Digesting Dialogues and Diatribes


The majority of Job consists of speeches and attempted dialogue between Job and his three friends that arrive at the end of chapter 2, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.  Each offer counsel to Job in their respective turns followed by a retort by Job.  This section essentially stretches from chapter 3, beginning with Job’s lament, to chapter 27 where Job concludes the dialogues with an interlude (ch. 28) before preparing for his closing remarks in chapters 29-31.  The speeches can most easily be digested by separating them into three cycles with introductory and concluding remarks by Job.

Historically, the focus of studies on the book of Job have centered on the prologue (chs. 1-2) and the epilogue (ch. 42) with little emphasis on the dialogues.  Reasons for this may abound, but are likely due to the complexity of the language and the lack of desire to dive into the weeds, so to speak.  However, as with any good Bible study, the diamonds are beneath the surface.

Cycle one begins in chapter 4 with Eliphaz’s response to Job’s lament and runs through the entirety of chapters 14.  Following Eliphaz is Bildad in chapter 7 and Zophar in chapter 9.  This order is repeated in cycle two with the counseling speeches occurring in chapter 15, 18, and 20 respectively, while Job’s response and commentary again intermingled between them.  Cycle three again opens with a word from Eliphaz in chapter 22 followed yet again by Bildad in chapter 25.  However, this time in the cycle Zophar is mysteriously absent and is instead replaced by an additional speech by Job (chs. 27-28).  Of the three cycles, the first is arguably the most critical as it outlines each participants main argument.  The subsequent cycles contribute to the overall sweep of the book but add a lot of repetitious argumentation.

As mentioned above, the lament of Job in chapter 3 opens the section of speeches.  Here we find the faith of Job and his confidence in God rattled as emotion and grief begins to overwhelm the stalwartness that was so evident in chapters 1 and 2

“’21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ 22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” Job 1:21-22

10 But he said to her, ‘You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” Job 2:10

Job’s lament can be broken down into three strophes or divisions the first of which is his desire that he would’ve never been conceived (vs. 1-10).    In the next division he desires that he would’ve died at birth (vs. 11-19).  In the third and final division, Job wishes that death would be immanent for those suffering (20-23), particularly as it is applied to his case.  Though Job did not sin with his lips in chapters 1 and 2, one is left wondering if cursing the day he was born is shortsighted in its failure to recognize that God had ordained his birth and may have plans beyond what Job can see, a theme which will permeate Job.

A helpful tool for understanding chapters 4-27, and really the rest of the book of Job, is to breakdown the speeches into digestible bites.  The chapter breaks, though a fallible interpretation, offer some help in recognizing where natural pauses or changes of direction might occur.  Next, four principle observations may be asked of each speech, the main theme, key verse or verses, and key error(s) and truth(s).

Attempting to identify the main theme in these chapters of Job can prove to be difficult.  The language is often that of similitudes and the structure archaic Hebrew poetry.  However, that doesn’t mean that the task is impossible.  Generally speaking the speeches either identify a main point early on or devote the majority of the content towards the main idea.  So for instance, though Bildad has much to say in rebuking Job in chapter 8, verse 3 would seem to establish a major theme for him, namely the justice of God, “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?

Second, and more pointedly, identifying the main verse or verses of the speech can help weed out some of the supporting verses and aid  in clarifying the main theme.  Here you are looking for a key statement that either expresses a critical truth concerning the character of the speaker, audience, or God, a detail about a change in the situation, or a doctrinal proposition being put forth, just to name a few.

Third, as has been previously mentioned in these speeches we need to take the good and leave the bad.  Remember that in stating this, it is a recognition that both parties in the debate have good things to say, though many times it is wrongly applied, particularly by Job’s friends.  However, having said that, there are also many errors or inconsistencies that are stated as well, sometimes simply in the form of inflammatory or unhelpful counsel.  By identifying these key errors and key truths it will provide guardrails for correctly interpreting the content and meaning of the dialogues.

Thankfully for the sake of interpretation, the cycle of speeches get shorter as the book progresses and the content of the speeches begins to become repetitive.  In the opening cycle, the focus is upon the character of God by means of the affliction of Job.  In cycle two, the focus is much more on the character of the wicked and the justice of God meted out against them.  By the time we reach cycle three, we get much of the same with the addition of Job expressing in clear terms the suffering AND prosperity of the wicked, along with the divine prerogative of God to delay His justice as He sees fit.

Understanding the central portion of Job is foundational for understanding the role of Elihu and the purpose and meaning of God’s reply in chapters 38-41.  As such, there’s no reason to rush through or even skip this section as many have tried to do in the past.  Sometimes the treasures and gems are hidden away in locations for those willing to put forth the effort to find them.



Interpreting the Book of Job


The book of Job can be a challenging and intimidating study, not only for the content focusing on the suffering of Job, but the difficult language, poetic style, historic references, etc.  Add to this the archaic Hebrew language and commentaries will be divided on how to interpret some of the more challenging passages.

How then should we approach Job?

Our first answer might be, with humility, but after that there are several interpretive keys that will help us understand the main flow of the book, even if some of the obscurity remains a mystery.

First, the purpose for the book may be found in the interaction between God and Satan; Satan vs. God, not God vs. Satan.  God is not actively engaged in a struggle with Satan.  Satan is not a loose cannon or a rogue employee.  He’s a dog on a chain, but he’s God’s dog, completely unable to act apart from the permissive will of God, as we see here in Job.

Within this interaction, we have our first interpretive key for understanding Job.  Initially we must note that God has called Satan to His presence.  At first glance it may be easy to presume that this interrogation takes place in heaven, but in reality we cannot be dogmatic about the location.  In other words, we don’t know for sure that Satan was “in heaven”.  Additionally, we have no indication that this is a recurring event, nor that it lasts for an extended period of time.  What we do know is that it is God’s own initiative to offer up Job to Satan.

With this, Satan begins his antagonism toward God in which he questions God’s very character.

“Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” Job 1:9-11

“Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” Job 2:4-5

Satan is asserting that the reason Job is blameless and upright is directly related to God’s hand of blessing on him.  In a sense then, he becomes the father of the prosperity gospel.  He challenges God to remove His hand and to watch how Job will curse Him to his face.   Fittingly in is his role as the accuser of the brethren, Satan’s accusation of Job to God is that should his possessions and then his health all be taken away, he would then curse God.  By this, Satan is challenging the very character of God by challenging the character of Job which God has just boasted of.  In other words, Satan believes that the way to attack the integrity of God is to attack the integrity of Job.  If his faith turns out to be a fraud and his character hypocritical, then Satan will be proved truthful in declaring the Job only served God for blessing.  Inherently, this implies that God is not worthy of being served in and of Himself.  Keeping this in mind while reading through Job will help in navigating the purpose of Job’s affliction.

Second, the character of Job is critical to maintain the flow of argumentation between Job and his three counselors.  In the opening of the book we are given 2 couplets describing the character of Job: blameless and upright, fears God and turns away from evil.  This does not mean that Job has some kind of sinless perfectionism, nor does it mean that Job was a super-saint.  It means that Job was not living in any kind of open sin.  It means that Job was not hypocritical, claiming one thing yet living a lie behind closed doors.  God affirms this in His own declaration of Job’s character as He repeats it to Satan, twice.

Knowing that Job truly is a godly man and knowing that there is no indication of an unrepentant sin helps us understand the perspective of the friend’s accusations against Job, as well as his insistence on his innocence.  Additionally, it helps us understand the vigor with which Job defends his integrity and desires vindication.

Which brings us to the third interpretive key, namely the line of argumentation from the perspective of the counseling friend’s.  The central argument that they make against Job is the equivocation of sin and affliction.  They each see a 1:1 correspondence that points backward from the affliction that a person is experiencing, to a sin that they must have committed.

As noted previously, this is a strict application of the doctrine of retribution, though as seen in Job, is wrongly applied.  Essentially, the counseling friends of Job fall into the same kind of trap that our Lord’s disciples did in John 9,

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.

It should be pointed out that the law of retribution is not a foreign concept to Scripture, indeed it is a central tenet.  However, the problem from the friend’s perspective is their incorrect application, subordinating God to His own principle and insisting that Job’s affliction must be the result of retribution.

Fourth, it is common to read Job and take all that he says as good while taking all that his friends say as bad.  This will inevitably lead to misinterpretation.  Personally, I’ve been hesitant in the past to quote from anything that the friends have to say even though it may look and sound like a truth simply because it came from their mouth and traditionally they have been viewed as poor counselors (which they are!!).  However, better advice might be to take the good and leave the bad.  This applies both to Job and the counselors.  Each side has some good points, though as John Calvin points out, Job maintains a good case but pleads it poorly; the others bring a poor case but plead it well, “when we have understood this, it will be to us as it were a key to open to us the whole book.”

Finally, there is a temporal layer in the argumentation from both Job and his friends that must be noted.  The friends consistently appeal to the blessings of God in this life directly flowing downstream from repentance of sin.  This over-realized eschatology frames their application of the prosperity gospel to Job’s situation.  As an aside, this is precisely the error of modern day proponents of the prosperity gospel.  They press the promises of Scripture, particularly those of the Old Testament, which mention material blessings into this age.  Indeed, God may bless His children materially in this life, but on the other hand, He may not.  Ultimately, the material blessings of scripture, i.e. health, wealth, and prosperity are fulfilled in the age to come.

The breadth, width, and depth of Job is immense and it can inevitably be overwhelming.  Preparation in studying Job may be just as important, if not more so, than the actual study.  Outlining a plan with a few of the interpretive keys mentioned above can be a helpful step in rightly interpreting the book and properly applying its richness to the Christian life.

An Introduction to the Book of Job


Recently I had the opportunity to begin a 6-week series teaching through the book of Job.  No doubt, due to size and complexity, this will be one of the more difficult books I’ve taught through.  Job can be somewhat daunting and intimidating, so in order to help you navigate through its complexities, I’d like to include some introductory thoughts that I used in my opening lesson.

First, let’s briefly address some general introductory points common for most biblical studies, namely the author, date, and genre.  Simply put, there’s no certainty with the first two points.  The author is unknown and dating the book is fraught with difficulties.  The best estimations seem to put the time period for Job somewhere around the patriarchal period, but a later date is sometimes suggested as well.  However, because Job is mentioned in Ezekiel 14 (alongside Noah and Daniel), a limit on the date would seem to rest here.  A side note, there’s no reason to assume that the writing of Job has to occur within the time frame that events unfolded.  Meaning, it’s certainly possible that God in His divine superintendence of Scripture had the actual book of Job penned well after the events.  Nevertheless, it seems clear that Job lived in a pre-Mosaic time and himself was a non-Israelite.  It may be safe to conclude that Job had far more in common with Melchizedek than with Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob.

Job falls within the wisdom section of Scripture and also contains some poetic elements.  Some have attempted to subdivide Job’s genre into either lawsuit, lament, or disputation.  While each of these elements are certainly present in Job, it’s probably pressing too hard to fit Job cleanly into one of these categories.

Job offers its readers a myriad of theological themes, not the least of which is the sovereignty of God.  From the opening chapters where the supremacy of God is observed in His questioning of (the) Satan and granting him permission to test Job to the concluding chapters where God makes Himself fully known to Job, the sovereignty of God is central to the book of Job.  Similarly, the justice and goodness of God are centrally brought into view by means of the affliction that Job endures and the “counsel” that his friends provide.  Bringing these themes into focus, Joseph Caryl summarizes the book of Job by posing two critical questions:

  1. Whether it doth conflict with the justice and goodness of God to afflict a righteous and sincere person, to strip him naked, to take away all his outward comforts.  Or, whether it doth conflict with the justice and goodness of God, that it should go ill with those that are good, and that it should go well with those that are evil.

  2. Whether we may judge of the righteousness or unrighteousness, or the sincerity or hypocrite or any person by the outward dealings and present dispensations of God towards him.

Additional themes to note when studying Job are faith under trial, as we are given insight into the horrific events that Job experienced and then witness how God preserves the faith of His servant when all others have turned against him.  Similarly, patience in perseverance becomes a central theme through the various responses of Job as well.  Given the manner in which Satan challenges God by bringing His integrity into question, through Job we are witnesses to the vindication of God’s grace in his life by means of the previous two themes, faith under trial and patience in perseverance.

Finally, the doctrine of retribution, lex taliones, or an “eye for an eye” dominates the book of Job, particularly as it is misunderstood and wrongly applied by the friends of Job.  We must resolve the tension that exists between the circumstances of Job and the misapplication of this doctrine by his friends with the Scriptural fact that God does punish the wicked and reward the faithful.  Proverbs 11:21 and Galatians 6:7 say just that.  Additionally, we know that sin has consequences, catastrophic at times, as with Adam and Eve, Moses, and David.  However, before we find ourselves championing the views of Job’s friends, we must be reminded that God does not submit Himself to this principal, rather it submits to God, meaning that it is within God’s divine prerogative to determine when or how to apply it.  Likewise, affliction, as in the case of the blind man in John 9 and as we will see with Job, is not a clear indication of the effects of divine retribution.  As with each, it is simply so that the glory of God might be made known.  Caryl again summarizes by way of a syllogism, the misapplication of retribution by Job’s friends.  He writes:

He that is afflicted, and greatly afflicted, is certainly a great open sinner, or a notorious hypocrite: But Job, thou art afflicted, and thou art greatly afflicted; therefore certainly thou art, if not a great open sinner, yet a notorious hypocrite.

God certainly punishes the wicked and blesses the righteous, as we have seen.  But this does not always fit within a nice and tidy box, as Job’s friends assert.  Instead, God’s justice is meted out in clear black and white lines at the final judgment.  Those who are without Christ, the wicked, are condemned to eternal destruction, while the righteous, those who have repented of sins and trusted in Christ will be eternally rewarded.  Pressing this reality into this age, an over-realized eschatology, is the great crime of prosperity gospel peddlers.  As we will see, there’s been little change from the time of Job’s friends to the prosperity gospel preachers of today.

Because the book of Job deals with complex issues by means of  difficult dialogue, there’s been no shortage of interpretive issues.  In the next post in this overview of Job, we’ll look at several of these interpretive challenges as well as suggest some interpretive keys and things to observe when studying through Job.