Wading through forty-two chapters of mostly dense Hebrew poetry that more often than not loses its luster in English translation is a tall order, but the payoff is that the “divine address” is strikingly straightforward: suffering is not (always) about personal sin, but God always is good and faithful and sovereign.
Walking along the road one day Jesus and his disciples saw a blind man. “Who sinned,” the disciples asked Jesus, “this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2 CSB). It’s an understandable question from the disciples’ point of view, for they understood sickness and disease to be a consequence of personal sin. It’s still a commonly held view today, even though Jesus pointed out that the matter is not always so simple: “‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ Jesus answered. ‘This came about so that God’s works might be displayed in him’” (John 9:3 CSB). And long before Jesus walked along that road with his disciples, God was teaching the same principle to Job and his three friends. Some misconceptions die hard, it seems.
Reading theologically entails “listening attentively to the divine address in Scripture,” as Dave Beldman wrote in an earlier post in this series. Wading through forty-two chapters of mostly dense Hebrew poetry that more often than not loses its luster in English translation is a tall order, but the payoff is that the “divine address” is strikingly straightforward: suffering is not (always) about personal sin, but God always is good and faithful and sovereign.
Suffering in Joban Perspective
When discussing suffering in Old Testament Survey, at least one student will say something to the effect of “Bad things don’t happen to good people, because there are no good people.” The implication, of course, is that all suffering is in some sense deserved because all suffering ultimately comes from sin and everyone has sinned (save Christ, of course). I understand the sentiment, and it’s of course true. Paul tells us that “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10 CSB; see Ps 14:1–3). However, if we understand all suffering as related directly to personal sin, then we have gone astray from the message of Job and bought into the flawed theological construct that the book is addressing.
A Flawed Theological Construct
One of Job’s most significant contributions to biblical theology is its confrontation of a misunderstanding and misapplication of retribution theology, the basic idea that “whatever a person sows he will also reap” (Gal 6:7 CSB). This theological construct is drawn at least in part from the book of Deuteronomy, which resembles a suzerain-vassal covenant and includes the stipulations of God’s covenant with Israel and the curses and blessings associated with keeping or failing to keep those stipulations. However, retribution theology in Deuteronomy, as well as the prophetic books, is applied to the nation of Israel as a whole and is not intended to be applied on the individual level. Further, our understanding of sin and judgment must include an eschatological dimension in addition to allowing space for God to extend grace as he sees fit. Yes, it is true that all sin is ultimately judged, whether that be at Calvary or the second coming of Christ, but it is not true that individual sin is punished in this life.