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Reflections on Job

Category Articles
Date July 31, 2020

The Beginning

Job’s three friends could not have been more wrong. They looked at this profoundly afflicted man and concluded that by his sin he had brought all this suffering upon himself. What other explanation could there be? But there was another explanation, one that lay at the opposite pole to the one these men so vehemently contended for — and that was Job’s piety. It was actually because he was so good, so holy, so outstanding a man of God that disaster befell him as it did.

None of this is conjecture. God could say at the outset of the story that there was no-one on earth like Job. He was blameless and upright, a man who feared God and shunned evil, the holiest man alive! Far from protecting him from suffering, however, his holiness is the very thing to which his sufferings were to be traced. God spoke warmly of Job’s piety to Satan. Satan responded by alleging that it was only skin deep and that, furthermore, he could prove it: if God took away from Job all the good things he had given him, Job would curse God to his face. And so the whole matter was put to the test. God permitted his servant to be placed in the crucible so that the true character of his piety might be revealed.

Godliness can lead to suffering in other ways. Take, for instance, the Old Testament prophets. Why was a man like Jeremiah so often in danger of his life? Why was he cast into prison? Why, if tradition is correct, was he eventually executed? Precisely because he was so unflinchingly faithful to God.

Think about Jesus. Satan makes him his target in the wilderness, plying him with temptations. So too at other times. Why? Because of the threat that Jesus poses. He is on a divine mission and is filled with the Holy Spirit — a dangerous man indeed! Satan attacks him, therefore, in order to stop him, and Hebrews tells us that the experience was painful: ‘He suffered when he was tempted’ (Hebrews 2:18). Doesn’t that have many parallels? Christians who are eager and determined to serve God inevitably find themselves assaulted by the evil one, just as Jesus was, and suffering because of it.

Or let’s approach it from one further angle. John Newton once wrote a remarkable hymn entitled ‘Prayer Answered by Crosses’. It begins,

I ask’d the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly his face.

Then he very movingly traces out the manner in which the Lord answered him — by affliction. It is often the way of it. The earnest believer pleads, as M’Cheyne did, that the Lord would make him as holy as a saved sinner can be, and the Lord answers him by bringing sorrows and trials into his life.

In various different ways, then, piety can lead to suffering. And because of that we can find ourselves facing a particular temptation — the temptation to not aim high; to not aspire after and seek after and labour in prayer after the kind of piety we see in a man like Job; to settle for much less than that in the hope that it will prove less costly; to shrink back from the pursuit of eminent godliness in order to avoid the pain. Do you know something of that temptation? If so then let me give you some reasons for resisting it and for seeking earnestly to be like Job notwithstanding the cost.

There is no life more beautiful. Who are the most beautiful people on earth? Those with film-star looks? Those with the fairest faces and the finest figures? Not at all. It is those whom grace has carried furthest toward its ultimate goal — the restoration of our fallen humanity to its original splendour and perfection. That grace had made Job’s life a thing of beauty! And the more conspicuous it is in our lives the more truly beautiful those lives will be.

There is no life more useful. Job’s godliness made him a friend to the poor, a defender of the innocent, a faithful husband, an honest businessman, a just employer, and an outstanding father to his children (Job 1 and 31). It made his life a blessing! It will do the same to ours. As it comes to expression in our prayers, our example, our counsel, our care for our family, our commitment to the church, in the way we conduct ourselves at work, we will be good and useful servants both of our Heavenly Master and of our fellow men.

There is no life more delightful to God. When God speaks to Satan about Job, it is with very evident pleasure: ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no-one on earth like him. . .’(Job 1:8).  As at the creation, God is looking at the work of his hands and taking delight in it. It is no different today. God continues to take pleasure in his saints and the better, the more Christ-like, the more blameless and upright we are, the more pleasure we give him.

There is no life more worthy of God’s love to us in Christ. How often we have sung these words of Isaac Watts — ‘Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all’. That is exactly what it does! There is no life more worthy of God’s love to us in Christ than a life of unreserved devotion. Let there be no shrinking back from it!

