The Seeing of the Eye: On Job, God's Revelation, and the Problem of Evil
From the Winter 2017 Issue
Classic literature is one of the great humanizing forces of our civilization. This is because literature can take an arcane philosophical problem and clothe it with living flesh, forcing readers to grapple with universal questions in the context of human relationships. At its best, classic literature calls forth essentially human reactions from its readers; the more we read it, the more human we become.
Take, for example, the problem of evil – one of humanity’s most intransigent philosophical and theological questions: “If God is good (so that He opposes evil) and powerful (so that He is able to prevent it), how do we interpret the existence of evil in the world?”
If you were to confront this problem classically — that is, in the context of a classic story — you might expect a profoundly human discussion instead of a technical, systematic exposition of philosophical and theological points. ¶ If you were to choose the Old Testament story of Job as your classic, you would not be disappointed.
It turns out that the world’s oldest work of literature is also the most profound treatment of the problem of evil ever written. Job’s suffering provides the perfect context for a discussion of this problem because it appears to represent pure evil coming directly from the hand of God. Job is supposedly undeserving of this treatment, so the obvious solution to the dilemma (that man brings suffering upon himself by exercise of his free will, independent of God) does not work. God is involved here, no question about that. He afflicts, for some reason and by some means still to be determined, an innocent man.
Thus, an analysis of the story almost always ends in some sort of theodicy — a justification of God’s ways or explanation of how His actions can be reconciled with what else we know of Him.
But I don’t think this is the main point of the story at all.
This is not a story about how God is just, or good, or powerful. It’s a story about how he loves Job. It’s
a story about how God uses suffering to pursue Job and save him from his sin. It’s a story about how God forges a relationship with Job that is based on honesty and truth. It’s a story about how God makes Job a minister of the gospel.
Job the Sinner?
The scriptures are quick to introduce Job as a “blameless and upright” man who “feared God and shunned evil” (1:1). How then can we claim that the point of the story is the salvation of Job the sinner?
It’s a good question. There certainly seems to be no argument against Job’s behavior. He is scrupulously concerned for his spiritual welfare and that of his family. He is careful to observe religious rituals and sacrifices for his children against the possibility that they have sinned without his knowledge (1:5). You might say that Job knows exactly how to keep his people in God’s good graces.
And it certainly seems to be working. Job has become a wealthy man, and “the greatest of all the people of the East” (1:3).
You could very easily come to the conclusion that Job’s relationship with God is a simple contract: Job fears God and shuns evil; therefore, God blesses Job abundantly. If his conduct in chapter 1 is any indication, Job would undoubtedly have agreed with you.
But you would both be wrong.
Job’s concern for the external observance of his religion blinds him to the true nature of God’s relationship with man. This blindness becomes perfectly clear as Job labors to understand his suffering. This blindness, in fact, is the reason God sent suffering to Job in the first place: to open his eyes, not to sins his sons have committed in secret, but to his own sinfulness.
After God allows Satan to strip Job of all that he has, Job shares an ash heap with three neighbors, known to history as Job’s “comforters,” though their claim to this title is arguable, given what they say to him.
These well meaning friends — Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar — take turns offering Job insight and exhortation in his distress. Job responds to each of them in turn, and the cycles of exhortation and response take up 28 of the story’s 42 chapters (4-31).
It is an often stormy exchange: Job and his friends disagree violently and neither is able to convince the other of his position. The argument covers the same ground repeatedly until finally the comforters give up and “cease answering Job” because he refuses to capitulate (32:1). But what are they arguing about?
Though they take a long time to say it, their message is very simple: Job’s friends are convinced that he has sinned and brought this suffering upon himself. Job, on the other hand, steadfastly maintains his innocence and the rectitude of his behavior.
Here are a few characteristic passages:
Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright ever cut off? Even as I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the blast of God they perish, and by the breath of His anger they are consumed. (4:7-9)
Does God subvert judgment? Or does the Almighty pervert justice? If your sons have sinned against Him, He has cast them away for their transgression. If you were pure and upright, surely now He would awake for you, and prosper your rightful dwelling place. (8:3-4, 6)
Know therefore that God exacts from you less than your iniquity deserves. (11:6)
[God] knows the way that I take; when He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold. My foot has held fast to His steps; I have kept His way and not turned aside. I have not departed from the commandment of His lips; I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food. (23:10-12)
Levers of Heaven
The adversarial tone of the conversation between Job and his comforters disguises an all-important fact: they agree absolutely in matters of religion.
When it comes to basic assumptions about what God is like and how man relates to him, there is not a dime’s worth of difference between Job and his three friends. Eliphaz’s pronouncement that God never punishes the righteous and Bildad’s assertion that God surely rewards them are echoed by Job’s proclamation that God will reward his integrity. Elsewhere, Job agrees with Zophar that God justly punishes the wicked (21:17-21). They are of one mind on this all-important point: God’s activity follows a system of well-known and understandable rules.
