The Book of Job is not a part of the Bible one usually associates with Christmas. This is not just because it is in the Old Testament; The Book of Isaiah figures very prominently in the Christmas story, and it is an Old Testament book. Nor is it because The Book of Job pretty thoroughly disabuses us of the notion that God is some sort of cosmic Santa Claus who materially rewards us when we’ve been good, and deprives us when we’ve been bad.
The Book of Job is considered one of the great masterpieces of world literature. It is easily the most philosophical book in the entire Bible, dealing as it does with the most fundamental questions of man’s existence and his relationship to his Creator. It is the earliest known work that deals with theodicy, the reconciliation of a perfect, good and all-powerful Creator with his imperfect creation.
Job was a pious and wealthy man who lived in a place called “the land of Uz” during the patriarchal age. He was a Semite, though probably not a Hebrew. According to the Bible (all quotations are from the New International Version),
This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East. (Job 1:1-3)
Job was so pious that, whenever his children had a feast, he would offer sacrifices just in case one of them might have sinned.
One day, as God is presiding over an assembly of his angels, he asks Satan (one of the angels) where he has been. When he replies that he has been roaming the earth, God asks him if he has “considered my servant Job”, and proceeds to praise Job’s piety and righteousness. Satan replies that Job is only faithful and good because God has given him great wealth and asserts that Job will curse God if it is all taken away.
God agrees to Satan’s challenge, with the proviso that Job himself not be harmed. So Job’s children are killed and his livestock are all killed or run off. Job responds to these tragedies by tearing his robe, shaving his head, and falling to his knees in worship. At the next angelic assembly, God points out to Satan that Job “still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason” (Job 2:3).
So Satan demands that Job be tested again, this time physically. God agrees, and Job is afflicted with “painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head” (Job 2:7). When Job’s wife demands that he “curse God and die”, Job refuses and maintains his integrity: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10)
At this point God steps out of the picture. Three of Job’s friends — Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite — come to sit with him and comfort him. For the next 29 chapters these comforters, in a series of lengthy speeches in verse, try to convince Job that he must have committed some sin to bring on his troubles. They have no idea what that sin might be, but to them it is self-evident that the events of a man’s life — good or bad — are a consequence of whether he has pleased God.
Job rejects this Santa Claus view of God. He protests his innocence, and argues that not only do the good suffer, but the evil prosper. But he has no explanation for why this is so. “Why do the wicked live on”, he asks in frustration, “growing old and increasing in power? (Job 21:7) The groans of the dying rise from the city, and the souls of the wounded cry out for help. But God charges no one with wrongdoing.” (Job 24:12)
As his “comforters” insist more and more vehemently that Job must acknowledge his sin, whatever it is, and repent, Job insists just as vehemently that he has not sinned. He expresses a desire to go before God and present his case:
Even today my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning.
If only I knew where to find him;
if only I could go to his dwelling!
I would state my case before him
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would find out what he would answer me,
and consider what he would say.
Would he oppose me with great power?
No, he would not press charges against me.
There an upright man could present his case before him,
and I would be delivered forever from my judge.
But he is frustrated because God won’t answer him.
By Chapter 32 Job’s companions have strained their friendship almost to the breaking point. Clearly, they are not going to change Job’s mind, and Job has made no headway in convincing them of his innocence. At this point, a fourth person enters the picture, a younger man named Elihu, “son of Barakel the Buzite”.
Elihu is critical of Job’s three friends. “Not one of you has proved Job wrong,” he says. “None of you has answered his arguments.” (Job 32:12) But he is equally critical of Job, because several times Job came very close to accusing God of being unjust. He says to Job, “It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the Almighty would pervert justice.” (Job 34:12) Job needs to repent, alright, but not for any sin that his three companions might be able to name. His sin is in presuming that he can argue with God.
Elihu goes on for six chapters when God interrupts to give Job a final and definitive answer. His answer takes the form of a question:
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone-
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
This is the beginning of a long poetic description of the wonders of Creation — wonders that man dimly perceives, but only God fully comprehends and controls. One by one, God asks Job if he understands these wonders and can make them do his bidding, as God can. He then asks Job the obvious question:
Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself?
The Book of Job is not about why bad things happen to “good” people. You will search it in vain for an answer to that question. God instead answers a different question, a question many of us are reluctant to ask because we are afraid of the answer. God is telling us that he, and he alone, is ultimately in charge. He is, quite literally, over everything. To try to argue with him, to accuse him of being unjust, is worse than futile: it is utterly irrational. “There is a difficulty about disagreeing with God,” said C. S. Lewis:
He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on. (Mere Christianity)
Yes, bad things do happen to “good” people. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t aware of it, or that he is indifferent to their pain. And yes, he can stop bad things from happening, and he can take away pain; he is, after all, God. But what he does instead is something that is even more amazing: he takes all those bad things and turns them into something good.
Many Christians try to avoid laying on God the responsibility for the bad things that happened to Job. They note that inflicting all those misfortunes on Job was Satan’s idea. This is a distinction without a difference. In fact, it was God who brought up the subject of Job, who praised Job’s righteousness and piety to a being God knew was so consumed with pride that he wouldn’t be able to resist the implied challenge.
God is sovereign over everything — the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly. And this, not “why bad things happen to ‘good’ people”, is the central lesson of The Book of Job. While we humans have free will and are capable of choosing to do good or evil, for God the end is never in doubt. He is now, always has been, and always will be in complete control.
So, what does all this have to do with Christmas? Just this: Christmas commemorates a time when God gave up his rights as Creator and Ruler of the universe for a season in order to enter our world as a man — a man very much like Job, only more so, in both his righteousness and his suffering — so that we, his imperfect creation, might become reconciled to our perfect and all-powerful Creator.
And that has to be the best Christmas present anyone has ever received.