An Example of Suffering and Endurance

Hywel R. Jones
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Jan/Feb 2005

"Suffering is the badge of all our tribe" are the words of Shylock, the Jew, in Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice. Although he spoke insincerely, what he said was not devoid of truth. But now that Jesus, the Messiah, has come all who believe in him are the people of God in a world of fallen mankind, and suffering is their badge, too. Jesus said that this would be the case when he called on all would-be disciples to take up their cross (Matt. 16:25). As Jesus "learned obedience through what he suffered" (Heb. 5:8), so do they-although he had a unique task which is not passed on to them. But "no servant is greater than his master" (John 13:16; 16:20).

James, the Lord's brother, wrote about this to fellow-Jews who believed in Jesus as God's Messiah and who were consequently being oppressed (see James 2:6-7; 5:1-6). He encouraged them to be steadfast (1:2-3, 12), to "hold the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ" (2:1) in a worthy manner and, like a farmer who waits through dry seasons for rains to mature the crop, to wait patiently and, not discontentedly, for the Lord's coming (5:7-10). He then referred to the Old Testament prophets who "spoke in the Lord's name" as providing "an example of suffering and endurance" and he appeals to his readers' knowledge that such are blessed of God. It is at this point that he makes a specific reference to Job who, although he was not a descendant of Abraham, exemplified such endurance and obtained such blessing. James knew that he was not telling his readers something new because he could remind them that they had "heard" of "the steadfastness of Job" and that they had "seen" "the end of the Lord."

Where and how, we might wonder, had they heard and seen these things? The answer must be that it was from the book that bears his name, from their religious upbringing and doubtless from Christian teaching, too. By what he says about Job, James therefore indicates how Christian people should think about endurance in suffering. We will try to gauge the greatness of Job's endurance by means of a review of his sufferings and of the Lord's compassionate intervention.

Job's Costly Endurance

No suffering is easy to bear. The suddenness and successiveness with which blows can fall, coupled with an increase in their severity, or resumption after an interval and their prolongation, cumulatively form one massive, insupportable burden. The account that we have of Job's afflictions in the opening two chapters of the book include all these features. The seemingly ordinary expression "There was a day" (1:6, 13) introduces what was extraordinary in Job's experience, and the echoing expression "Again there was a day" repeats the like but with an extra note of foreboding. There had never been a day like it before in Job's life, and there would be others that were worse. The recollection of his previous days only served to increase his grief (29:2-30).

The loss of all his animals and almost all the servants-those who survived the calamities only being spared to bring him the terrible news-amounted to total impoverishment. Then came the news of his children's deaths-and what are crops, animals and servants to children-those precious sons and daughters for whom he had prayed? By that report a far heavier blow fell on his already battered spirit. But so far his body is left unscathed-but not for long. His health is now removed by a disease that would deprive him of all human society and solace, including even that of his wife whose remark is perhaps "the unkindest cut of all" as she urges him to curse God so as to be cut off by him.

Yet Job "did not sin nor charge God with wrong" in all these reversals. Just as he had not sinned so as to deserve those calamities, so he did not sin just after they befell him. He maintained his faith in God, receiving "evil" from him in exactly the same spirit of thankful worship as he had received "good," and encouraged his wife to do the same. Such endurance was costly and hard. Being human, he was grief-stricken (1:20).

Soon he has to cope with his three particularly close friends (19:21) and over some length of time. They were kind, wise, and good. They met voluntarily, traveled to bring him comfort when they heard of his circumstances, and so they spoke to him about God. But their instinctive reaction when they saw him and their protracted silence as they sat with him conspired to increase his already great bitterness. But soon they are at loggerheads with each other, and that augments his anguish still further.

Death had crossed his path in the case of his animals, servants, and beloved children. We have noted how he responded to that, but bereavement cannot be shaken off overnight. Death is then mentioned by his wife in connection with God's judgment as a way out from his current plight, and once more he can react vigorously against that. But in the week of silence and sickness since the friends arrived it seems that the reality of death has been very present to his thoughts because when he next speaks (chapter 3), death is everywhere, and it is seen as something to be desired. This points to his suffering having reached another dimension. Mental anguish is added to physical pain and to social ostracism. The mind has its own deep recesses and self-starting processes that can be beyond human knowledge and control and especially when the body is racked with discomfort. In the silence, Job desires death because he has become engulfed by a darkness of soul. Thoughts can be harder to cope with than sores, and a vent must be found for the anguish. He despises life and complains bitterly that he cannot be deprived of it yet; but strangely, he never thinks of ending it himself. From now on he is alone and in the dark.

