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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

At the Coal Face of Suffering with Job


 

"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."

Job 1:21


Right away, with Job, we’ve got to make a decision about how we will receive this account. Do we embrace the account as a fable with a moral angle, or do we receive it as an historical account of a real man?


I suspect that Christian liberalism will encourage us more and more to take the view that Job is a fiction. The reason I think that is likely, is because we live in an age of rationalism. And rationalistic thinking is going to increasingly put the squeeze on the bible.


It will encourage us to think of all the parts of the bible that cannot be explained by observable and empirical science as fiction, or allegory. I think that the battle for the historicity of the bible amongst Christians is going to be a harder fought one in this century than it was in the last.


However, a knee jerk reaction against the rationalistic impulse is not a good argument for why we should take the book of Job as accurate - historic account. There is a much more compelling reason than that. The compelling reason is the bible’s own testimony about this man Job.


The prophet Ezekiel says that the Word of the Lord came to him, and here’s what it said: ‘Son of man [that’s Ezekiel] if a country sins against me by being unfaithful and I stretch out my hand against it to cut off its food supply and send famine upon it and kill its people and their animals, even if these three men – Noah, Daniel and Job – were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the sovereign Lord.’ If Noah was real; if Daniel was real, then Job was real too. And not only real, but righteous in God’s estimation.

And it’s repeated in verse 20 of the same chapter. It’s a firmassessment on God’s part – Job was real and righteous.


That’s not all. The new testament bears witness also. The apostle James writes, ‘Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know we count as blessed those who persevered [real prophets who persevered – we count them blessed]. You have heard of Job’sperseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about [namely, blessing for Job]. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy’.

So, if you want a real example of patience in the face of real suffering, James names prophets, and one particular prophet – Job. ‘Job is not a theory brothers and sisters’ – James says - ‘Job is a living and enduring example of what patience in suffering looks like – let him be a practical example for you’.


So, scripture testifies that Job was a real man, who really suffered, who really endured and who was really blessed in the end.

James is saying Job is useful to us. Useful in a way that no allegory possibly could be. And so, we need to receive Job as an historicalaccount written down for our benefit.


Why are we turning to Job? Why have I chosen this book to instruct us for the next however many weeks? There is nothing more certain than that we are all destined to suffer. We may not all suffer in the sameways. We may not all suffer to the same extents. But we will all suffer.


And we have recently been acquainted with Saul-Paul in Acts chapter 9, of whom Jesus said, ‘I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’. The new testament leaves us in little doubt, I think, that suffering will be a significant part of following Jesus – not least because Jesus himself suffered leaving us an example that we should follow in his steps, 1 Peter 2:21 says.


And, Job himself, told us to expect suffering when he said, ‘Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upwards’. Well sparks do fly upwards and we are indeed, born to trouble. If we expect anything different, we’re kidding ourselves.


So, how will we redeem the suffering that’s coming our way and not waste it? How will we bear up under it and not despair in it? How willwe remain steadfast in hope and not turn on God in the midst of our pain?

We need to know. And James told us Job is worthy of consideration in our own struggle with suffering and I, for one, believe him. So that’s why we’re here.


So, let’s begin by getting some orientation on this real man Job.

The first 5 verses sketch for us who the man was. Verse 1 tells us where he lived – the land of Uz – most likely the northern part of the Arabian peninsula.

It also tells us straight off the bat - before we get to family, or job, or house, or car – that he was blameless, and upright. He feared God and turned his back on evil. This is the narrator’s estimation – Job was a godly, righteous man.


Next, we hear about his family. 10 Children in all: 3 daughters and 7 sons. All precious to him no doubt.

Not only was he abundantly fruitful in offspring, but also in wealth. 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 1,000 oxen given to us in pairs so that we understand that these were good for farming – for ploughing up the land, 500 donkeys and a large number of servants.


All if which leads the narrator to summarise at the end of verse 3 that ‘he was the greatest man among all the people of the East’. Which, in turn leads us to believe that he was great in both wealth and reputation.

A truly blessed man in terms of temporal things – family, household, wealth, fame. The very things we all aspire to.


Yet, for all his worldly blessings his fear of the Lord is always paramount in his mind and heart. He’s not distracted by his wealth and fame so that he forgets God. Verses 4-5 tell us that it was his regularcustom to make arrangements for his children to be purified after a period of feasting.

We’re told how his thinking went in verse 5, ‘Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them [each child], thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts”’.

So not merely, that they might have cursed him with their lips, no Job is concerned with their hearts – are they for God or not? God’s honourand his children’s hearts, for God, are his chief concern.

So, there’s nothing here to give us the impression that Job was a man of sin. Quite the opposite, he is presented by the narrator as a great and godly man.


