Today we are continuing our Vivid series, our look at the poetic books of the Old Testament, and this week we are looking at a well-known book: The Book of Job. Now, it may seem odd to those of you familiar with the Book of Job for us to have asked you to think about questions like, ‘How are you really doing?’ and ‘Are you scared to death?” as preparation for today’s sermon. And I will say, the book of Job isn’t usually thought of as a book would lead us to these sorts of personal questions. But, stick with us; there is a connection and we’ll get to it soon. The Book of Job, which by the way is thought to be the oldest book in the Bible, is one of the best known and most frequently studied books, not just in the Bible, but in all of ancient literature. When I was a freshman in college I had to take a course entitled ‘The World’s Greatest Literature’ and we read Job. And even in that secular literature class this book about a man named Job and the way he dealt with unexpected tragedy struck a chord with my fellow students; it forced us to talk about important and difficult questions and probably most importantly, it pushed us to admit what we really believed about God. It’s just that powerful of a book.
As I said, this is an old book and in the time it was first written what people wanted from their dramatic works of literature wasn’t at all what we want. We want action. Believe it or not, what they wanted was to hear speeches… speeches that gave insight into the speaker’s character and instruction on the wisest ways to live life. This goes against everything we want, but the Book of Job is unquestionably exactly what a person living 3500 years ago was looking for in good literature: a little action, we get 2 chapters out of 42 of action in Job and then 40 chapters of speeches. Let’s look at Job together and you’ll see what I mean. It’s on page 359 in the house Bible (and if you need a Bible at our Fishers campus raise your hand and someone will bring you a Bible). The author begins by giving us a description of Job; actually a description of Job’s righteousness; and he does this by giving us two pictures of Job. The first is direct. In 1:1 it says, ‘In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.’ Job was a good man. But, then the author uses a second way to show us that Job had God’s blessing by giving us a description of his family and his possessions… and here the author uses the ancient world’s well-known meanings for certain numbers to make his point. Verse 2, ‘He had 7 sons and 3 daughters.’ Seven is always the number of God in the Bible. Everyone wanted sons; Job had 7, a clear sign this was from God. 10 is the number of perfection in the Bible. 7 sons plus 3 daughters equals 10 children, the symbolic perfect family. Verse 3 says, ‘He owned 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels; now we are getting into huge variations on 10. 10,000 animals is 10 x’s 10x’s 10 x’s 10… that’s uber- perfection; 500 yoke of oxen… that’s 1000 oxen and 500 donkeys or 500 yoke of oxen plus 500 donkeys = 1000 again or 10 X’s 10 X’s 10. I think you get the picture: the numbers tell us that everything about Job’s life said ‘righteous and blessed by God.’ And Job even worked hard at keeping the rest of his family’s relationship with God on good terms. Look at Verse 4: His sons used to take turns holding feasts (the Hebrew actually says birthday parties) in their homes and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When the period of feasting had run its course, Job would send and have them purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them thinking, ‘Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.’ This was Job’s custom.’ The point is clear; Job was a righteous man.
But then the scene changes abruptly. We are suddenly in the courts of heaven, Satan is standing before God and God asks Satan, in verse 8, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him. He is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.’ God has been paying attention; but, Satan’s response to God tells us that Satan assumes that the only reason any of us ‘love’ God is because we want to get something from him. In verse 9 Satan says, ‘Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has. You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has and he will surely curse you to your face.’ In other words, take away what you’ve given him and Job will do to your face what he worried his children might have only done in their hearts. He’ll curse you!
But God so trusts Job that he takes Satan on, saying, ‘Okay, Satan, you can take everything from him but you can’t harm him.’ And so in a few days, in the space of about five minutes, 3 different messengers come running up to Job to tell him that all 11,500 of his animals have either been stolen or destroyed by fire and that all of Job’s other servants have been killed. And then we read this in verse 18, ‘While the last messenger was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, ‘Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house when suddenly a might wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you.’ Can you imagine? I can’t. And yet Job’s response was to fall to the ground in worship and say in verse 21, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.’ And the Bible goes on to say, ‘In all of this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.’ Not a hint of ‘Where were you, Lord? ‘How could you let this happen? Or ‘I want nothing to do with you now, God?’ Can you imagine? I can’t.
