is self-centered, and so is God! God buys praise by selling protection and Job pays for prosperity by his loyalty and Satan is utterly confident that he can prove it.”
In chapter one, the Evil One says, “You have put a hedge around him, but if you take away that hedge and he loses all your blessings, he will curse you to your face.” In chapter two, Satan repeats his scurrilous charge. Job is in this for himself. As long as has his health, as long as his own skin is untouched, he will pretend to serve you. But touch his skin, and he will curse you to your face.
Third, these first two chapters emphasize the multiple agencies involved in Job’s suffering. In chapter one, Job’s prosperity and family bliss are ripped from him by human enemies and by natural forces. But those things come into his life at the instigation of Satan. Just as soon as God gives Satan permission to touch Job’s possessions and family, disaster strikes. Those things, says Job 1:12 have been put in Satan’s hands. Job 2:7 is even more unmistakable; “Satan afflicted Job with painful sores….” This troublesome book ascribes real power to Satan. All of which means that we cannot blame God for every bad thing that happens to us; there are evil humans and there are natural forces and there is the Adversary who “works us woe.”
But finally, and this is the shock of these opening chapters, it is God who is ultimately in charge of all that befalls us. Yes, it is true that “an enemy has done this,” as the farmer says in Jesus’ parable of the “wheat and the weeds” in Matthew 13:28. But the enemy could not have acted if God had not given him permission. Twice, after being taunted with Job’s allegedly selfish piety, God says, ‘Very well, then, everything he has in in your hands…. Very well, then, he is in your hands….” God puts strict limits on what Satan can do to Job, indicating that God is in control here. But he does allow Satan to inflict terrible suffering on his most righteous servant.
And that fact raises a huge crisis of faith for us. But it didn’t for Job, not at first. Even after he loses everything and writhes in unbearable physical pain and is urged by his wife to give up on his moral and spiritual integrity and curse God, Job will not let go. Contrary to his wife whom he accuses of speaking like a fool, Job demonstrates the heart of biblical wisdom by expressing his “fear of the Lord.” Still centered on God, he says, “Shall we receive good from God, and not trouble.” And, says the writer, “In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.” Satan failed. God won. Job does not serve God for selfish purposes.
But there is still a lot of misery to come. Many questions hang in the air. Does this kind of thing happen all the time? Yes, the Bible does talk about God’s saints going through trials of all kinds (James 1:2ff and I Peter 4:12-13). But does our suffering in trials come as result of God’s conversations with the Adversary? Are we part of a “bet” between God and Satan? Or is the story in Job a one-time thing, a one-off historical object lesson designed to correct some wrong and harmful ideas about the relationship between sin and suffering?
For that matter, did all of this really happen? Or is this just a story made up to teach some big moral and theological points? Is this simply the kind of parable Jesus so often told, “earthly stories with heavenly meanings?” For example, think of the parables of The Prodigal Son or The Wheat and the Weeds. That seems unlikely because Job seems to be understood as an historical person elsewhere in Scripture. But, on the other hand, Job has no genealogy. Everywhere else in Scripture, historical figures are connected to other historical figures by family trees. Does that mean Job didn’t actually exist in history?
Or is Job like Melchizedek in Genesis, who simply appears on the scene and then disappears? This similarity to Melchizedek leads C.J. Williams (The Shadow of the Cross in the Sufferings of Job) to posit that what we have here in Job is typology. Like Adam (who also, obviously, had no genealogy) and Melchizedek, Job is a type of Christ. Williams speaks of the “Messianic Trajectory” of Job, in which Job moves from an exalted state to the bottom of the pit to an even more exalted state, as in Philippians 2:6-11.
Williams says that Job is focused on a very different question than the ones I have raised above. “The basic question of Job is: what will God do to curtail the power of Satan and subdue the Great Adversary who wanders the earth. The ultimate purpose of the trial of Job is to give a divine answer to the rebellious wanderings of Satan. That answer comes in the form of a righteous man who endures great suffering, and who is finally exalted and vindicated at last. The divine answer is intended to put the earth-wandering adversary to shame and to break the strength of his power.” Again, “the trial of Job is a provisional picture of what was to come, meant to give assurance to God’s people, and put Satan on notice.”
Thus, the Gospel lessons we can preach from Job are not just the traditional ones: suffering is not necessarily caused by our own sins; God is in charge even of Satan and the suffering he wreaks on the earth; God in his justice and mercy will make our ending immensely greater than our beginning and anything in between.
True as those points may be, they don’t speak to the issue of why God would engage in this terrible conversation and make this deal with the Devil in the first place. The only answer to that is Jesus Christ. Here’s what I mean. Satan is convinced that Job is in it for himself and so is God (see the quote from Hywel Jones above). Because self-centeredness is at the heart of Satan, he is sure that the same is true of God and those who serve God. That accusation strikes at the heart of all biblical religion. It makes of God a self-centered demon and it makes each of us a selfish worm. By engaging in this wrenching deal, God proves to Satan and all who read this story that Job isn’t in it for himself. And God proves that point about himself on Calvary, where the anti-type of Job offered himself, “the righteous for the unrighteous to bring us to God (I Peter 3:18).”
What kind of God does the kind of thing we see in Job? As Job later confesses, we don’t understand very much about the workings of God’s mind. But we do understand the workings of his heart, because we have seen the perfectly righteous one suffering for us. Questions will always trouble our minds when we suffer, but the suffering of Christ brings peace to our hearts.
Satan’s diabolical challenge to God in this book of Job reveals his pure hatred of God and all God has made. Some time ago one of my parishioners told me about a movie entitled “The Devil’s Advocate.” It stars Al Pacino as the Devil, operating in modern corporate America. In one unforgettable scene, the Devil disguised as an executive named John Milton (no, I don’t think that name was accidentally chosen) tries to recruit a young businessman played by Keanu Reeves.
Pacino/Milton’s speech about the character of God sounds like Satan in Job, only more verbose and more vicious. (Warning to the preacher—this movie is probably too graphic and blasphemous to be used in a sermon to the average church. I mention it here because it is a modern insight into the Devil’s character and campaign. I suspect you can find a similar speech in Milton’s Paradise Lost; indeed, this movie speech may well have been inspired by Milton’s Devil.)
The Devil says, “God is a prankster. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does he do? I swear, for his own amusement… his own private, cosmic gag reel, he sets the rules in opposition. It’s the goof of all time. Look, but don’t touch. Touch, but don’t taste. Taste, but don’t swallow. And while you’re jumping from one foot to the next, what is God doing. Laughing… He’s a sadist. Worship him? Never!” To which Reeves replies, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven, right?”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 7, 2018
Job 1:1, 2:1-10 Commentary