The book of Job is regularly called a theodicy. Yet if by “theodicy” one means an answer to that age-old dilemma, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” then the label does not fit very well. The answer to human suffering is glaringly absent. But if it is taken to mean the vindication of divine goodness amid the existence of evil, we come a bit closer to the mark. Still, we do not quite hit it. For even though human suffering persists as a theme in the book, the pressing question is who is wise. Every character claims wisdom, but the conclusion asserts that the Lord alone is wise and dispenses wisdom as he sees fit. The application consists not in an explanation of suffering, but in human repentance and submission before the all-wise God.
In fact, the central issue in Job is not suffering in the abstract but the deed-consequence nexus, the retribution principle. Traditional wisdom asserts that sin leads to suffering, righteousness to prosperity. (Even Proverbs asserts this.) The supremely upright Job, however, is suffering beyond comprehension. How does one figure this? Job’s three friends are confident of possessing the right answer: Job suffers, so he must have sinned. They read the retribution principle backwards. If sin leads to punishment, so suffering must mean you have sinned. For them, all suffering can be explained by sin. Yet it is precisely the friends who get rebuked. They were wrong; you cannot read the retribution principle backwards. Job argued for a more complex answer, that more nuance is needed. In this regard Job was vindicated, but he still did not get an answer for his suffering.
Additionally, the deed-consequence nexus highlights Job’s tension with Proverbs, in two ways. First, Proverbs paints simple and clean that wisdom leads to life and folly unto death. Job does not argue with this in general, per se, but he affirms that reality is more complex. There is more to the story. Particularly, one cannot reverse the nexus into a consequence-reveals-the-deed equation. There is suffering that cannot be explained by human behavior. Second, in Proverbs, Lady Wisdom sings of her accessibility; she is public and attainable by humans. Job does not doubt that humans can have some measure of wisdom, but he wrestles with a wisdom that is above him, one mysterious and inaccessible. Hence, in his famous poem (Job 28), wisdom cannot be found. “From where, then, does wisdom come? … It is hidden from the eyes of all living” ( Job 28:20–21). He concludes that God alone knows wisdom, and that for humans, to fear the Lord is wisdom. In the dialogue between Proverbs and Job, the complex nature of wisdom in this world gains focus.
Yet this message of Job cannot be divorced from the drama of the book. A very deliberate frame contextualizes the debate between Job and his friends. The theme of this drama is trial by ordeal. In the ancient Near East, kings could wage war or compete in contests by champion instead of the whole army. David and Goliath exemplify such a battle. The Philistines and the Israelites fought through their champion representative. The ordeal of the battle vindicated the true victor. These ordeals could include various types of contests, like a battle of the wits or wrestling. The lords or kings would prove who was better by competition between their champions.
This motif colors the drama of Job. The story opens upon the champion, the blameless Job in his vast wealth—evidence of his wisdom. The great King, the Lord, is enthroned in his royal court as the sons of God report in. The Lord initiates a contest with the Accuser (ha satan is the Hebrew transliterated, meaning “the accuser”): “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” ( Job 1:8). The Lord claims Job as his champion. The Accuser spits back a challenge, which amounts to, “Job only loves you for your money!” Job is not truly upright and wise, for he loves God only for his blessings. If the blessings are removed, Job would curse God. This is the challenge. Does Job love God or only God’s blessings? Is Job wise only for its wealth, or will he cling to wisdom amid suffering? To pass this test, Job must submit to the suffering while holding onto the Lord and his wisdom.
For all their advice, Job’s three friends make the same basic point. Somehow Job sinned, so if he will just repent, everything will return to normal. The backward retribution principle is the way to understand Job’s trial. Job is the only one to blame for his agony. Job, though, will not capitulate to this argument. He defends his uprightness; he insists that sin is not the explanation.
Yet it is precisely as the humble and vanquished one that Job triumphs over the Accuser. Satan’s challenge was that Job would curse and forsake God in his suffering, that Job only loved the Lord for his blessings. But in his misery and dust, Job remained faithful in love and devotion. The conquest of Job comes in his humiliation, which in turn vindicates him over his friends (42:7). They did not speak the truth about the Lord. Reading the retribution principle backward is not wise. Not all suffering can be explained by sin, but the reason for suffering is not given. Rather, the surpassing and transcendent wisdom of the Lord is crowned as supreme over all.
This post was adapted from The Unfolding Word: The Story of the Bible from Creation to New Creation by Zach Keele (Lexham Press, 2020).