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by Donald C. Fleming
Among the many different types of books in the Old Testament are those known as the wisdom books. These are the books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, though certain psalms and parts of other books might also be classified as wisdom literature.
God used various kinds of preachers and teachers to instruct and guide his people. He used priests to teach and supervise his law (Leviticus 10:8-11; Deuteronomy 33:10; Malachi 2:7), and prophets to bring messages that would reveal his purposes and turn people from sin to obedience (Ezekiel 2:3-5; Amos 3:1,Amos 3:7-8; Micah 3:8). He also used wisdom teachers. These people, sometimes known as ‘the wise’, constituted a distinct category among the teachers of Israel (Jeremiah 18:18; cf. Isaiah 29:14). They did not claim to receive revelations from God, but examined the everyday affairs of life and, as people of faith, instructed others in right living (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10).
The biblical literature that comes from the wisdom teachers is of two main types. One of these, represented by the book of Proverbs, deals mainly with the general principles of right and wrong as they apply to life in general; for example, the righteous will prosper but the wicked will perish (Proverbs 11:5-8; Proverbs 12:6-7). The other, represented by Job and Ecclesiastes, looks at the exceptions to these general principles; for example, the righteous sometimes have all sorts of troubles, but the wicked enjoy peace and prosperity (Job 12:4; Job 21:7-13; Ecclesiastes 7:15; Ecclesiastes 8:10,Ecclesiastes 8:14).
These features do not indicate that the wisdom teachers had conflicting interpretations of life. They show rather that wise people were able to look at various aspects of life in different ways. The same teacher could consider important issues from a variety of viewpoints. The writer of Proverbs, for example, acknowledges that an acceptable general principle may not apply equally in every case (Proverbs 26:4-5), while the writers of Job and Ecclesiastes recognize that, in spite of the exceptions, general principles are still the basis for wise teaching (Job 28:20-28; Ecclesiastes 7:1-13).
Wisdom teachers were godly men who looked at life with all its consistencies and inconsistencies, so that they might help God’s people find meaning and purpose in the life God had given them. Though they were aware of an afterlife (Job 19:26), their main concern was to deal with the issues that people faced in the present life.
Job was a wealthy, learned, God-fearing man who lived in Uz, a land somewhere in the region east of Palestine. When he was overcome by a series of disasters, his friends argued that his troubles must have been because of his secret sins. Job denied this. He knew that he was not perfect, but he also knew that the traditional views, such as those held by his learned friends, did not explain everything. The long and bitter argument that followed takes up most of the book.
The reader of the book, however, knows what neither Job nor his friends knew. Satan had made the accusation that people serve God only because of the good things they can get from him. If they get only suffering and hardship they will curse him (Job 1:9-11; Job 2:4-5). God allowed disasters to fall upon Job to prove the genuineness of Job’s faith and enrich his experience of God (cf. James 5:11). Job’s sufferings were proof not of God’s judgment on him but of God’s confidence in him.
In insisting that suffering must be the result of personal sin, the friends drove Job to the point where he almost lost patience with them completely; but they also drove him to God, whom Job saw as his only hope. In making his protests to God, Job may have been guilty of using rash language, but at least he took his protests to the right person.
Job was finally satisfied, not through having all his questions answered, but through meeting the God to whom he had cried. He may not have understood God’s purposes, but he learnt that God’s wisdom was beyond human understanding and he was worthy of a person’s total trust. God was not answerable to anyone; he could do as he pleased.
In announcing his approval of Job, God showed the friends to be wrong in asserting that suffering was always the result of personal sin. He also showed Satan to be wrong in asserting that people worship God only because of what they can get from him. Job remained true to God though he had lost everything, but in the end God blessed him with greater blessings than he had before.
Writing of the book
There is no certainty concerning the era the story of Job belongs to, nor does the book say who wrote it. However, lack of information on these matters is no hindrance to an understanding of the book. The important considerations when reading the book of Job are not those relating to its authorship and date, but those relating to its literary character. The book is a piece of Hebrew wisdom literature and, apart from its beginning and ending, is written in poetry.
We should not read the book of Job as we would those books of the Old Testament that consist mainly of prose narratives, legal commandments, or challenging sermons. This is not only because the book has the characteristics of wisdom literature already considered, but also because it is in a stylized form. This is evident throughout the - in the narrative introduction, in the successive rounds of debate, and in the dramatic conclusion.
As in all poetry, the language and word-pictures are often striking, and the writer does not expect his readers to interpret everything literally. Nor has he designed the book to be read as a word-by-word study. Often one verse, or several verses, may be used to express one basic thought. These features are typical of Hebrew poetry, and the more we understand such features the better we will understand Job. (For more about the characteristics of Hebrew poetry see introductory notes to Psalms and Proverbs.)
Satan tests Job
First round of argument
Second round of argument
Third round of argument
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13