Walking along the road one day Jesus and his disciples saw a blind man on the road. “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 on reading the Bible theologically. 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.

In addition to applying the retribution principle individually to Job, Job and his friends also incorrectly applied the corollary to retribution theology: that if a person suffers it must result from personal sin. We see this in Job’s clinging to his innocence throughout the book: because he has not sinned, he says that he does not deserve the suffering (seen as punishment) that he is experiencing. For their part, the friends believe that because Job is suffering, personal sin is surely it’s cause. Both Job’s protestations of innocence and the friends’ refusal to believe that Job might not deserve his suffering point to their misunderstanding and misapplication of retribution theology.

If we are to read Job theologically—to hear God’s address in Job—then we must reevaluate our understanding of suffering and divorce it—at least partially—from retribution theology. Sometimes suffering results from personal sin, such as when God struck dead Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5; and sometimes suffering results from the corporate effects of sin, such as when we die; but Job teaches us that we must develop a more nuanced understanding of suffering that makes room for God’s sovereignty and mystery.

God’s Sovereignty and Mystery

One of the most difficult aspects of the book of Job is that God never really answers Job’s pointed questions about his suffering. It is true that God restores Job’s fortunes and gives him another family with whom to live out his days, and God does rebukes Job’s friends because they “have not spoken the truth about me” (Job 42:7 CSB). But the closest God comes to answering Job’s inquiry is in the chapters-long questioning that is designed not to satisfy Job’s frustration but rather to demonstrate God’s sovereignty. God lobs question after question at Job, ultimately overpowering his angry protestations of innocence to the point that Job simply states,

I know that you can do anything

and no plan of yours can be thwarted.

You asked, “Who is this who conceals my counsel with ignorance?”

Surely I spoke about things I did not understand,

things too wondrous for me to know.

You said, “Listen now, and I will speak.

When I question you, you will inform me.”

I had heard reports about you,

but now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore, I reject my words and am sorry for them; I am dust and ashes. 

(Job 42:2–6 CSB)

This final poem in the book of Job, along with God’s whirlwind responses that come before it, is the key to reading Job theologically. For even now the human temptation is to err on one side or another of the book of Job. Like Job, we may protest our innocence in the face of unjust suffering. And like Job we also may be fully right in that we have done nothing to deserve the suffering we are experiencing. On the other hand, we my respond like Job’s friends and hang on with all of our might to a theological construct (e.g., retribution theology) that neatly explains our suffering. In both cases we would be wrong, though, for Job teaches us that the role of humans in this life is to recognize our limited understanding, limited insight, limited wisdom, limited power, limited everything, really, and in that recognition we are to, as the author of Ecclesiastes tells us, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of mankind” (Eccl 12:13 ESV). Suffering, then, becomes one more way for humans to acknowledge our deep-seated need for God, for we cannot and do not understand, but it turns out, neither do we have to.

Russ Meek

Associate Professor of Old Testament at William Tennent School of Theology