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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

The Justice of God in Suffering


"He would not let me catch my breath but would overwhelm me with misery. If it is a matter of strength, he is mighty!

And if it is a matter of justice, who can challenge him?"

Job 9:18-19

I want to ask a question to begin with? It goes like this: Is it right for the government to imprison a person without first proving their guilt?

It’s a question about justice. At a detention camp in Cuba, known as Guantanamo Bay, there remain 31 people incarcerated. Of the 31, the shortest period of time that any of them have been detained is now 15years.

Of the 31, ten are charged with an offence, and just one is a convict. 17 men are awaiting transfer out without charges against them, though they have been detained at least 15 years. The longest period any uncharged man has been in the camp now stands at 21 years. And that is not to mention the other 749 people that have been detained there previously – 9 of which died in custody.

It seems to be a terrible miscarriage of justice and one which no less than 3 successive Presidents have failed to bring to a close.

Here we are in Job, chapters 4 through to 14 and we are going to see a dispute arise between Job and his friends also on the question of justice. And specifically, the question of God’s justice.

Guantanamo looks like a miscarriage of justice, but we can only saythat because we have a sense of justice. It’s a sense that seems ingrained in our DNA, and in a way, it is ingrained. It’s that sense of fairness. And it is a sense that is very sensitive in us.

We are hard wired to sense unfairness. Nothing causes our hackles to shoot up quite so much as when we feel like we are being treated unfairly. All of this is because, God is a god of justice. We get our sense of justice from him. The problem is that, in our sin, it gets out of proportion – either over-emphasised or under-emphasised, in our minds and hearts. But in God it is perfect.

The psalmist says of God’s justice, ‘righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne’. And, ‘Your righteousness is like the highest mountains, your justice like the great deep’.

God’s justice underpins then, his sovereign rule. And it is a limitlessjustice.

Bring the most testing case to the bar of God’s justice and it will be dealt with in the fairest, most reasonable, most impartial, honest and equitable manner imaginable.

No court can compete with the justice of his rule.

These chapters in Job are perplexing. Not least because of the differingperspectives that Job and his friends are coming from. So, I want to make some observations before we dive into them and consider the first round of speeches.

I hope that these observations will help us discern how right, or wrong, these 4 men really are, because it’s not immediately clear.

Observation no.1: God knows he’s just, and he contends for his justice in this book. Chapter 40, verse 8, he says, ‘Would you discredit myjustice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?’ We can know and trust this word. It comes from God: God is fair, and right and just. Anybody who tries to discredit his justice is wrong.

Observation no.2: Job is righteous and upright. God says it in chapter 2, verse 3, ‘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’.

Job is the best example of righteousness in all the earth according to God – that’s what got this whole episode started in first place.

Satan said that the ‘good life’ was the reason Job was so blameless before God. But God is showing everyone that that’s a lie. Job lovesGod, for God, not for his worldly gifts.

Observation no.3: Satan’s prediction that Job would curse God if he brought calamity into his life has not been proved right. Here’s God’s word on the subject, ‘Job still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without reason’.

Observation no.4: God’s verdict, at the end, on the remarks made by these three friends, is that they have not conveyed the truth about him, and he is angry with them for their words. So, we need to keep that in mind.

Observation no.5: God’s verdict, at the end, on Job’s remarks is that he has obscured his plans with words without knowledge, chapter 38, verse 2. Which is also not a favourable assessment. So, we need to keep that in view too.

So, God is just. Job is righteous. And Job has not cursed God for all the calamity he has brought on him. These are 3 vitally important facts to remember.

And there’s something else to consider: It is possible to make a statement of truth, but because that statement is designed to speak to a situation for it to be false in its context.

Here’s an example, if I say ‘My wife is the love of my life’, that is a truestatement. There is no other woman I love more than her in all my life. However, if the context in which I make that statement is, let’s say, a bible study about how we must love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds and souls and strength, then the statement ‘My wife is the love of my life’ wouldn’t be accurate.

In that case I would be denying what Jesus taught, and I would be saying that Deb is more valuable to me than God, which isn’t true. If it were true, I wouldn’t be a Christian. So, context makes the difference.

And here we have many statements that, if you take them out of the context of Job’s suffering, are true, but in that context are not true.

