Job may have started life as a play. If you've never read it then I am about to plot-spoil. Sorry. Go read all forty-two chapters and come back in a couple of hours.
In my rather conservative New International Version of the Bible an introduction tells us that Job, '...helps to explain why righteous people suffer.' This is such a small fraction of the truth as to be almost worthless. In fact the book does not explain and ends up with God telling Job to stop messing with things that are beyond his understanding. But wait. We are getting ahead of ourselves.
Job starts with a brag and a bet. We are introduced to the character of Job in the first five verses, a man who has it all. Yet a man who is so holy he offers sacrifices to God on behalf of his children in case any of them have sinned accidentally. Satan and the angels present themselves to God who describes Job to them glowingly. 'There is no-one on earth like him...'
Satan responds that this is because Job has wealth. 'He won't be so holy if you let me mess with him.'
God agrees that Satan may so mess.
And so, without knowing he is the subject of this 'gentleman's' wager, Job experiences the loss of his children and servants in four random and simultaneous disasters. Staging the play, the consecutive messengers running on and announcing doom and gloom would be almost black comedy.
Ten dead children and all animal wealth gone. But Job accepts his lot and continues to worship.
Back to the heavens. Satan says it is not surprising that Job is still worshipping (yes it is, we say) because he still has his health. 'He won't be so holy if you let me mess with that.'
God agrees that Satan may so mess, but Job must live.
Job, still unaware that he is being treated like Dan Ackroyd in Trading Places, wishes he was dead but refuses to curse his God.
Three friends turn up. They have a conference before arriving in Job's presence and then sit with him in silence, dust on their heads and robes ripped.
The three friends then take it in turns to make speeches to which Job responds. Amongst other things they put it to him that:
- If he pleads with God this will all end.
- If he is devoted and confesses sin things will change.
- If he stops cursing God his suffering will finish (he has moaned but not cursed).
- God's anger is all you can expect.
A fourth friend turns up. The words of Elihu can be removed from the story without it losing its continuity. He is not referred to before his speech or after. Unlike the speeches of the first three 'comforters', Job does not respond. Elihu speaks last because he is the youngest, describing himself as having waited 'bottled up' while the elders spoke. It corresponds with the lot of the young sometimes to speak last, speak wisest and be ignored.
Then God speaks. He does not mention the bet. He lists a load of questions nobody can answer.
Job is finally humbled. 'My lips had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.' Job's privilege is not an answer to his questions about suffering but an audience with his maker.
God tells the three comforters that they were wrong, a helpful reminder to us never to read passages of our Bibles without context for some of it is the record of the speeches of the foolish. They are sent off to repent and make good. Job is instructed to pray for them.
And Job? He gets ten more children. A consolation? His new daughters are more beautiful. Does that help? And his health and wealth back. Big deal? You almost never know what things your new acquaintances have been through to get where they are.
The wager is never mentioned.
The story is for us. Job means 'persecuted one'. A symbolic name for a fictitious and imaginary character who stands for all those who suffer randomly. God may as well, for all we know, be having a bet with Satan about our holiness. It is not for us to know why children die, illnesses strike down good people or warmongers bring terror to us and not the guy next door.
We should not seek meaning or place responsibility for such things. We should recall that the Christian hope is a dead man on a cross identifying with human suffering not explaining it. If times are tough then life is being just as normal as if times are good.