Commentary on Job 1:1-22
Notes for a six-week preaching series on Job.
These are suggested passages from the book of Job to be used for a sermon series. I’ve sketched a few ideas for each week, but you may very well want to look at other resources on Job:
1. I highly recommend a wonderful essay on Job and its theology by Ellen F. Davis, “The Sufferer’s Wisdom,” from her book, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cowley, 2001).
2. For more extensive commentaries, you might read J. Gerald Janzen’s Job (Interpretation series. Westminster John Knox, 1997) or even my own book, Out of the Whirlwind: Creation Theology in the Book of Job (Harvard, 2008). The latter concentrates primarily on the speeches of God at the end of the book.
The story of Job begins. We are introduced to this righteous man and to the wager between God and the Satan. (“The Satan” in the book of Job is a title rather than a name. In chs. 1-2, the word always occurs with the definite article. The Satan’s job is to investigate human beings and report on their activities. The word “satan” is probably best translated “accuser.”)
Chapters 1-2 are the “set-up” for the meditation on suffering that follows. The story of Job should be read as a parable, not a historical account. The figure of Job seems to have been known in ancient Israel as a paragon of righteousness (see Ezek 14:14-20). The author(s) of Job used this legendary figure and his story to frame the poetic core of the book, the meditation on innocent suffering. Even the beginning of the book seems to signal this “long ago and far away” character of the story: “There was a man in the land of Uz.” (No one knows where Uz was.) The story is not rooted in history. Nevertheless, it asks important questions, including the Satan’s: Do we love God for what we get out of the relationship, or do we love God for who God is?
Job 3:1-10; 4:1-9; 7:11-21
The patient Job of chs. 1-2 gives way to the anguished Job, who curses the day of his birth. His friends, who started out well, offering him their comforting presence in silence for 7 days (Job 2:13), now offer him advice instead. They claim that the innocent don’t perish, but Job’s experience (and ours) says otherwise. They claim that suffering is the result of sin, that Job must have done something wrong to deserve such suffering.
Job’s response is more honest: He laments. He calls a spade a spade. He holds on to his integrity, knowing that he has done nothing to deserve his suffering. He speaks directly to God about his suffering and holds God accountable to God’s promises. In this, he echoes the psalmists.
Job’s friends are useless theologians; they talk endlessly about God without ever speaking to God on behalf of their friend. Job is more direct. He begins by speaking about God, but then moves more and more to speaking to God, beginning in ch. 7. (For this, he will be commended by God at the end of the book.)
How do we react to suffering, ourselves or someone else’s? Are we honest or do we say only what we think we should say? Job’s laments give us permission to lament, to bring our deepest hurts, fears and anger to God in prayer and to know that God hears.
Job 14:7-15; 19:23-27
In the depths of despair, Job experiences moments of inexplicable hope, or moments at least of hopeful longing. God will hear him. God will answer. Such longing is based on Job’s faith and his experience of God’s care in the past (Job 10:9-12). His most fundamental hope is this: that he will see God (Job 19:26-27). That hope will be fulfilled at the end of the book (Job 42:5).
It is the witness of Job and the psalmists (see Ps. 22)–indeed, of the whole Bible–that God hears, God sees, and God will answer. Even in the depths of despair, Jesus knew (and we can know) that God is our God (“My God, my God…”). Because God is in relationship with us, we can speak to God, trusting that God hears us. Such faith leads to the capacity for hope, even when our outward circumstances may remain unchanged. “I know that my Redeemer lives,” cries Job in his suffering. Knowing this Redeemer in Christ, we have all the more reason to hope.
Suggested hymn: “I Know that my Redeemer Lives.”
Job 31:35-37; 38:1-11
Job ends his speeches with a long oath of innocence, and calls on God to answer him. After some speeches by another “friend,” Elihu, God does indeed answer Job. God shows up. And God takes Job on a whirlwind tour of the cosmos, displaying creation in all its wildness and beauty.
There is much one could say about these God-speeches. For one thing, humanity is hardly mentioned in them. In fact, there are passages that seem to suggest that humanity is not the center of creation (38:25-27; 40:15). God seems to take delight in exactly those creatures and places over which humanity has no control. The Sea, the wild animals, Leviathan — these all have an intrinsic value that has nothing to do with their usefulness for humanity. This vision, of course, has major implications in our ecologically-minded age.