The Middle

Through a great swathe of the book of Job — from the beginning of chapter three to the end of chapter 31 — we are listening, largely, to Job himself. As we do so, one thing stands out more clearly than anything else: Job is a man who is struggling. He is carrying the most terrific weight of sufferings and is manifestly finding it hard.

His sufferings were heavy from the outset. In the course of a single day he lost almost everything that he had — all his livestock, all his servants, and, most tragic of all, all ten of his children. Who can measure such pain? Then his health broke down. Satan so afflicted him with painful sores that Job could say ‘My body is clothed with worms and scabs, my skin is broken and festering’ (Job 7:5).

Then there was the appalling way in which people treated him: ‘God has made me a byword to everyone’, he complains, ‘a man in whose face people spit’ (Job 17:6). Job became as universally despised as he had once been universally loved. And then there were his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. They came with the honourable intention of comforting Job, but they failed miserably. By their groundless accusations of wickedness, they simply made matters worse.

At first Job’s response to his sufferings was astonishingly positive. He acknowledged that they had come from God and accepted them with submission — even with adoration. As time went on, though, and his sufferings increased, he found himself struggling greatly under the weight of them.

It comes out at first in his cursing of the day of his birth (Job 3). So great is his anguish that he wishes he had never been born. In the same chapter he asks a series of agonising questions. Job is so overwhelmed by the mystery of his sufferings that again and again he cries out ‘WHY…?’

 He despairs, too, of things ever changing for the better. ‘My eyes’, he laments, ‘will never see happiness again’ (Job 7:7). So miserable is he in fact that he simply wants to die: ‘O…that God would be willing to crush me, to let loose his hand and cut me off!’ (Job 6:9).

It is in his feelings and thoughts about God, however, that the intensity of Job’s struggle is most apparent. He never doubts that God is the author of his sorrows, and eventually it becomes a huge problem to him. God is angry with me! God is treating me as an enemy! God is wronging me! God is acting toward me without pity! That is how Job feels, and he tells God so to his face.

Thus far, Job. What about ourselves? Some observations on what we’ve seen will prove helpful to us, I trust, as we struggle with our own sufferings.

Job’s experience is true to life. It is no uncommon thing for Christians to find it as hard to cope with suffering as Job did. Many, for example, are no strangers to the depression that often accompanies suffering. They find themselves wishing they had never been born, or despairing of things ever improving, or even longing for death. How many of us, too, have found ourselves overwhelmed with the mystery of our sufferings, asking all kinds of agonising why questions. Like Job, we can have all kinds of negative thoughts and feelings about God — doubting his fairness, convinced that he is our enemy — and all of these things, as in Job’s case, can be bound up with the poor state of our health.

Job demands our sympathy — whatever fault we may find with him for some of his utterances. Our fellow Christians need it as well. Like Job, they may be saying things both to and about God that they shouldn’t be, and their reactions may be bad in other ways. but before we begin to reprove them, we need to feel for them. In the providence of God they have been dealt hard blows, and anything we say to them by way of counsel and correction must come from hearts that sympathise.

Job is to be commended for turning to God. He may not be doing it with becoming reverence, he may be charging God unjustly and saying things for which he will afterwards repent in dust and ashes, but at least he is praying! And for that we commend him. It is always better to turn to God in our anguish, even if it is very imperfectly, than to fail to turn to him — or worse, to turn away from him.

Job was wrong in his conclusions about God. Appearances notwithstanding, God was not treating Job as an enemy or pitilessly and unjustly afflicting him, and the lesson — isn’t it a hard one? — is that we must not argue upwards from our circumstances to the character of God, but downwards from his character to our circumstances. He has revealed himself (supremely in Jesus) as a God who loves his people with an unfathomable and eternal love. It is in that light that we are to contemplate all his dealings with us.