This darkness is deepened by a number of factors. The first is that little spiritual light (knowledge) had been given to him before he entered into it. The period of Job's history in which this book is set is the patriarchal period. This can be seen from the fact that 1) his wealth is indicated by flocks and herds; 2) he acts as priest for his family and household and makes offerings of the earliest sort; and 3) the names he uses for God are generally pre-Mosaic (though he does use the divine name once, see 12:9). In addition, 4) his age compares with that of Jacob who lived 130 years less than his father, Isaac (see Job 42:16 and Gen. 47:9).

In thinking about Job we are therefore to think of the amount of revealed truth that God had disclosed to the patriarchs as being the sum total of what Job could know-and probably he knew less than that. There is no reference to the Mount Sinai revelation, but Adam's sin is referred to in 31:33. The murder of Abel may be alluded to in 16:18, but that is probably reading too much into a figurative expression. The point, however, is that Job lacked so much of God's truth which was calculated to illumine and calm the minds of the people of God. The light that the Hebrews had in their houses in Egypt when all the land was engulfed in darkness, and the help of the prophets when they were later in Babylon was completely unknown to him-as was their emancipation from both places. We must always bear this in mind lest we judge Job too harshly, as his friends did (4:4-6). If we are interested in being severe then we ought to berate ourselves, we who not only know of Egypt and Babylon but Calvary and the promises that God will never forsake his people!

The second factor is, of course, that Job is completely unaware of what had transpired in God's heavenly court. There, the Satan (the arch-opponent of the Lord and his people) had impugned the honor of each by depicting them as being in reality consumed with self-love rather than genuine love for each other. This distortion was but a reflection of himself and it was a lie-an all-out anti-gospel lie. God gives because he loves and not so that he might get; humans love not because of what they have been given but because they have been so loved. Satan's lie was of such magnitude that it could not be allowed to stand. It was the antithesis of grace-both in the giver and the recipient.

Thirdly, and in order to expose its falsehood and demolish its appeal-for God is intent on destroying Satan's works in the interests of his people's good and not only of his own glory-he allows Satan to turn Job's world upside down. As God's honor had been previously advanced by Job's evident and consistent piety, the genuineness of that piety had to be manifested as publicly. Consequently, instead of Job's world being one in which God smiled and Job served-almost an Eden, it became a kind of concentration camp, a black hole of meaninglessness and an inferno of rage. It is a world in which God has turned against Job without just reason, refuses to explain his action, indeed refuses to speak to him at all, and instead keeps on hounding him to death. This is the antithesis of Eden; it is a kind of hell. This being so (or seeming to be so, for in the dark things are not what they seem), why should Job continue to serve God? For Job not to renounce such a God is fortitude indeed.

In addition to this prison and the monster jailer presiding over it that Satan has fabricated, he has one further weapon to use. It is the friends. Just as he had struck by repeated events in the opening chapters and then by way of speech through what Job's servants and his wife had said, so now he uses the friends' interpretation of those events to put further pressure on Job. And what unending pressure! They repetitively tell him that calamity has befallen him because he has sinned, and then offer him restoration if he will only acknowledge that he has been a hypocrite all along! This endless interrogation is Satan's master stroke (or his last throw) because if he can get Job to admit that he has sinned and to do penance to get God's blessing, then Job's testimony to God and God's endorsement of him are just lies. The glory of God and of his grace to man that produces godliness would be shattered. So the deluded friends hammer away at Job and Job, completely oblivious of what is afoot, hammers back at them and even at the God he knew rather than grasp at a blessing for himself.

This is indomitable faith even though it is mixed with sin. Job will be reproved for calling God to account by both Elihu and the Lord himself, but that is not the focus of this essay. Our attention is on Job's endurance against numerous and overwhelming odds-and from a position of weakness. He was engaged in an unequal battle against an unknown foe. Unaware of the immense honor bestowed upon him in being named God's champion against Satan, he was fighting the Lord's battle blindfolded and unarmed. But there were two nonnegotiables in his mind and spirit. He could not give up on the God he had known although he no longer understood him; nor would he give in and believe that he himself was a hypocrite in order to get a restoration of an idyllic past. There must be a resolution of the real facts of the situation. If only God would appear to defend himself against Job's accusations and to defend Job against the accusations of his friends. If only there was someone who could intervene and bring God and Job together once more…. He would wait and not give up.

