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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible

Job Overview

 

 


Introduction

1. Theme and Contents. The book of Job, it may safely be said, is not known and read as it deserves to be. It is a fascinating book, and one of the most valuable in the OT. It deals with a theme which is as old as man and as wide as the world, viz. the reason of human suffering, the why and wherefore of those afflictions that fasten not merely upon the guilty, but, as it often appears, upon the righteous and the innocent. This immemorial problem, the crux of theology and the darkest mystery of human life, is the subject of this book, where it is treated in a most brilliant manner. In style the book of Job is a masterpiece of literature. It contains some of the deepest thought and the sublimest poetry that have come down from antiquity.

The difficulties that beset the ordinary reader are due not merely to the nature of the subject, but also to the fact that it is written in poetry, which is always more difficult than prose, and also to the too common practice of reading only short extracts. The work, being a discussion carried on at considerable length, must, if it is to be rightly understood, be read as a whole. It must, moreover, be read in the Revised Version, the meaning and sequence of thought being often much obscured in the Authorised Version.

The book is artistically constructed, and consists of three parts—a Prologue, the Poem, and an Epilogue. The Prologue is contained in the first two chapters, and the Epilogue in the last. These are written in prose, and form the setting of the Poem, which extends from Job 3 - Job 42:6. The Prologue introduces the characters, and tells how they come together. The Poem contains the debate between Job and his three friends, followed by a speech from a bystander called Elihu, and concludes with an address by the Almighty and a penitent confession by Job. The Epilogue relates the further fortunes of Job, his restoration to prosperity, and his death.

The Prologue (Job 1, 2) presents to us an Eastern chieftain called Job, who lives in the land of Uz, probably near Edom. He is a very pious man, 'perfect and upright, one that fears God and eschews evil,' and a very prosperous man. He is surrounded with what are commonly regarded as unmistakable tokens of the divine favour. He has a large family, possesses immense herds of camels, oxen, asses, and sheep, and is described as 'the greatest of the children of the east.' He is as good as he is great.

In these circumstances a scene is opened in heaven. One of God's angels, called 'The Satan,' i.e. The Adversary, whose office seems to be to test the sincerity of men's characters, suggests that Job's piety is dependent upon his prosperity, that he does not 'serve God for nought,' tbat his religion is mere selfishness, and that if God were to withhold His blessings Job would withhold his worship and 'curse God to His face.' Satan obtains permission to put Job to the proof. From the height of his prosperity and happiness Job is suddenly plunged into the depths of misery. He loses all his property, and his children are cut off by violent death. Job is profoundly grieved, but he submits reverently to the will of God. So far he stands the test. In a second heavenly council Satan asserts that the test has not been severe enough, and receives permission to afflict Job's person. He smites him with a severe and loathsome disease, which makes him an outcast and an object of abhorrence to all. Still he is resigned. His faith remains unshaken. 'What?' he says, 'shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?' He makes no complaint against the Almighty.

Three friends now appear upon the scene: Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite, who having heard of his great calamities come to condole with the ruined and childless man. They are appalled at the sight of his misery. Job is hardly recognisable. The words of consolation fail upon their lips, and they sit down beside him for seven days and seven nights, uttering never a word. Hitherto Job has been able to restrain himself, but now in the presence of his speechless friends a change comes over him. He is unmanned, and breaks down. He opens his mouth, and, in a passage of marvellous pathos and power, he curses the day that he was born and calls for death to come and put an end to his sufferings (Job 3).

With Job's first words begins the main portion of the book, which is continued for 39 chapters, and is written in poetry. It comprises a debate between Job and his three friends as to the reason of his sufferings. The debate is conducted in an orderly manner.

All three speak in turn, and Job answers each after he has spoken. This is repeated three times, except that according to the present arrangement of the book Zophar, who speaks last, fails in the third round of the debate to come forward. Perhaps this is due to some dislocation: see the introductory remarks to the third series of speeches. The theory with which all three begin is that suffering is a certain proof of previous transgression, and accordingly they all adopt a tone of rebuke towards Job on account of his supposed shortcomings, and urge him to repent of his sin, whatever it may be, saying that if he does so God will restore to him his prosperity. No doubt sympathy is more in place than argument in times of trouble, but the object of the book is not to show how to comfort sufferers, but how to account for the sufferings.

