A question about the book of Job

What is the value of reading the long disputations in Job, when his three friends are wrong?

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My son is reading through the book of Job and asked this question. It’s a great question, and one that had never occurred to me, and it drove me to a little more study and consideration of the matter.

First, Job’s three friends are wrong in their analysis of Job’s suffering, as God clearly points out:

It came about after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has.” (Job 42:7, NASB95)

Job’s three friends had a mechanical view of retribution theology. Retribution theology asserts a cause-and-effect relationship between sin and suffering. The basic formulation is ‟if you sin, you will suffer.” That is actually a legitimate viewpoint, as revealed by both Old and New Testaments.

For example, in the Old Testament Solomon says: “Good understanding giveth favour: But the way of transgressors is hard.” (Proverbs 13:15, KJV 1900). In the New Testament, Paul emphasizes the same principle: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” (Galatians 6:7, NASB95).

The doctrine of Job’s three friends was in error in at least two places: (1) there was no room for, or recognition of, grace in their system. Rather, their understanding was mechanistic, void of a true understanding of God’s merciful character. (2) Their view of the retribution principle was corrupted: instead of ‟if you sin, you will suffer,” they were saying ‟if you are suffering, you have sinned” [this insight came from OT scholar Tremper Longman]. This illegitimate reversal is precisely the errant view of Jesus’ disciples as can be seen in John 9:1-2:

As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?”” (John 9:1–2, NASB95)

Both of these two theological errors are replicated in our modern day, sometimes by professing Christians, sometimes by those outside of Christianity. Which brings us back to the original question: why bother read these long disputations when Job’s three friends were so wrong in their thinking? 

Those chapters are God’s Word, inspired by the Holy Spirit, which means they have intrinsic value even if we cannot identify that value. But there’s more than that: I believe the value of reading the long dialogues and disputes in Job is located in being sensitized to these wrong views of both God’s character and of His purposes in suffering. The reader of Job knows what the three friends do not know—that God actually commended Job for his righteousness. So the reader is clued in from the beginning that there is something wrong with the analysis of Job’s plight by Eliphaz and company, and something deficient in their understandings of the truths of God. 

The argumentation in Job chapters 4-31 assists the modern reader in spotting the errant logic regarding sin and suffering promulgated by Job’s friends, and it helps the modern reader spot the same errors in his own thinking or the thinking of others. Job—all forty-two chapters—helps us formulate a responsible theology of suffering without making unwarranted assumptions regarding the spiritual status of the sufferer.