The dialogues between Job and his three friends have a confrontational, increasingly acrimonious tone. Job sounds hopeless because he lives with a distinctive worldview. He believes God rewards righteous persons with family, prosperity, and wealth. God punishes sinners, evil doers, with loneliness, complete lack of offspring, poverty, and physical pain. Job’s friends share this theological perspective.
Job’s dilemma is he is sure he has not sinned. Yet, all his children died. His property has been destroyed and wealth thoroughly plundered by raiding hoards. And, his health is gone. A shell of a man, Job brings pointed, desperate complaint to God. Whether God caused his misfortune or failed to protect Job, Job lays the cause of his unjust suffering in God’s lap. His theology of righteousness yielding shalom (peace, fullness of life, wellbeing) is upended.
Job’s friends won’t accept his claims of innocence. They see the calamity that has rested on him and assume sin. They verbally assail him. Obviously, they say, these woes indicate you have done evil in the sight of the Lord. Repent, and it will go well with you. Job is indefatigable in his self-defense. The exchanges with his friends become more and more heated. Chapters 3-37 of the book of Job seem an unending cycle of repetitive debate.
However, in the middle of it, Job asks an unexpected question. “If mortals die, will they live again? All these days of my service I would wait until my release should come” (14:14). Not much is said about resurrection in the Old Testament. The idea develops relatively late. This is startling. All along, Job has longed for death. The reader this is so because Job wants to escape the unbearable pain that is his life. Is it possible he dares to hope there is more than simply unending rest in his ancestral burial place?
“I know that my redeemer lives and that at last he will stand on the earth; and after my sin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (19:25-26). In the midst of his pathetic lamentations, Job finds deep within his soul a spring of hope. It’s just a trickle trying to find voice amid a torrent of despairing tears. Still, this hope makes its way, ever so briefly, to the surface and is heard.
Thus it is twice that Job topples conventional understanding. First, he claims he is innocent and his suffering is not due to his own sin. He blames God. That is unheard of by his contemporaries and instead of meeting him in his pain; they blame him for it and lecture him for his theological error.
Second, Job dares to look beyond the grave. He dares believe that the story of himself and God can extend beyond this present pain. There was no prevailing idea about life after death in ancient Judaism. But, Job was through being constricted by the winds of convention. He needed more, and in spite of all the verbal attacks he made, he believed God would give more. He believed somehow he would be made right with God.
Preposterous? We who worship Jesus Christ have no hesitation in speaking of eternal life in Heaven. It is central in our belief system. It is assumed even by people who have little to do with Jesus. In western, 21st century thought, the true atheist is rare. Most people hope for heaven. We absolutely count on resurrection.
What theological convictions do we hold that might be worth a second look? I don’t propose giving credence to every new idea that comes along. I don’t accept the claims of Mormonism. I reject the notion of reincarnation. I do not believe Mohammed was a prophet of God. Many new ideas directly contradict what we find in scripture. However, many new ideas are in scripture, but have been ignored because we are shaped by the world around us.
Prior to the 1960’s a lot of Christians accepted the same theological presuppositions that governed Job’s thought. Wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, and poverty and suffering are indications one is in God’s good favor. Liberation theologians pointed out that the overwhelming Biblical witness testifies that God is on the side of the poor. God is not against wealthy people, but God is always an advocate for those who suffer unjustly.
Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, evangelical Christians have emphasized that the duty of Christ-followers is to “get people saved.” That is, the Christian’s primary work is to lead nonbelievers to confess faith in Jesus. However, minority voices have called this singular focus into question. People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and more recently Dallas Willard and even John Ortberg suggest that the most crucial Christian work is to live a disciple and be like Jesus. Conversion-evangelism comes discipleship as does advocacy for the poor, commitment to prayer, holy living, and Spirit-filled living. Each are equally important.
Among the many thoughts raised by Job, I wonder if Job prods us to re-evaluate what we thought we always knew? Job and resurrection – did you see that one coming? God can and will do great things. We must be ever watchful, seeking God, expecting the unexpected. He makes all things new.