So, that behooves us to be careful of the context when we are speaking. Sweeping statements can easily fall foul of context.

There’s a place for a sweeping statement – especially about God, because he absolute - but the circumstances into which they are being spoken needs to be considered carefully.

Now, back in chapter 3 we heard Job lamenting the day of his birth and longing for death. We heard him lamenting his ceaseless pain and longing for release, but failing to find it. And towards the end of the chapter we got the sense that he felt like God was examining his life. His hope was ebbing, and we were concerned for his faith.

On the back of that speech, the oldest of Job’s three friends decides that he must speak.

Presented with Job’s speech in chapter 3, Eliphaz has drawn some inferences, but are they right?

Verses 3-6 are an attempt to encourage Job – to revitalise his hope, I think. But they are misguided words. What Eliphaz attempts is something very similar to what we hear a lot of today – self-reliance is the key to hope.

He puts it something like this: ‘Think of how you’ve helped others. Think of the good you’ve done – how you’ve supported the needy. Let that be your confidence. Let your virtue be your hope’.

But the inward-looking, self-reliant approach to generating hope is woefully inadequate for dealing with Job’s grief and discouragement, or indeed anybody’s discouragement.

2 Corinthians 1:8-9 makes it very clear that this approach is faulty.

Paul says, speaking of himself and his fellow apostles, ‘We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself (this sounds like Job). Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead’. One of the very purposes of God, according to 2 Corinthians 1, for Job’s suffering, may be to increase his reliance on God.

The suffering the apostles were facing, God designed it, to teach them to rely on him. And yet, here Eliphaz is encouraging Job to do the opposite and to rely on himself. So, this is not a good start that Eliphaz has made!

He’s suggested the self-help approach, but now he’s moving on to exploring another angle.

His contention now is that Job’s suffering is the just consequence for sinthat Job has committed – that God is meeting-out his just punishment on Job for transgressions that he has committed.

Verse 18, ‘if God charges his angels with error, how much more those who live in houses of clay’ – like Job. Chapter 5, verse 3, ‘since it’s the house of a fool that gets cursed, maybe you’re a fool Job’.

Verse 6, ‘there’s no smoke without fire Job’ – ‘hardship doesn’t spring up from nowhere (the soil) and trouble doesn’t come from out of thin air (the ground)’ – ‘they are the consequences of something’.

Verses 12 & 13, ‘God thwarts the plans of the crafty and catches the wise in their craftiness’. Which is true, but the question is, ‘is ‘crafty’ what Job is?’

Verse 27 shows us that Eliphaz has Job in mind in all his sayings – ‘hear these things and apply them to yourself Job’.

The main problem with these remarks is that they make an assumptionabout Job that is simply untrue.

They assume, without evidence, that Job is guilty of some unrepentant sin. But we know that’s not true. We know that Job is righteous in God’s sight.

Eliphaz, hasn’t taken the time to ask Job any questions. He’s sat silent – there was a good reason for that – and now he’s launched into a judgment without asking him anything first.

The apostle James warns us on this, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’. I think Eliphaz would have said, ‘I was slow to speak – 7 days slow!’ Yes, but ‘quick to listen too’, James says.

He hadn’t listened to Job, because he hadn’t asked Job anything.

We learn where our brothers and sisters are at by asking caring, careful, kind questions and listening to the answers.

The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, Paul says.

In other words, listening doesn’t mean undiscerning. But making judgments doesn’t mean judgmental either. It means being motivated by love to discern if something is spiritually amiss, in order that we might help restore that person.

That’s not what Eliphaz is doing here. He’s jumping to conclusions. More harm is caused amongst Christians because of a failure to listen and understand, than perhaps any other cause I think.

It’s actually this sweeping statement from Eliphaz – rather than a balanced, careful, suggestive approach – that sets the whole discourse off on the wrong footing.

Job speaks next and his approach is to develop his argument from chapter 3. For him, the arrows of the Almighty are in him and they poison his spirit, (chapter 6, verse 4). He considers that God has made him his target (chapter 7, verse 20).

God just won’t leave him alone, he’s put him under guard like a monster of the deep (chapter 7, verse 12).

