Perhaps Job wished his friends had remained silent. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar initially didn’t speak a word to Job. His suffering was too great. They remained silent for a week. But Job 4 marks the beginning of their speeches, where they begin to tell Job what they really think.
Eliphaz is the first of Job’s friends to speak. He speaks first probably because he’s the oldest. We pick up in Job 15:9–10 that he’s a gray-headed man, older than Job’s father. Bildad is the second of Job’s friends to speak, beginning in Job 8. He is brasher than Eliphaz. Zophar is the third of Job’s friends to speak, and he is even brasher than Bildad. Job’s friends all share something in common, however: their understanding of Job’s suffering. It can be summarized in a few questions from their speeches:
Eliphaz: “Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” (Job 4:7)
Bildad: “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” (Job 8:3)
Zophar: “Do you not know this from of old, since man was placed on earth, that the exulting of the wicked is short, and the joy of the godless but for a moment?” (Job 20:4–5)
Job’s friends each understand the universe as operating according to a certain law. The reason for suffering, in their minds, is very simple. You reap what you sow. You get out of life what you put into it. You are responsible for your actions, and suffering is a consequence of your actions. The implication is that Job has sinned. It may have been a little sin, it may have been a medium-sized sin, or it may have been a big sin. It may be a present sin or some past sin that Job has forgotten about. One way or another, their answer to this predicament—from a philosophical, theological point of view—is that Job is reaping what he has sown. It’s karma. You get whatever’s owed to you.
What do we make of that as a principle, as a philosophy, as a theological way of understanding Job’s predicament? I think the first thing we must say is that it’s partly right. The Bible does explicitly teach that you reap what you sow (Gal. 6:7). Within the biblical worldview, we actually believe this. There are consequences to our actions.
But, of course, this principle is partly wrong. This is also taught in the Bible. Take the example of John 9, the incident where we read of the man who was born blind. The disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v. 2). What inference lies behind the disciples’ question? The same principle at work in the understanding of Job’s friends is at work here. Somebody has sinned. But do you remember Jesus’ answer? “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (v. 3). There was no immediate connection between the sin of this man or the sin of this man’s parents to the malady that he was experiencing. Jesus healed him. God used this man’s suffering in order that He might be glorified.
The principle that all suffering is punishment is a very simplistic view of life. It’s black-and-white. It’s very easy to comprehend. There are no question marks. There are no gray areas. There’s no amount of suffering that Job’s friends can’t fit into this worldview. But life is more complicated than that. This gives us two principles to remember when we counsel others.
First, even in our good intentions, we can be wrong. We can come in, analyze the situation, give some analysis of it, and be completely wrong. This is the function of the prologue of the book of Job. We learn that Job was a godly man, and the reason for his suffering was not his sin. His friends were wrong.
Second, the reason why we can be wrong is that God’s ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. Does Job have an answer to the question “Why?” No, he does not. But he can lay his troubles at the feet of Almighty God. This is whom we need to direct people to when they are suffering inexplicably.
In Job 9, after Bildad’s first speech, Job concludes that there is no arbiter between him and God (v. 33). When our brothers and sisters in Christ feel this way in their suffering, we need to point them to Christ. He can identify with us in our inexplicable suffering. That’s the beauty of the gospel. Jesus has been in a place where there seems to be no justice. He’s been in a place where violence was done to Him. He’s been in a place where He has cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). He’s seen the brutality and the injustice of this world. He can represent our case. He can hear us when we cry out to Him, when we seem to have lost all hope in this world. We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One.
Adapted from “Miserable Comforters” and “Contending with God” from the Ligonier Ministries teaching series The Book of Job with Derek Thomas