The Argument of the three friends is simple. God, they say, is always just. If a man suffers it must be because he deserves it. The righteous never suffer. Job, they conclude, must have been a great sinner to be afflicted thus. And they strive to get Job into a proper frame of mind. To this Job replies that the moral government of the world is not such a simple, uncomplicated thing as his friends suppose. Their theory may be true as a general rule, but there are exceptions. His own case is one. He protests that he is not conscious of any such great sin as they assume to be the cause of his present misery. His sufferings must have some other explanation. They are meanwhile a mystery to him. Nor is he the only exception to the rule of 'Be good and you will be prosperous.' It is a matter of universal experience that the innocent suffer as well as the guilty, and the wicked are frequently allowed to end their days in peace. In the debate this difficulty is put with great boldness, and Job is tempted occasionally to think and say hard things of God. With exquisite pathos she describes his bodily sufferings and mental perplexity, and his last speech concludes with a pathetic contrast between the former days, when the candle of the Lord shined upon his head, when the Almighty was with him and his children were about him, and he was honoured and respected by all, and. his present state, when days of evil have laid hold upon him and wearisome nights and days are appointed unto him, when he is poor, and childless, and friendless, an abhorrence and a byword to young and old. To the end he protests his innocence and demands to be shown wherein he has transgressed. His great desire is to come face to face with his Maker. If he only knew where he might find Him, he is sure all would be explained. Meanwhile all is dark, a mystery he cannot fathom, a riddle he cannot explain, 'I go forward, but He is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive Him; on the left hand, where He doth work, but I cannot behold Him; and on the right hand, but I cannot see Him; but He knoweth the way that I take. His way have I kept, and not declined. Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips. When He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.' In a dim way he feels that though he is destined to die without learning the reason of his affliction, yet after death in another world the mystery will be solved. God will show Himself his friend and vindicate his innocence.

When the discussion between Job and his three friends is ended, and their explanation of his afflictions put aside as inadequate, a new speaker is suddenly introduced. A young man, called Elihu, has been listening to the debate, and he now comes forward as a critic of both sides. He is not satisfied with Job's assertions of self-righteousness, and he is disappointed with the three friends for bringing forward such poor arguments and allowing themselves to be silenced by Job. He hopes to set them all right, but one has a difficulty in discovering wherein he differs from the other three reprovers of Job. In great measure he repeats their arguments that God is just and deals out to every man exactly what he deserves. In two particulars, however, he seems to go beyond them, and so far approaches the right view of the question in the more explicit statements, (a) that chastisement may be the expression not of the divine indignation but of the divine goodness, and (b) that it may be designed as a warning, a restraint to keep men from falling into further sin; in other words, that chastisement is discipline, a prevention as well as a cure, having a reference to the future as well as to the past.

This brings us to the last section of the Poem. Job had expressed an earnest desire to meet God face to face. In answer to this, 'the Lord answers Job out of the whirlwind' (Job 38-41). The striking thing about God's answer is that it is not at all what Job expected. He hoped that God, when He appeared, would give an explanation of His servant's sufferings. But this God does not do. He never alludes to Job's sufferings. What He does is simply to bid Job look around and observe the wonder and mystery of the world in which he is placed. In a series of splendid pictures God causes the panorama of nature to pass before the eyes of His human creature, and asks him if he could make any of these things, or even understand how they were created—the earth, the sea, the stars, the light, the rain, the snow and frost, the lightning, the variety of marvellous instincts and powers possessed by the animals. Could Job rule the world or even subdue any of its wonderful creatures? If not, why should he presume to cavil at the ways of the Almighty or criticise His government of the world? From first to last the answer of God is simply a revelation of His omnipotence. It seems, therefore, to be irrelevant to the subject. It is no explanation of the mystery of human suffering. And yet Job is satisfied. It brings him face to face with God. He feels how presumptuous he has been in questioning the way of God to men, how ignorant and weak and vile he is in the presence of God's omniscience and omnipotence and perfect holiness. 'Behold, I am vile,' he says; 'I will lay mine hand upon my mouth. I have uttered what I understood not. Mine eye seeth thee; wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.' He has regained the old trust in God, but it is a deeper trust. Before his trial he had walked with God in the glad, unquestioning confidence of a child; now he has sounded the abyss of misery, but in the fullest knowledge of the world's pain, he is wholly assured of the righteousness of God. In the vision of God, which has replaced the old knowledge of God at second hand, even more than in the exhibition of God's omnipotence, he enters into peace. The answer to his problems is not simply the manifestation of God's power, it is God Himself. He does not understand, he is content to be humble and to trust. And with this attitude of humility and trust God is represented as well pleased.

In the Epilogue (c. Job 42:7-17) Job is restored to double his former prosperity and dies 'old and full of days.' It is not easy to sum up the distinctive teaching of the book of Job. As a matter of fact, the problem which it states is insoluble. The book itself does not offer a solution. What it does is to show the true spirit in which the calamities of life should be met, a spirit of submission to the omnipotence and of trust in the wisdom of the Almighty. Incidentally, however, the following truths emerge in the book of Job, and have been noted by various commentators.

(a) Even a righteous man may suffer in this world from severe afflictions. (b) It is wrong, therefore, to make a man's sufferings a reproach to him, as though he were 'a sinner above all other men.' They may be permitted by God as a trial of his righteousness. (c) True religion is always disinterested. A truly righteous man will serve God and trust in Him in spite of all temptations to renounce Him arising from his sufferings, (d) It is presumption to accuse God of injustice on account of the sufferings that the good endure or the prosperity that the wicked are permitted to enjoy; man is unable fully to understand God's moral government of the world, (e) The true solution of all such moral perplexities is to be sought in a fuller and larger sense of God's presence and power and wisdom.