But it gets worse. Same scenario in heaven some time later; Satan is before God and God points out Job’s righteous response to what Satan had done to him. But Satan says, ‘Job is only worried about himself. He has his health. Touch that and he’ll curse you to your face.’ Rough stuff… but God is willing to trust Job again but this time he says, ‘You can take his health but you can’t kill him.’ And soon Satan afflicts Job with a physical condition that is difficult to define… to say ‘boils,’ as it is often translated, isn’t to say enough. Throughout Job’s later speeches he lists out all that was happening to him physically through this time; it’s a long, disturbing and stomach-turning list. It’s so horrible that I don’t even want to give you any other details. Trust me on this one. Yet, and remember Job has no idea why this is happening to him, even though he ends up sitting in a pile of ashes scrapping his sores with broken pottery, he refuses to blame God. His wife has other thoughts; she says, ‘Just curse God and die, Job.’ But his response to her is, ‘Not on your life.’ Can you imagine? I can’t. And while Job is sitting in the ashes in misery, 3 of his friends, Elphaz, Bildad and Zophar, come to show their concern for him. And now the part of the drama that our ancient friends would have loved is about to start: the speeches. But the speeches can’t quite begin. Job’s friends are so overwhelmed by what has happened to Job that they sit with him in silence for seven days and seven nights. Can you imagine? I can’t. Finally, Job breaks the silence and in verse 25 of chapter 3 he says this to his friends, ‘What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me. I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil’. Well, this opens the door to Job’s friends responding in some way and the big speeches begin. Elphaz goes first. Now, the ancient world was a place where everyone in a community held the same ideas about things; diversity of thought wasn’t important or encouraged. And in Job’s community everyone believed that if you were good you’d be blessed and if you were a sinner you’d be punished. This was a given; obey… live righteously: get big blessing. Disobey… live sinfully: get big punishment. And Job’s 3 friends had actually come, not to comfort Job but to help their friend come clean. They were certain that Job had to have done something sinful or God wouldn’t have done this to him. Listen to what Eliphaz says in verse 17 of Chapter 5. ‘Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so, do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.’ But Job would have none of it and he says, ‘I haven’t done anything that needs correction. I simply want to die and end this agony.’ Well, this makes the 2nd friend angry. Bildad the Shuhite says, ‘You are simply trying to avoid God’s justice by hiding your sin. Come clean, admit what you’ve done wrong and let God’s judgement work its course.’ He even tells Job that his children must also have sinned or they wouldn’t have died. And in chapter 8 verse 20 he says, ‘Surely God does not reject a blameless man or strengthen the hands of an evildoer.’ But again, Job would have none of it. What he says in response is found in chapter 10 verse 2. He says, “I want say to God, ‘Do not condemn me, but tell me what charges you have against me.’” Job’s firm stance really riles up friend #3, Zophar. Look at what he says in Chapter 11:4. ‘Job, you say to God, “My beliefs are flawless and I am pure in your sight.” Oh how I wish God would speak, that he would open his lips against you and disclose to you the secrets of wisdom, for true wisdom has two sides. Know this Job: God has even forgotten some of your sin.’ All three of Job’s friends believe that Job is an unrepentant sinner and the proof is everywhere! But Job is unmoved and for 2 chapters he rails on how easy it is for people who are not having troubles to pass judgement on those who are! And this back and forth goes on for some time. The friends hold the line that Job has done something sinful and Job refuses to admit he has done anything wrong and it all ends this way in Chapter 32:1: So these three men stopped answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. Now, while all of this was going on a young man named Elihu had been standing off to the side listening and getting madder and madder. He was mad at Job for justifying himself and he was mad at the 3 friends for condemning Job without any proof. But, he wasn’t interested in getting Job to confess or in getting the friends to change their minds. What he wanted to do was remind everyone who they were dealing with. He says, “Job, I’ve been listening and now you’re saying that it might be ridiculous to even bother living a righteous life if this is how God is going to treat you… I think you’d better back up, Job. We do not have the ability to understand all that God understands.’ And after giving many examples of God’s far greater knowledge and power he says this in 37:23. The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power in his justice and great righteousness. He does not oppress. Therefore, men, revere him for does he not have regard for all the wise in heart. Finally, Job gets some sane counsel: we shouldn’t mess with God even if we believe we have a legitimate complaint. Not much help but at least it’s true.