And above all, he can’t understand why. ‘Why have you made me your target Lord? If I have sinned, why do you not pardon my offences and forgive my sins’ (chapter 7, verse 21). For Job there is a question mark in his mind about God’s justice. He thinks his suffering can only mean one thing: God thinks he has sinned and his suffering is punishment for it.

But Job knows he hasn’t sinned. Chapter 6, verse 24, ‘show me where I have been wrong’. Verse 29, responding to Eliphaz, ‘do not be unjust! Reconsider your comments, because my integrity is at stake’. Verse 30, ‘is there any wickedness on my lips’.

These are responses to the claim that Job has committed some sin that, in turn, explains his suffering – it explains the suffering as punishment.

But Job is saying, when they talk like that it undermines his integrity – he hasn’t sinned. There’s another explanation for all this suffering.

Job is still being careful here though. He’s concerned that in the complaint that comes from the bitterness of his soul (chapter 7, verse 11) that he might deny the words of the Holy One.

It’s a beautiful concern to have – one that honours God.

Suffering is coming, and we need to have such a high regard for God’s holiness that we share Job’s concern here, I think.

Now, the pressure on Job is going to ramp up because Bildad is readying himself to speak. His speech is shorter than that of Eliphaz, but it’s more cutting – more direct.

Bildad is valiant for the justice of God, you can hear that in chapter 8, verse 3. ‘Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right?’ And we know the answer is ‘no’.

We’ve seen that justice is the throne of God, and it goes all the way down to the bottom.

So, there’s no problem with being valiant for God’s justice, we all need to be that.

But then look at the application in verse 4. ‘When your children sinnedagainst God, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin’. Now, if only Bildad had taken the time to ask Job a question or two before speaking into this situation.

A good line of questioning would have been, ‘Job, what were your children like?’ And Job would have answered honestly, ‘I always feared they might have feasted too hard and cursed God in their hearts, so I made it my regular custom to intercede on their behalves’.

And Bildad would have thought to himself, ‘Hmm so that would suggest that God wasn’t punishing Job when that calamity befell his children – maybe there’s another explanation’.

What good some questioning would have yielded. What words might not have been spoken!

Verse 6, turns the focus on Job. ‘There’s one sure way of knowing if you’re pure and upright Job, tell God you are. And because he’s just, ifyou are, he will rouse himself on your behalf’.

But Bildad’s already convinced that Job isn’t pure and upright, so there’s sarcasm is his suggestion. In verse 13, according to Bildad, Job is like grass that gets cut down in its prime, which, he says, is the destiny of all who forget God. And it’s why the hope of the Godless perishes!

These are biting words. God has said that Job is the godliest man in all the world. Bildad implies he’s the opposite - godless.

Verse 20 nails home the Bildad’s logic. ‘Surely God does not reject one who is blameless’. And the answer is, he doesn’t’.

But that’s not what Bildad means. He means, that material suffering – emotional and physical – is the evidence that God has rejected Job. And since God does not reject a blameless person, and since he isrejecting Job – evidenced by his suffering – therefore Job is notblameless. That’s the logic. And it’s wrong!

One: It’s true, God does not reject the blameless.

Two: the suffering of Job is evidence of God’s rejection of Job – that’s false!

And three: therefore, Job must be unrighteous – false again!

If that were true, Jesus could not have died for our sins. ‘Christ suffered - we’re told - in his body, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous to bring us to God’ and he was the spotless lamb of God.

If Bildad’s logic is right then we have no hope that our sins are forgiven.

The fact is: Job is upright. God has brought suffering into his life. And that does not undermine God’s justice!

Job acknowledges, at the beginning of chapter 9, that Bildad is rightwhen he says that God does not reject the blameless. But, knowing that he is blameless, the question he can’t get answered is, how can he prove to God that he’s blameless – he thinks God has lost sight of the fact that he’s blameless. So, verse 2 for example, ‘how can mere mortals prove their innocence’.

He knows he’s puny in comparison with God. On the one hand he knows he can’t contend with God because he’s too powerful - that’s what chapter 9, verses 5-12 are all about – but equally he must find a way to show God that’s he’s got it wrong.

He shouldn’t be suffering; he hasn’t done anything wrong. ‘Grasp thatGod and you’ll understand that your suffering is misplaced’.

Verse 14, ‘How can I dispute with him?

Verse 16, ‘I do not believe he would give me a hearing’.