So, that sets the scene for what’s about to take place. It’s very strange, but it’s very real and it’s very important that we believe that this is a pealing back of the curtain and a revelation of what is happening behind the scenes.


We live in a world where the curtain is down and we see only it. But here we’re given a glimpse behind the curtain and we start to understand what powers are at play. It’s important to grasp that the insight we’re about to get, Job doesn’t receive. He doesn’t get to seebehind the curtain like we do here.


Verse 6, ‘One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord’. Evidently in the courts of heaven this happens – angels present themselves before the almighty throne of God. And then we’re told,‘Satan also came with them’. So, we have angels, and now we have Satan, in the presence of God.


Where did he come from? Verse 7 says he came from the earth. And not just one place on the earth, but from going throughout the earth – back and forth upon it. Why was he roaming about on the earth?

Peter says of him, ‘the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, lookingfor someone to devour’. So, Satan comes into God’s presence prowling– hungry for Christians. Not for their flesh, but for their faith.


Now, what would you expect God to say to that fiend? I would expect him to say, ‘no point coming to me you great deceiver, I’ve got all my people hemmed in good and proper and I won’t let you get your claws in to one single one of them’. That’s what I would expect. But God doesn’t say that. He could have done, but he goes a different route.


Verse 8, ‘Then the Lord said to Satan have you considered by servant Job?’ And here’s why God presents Job to Satan: ‘There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil’.

In other words, ‘you’ve been on the prowl for the upright, I’ll show you the best of them’.


God is proud of his servant Job. He’s not proud of him because of all the sheep and donkeys and oxen he has. He’s not proud of him because of his 10 children. He’s not proud of him because he’s the greatest in the East. He’s proud of him because of his righteousness. Because he fearsGod and shuns evil. That’s what God delights in in a person, and Job is the finest example of it in all the earth.

According to God, there’s no one like Job for righteousness. So whydoes God introduce Job? Because Job reflects the glory and goodness of God. And God wants Satan to see that. Satan hates the glory of God. And God is enthusiastically committed to the glory of God.

‘So, Satan, here you go, here’s my trophy of righteousness – Job, who fears me and shuns the evil you embrace’.


Satan’s not so easily impressed. Remember, Satan’s impressed with himself. And he knows all the angles. He knows the chinks in the armour. He knows where to direct his darts. So, he suggests that Job’s confidence in God is only as strong as the fence God has erected around him. But remove that fence, and Job would be as unrighteous as the next man.


Satan makes the case like an expert lawyer - that Job is secretly in love with God’s gifts but not God himself. And his assertion is that if God were to take those gifts away from him he would curse God to his face (verse 11).


In other words, because Job’s heart is secretly in love with stuff and notGod, if God takes those things away from him, it will create such deep-seated bitterness in him that his apparent fear of God will melt away into cursing and blaspheming.


Now, God knows that his own assessment of Job is true and he knows that Satan’s accusation is false.

Which makes what happens next perplexing, unless we remember threecrucial things which are not revealed until the end of the book. But we need to state them now otherwise we can’t possibly fathom why God does what he does next.


Here are the three things that form the reason behind God’s response to Satan.

The first is that God is unrelentingly committed to the revelation of his glory. Isaiah 42:8, ‘I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols’. So here is God holding up a trophy of righteousness and Satan is saying ‘not your glory – he just loves the stuff’. God knows that’s not the case and so he will defend his glory.


The second is, even though Job is righteous – God says so himself; he agrees with the narrator at the beginning of the book, almost word for word – yet, Job isn’t perfect. There’s residual pride lurking in the heart of Job.


Here’s a short illustration: I remember when I was a boy helping my dad sieve soil in our garden. We had a big tray with a mesh in the bottom and we would load a pile of dirt into it and then shake it hard. And all the fine soil – good for growing plants in would come through that mesh and all the stones would be left in the tray and they would get discarded in a heap on the side.

We wanted good planting soil, so we needed to sieve it. Job needs sieving – that’s not clear just now, but it becomes clear – and so that is the second reason God does what he does next.


The third reason is because what happens next will serve to benefit other people too in the long run. We don’t see that now either, but we will see it at the end of the book.


So, with those three reasons in mind and probably others too, God hands Job over to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger’.

God calls the shots. Satan has the liberty to exert his power over Job only so far as God gives him permission.


Satan will not overstep his remit one bit. He can only proceed as faras God has instructed. And that is very weighty, given what Satan now goes out of the presence of God to do.


Four horrendous calamities now befall Job. Two of them are caused by human operation, the other two by natural or perhaps supernatural means.

All four of them result in the death of people close to Job. One results in the death of Job’s livestock. Two result in the theft of Job’s livestock. Three result in the death of Job’s servants. And the last one results in the death of all Job’s children.