And then out of nowhere the unexpected happens. God speaks. Now what I want is for God to tell everyone, especially Job, what has been going on. I want God to say, ‘Job, this is all happening because I have so much faith in you! Other than Elihu everyone is wrong. When bad things happen to people it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have sin in their lives nor do people automatically get blessed for being good. Nothing in life is so cut and dry. You’re response to your misery is actually proving that my trust in you is justified, Job! Well done!’ But God doesn’t say anything like this. He doesn’t say anything to comfort Job and He never once even hints at his interaction with Satan. What he does though is establish who is in charge… and who gets to ask the questions. And his first question is for Job. ‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?’ And from that point onward for 3 whole chapters God interrogates Job: Where were you when I made the earth, the stars or the animals? Where were you, Job? Did you do any of this? Who are you to accuse me of anything?’ It is a detailed, overwhelming and humbling questioning and Job has but one answer. We find it in 40:4. I am unworthy. How can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once but I have no answer. Twice, but I will say no more.’ And Job’s final words to God, ‘Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand; things too wonderful for me to know. And the book ends with God expressing his anger over Job’s friend’s thinking they knew all about how God works in the world and God beginning his restoration of Job: giving him back his health, his family and his possessions. And we’re left to wonder about it all… wondering about why it is that Job is never told what happened to him or why God wasn’t interested in explaining himself. And I can’t help but admit that this leaves me feeling a bit empty. I want answers and not just for Job but for you and me… in our lives when unexpected, bad things are happening. I wish we could turn to Job and say, ‘Here is the answer!’ But we can’t. I know that much of the staying power of this book is that it doesn’t give us black and white answers… that what it does is lead us into honest conversations about the uncertainties in life. But, I still wish that God’s answer had been more… shall I say direct. But again, like Job, who am I to question God? Still, with this said, it isn’t like I haven’t found some concrete truths that I can hold on to in Job. I have! For instance, this book tells us that righteous people can and do suffer in life and we should never assume that it has something to do with sin. Now, people can experience terrible consequences for bad choices and foolish actions, but when something terrible happens in someone’s life it does not immediately mean that there is a hidden sin somewhere that needed to be punished. This book tells me that often the answer to ‘Why is this happening?’ may be silence. And connected to this the Book of Job tells me that God isn’t pleased when people think they have God all figured out. Job’s friends said God was punishing sin; he wasn’t. Job tells me that we’d better be really sure we know what we are talking about before we start telling others about what God is up to.
Another truth I’ve taken from Job is that when good things are happening in someone’s life it doesn’t necessarily mean anything wonderful about that person’s character either. This book tells me that people can still be like Job’s friends: looking really good but needing a change of heart. Our world tends to hold on to the notion that blessing, especially material blessing, means our lives are pleasing to God. And that is equally a mistaken notion. Truth is, the world has systems that enable certain people to get ahead and it has nothing to with God blessing righteousness. I’ve been wondering… if the book of Job had been written now, here in our culture, would Satan have said this to God? ‘If you make Job ridiculously successful and wealthy, place him high on the social ladder and give him brilliant, athletic, beautiful children Job will do something worse than curse you, he’ll assume that he is amazing in his own right and forget about you.’ That’s probably a bigger problem for me… assuming that when things are going well that God is pleased with everything. The book of Job tells me to avoid taking myself so seriously and never stop looking deeply and honestly into my own heart.
Something else the Book of Job tells me, and this may be the most important lesson of all, God is paying attention. This one is hard to believe sometimes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been unnerved by God’s silence. Fortunately, this book says it’s normal to wonder about all of this. Job tells us he felt uncertainty, rejection, fear, dismay and loneliness, just to name a few things, all due to his assumption that he has been abandoned by God. I get this. But, if there is one thing this book tells us it is that God is aware of our circumstances and he is not going to abandon us. I still wish God would be more direct at times and yet I have to hold on to the fact that God has also promised that he will never leave me or forsake me no matter how terrible the situation may become. There is no question that the book of Job tells us that God is present and paying attention… paying attention to the details. We are not alone. We have to stand firmly in this no matter what the circumstances.
Something else the book of Job tells me: God says he built justice into the foundations of the world and that someday, how and when I don’t know, but he will, someday, bring his justice to bear on all of the wrongdoing in the world. This is my hope… it may at times be hard to hold on to but it is the truth that someday we will see God’s justice everywhere.
Oh, and here is one last thing that I’ve learned from Job and I think this may be the most important point in all that God has said to me through this book. I am to serve and trust God out of my love for who He is not because of any prestige or material gain I might get from him. I am to serve God faithfully no matter what the circumstances, knowing that God will ultimately bring his goodness to all of his children. And it’s my faith in God’s ultimate goodness that can give me strength as I go through suffering and struggle. Now I know this isn’t a happy ending but it’s a realistic ending. Life is full of sadness and suffering and it can be confusing and bewildering, but knowing God is paying attention, that he cares about the details and that he is capable of moving to either strengthen us in our suffering or release us from our suffering can give us hope for the future in the present. And so this gets me back to the questions we asked you to think about earlier… How’s your heart? Do you believe that God knows and cares about you? Your answer makes a difference. How’s your family? Do you trust God with your family? Your answer makes a difference. How’s your health? Do you believe God cares about your health? Your answer makes a difference. How’s your life? Are you afraid that you’re being punished by God? Your answer makes a difference. Job tells us your heart, your family, your health, your life are all in God’s hands… the same hands that created everything in the universe, the same hands that hold the future and the one that holds you has also promised that in all places and circumstances He will never leave you or forsake you.