Here is a summary of the rules as Job and his friends understand them:
• God judges his servants according to their obedience.
• He sends calamity and blessing to them as punishment and reward, respectively.
• A man may manipulate this system by means of his performance or behavior.
• God’s servants may therefore demand and expect an explanation when their circumstances don’t represent a fair response to their behavior.
In Job’s understanding, God’s heaven hangs levers down. Men who want the favor of God can simply pull the levers back and forth to loose His blessings. Those men who succeed have pulled the levers well; those who fail have pulled them ill, or pulled the wrong ones altogether.
As is clear from the passages quoted above, Job and his friends are not arguing about these assumptions. They agree. These principles have been the foundation of their religious education since childhood. Their only argument is over the question of Job’s performance: Job’s friends say he must have behaved badly because God is just — that is, God always minds the levers. Job, on the other hand, says he is innocent and God is therefore unjust, or at least inscrutable.
Job and his friends labor together under the misconception that their righteous behavior makes them acceptable in the sight of God. But this is more than a misconception — it is a mortal sin. They are guilty of trying to serve a fountain by pouring in tiny cups of brackish water. They are guilty of the sin of Cain, who brought the fruit of his own hands to God’s altar. They are guilty of idolatry, the exalting of the self, the blurring of the creature-Creator distinction. They are guilty of the sin of Satan, who said “I will be like the Most High.”
Tough to Swallow
It’s one thing to accuse Job’s comforters of misunderstanding God’s plan—they get criticized for this all the time. Lumping Job in with them seems awfully harsh, though, doesn’t it?
As I have suggested, Job is as guilty as any of his friends of the misunderstanding we have been describing. This eventually manifests itself clearly as Job grows frustrated with his comforters and begins to direct his comments to God directly:
Oh, that I knew where I might find Him, that I might come to His seat! I would present my case before Him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would know the words which He would answer me, and understand what He would say to me. (23:3-5)
In chapters 29 through 31, Job describes his own righteous conduct in great detail and then calls for God to justify Himself:
Oh, that I had one to hear me, that my prosecutor had written a book! … I would declare to Him the number of my steps; like a prince I would approach Him. (31:35-37)
On the other hand, Job clings to his self-righteousness for all he is worth: “Til I die I will not put away my integrity from me. My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go.” (27:6)
These passages provide a neat summary of the state of Job’s heart: he remains convinced of his righteousness; he remains convinced that God is dealing unjustly with Him; he all but accuses God of evading the question and withholding explanations. Job’s faith is firmly anchored in his religion and his righteous conduct. He has pulled the levers well, and now demands from God an accounting.
In order to destroy Job’s misconceptions, God must overwhelm him with contradiction and paradox – give him suffering without disobedience, judgment without rebellion, destruction undeserved. In order to save his soul from the judgment that all idolatry deserves, God must destroy Job’s false religion beyond repair.
A Theology Lesson
Luckily for Job, God is not finished. In fact, He has only just completed Stage One of a two-stage plan to save His beloved creature. Stage one is the destruction of Job’s religion; the destruction of all evidence that the levers work like they’re supposed to; the destruction of all the cause and effect relationships that supposedly govern God’s relationships with men; the destruction of the idea that when you deal with God, you deal with a system rather than a Person.
Stage Two of God’s plan to save Job begins with the appearance of a new visitor. Elihu the Buzite, a young man who had held his tongue out of respect for his elders, now enters the conversation with a new perspective. He quickly lays waste to Job’s religious worldview and starts to make sense of Job’s suffering by presenting a new theology which Job has never heard before.
Elihu reminds Job that neither sin nor righteousness affects God – that we take nothing from God by sinning, nor do we add to Him by righteousness:
If you sin, what do you accomplish against Him? Or, if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you do to Him? If you are righteous, what do you give Him? Or what does He receive from your hand? Your wickedness affects a man such as you, and your righteousness a son of man. (35:4-8)
As a matter of fact, says Elihu, all four of Job’s basic assumptions are false. God neither judges our sin with wrath (33:17-18) nor rewards our obedience with salvation (33:23-28). Man cannot manipulate the hand of God by his behavior, either good or evil (34:15). Above all, man cannot demand an explanation for perceived inconsistencies, for God owes no creature an accounting of His works (33:13).
There are no levers of heaven, says Elihu. You must relate to God some other way.
Elihu understands that Job’s problem is blindness. Job cannot see correctly the real situation between God and man:
“For has anyone said to God, ‘…teach me what I do not see’” (34:31)?
“Therefore Job opens his mouth in vain; he multiplies words without knowledge” (35:16).