In verse 17, Job ramps up his complaint, ‘He would crush me with a storm – like his children were crushed – and multiply my wounds for no reason’.

To Job, God’s actions are senseless. Verse 22, ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked’.

Verse 23, ‘he mocks the despair of the innocent’. Verse 24 is the boldest accusation against God, ‘he blindfolds the judges [the justices] of the land’.

In verses 28 & 29 he contends that God has already found him guilty – without a hearing.

He’s so convinced God’s got it wrong, that if there were a mediator, he suggests, to decide between him and God, the mediator would find in hisfavour, not in God’s. The mediator would disarm God.

These are weighty things he’s saying. They spring up out of seemingly senseless suffering, and no doubt his pain clouds his judgment.

But, what really clouds his judgment is the same thing that clouds the judgement of the friends. They all think this sorry episode is a question of Justice. Either, God is being just and therefore Job is blameworthy. Or God is being unjust and therefore Job is being treated wrongly. But, the reality is, neither is true.

Step up Zophar. He’s angry with Job. He wishes God would open his mouth, because then he would speak against Job.

We know that’s not so.

He thinks if the court were convened, God would show Job, by his wisdom, the secret sins Job conceals.

In chapter 11, verse 11, he implies that Job is a deceiver. His advice to Job is to put away the sin that is in his hand (verse 14) and to allow no evil to dwell in his tent, and then he’ll have a good standing before God. But, if not, then the eyes of the wicked are going to fail, and escapewill elude them.

Now I must say, some of the statements in Job’s response here, are very hard to read. Because, based on everything we’ve heard God say about Job in chapters 1 & 2, and based on the knowledge we have about God’s purposes in bringing these calamities on Job, we know that God esteems Job, we know God loves Job, we know that God is proud of Job.

So, to hear Job speak in these terms now in chapter 13 about God, his friend, is very hard to hear.

Job’s view is that he’s got his case together - in many ways the dialogue with his friends has helped him to do that - and now he’s ready to present it and ready to be vindicated.

His case will be, that he is innocent and God has either lost sight of that fact, or else is being pernicious, and that is unjust.

Verse 21, he wants God to withdraw his hand from him and summon him to the hearing. At such a hearing, he will give answers to all God’s questions and he will even have some questions for God himself and God will answer him (verse 22).

He would say to God, ‘show me my offences and my sins. Come on God, stop tormenting me and writing down bitter things against me’ (verse 26).

But the hearing is not forthcoming. God doesn’t show up.

And so, Job returns to longing for the grave (chapter 14, verse 13). Butwith a difference this time.

Some rays of hope are found in these final verses of chapter 14. Some recollection of the goodness of God and of future restoration. These are Job’s best remarks for some time.

Verse 14, ‘I will wait for my renewal to come. You will call and I will answer (from the grave). Surely then you will count my steps but notkeep track of my sin. My offences will be sealed up in a bag; you will cover over my sin’.

Job is still confused about the reason for his suffering, but the hope inhis suffering is the resurrection from the dead. And this is so right!

We have to have a category for God’s justice which is different to humancategories of justice.

Human beings are contingent creatures – contingent upon God. God is not contingent, he is absolute – he depends on no one.

In terms of justice, we cannot inflict suffering without determining guilt – but God can.

It is a miscarriage of justice to incarcerate innocent people at Guantanamo. It is not a miscarriage of justice for God to bring sufferinginto the lives of his people when they are blameless in his sight.

The major error that underpins the theology of all 4 men is that earthlyblessing and earthly curses are their measure of God’s approval. But that’s false.

In fact, we’re taught the opposite. Romans 8 – the chapter that everyone loves – says, ‘Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in orderthat we may also share in his glory…who shall bring any charge against those whom God has chosen (like Job)? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. In all things – trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger or sword – we are more than conquerors through him who loved us - (Christ Jesus our Lord)’.

This is where Job and the friends need to get to. God is just. God doesbring suffering. God’s people are blameless in Jesus. And they must suffer, because Jesus suffered. Our hope, therefore, is the resurrection.

Job ends chapter 14 in the right place! What a joy that is to see!

How do we navigate suffering and the justice of God? The answer is: in love, he is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory, through the suffering. Therefore, God’s sovereign suffering is good for us!


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