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. 5 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?” 3 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.