Enlightened by Elihu’s explanations, we can see that Job’s sufferings are unrelated to his obedience or disobedience, to his supposed “secret sins.” They are part of God’s plan to get his attention and save him from the judgment which is the lot of all idolaters, well meaning though they be. God is behind the suffering, says Elihu: “Behold, God works all these things, twice, in fact three times with a man, to bring back his soul from the pit” (33:29-30).
The Lord’s own entrance into the story follows closely upon Elihu’s lesson. Oddly enough, God does not explain himself. He has sent Elihu for that purpose. With God’s appearance in the whirlwind, the time for theology lessons is over. The time for revelation is now at hand.
What does God reveal? The answers to Job’s questions? The reasons for His actions? No, none of these things. God reveals Himself to Job. God meets Job’s error with Truth in the very area, on the very issue, where the error existed in the first place. Job has misunderstood from the beginning what sort of Person God is. To bring Job’s soul back from the pit, God shows him what sort of Person he is dealing with.
God’s discourse in chapters 38 through 41 is quite long, but it would be a mistake to interpret this passage as any sort of explanation. God is not communicating to Job’s mind here; He speaks directly to his soul, or to his “eyes,” as Job himself puts it later. The thrust of God’s message to Job can be summed up in two short statements:
• I am the Lord, the creator, sustainer, and lover of all that is.
• You are not.
Job’s response to this revelation signifies that he has finally been delivered: he lays his hand over his mouth (40:4). “I have uttered what I did not understand,” he says, “things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3).
Job’s faith in his religion — which was built entirely on knowledge: knowing the rules, knowing which levers to pull — is finally broken. His relationship with God is now founded upon an entirely new basis: a revelation of God Himself, the “seeing of the eye.” In repentance, Job forsakes the old way: “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:5-6).
What was God’s purpose in Job’s suffering? To have a relationship with Job, of course. God was motivated by personal love for Job. motivated by the desire to bring him back from the pit. God’s actions toward Job, including allowing Satan to afflict him, were acts of mercy, acts of grace, acts undertaken for Job’s benefit entirely.
God’s plan was to bring Job to repentance and so make him a minister of the gospel. We can see this process taking place as God restores Job’s three friends to fellowship by having Job intercede for them:
“My servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept him, lest I deal with you according to your folly, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7).
It is interesting to note that though the Lord makes a great distinction between the three friends’ speeches about God and Job’s, the only difference is that Job has repented of his religion, and presumably the others haven’t. Here, in a nutshell, is what separates true ministers of the gospel from mere religious idolaters: true repentance, an abhorrence of the self in the face of God’s self-revelation.
Job’s Latter Prosperity
The story of Job ends on a satisfying note: Job’s possessions and family are restored, and we are glad to see his rightful place of wealth and prosperity restored to him. After all, this was just a lesson for Job, right? This was just a temporary deprivation designed to prove a point, after which the scales should be balanced again and everything put back in its proper place. Right?
Perhaps we interpret the end of the story differently. Perhaps we see God rewarding Job for his correct response to Divine chastening. Perhaps we see that though he may have misunderstood the causes of his former prosperity, Job’s latter prosperity at least is well earned. After all, Job got it figured out in the end, so he deserves the blessing of God now, right?
If we assume that Job’s latter prosperity is a reward for his obedience, then the religion of the levers is back. If Job is now enjoying well-earned blessings, then God is suddenly giving the lie to everything He has just said about Himself. If Job’s wealth is in any way connected to his righteousness, then he and his friends were actually right about God all along. If Job now prospers by his own hand, then God was wrong to let him suffer in the first place.
The only consistent way to interpret Job’s latter prosperity is as a pure, free, un-coerced act of love on the part of God. God loves His creature Job, and blesses him; it is as simple as that.
Importantly, this is also the correct interpretation of Job’s sufferings! God loves His creature Job, and sends him sufferings to save his soul from the pit.
We encounter suffering on a daily basis, just as Job did. We react similarly, too, don’t we? “Why are you doing this? What have I done to deserve this? I have tried to follow you as best I can; is this how you reward me?”
Even if we know better than to shake our fists at God, we often try to make sense of suffering by assuming a God of levers. We often take it for granted that our circumstances are the results of our behavior exclusively, whether good or evil. We see prosperity as the blessing of God on our obedience and suffering as His judgment on sin, and thus take credit for the work of God.
Worst of all, we unconsciously assume we have the power to create a relationship with God by religious activities, and when suffering comes despite our religious rectitude, we have the nerve to be offended.
The lesson of Job is that suffering and prosperity come from God, not from us, and that they only come for one reason: because He loves us. God is at work in our suffering as well as our prosperity to save our souls by revelation of Himself; to give us a relationship with Him based not on the hearing of ear, but on the seeing of the eye.
May He grant us eyes to see.