Another observation: God gives a place in creation to forces of wildness, including the Sea (the ancient symbol of chaos), but God also places boundaries on them (38:8-11). The world is not allowed to descend into chaos, but neither is it rigidly controlled by its Creator. God gives his creatures the freedom to be who they were created to be, and that freedom is a great gift to human and animal alike. In this vision of creation, the world is not an entirely safe place for human beings, but it is a world of order and of beauty, and its Creator delights in it.
God does not address Job’s suffering directly, but in this vision of creation, Job’s vision is expanded. He is invited to take his eyes off himself and his suffering, and to see the world around him. He is invited back into life again after great suffering, and in the last chapter of the book, he accepts that invitation.
Job 38:25-27; 41:1-8; 42:1-6
God continues to show Job the wild beauty of creation. The horse runs and the eagle soars, rejoicing in their freedom. Leviathan, that fiercest of creatures, answers only to its Maker. It cannot be controlled and will not be used by human beings. (Leviathan is, of course, one of the names of the legendary sea dragon in the ancient Near East, a symbol of chaos. See Ps 74:14 and Isa 27:1. For a positive portrayal of Leviathan, as in Job 41, see also Ps 104:25-26.)
Again, humanity, in this vision of the world, is not the center of creation. Instead, creation is made to praise its Maker. At the same time, humanity (in the person of Job) is the only passenger on this grand tour of the cosmos. God invites Job to see the world from a God’s-eye point of view, and to delight in its beauty as God does.
Job responds to these speeches of God by recanting (a better translation in vs. 6 than “I despise myself”) and by acknowledging that he spoke of things he didn’t understand. The world is not a chaotic and disordered place, as Job had claimed (see ch. 9), and God is not vindictive and overly concerned with human sin, as he had argued (7:11-21). God’s concern for the world (including humanity) is far more expansive than Job had imagined. Humanity has a place in that world, but it is not what Job or his friends had imagined; that is, humanity as the center of creation and the sole recipient of God’s attention. God’s concern is for all of life and all of creation, including humanity. In the God-speeches, Job’s vision is expanded and Job’s hope is fulfilled: He has seen God (42:5; cf. 19:26-27).
Note: The preacher might put this text into conversation with texts like Matt 6:25-33 or Rom 8:31-39. These texts and many others affirm that God loves us and provides for us. The vision of Job emphasizes God’s love and care for all of creation, but it does not negate God’s love for humanity.
In the last chapter of the book, Job is commended by God for speaking “to me rightly” (42:7-8; a better translation than “of me what is right.”) Job, unlike his friends, has continued to speak to God rather than just about God and has thereby been faithful to that relationship.
Job’s fortunes are restored. He (and presumably Mrs. Job) have more children, and he gives his daughters names befitting their great beauty and an inheritance along with their brothers (an unheard-of act in that patriarchal culture). In other words, Job learns to govern his world the way God governs God’s world: with great delight in his children’s beauty and freedom. Like God, Job gives his children the freedom to be who they were created to be.
Though some readers find the epilogue of Job unsatisfactory, Ellen Davis suggests that the question one must ask is not, “How much (or how little) does it cost God to give more children?” but “What does it cost Job to become a father again?” (Getting Involved with God, p. 142). After all his suffering, Job does indeed choose to have more children; Job chooses to live again, even though he knows all too well the pain that living and loving entails. Such a choice stems from his fierce faith in the God of life.
At this end of the book of Job, it must be acknowledged that there is no fully satisfactory “answer” to the problem of innocent suffering. Still, Job provides us several faithful responses to suffering: speaking to God honestly and directly, and trusting that God will answer; risking living and loving even after great pain; and delighting in a world that is wild and beautiful and risky, trusting in the faithful God who created and still sustains that world.
Note: We read the book of Job as Christians, of course, and so we cannot finally speak of suffering without speaking of the cross. The preacher could speak of Job as a theologian of the cross (see Diane Jacobson’s article by that title in the Fall 2011 issue of Word and World ). The preacher could speak of the book of Job as a story of death and resurrection (though resurrection is not a full-fledged theological concept in the book of Job, the end of the book is a sort of resurrection). The preacher could also, of course, speak of Jesus’ suffering on the cross and his resurrection which holds the promise of new life for us all.
In other words, let the book of Job speak in its own right in your preaching (don’t “jump to Jesus” too soon), but don’t be afraid to read it through the lens of Christian faith, as well.
Blessings to you as you study and preach!