When the narrator summarised for us at the beginning who this man Job was, everything he mentioned in terms of possessions and family he nowtells us between verses 13 and 19 are either attacked, stolen, murdered, burned up, or crushed.

Sabeans steel and murder. The fire of God falls from heaven and burns up – both sheep and servant, alike. The Chaldeans raid, steeling camels and murdering servants. And a sudden mighty wind strikes the four corners of the house Job’s sons and daughters are feasting in and they all perish.

Job is, in short, left destitute and childless.


And there’s not one word in these 6 verses about Satan. We hear of men, and of fire, and of wind, but nothing of Satan. But make no mistake about it, it is by the power of Satan that these calamities have come upon Job. Do not under-estimate Satan – he is a mightypowerful foe!


What we are seeing in these calamities is the tether God gave Satan with regard to Job. Had God not said, ‘have you considered my servant Job’ would Job be destitute right now?

Had God not given permission to Satan to touch ‘everything he has but not the man himself’, would his children have been crushed to death in a freak wind, or his sheep burnt up in fire from heaven? I think the answer is no.

And I think Job agrees. We’ll see that in a minute.


Verse 20, ‘At this, Job got up a tore his robe and shaved his head’ – that was the normal expression at the time for deep anguish of soul. And then it says, he fell down on the ground in worship.


Think for a moment about the last time you got an unexpected bill, or the boiler broke, or the trains weren’t running, or work was difficult, or the doctor said, ‘we need to send you for tests’. What was your response? Was it, to fall on the ground and worship God?

And, what would that worship even look like?

Let’s have Job instruct us what worship looks like in the face of unimaginable suffering.

Verse 21, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I will depart’.

‘Whatsoever I ever had has come from another source. I didn’t bring anything in, I won’t take anything out’.

More specifically, ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away’. ‘Whatever I had, came from the Lord. He saw fit to give it to me, he has seen fit to take it from me. None of it was ultimately mine.

May the name of the Lord be praised’.


In Job’s mind, God is the sovereign giver and God the sovereign taker. Job sees beyond the invaders – beyond the raiders. Job sees beyondSatan and the supernatural events that beset his family and his household. He sees beyond it all and he sees the hand of God.

And, he does not curse!


What Satan said would happen, hasn’t happened. What God was so confident would happen, has happened. God is vindicated! Job isrighteous. He doesn’t love the gifts more than the giver. He loves the giver over all. Though his soul is consumed with grief – though he tearhis robe and shave his head, he fears God and he shuns evil.


He knows that God must have some good purpose even in the midst of this unparalleled calamity, because God is good and all his ways are right. Therefore, let the name of the Lord be praised!


God was so right about Job. So right to hold him up as his trophy of righteousness. So right to contend against Satan’s false and God-belittling accusations.


In all this, we’re told, ‘Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing’. Had he laid charges at God’s door he would have sinned against God, but he did not do that. In this his righteousness was vindicated.

Job did not love his children more than God. He did not love his richesmore than God. He did not love his reputation more than God.

Who, on earth, would now consider him the greatest man amongst all the people of the East? Yet he did not love that accolade more than God.

And though his soul was in anguish at all this calamity, that was not sin against God either. It’s ok to be exceedingly weighed down with sorrow in the face of suffering, but it’s not ok to attribute God with wrong doing.


So, I see seven lessons here for our benefit.

Lesson 1 – God is supremely in control over all things – even Satan’s scope.

Lesson 2 – God will be glorified, whether in life or in death.

Lesson 3 – Satan is very powerful and very intent on harming God’s people.

Lesson 4 – No matter what besets us, God is good in all his purposes in our lives.

Lesson 5 – Life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions, but in the fear of the Lord.

Lesson 6 – Suffering is one of God’s tools for testing and purifying his people, advancing his kingdom and glorifying his name.

Lesson 7 – Job’s rigour in Christian habit and Christian discipline served him later on when his confidence was put to the test.


I have no doubt in my mind that when the narrator tells us that it was Job’s regular custom to offer burnt offerings, that he was doing morethan he realised.


He offered those burnt offerings because he cared about God’s honourand the souls of his children. But that habit of focusing on God’s holiness kept him from falling in love with the gifts of God.

And so, when the Lord saw fit to take them all away from him, then his habit of focusing on God’s holiness became the foundation for his worship at the coal face of suffering.


That is a massive lesson for us. We need to make it our habit now to mediate on the holiness of God, so that when suffering comes we don’t find ourselves floundering on the rocks of unbelief and doubt.


Satan is not done with Job. Next time we’ll see him ramp up the temptation to curse God.

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