If you died tomorrow, how would people describe you? Often eulogies gloss over a person’s imperfections and paint a rosy picture of a person’s life, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about after the funeral, maybe when the family and friends gather for a meal, how would they describe you? How would they talk about your character? About how you lived, how you treated others, your priorities… about who you really were?
In today’s Old Testament reading, we are introduced to a man named Job. It is unclear to scholars whether Job actually was a man who lived, or if this story is like a parable, meant to teach us a lesson. I don’t know that it matters either way. The lesson we are meant to take away from the book of Job is this: his life is supposed to teach us about the existence and nature of true piety, what it means to be godly or holy.
Job’s character is held up as a model of righteousness.
So let’s look at that story again: In verse 1, Job is described as a man who was “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” Job’s character is held up as a model of righteousness. The fact that we have two pairs of descriptors: blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil, would give the ancient readers the understanding that he was completely good, there was a perfection about him.
Job is held up as the model of integrity. That’s what the word blameless means. As the text goes on, both his wife and God describe him as a person who persists in integrity. He was known for being honest, for his decency, his truthfulness, for being sincere and trustworthy. Job was a very good man.
In ancient cultures, and can we admit that even today, there is a belief that if a person is right with God blessings will flow to them. And so, in this story of this incredibly good man, Job, we find in verse two and the following verses of chapter 1, which we didn’t read this morning, that Job was indeed not only a good man, but an extremely rich man. Verses 2&3 say, “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.” Ancient readers would expect this… he is a righteous man so God blesses him. He is a most holy, good person… so he has all the material blessings that culture would expect.
And that’s exactly where this story gets weird. In Job 1:6–12 we read:
“One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”
Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”
Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.”
A couple of things here. First, this is not the Devil as we have come to understand him from later scripture readings. This angel’s name in Hebrew is “ha-satan,” and he is basically an informant working for God. He is an accuser who defends God’s honor by exposing those humans who pose a threat to God’s honor.
The other, more problematic part of this scene between God and ha-satan, is that God gives satan permission to go ahead and take away the blessings from Job, to see if his goodness, his blamelessness is simply because God has blessed him so abundantly or if it is truly part of Job’s character. Is his integrity who he is regardless of the circumstances in his life? This leaves us as modern readers wondering about the trustworthiness of God. Is he someone who truly has our best interests at heart? Or is he the kind of capricious God who gets into a smack down contest with one of his angels, and just wreaks havoc in the lives of his followers?
Chapter 1 of Job goes on to tell the incredibly awful story of the loss ha-satan wreaks in Job’s life: all of his livestock is stolen by marauding thieves or killed by fire, his servants are all killed; and his children all die when a tornado hits the house they are partying at together. All the markers, the indicators of Job’s blessedness are destroyed in one day. And Job responds with the integrity, the holiness he is known for. We read at the end of chapter 1:
“At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.”
So it is after these horrific losses, we have the reading for today when once again ha-satan goes before God, and God again commends Job’s integrity, his righteousness. Ha-satan responds that Job can maintain his integrity because nothing has happened to his own body. So God gives ha-satan permission to physically afflict Job, but not to kill him.
Ha-satan goes out and afflicts Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. Have you ever had a boil? It is a pus-filled, extremely painful infection of the skin. I imagine this is what happened to Job. I can’t imagine the pain. His wife, who has endured all these losses with Job, has had enough. She says to Job, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” Job replies: “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.
We are going to continue to studying from the book of Job for several weeks, so today we are going to focus on a couple of specific questions: If God lets something absolutely terrible, something unimaginably devastating happen in your life how would you respond? Basically, what is your character? And secondly, how do we think about God in these situations? What is our understanding of God’s character?
So let’s start with what if God let’s something awful happen in your life? How would you respond? This depends on what you think your relationship with God is all about.
If God lets something absolutely terrible, something unimaginably devastating happen in your life how would you respond?
One of the commentator’s I read said, “Even today much of religion seems to be about bargaining with God — I will do this for you, if you do this for me. Satan’s question/challenge to God about Job goes deeper however, suggesting that the distortion in our relationship with God is so deeply ingrained that people are not even aware of its presence until something happens to upset their assumptions. One finds out what people really believe when they face a crisis. Do they believe they have a contract with God in which God is bound to protect them from tragedy because “I’m good” or because “I belong to God.”
Remember I talked a couple of weeks ago about how I struggled with exactly this when my dad died. I couldn’t believe God would let my dad who was a really good guy die because I thought we had a deal: I’d be good and he’d protect my family. I came out of that experience recognizing that although God is good, and he does love me, it doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen to me.
Job models this for us. He does not understand his own piety as a guarantee of security. He says, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Or when he was afflicted with sores, “should we accept good from God and not trouble?”
That gets us to the heart of the second question, though, doesn’t it? Who is this God who takes away those we love, or who allows trouble in our life? From the psalms, we learn that God is our refuge, our help, our protector… how do we square that with the book of Job’s image of God as a deity who seems to let calamity come to Job as a kind of random bet with satan?
The commentator reminds us: the God of the Bible is our creator God “who has made us as we are capable of love and attachment, but also susceptible to disease, accidents, violence. In this sense, it is God who gives and takes away, from whom we receive both what we yearn for and what we dread.”
This exactly describes where I landed as I processed through my dad’s death: I knew God loved me, and had put me in a loving family but we live in a fallen, broken world where bad stuff happens, stuff that breaks God’s heart as we suffer. It is not what he intended when he made us or this world we live in. I do not believe God is an actor in bringing abuse, disease, death to our lives, but I think that because he has created humans with the freedom to choose he allows us to experience the consequences of living in a fallen, broken world.
The commentator says, “There is a tendency to want to associate God with only what is good. If one does that, however, then when trouble comes it is easy to feel that one has fallen into some godforsaken place. At the time, when one most needs the presence of God, there is only the absence. The wisdom of Job’s stance is that it allows him to recognize the presence of God even in the most desolate of experiences.”
I think this is where our reading from Hebrews is also informative for us today. It further helps us answer the question of who is God and what is happening as we suffer? “In the past, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways (like the book of Job), but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (Jesus), whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”
Today, when we want to know who God is we look at Jesus. We look at the one who takes little children in his lap and blesses them. The powerful creator of the universe is the one who says to the weak, the vulnerable: I love you, you are important in my kingdom.
The writer to the Hebrews goes on to remind the readers that God through Jesus has given his power to us humans to help him rule the universe. “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them.” Our destiny, the end of our story is that we will rule all things with Jesus, but right now we are still in a battle where not all things are under our control or power… this includes disease, death, people making evil choices. “But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” And the promise is that as our life is caught up in Jesus’ life, we too, although we may suffer and die, we will once again live to rule with him in glory.
When we suffer evil, hurt, disease, death in our lives God is present with us. He knows what it is like to suffer. But as we look at him, we also see our future: a future where these things will no longer have power over us. And so like Job we can say, “blessed be the name of the Lord.”