Job persevered! For all his anguish and doubt, Job never turned away from God. He never cursed God to his face as Satan said he would, and by God’s grace, our experience will be the same. God is committed to our perseverance and he will always keep us pressing on, no matter what.

The End

We all love a story with a happy ending, and Job’s story, in this respect, does not disappoint us. Friends and family members come to comfort him and to help him get started again; the Lord makes him twice as prosperous as he had been before; ten more children are born to him; and the story ends with Job living for a further one hundred and forty years, seeing his children and grandchildren to the fourth generation, and eventually dying, ‘old and full of years’.

The background to this is the defeat of Job’s adversary. Satan had alleged, twice over, that if God afflicted Job severely, stripping him of all the good things he had given him, Job would curse God to his face. When God did afflict Job, we may well believe that Satan was busy behind the scenes trying to pressure Job into doing that very thing, but he failed. For though Job certainly went over the score and said things both to and about God that received a well-deserved rebuke, he never cursed God as Satan said he would.

We are to conclude from this that Job’s afflictions served their purpose. They fully established the genuineness of his piety and showed to all who would ever hear his story that a true believer can have everything taken away from him and still love God. That being so, there is something singularly appropriate about the Lord then delivering Job from his afflictions by blessing him again with the blessings he had known before.

God’s actions here shed light on a matter that perhaps we don’t often ponder. We have all asked the question why — often in an agony of spirit — in relation to the reasons for suffering coming. Do we ever seriously ask the same question about the reasons for suffering going? Why does God so often hear our prayers and deliver us from the trials we are facing?

One reason certainly has to do with God’s compassion and mercy. When James (James 5:11) reflects on what the Lord finally brought about for Job — how he delivered him and prospered him — he explains it in this way: ‘The Lord is full of compassion and mercy’. It is the very same revelation of God’s heart that is being given in the deliverances we enjoy. He does the good things that he does for us — whether it be hearing our prayers, wiping away our tears, relieving us of pain, comforting us in our loneliness, or providing for us in our need — because he is full of compassion and mercy.

Another reason, however, has doubtless to do with a divine purpose being served. God, of course, has always got purposes to serve when he sends affliction into our lives, and sometimes those purposes necessitate the continuance of suffering to the very end of our days. It is likely, for example, that Paul had a thorn in his flesh to the very end of his days because there was always a need to keep spiritual pride in check.

But it is not always like that. God’s purposes in our trials may be fulfilled in a couple of months or in the course of a year or two — a particular lesson has been learned, a particular sin has been dealt with, a satanic challenge has been met and defeated, a particular Christian grace has been developed to such a degree that we are now able to do something for the Lord that we were not able to do before. The divine purpose has been fulfilled! And with the fulfilling of the purpose the affliction is taken away from us.

Granting all the above, it still has to be acknowledged that the way Job’s story ends is not the way the story ends for every child of God. The final years of a believer’s life may be the most difficult of all by far. Sorrows may be multiplied rather than diminished, that is why we have to handle the ending carefully. We are not to take Job’s ending as a pattern experience — a kind of implied promise to all believers that it’s bound to end like this — otherwise we may find ourselves deeply disappointed.

At the same time there is a very precious sense in which the ending of our own story will resemble the ending of Job’s. ‘You have heard’, says James, ‘of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about’ (James 5:11). James wants to encourage his readers to persevere to the end, notwithstanding the afflictions and persecutions to which they may be exposed. Here is how he does it: by reminding them of the blessings the Lord finally poured out on the man who continued to cling to him in the midst of all his darkness.

Jesus puts it like this: ‘he who stands firm to the end will be saved’. Persevering Christians will eventually experience salvation in all its glorious fullness. The Lord will perfect their holiness. He will also perfect their joy. And both will be secured to them forever. There is no story that ends more happily than the story of the saint who overcomes; who presses on through thick and thin to the end! It is foreshadowed in the ending of the Job story. And when by grace we finally cross the finishing line, the reality will be most wonderfully ours.

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