Job's Precious Endurance

From what has been said it might seem as if Job was left unaided in his struggle with the powers of darkness. That is not the case. The Lord boasted of him to Satan and had his eye on him all the time. Throughout his struggle he was graciously though unconsciously supported by God, and occasionally was given some glimmers of light as he pioneered his way toward God. His very persistence in addressing God by way of appeal and accusation and also arguing with his friends and rejecting their counsel is a manifestation of his being upheld by God. It was not only dark thoughts that could spring up in the mind unbidden, but thoughts that inspired hope, even if it was only faint hope.

His meditation on the possibility of life after death in chapter 14 is an example of God's being near to him although he could not see him. He soliloquizes, "Why should a lopped tree sprout again and man, God's special creation, not be restored to life after death? Will God not desire to renew fellowship with the human he has made?"(14:13-15). He entertains the thought but does not reach certainty, and his hope subsides. Then immediately after appealing to the earth not to cover his blood, he becomes confident that there is someone near God who will vouch for him (16:19-20). Finally and climactically, when he is sure that he is about to die, he is given to know that his "kinsman-redeemer lives" who will ensure that Job will see God again on his side. This is a sovereign intervention in a situation where Satan seems dominant. It is, as James says, great compassion. (There are such moments in the life of the afflicted believer when faith seems at breaking-point only for it to be mightily refreshed again by a God who steps in to sustain and endorse the endurance of his people.)

Job has found solid ground under his feet. His outlook clears and he sees that the argument of his friends that suffering is always traceable to sin is a paper tiger for the wicked do not always suffer (chapter 24). He gains the ascendancy in the argument and reduces his friends to silence (and with them Satan, the accuser). Job has triumphed for God and godliness over Satan.

But the narrative does not end there and proceed to Job's restoration, for God has not completely triumphed. This is because in the course of maintaining his spiritual integrity (not his sinlessness) Job has not given him due honor. That gives rise to a subplot in the story and to the intervention of Elihu, a divinely sent messenger who paves the way for the Lord's appearing. He rebukes Job for his overweening pride and tells him that God has a benevolent design in his use of suffering. This note is not struck before in the book. It reduces Job to silence.

God therefore had his own purpose in allowing Satan to test Job. This is what James calls "the end of the Lord." It was to show great compassion and mercy and to bless Job more than he had previously done. When the Lord appears it is to judge and to save as James declares (5:9 and 11). He humbles Job for his outspokenness but still owns him as he did before the trials began, calling him "my servant." Surprisingly, God says that Job has spoken what is right about him whereas the friends have not. This probably refers to the issue that was at the center of the debate between Job and his friends, namely whether God was punishing Job on account of his sin or not. God is saying that Job is not a hypocrite and further exalts him by telling the friends to go to him as to a priest and that he will accept Job's prayer for them. It is striking that Job prays for them before he is restored and that it is as he prays for them that he is restored. True piety is not self-centered. Satan's lie is exposed, and Job is not only restored to all that was taken away from him but given twice as much in the way of external proof of God's favor as he had before. He has gained in every way in humility before God, assurance of his mercy and in love for his friends. Everyone wins-except Satan.

Job's Prophetic Endurance

In light of the fact that James brackets Job with the prophets, we may ask "Is Job among the prophets?" Well, does he not speak "the word of the Lord" in the same sort of way as other saints like Abel who "though he died, still speaks" through the inscripturated record of his faith (Heb.11: 4)? Job is such a prophet. And what is he saying? He is asserting that it is endurance that precedes "the end (coming) of the Lord."

Job is therefore a study of the kind of valiant endurance that Christians should display before the Lord's coming in compassion and mercy. This is what we believe the book is about. It depicts an individual believer undergoing trial, triumphing over it, and being gloriously honored. By extension, it is a book about the perseverance of the saints, of the church militant, and about the day when Christ, the kinsman-redeemer of his people, returns in glory. Job on the ash heap in Uz is an Old Testament counterpart of John in prison on the island of Patmos. He depicts all the suffering saints of the Most High awaiting the inevitable and approaching return of the Lord as judge of his foes and of Satan, and as the vindicating deliverer of his people.

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology