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.