It only remains to consider briefly how far we as Christians, living in the clearer light of Christ's life and teaching, have advanced in the knowledge of the purpose and meaning of suffering. Again, this may be summed up under a few separate heads: (a) Christ Himself is the most conspicuous instance of innocent suffering. 'Though He were a Son yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered.' 'He was made perfect through sufferings.' His words and example show that suffering may be innocently endured for the sake of others, or for the sake of righteousness, or in self-denial, or for the glory of God. (b) Christ has taught us that freedom from outward ills is not the greatest good. The highest good lies in the sphere of character and spirit. Jesus congratulated, not the rich and prosperous and those who never know what pain and sorrow are, but the poor, the meek, the mourning, the persecuted. In spite of all affliction a man may be truly blessed. In this Jesus reversed the common judgment of the world. As Bacon paradoxically puts it, 'Prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament, adversity that of the New.' (c) Christ has taught us to call God our Father. He is not, therefore, a mere Judge dispensing abstract justice with indifference to the result upon the individual. God seeks to train and discipline His children so that they may be 'partakers of His holiness.' For their own sakes, therefore, it maybe better, considering the end, that in some cases the innocent should 'endure grief' and the guilty be treated with long-suffering and leniency. Under a paternal government the treatment in each case will he accommodated to serve the best result. It will not always follow the rule of abstract justice, (d) Christ has revealed a future life. This Job and his friends, with the OT. saints in general, only dimly perceived or faintly hoped for. Having no certainty of the future life they naturally demanded that justice should be meted out in the present. Perceiving that this was not always done they were beset with many perplexities and doubts as to the justice of the divine government of the world. With the Christian revelation of a future life many of the embarrassments and anomalies of the present disappear. The end is not yet. The time of the final settlement of accounts is still future. There need be no fear that justice will not be done. Meanwhile the wicked flourish and the righteous suffer. But they may suffer in patience and hope. The afflictions of the present are 'light' and 'but for a moment.' 'They are not to be compared with the glory to be revealed.' 'Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to Him in well-doing, as unto a faithful creator.'

2. Occasion, Authorship, and Date. It has always been a question whether the book of Job is to be regarded as history or parable. Among the Jews themselves the prevailing opinion was that it was strictly historical, though some of their Rabbis were inclined to think that the person of Job was created by the writer of this book in order to set forth his teaching on the problem that was vexing. human thought. Rabbi Lakish, e.g., said 'Job existed not, nor was he created; he is a parable.' The opinion of Luther is probably the correct one, viz. that a person called. Job did really exist, but that his history has been treated poetically. The allusion to Job as a real person in Ezekiel 14:14 seems to show that there was a tradition connected with his name, and that he was famed for his piety. There may also have been a tradition that he suffered from a grievous reversal of fortune. On this historical foundation a later writer built up this dramatic poem, adopting Job as his hero and freely utilising his history to discuss a problem which was probably pressing with special weight upon men's minds at the time. It would not have served the writer's purpose so well to have created an altogether fictitious hero. But many things indicate that the traditional history of Job has been freely adapted, as, e.g., the elaborately constructed dialogues, the employment of symbolic numbers in the Prologue and Epilogue, the dramatic way in which the scene in the council chamber of heaven is depicted and in which the messengers bring to Job the tidings of his successive calamities, and, moreover, the very fact that the book is a 'poem' in which four men are represented as doing what men never do in real life, conversing with each other in measured strains of lofty and impassioned poetry.

To what writer we owe this poem, which Victor Hugo called 'perhaps the greatest masterpiece of the human mind,' and which has captivated the minds of men by no means prejudiced in favour of the literature of sacred Scripture, we shall never know with certainty. It belongs to the great class of anonymous masterpieces of which the literatures of all languages contain examples. Job himself, Moses, Solomon, Isaiah, Hezekiah, Baruch, have each been credited with its composition. Whoever he was, he was a poetic genius, an earnest philosopher, and a truly religious soul. He probably lived after the downfall of the kingdom of Judah, in any case not earlier than the time of Jeremiah. At that period the perplexing problems connected with the divine government seem to have pressed heavily on men's minds: cp. e.g. Jeremiah 12:1; Jeremiah 31:29; Ezekiel 18. Professor Davidson thinks that behind the author's time there probably lay some great public calamity which forced upon men's minds the questions of evil and the righteousness of God, and that such a calamity could be nothing short of deportation or exile. 'We may infer,' he says, 'that it was the design of the author to teach Israel, amidst its sorrows and the perplexities caused by them, that sufferings may be a trial of the righteous which if reverently borne will lift them up into fuller knowledge of God and therefore into more assured peace and felicity.' In view of the fact that national disaster would occupy men's thoughts before they felt the problem of individual suffering, there is much to be said for the view, held by many scholars, that the book of Job, which is concerned with the individual, not with the nation, and represents an advanced stage in the discussion of the problem, belongs to the period after the Return, perhaps about 400 b.c. This is also suggested by several other features in the book.

 


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Bibliography Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Job:4 Overview". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/dcb/job-0.html. 1909.

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