Job is a discomforting book, for it deals with a very thorny question: the suffering of those who do not deserve to suffer. Job is portrayed as an eminently just man. He has fulfilled all of his responsibilities and more. He has offended in nothing. Indeed, Job has lived as the very embodiment of the ideals set forth in Israel’s “traditional wisdom,” as contained in the Book of Proverbs.
Well could Job expect, then, the happiness that the Book of Proverbs confidently held out to those who adhered to the dictates of Israel’s traditional wisdom. Instead, however, he is visited with all manner of evil, disgrace, humiliation, and suffering.
Various possible answers to Job’s questions are tried, weighed, and mostly found wanting. For this reason, the book may be described, like the Book of Ecclesiastes, as speculative. Its answers are tentative rather than definitive. Its mental map is not entirely filled in. Its themes are more probed than proved. It ends on the note of faith in God, but, like Ecclesiastes, it permits speculative thought to explore the darker, more mysterious dimensions of that faith.
Job himself is given two lifetimes, a before and an after, with the period of his trial being the central dividing point of his allotted days. Thus, he lives 140 years, exactly twice the normal span of a man’s life (cf. Psalm 89:10). Each of his first seven sons and three daughters is replaced at the end of the story, and all of his original livestock is exactly doubled (Job 1:3; 42:12).
A very important word in the Book of Job, of course, is the verb “to comfort” (niham). Near the story’s beginning, this is what Job’s friends come to do (2:11), and the expression appears several more times, whether in the verbal form (7:13; 16:2; 21:34; 29:25) or as the cognate noun (6:10). Whereas Job’s friends fail utterly in their efforts to comfort him throughout almost the entire book, they succeed at the end (42:11), after the resolution of Job’s conflict by God’s intervention.
One may argue that the proper key to understanding the Book of Job does not appear until the last chapter thereof. This key commences with the Lord’s word to Eliphaz the Temanite, who represents all of Job’s comforters: “‘Now take for yourselves seven bulls and seven rams, go to My servant Job, and offer for yourselves a burnt offering; and My servant Job shall pray for you. For I will accept him, lest I deal with you according to your folly; because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.’ So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did as the Lord had commanded them; for the Lord accepted Job. And the Lord restored Job’s losses when he prayed for his friends. Indeed, the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:8–10).
In this passage near the very end of the book, Job appears preeminently as an effective petitioner on behalf of his friends. These men are restored to God’s favor by Job’s praying for them, and Job himself is restored by his praying for them. The story of Job is thus interpreted through the singular mystery of intercessory prayer. Moreover, this explanation of Job was not lost on earlier readers of the book. For example, the prophet Ezekiel, remembering Job’s prayer more than his patience, listed him with Noah and Daniel, all three of whom he took to be men endowed with singular powers of intercession before the Most High (Ezekiel 14:14–20).
Indeed, this theme of Job’s intercessory prayer appears early in the book. We learn of Job’s intercession before we discover anything else about him. Concerned for the welfare of his ten children, we are told, Job “would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all” (Job 1:5). Indeed, between Job’s intercessions at the beginning and the end of the book, we may regard chapters 2 through 37 as a kind of satanic distraction from Job’s life of prayer. About halfway through the book, Job’s final prayer is prophesied by Eliphaz in a verse of great irony: “You will make your prayer to Him, and He will hear you, and you shall pay your vows” (22:27). To show that this prophecy has been fulfilled, it is to Eliphaz that God directs his rebuke and command at the end of the story (42:7f). Job’s wisdom, then, has to do with his prayer for those he loves.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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