The Suffering of Job a sermon on Job 1: 1-19

Preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton
on Sunday, June 14, 2020

Sermon #1 in a Series on the Book of Job: “What Good People Do When Bad Things Happen.”
To hear the sermon preached follow this link https://www.facebook.com/105243486193626/videos/567270900882044/
William Blake, Job and His Family, Linell Set, 1826

This morning we are beginning a sermon series on the Book of Job entitled “What Good People Do, When Bad Things Happen” The Book of Job is all about suffering.  It tells the story of a good man who loses everything and who is plunged into despair.  The book never gives a satisfactory answer as to why good people suffer, but it does let us walk through the experience and learn from it.  It doesn’t tell us “Why?”, but it does show us “What Next?”

For the next 6 weeks we will be living with Job’s story to make it our own.  We will wrestle with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and we will not come up with a satisfying intellectual explanation.  Suffering is a mystery that cannot be explained.  Instead we will discover that the way good people handle bad thing is often messy and disturbing, full of anger and despair, but seasoned with hope.  And in the end, what gets them through it is not an intellectual answer, but an encounter with living God. 

Before we go any further, I must warn you that Job is not a book of history.  Rather, it is more of a thought experiment that is based on an old folktale. The very first words of the book of Job could be translated, “Once upon a time.”  Job is more like the musical “Hamilton.” Lin-Emmanuel Miranda took some of the facts about Alexander Hamilton’s life and used it to compose a musical that explores ideas of ambition, love and success. 

The same is true of the Book of Job.  As Katherine Schifferdecker, a professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota says,

The book was probably written in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem, when the exiles where facing extreme suffering and wrestling with their faith. The writer of Job takes the folktale of Job and uses it as a framework for addressing their questions about suffering.

Katherine M. Schifferdecker, Working Preacher, October 7, 2012 https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1421

Therefore, we cannot use this book to understand what God is like.  God does not toy with human lives.  If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.  However, if you want to wrestle with the problem of suffering, Job is your man. 

So let’s turn to the story.  Chapter 1 is divided into three parts. 

  1. Verses 1-5 show us Job as a good man.
  2. Verses 6-12 raise questions about Job’s motivation for being good.
  3. Verses 13-19 describe the test of faith Job faced.

Job Was a Good Man

The first thing I want you to see is that Job was a good man. Verses 1-5 tell us four things about him.

First, he was a genuinely good and pious man. Verse 1 begins with these words, “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” It is not only that he doesn’t do wrong things but that he looks out for the poor and weak.  In chapter 29 Job tells us “I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper. I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy and I championed the cause of the stranger.” (Job 29:12-16).  Job is cut from the same bolt of cloth as Jimmy Carter—they are both men of integrity, with a strong faith, who put their faith into action by caring for others.  

Second, Job lived the good life.  Continuing with verse 2 & 3.  “There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys.”  Now all the numbers in these verses are symbolic of perfection.  Seven is a number of perfection and when you add his three daughters to the seven sons you get 10, another number of perfection.  The same math applies to the 7,000 sheep and 3,000 camels. The oxen and donkeys add up to 1,000 another multiple of 10. Job had the perfect life and the narrator says, “so this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.” (verse 3)

Third, Job had a large, close-knit family.  Verse 4 says, “His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each on his day; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them.”  My commentators note that the phrase, “on his day,” refers to their birthdays.  So every couple of months each son hosted a birthday party.  Furthermore, in a time when women held a 2nd class status and co-ed parties were unheard of, they included their sisters.  This was a close knit group of kids who loved each other; kids that would make any parent proud.  

Fourth, Job was a father who cared deeply about his children’s spiritual well-being.  Verse 5 says that whenever his children had a party, Job would offer a sacrifice to atone for any sin they might have committed.

When you put these four things together we can agree: Job is someone we can admire.  He is also someone to whom we can aspire. The world would be a better place of it had more people like Job.

Job’s Motives Are Questioned

The story continues in verses 6-12, where Job’s motives are questioned.

The scene changes and now we are in heaven while God holds court. Verse 6 says, “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.”  Notice that there is a parallel with verse 4. Just as each of the sons of Job gather on “his day”—that is, their birthday—so the sons of God—that is, the angels—gather on “a day.” Gerald Janzen in his commentary on Job says, “Jewish tradition identifies this as New Year’s Day. In Mesopotamian religion the gods assembled on New Year’s Day to determine destinies for the coming year.” 

One of the angels who appears in the king’s throne room is “satan.”  Our translators have done us a great disservice here because in Hebrew it actually says “THE satan.”  In the Hebrew for this verse, Satan is not a personal name with a capital S. Rather it is a job title with a lower case S that is prefaced by the word, “the”. The satan is an official in the king’s court. He is sort of like the inspector general in our government. Like the Inspector General, the satan’s job is to make sure that everything is running smoothly and efficiently.  So this is not the malevolent person who tempted Jesus and accuses the saints in Revelation.

In verse 7 God and the Inspector General engage in some idle chit chat.   In essence God says, “How’s the job going?” and the satan says, “It’s going.  I just returned from a routine inspection tour of the earth. Nothing extraordinary to report.”

And then God decides to brag on Job.  He says in verse 7, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?”  Obviously God is pleased with Job.  He finds no fault with him.  And for what it’s worth the satan doesn’t disagree. The inspector general doesn’t bring any charge against Job.  He doesn’t say, “I saw him cheating a widow or stealing sheep.”  By his silence the satan agrees, “Job is a blameless man.” 

This fact that Job is a blameless man is very important to our story. Later in this book, his three friends are going to accuse Job of being a sinner.  “Obviously, because all these bad things have happened,” they reason, “God must be punishing you.  Therefore, if God is punishing you, you must be a sinner and you need to repent of your wicked ways.” The only problem is Job doesn’t have any wicked ways of which to repent . The narrator knows it, God knows it, the inspector general knows it, Job knows it and we who are reading this story also know it.  Any accusations the friends make are just plain false.

However, the satan does something much more subtle: he questions Job’s motives for being good.  To paraphrase v 9-11, the Inspector General says, “Well, why shouldn’t Job respect and love you?  You’ve put a hedge around him so that nothing bad ever happens to him.  He’s as rich as Bill Gates and he’s successful at everything he does.  Job doesn’t love you for who you are.  He loves you for what he can get from you.  Take away all that, and he’ll curse you.”

Now that’s an important question to ask ourselves.  Do we love God just because he is God? Or do we love him because of the good things he does for us? 

And the answer is, “Yes.”  Yes, we love God for the good things he does, and yes, we love God just because he is God.  How could it be any other way?  Just as children learn to love their parents because their parents nurture and love them, so we learn to love God because he takes care of us.  And, just as when children grow older they learn to love their parents “just because”, so also we learn to love God “just because” he is who he is. The problem comes when we love God, ONLY, or even primarily, because he takes care of us.

When the Inspector General questions Job’s motives, he is also questioning God’s worthiness. He’s saying, “You can’t get anyone to love you unless you bribe them.”  That is an insult to God’s honor and God won’t let it pass.  Instead God places a bet on Job. In verse 12 we read, “The Lord said to the satan, ‘Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.’   You can take everything away from him but not his health and we’ll see what happens.

Now to be honest, this bet is very disturbing.  This picture of God is not one of God the loving Father, who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.  This picture of God has more in common with the petty god’s of Olympus who loved to toy with mortals and use them as pawns in their divine intrigues.  

However, Professor Gerald Janzen, offers a different perspective

The wager between God and the Satan is difficult to “square” with what we know of God in the rest of Scripture. But remember, this is a parable, not history, so it isn’t a self-revelation of who God really is. Rather, read in the most sympathetic light, God’s wager is a radical act of trust on God’s part. God trusts Job to prove the Satan wrong. God is staking a lot on Job’s response. 

J. Gerald Janzen, Job: INTERPRETATION–A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching, 2012, John Knox Press,

And dare I say, God is also staking a lot on our responses That’s why Paul tells us, we are Christ’ body.  How we live and believe reflects on God.

The Test of Job’s Faith

In verses 13-22 we return to the earth where the children are again celebrating a birthday party in the house of the oldest son.  It looks like it should be another good day in the wonderful life of Job, but then disaster happens. 

I’m just going to read this because it’s much more powerful than if I try to describe it.

Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; 14 and there came a messenger to Job, and said, “The oxen were plowing and the asses feeding beside them; 15 and the Sabe′ans fell upon them and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The Chalde′ans formed three companies, and made a raid upon the camels and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 

Notice that Job received all of this news in under a minute.  The first messenger comes “and while he was yet speaking,” the second messenger comes.  “And while he was yet speaking,” the third messenger comes. Boom! Boom! Boom!  Job has no chance to take it all in, no time to even react… and the worst is yet to come.

18 While he was yet speaking, there came another, [I wonder if Job saw it coming?] and he said, “Your sons and daughters were eating [Is Job going, “no! no! no!] and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; 19 and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness, [No!] and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” [Boom]

I’m going to end the sermon here today.  We’ve run out of time.  And maybe it’s just as well.  The first thing that we need to do when we are overwhelmed by tragedy is just to let it sink in.  Perhaps that’s all we can do right now when we are overwhelmed by corona virus and racial strife. Perhaps all we can do is to just sit wordlessly in our grief.

I have no happy ending for you today, but I invite you to come back next week when we will take up where we left off.  What do good people do when bad things happen?

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