Providence and evil - Job 1:1-22
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
In the old detective novels of the 1930’s many a crime was solved by what the butler saw through the keyhole. But there is a problem with peering through keyholes (not that it is my regular practice!)- You don’t get to see the whole room, but just what is in your line of vision. So imagine you are in the detective story and you are the butler, you look through the keyhole of the parlour to see a man with a smoking gun standing over a dead body. What do you conclude? On the basis of what you can see, you reason that that is the murderer in front of you. But what you don’t realise is that just out of sight is another dead body clutching another gun. It transpires that he was the murderer, and the man you saw was a police officer who shot the killer after he had tried to disarm him. Having a limited field of vision is a dangerous thing. And that applies not simply to detective stories in particular but life in general. And it is especially important to bear in mind when we come to trying to understand Providence and evil in God’s world.
Over the last few weeks we have been looking at what the Bible has to teach us about the reassuring doctrine of Providence, that is ‘God our heavenly Father working in and through all things by his wisdom and power for the good of his people and the glory of his name.’ We saw that this covers the whole of our lives, from the moment we were conceived to the moment we die. But I would suspect that many of you will have asked yourself this question: ‘Yes, we can see how, for example, a beautifully formed baby makes us marvel at God’s providential work, but what about the abnormally formed baby? We can see how God shapes our lives by the parents we have, but what of abusive parents?’ While there is no slick answer to these sorts of questions and the Bible’s emphasis is not so much on us trying to fathom out why such things happen but to roll up our sleeves to help those to whom such things happen, nonetheless it affirms quite strongly that even these things fall within God’s Providence-God is not out of control or caught unawares by sinful human actions. The title for this series is ‘Providence Sweet and Sour’ it is the ‘sour’ part of Providence that we will be thinking about today. And one of the books inspired by God’s Spirit to help us understand that God is still at work in the sour things of life and which underscores the limitations of our perspective, living this side of the keyhole, is the story of Job.
The Book of Job is actually set out as a court case- for those of us who are old enough, this is Perry Mason before Perry Mason. The question is who is the defendant, indeed is there more than one? Yes there is. So come with me to court and sit in the gallery to see how this court drama unfolds and discover why bad things happen to good people.
First, the indictment. There are two viewpoints or perspectives we need to be aware of as we approach this story. There is the perspective of the various individuals in the drama and there is the perspective of the book as a whole, which includes the unseen heavenly perspective, and it is this difference in perspective which makes all the difference in the world to how we deal with the problem of suffering. You see, the characters in the drama are looking through the keyhole and can only see a part of what is going on but mistake it for the whole picture. But we the readers are taken into the room as it were to see that there is much more to what is happening than meets the eye.
In the book's first two chapters we are introduced to Job. He lives at a time when a person's wealth is measured not in terms of the size of his bank balance but the size of his herds- and boy is he rich! Job is not only a wealthy man, but he is also a godly man. We are told that ‘he feared God and shunned evil’, even though he is not a Jew. His deep personal piety showed itself in several ways, not least in his passionate concern for the spiritual well-being of his children. In verses 4-5 we read that just in case his sons and daughters had behaved in a way that might have offended God and brought down his judgement upon them, Job went out of his way to make sacrifices for their sin on their behalf. Today we would describe Job as a committed Christian, one whose faith penetrated every area of his life. He is a model of what the Bible calls the wise man.
So what could go wrong? That is when the scene switches from earth to the unseen heavenly reality where an angelic being called ‘Satan’ comes into God’s presence. The word ‘Satan’ here, is not a proper name like ‘Melvin’, but a description of the angel’s role- it is a word which means accuser or prosecutor, we could say ‘barrister’. The thing is, the angelic being does not accuse Job of doing anything wrong, except maybe having dubious motives for living a godly life, rather it is God who is being accused of setting up a phony arrangement amongst human beings by blessing righteous behaviour with rewards, and this, the Satan hampers true righteousness- 1: 9, ‘Does Job fear you for nothing? Have you not put a hedge around him and his household? You have blessed the work of his hands…but stretch out your hand and strike everything he has got and he will curse you.’ ‘The only reason why Job behaves as he does’, says the Satan, ‘is because he knows on which side his bread is buttered. He is religious and moral only because of what he can get out of it. After all, everyone knows that religion is nothing but enlightened self-interest. It's just a matter of the right carrot and stick with Job. In fact, you can put it all down to his rather fortunate circumstances which you have provided, God. Anybody can afford to be religious when they have a lifestyle like that.’ The underlying point he is making is that with this kind of arrangement you can never know whether people are being truly righteous or simply being good in order to enjoy blessings. In short the Satan is charging God with setting up a flawed system. Well, there is only one way to find out and that is to put Job to the test and God is confident he will pass it. So, God allows the Satan to do his worst, well not quite, Job cannot be killed. Satan can go so far but no further- God is still sovereign.
So what happens? One moment all is calm, the next moment everything is chaos- have you ever known that? The first thing to go is Job’s economic empire. 1:14-16 ‘The Sabeans had attacked and carried off his oxen and servants. Then the fire of God fell from the sky and burned up the sheep and the servants’. Economic disaster. But even that catastrophe is nothing compared to the devastating news that was to come hard in its heels- his children were at a resort for the holidays when a storm blew in and took them with it- 1:19. Shell-shocked, Job looks out the window into the sky that seems to be getting darker by the minute. He no doubt is praying, thinking that things can’t get any worse. And guess what? They do. He feels that pain in his chest and his skin can’t bear to be touched. Job’s life is in utter ruins and so he crawls to the local rubbish tip waiting to die.
And that is when the second charge against God falls into place which is the opposite of the first. As we shall see in a moment most of the characters in the story have bought in to the idea that God operates simply a rewards/retribution principle. Good people get a good life and bad people get a bad life. That is what Jobs three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar argue. They see a strict cause and effect moral mechanism operating in God’s universe similar to the law of gravity, what goes up must come down, good must be rewarded and bad punished. Do you remember how a few years ago there was uproar when David Icke suggested that children born with deformities where somehow being punished by God? That is the kind of idea here. Now Job’s case against his Maker is that God is being unjust to allow the righteous to suffer, his system of rewards for good behaviour and punishment for bad inst working for he, Job, is innocent.
So let’s look at what is going on in the courtroom a little more closely. It is not a literal courtroom, but the debate that goes on is the sort that would have happened in an ancient near eastern court. Remember everyone is buying into the retribution theory- good is rewarded and evil is punished that is how God shows he is just, so they think. Three claims are being laid out: 1 God is just. 2. Job is righteous and 3 the retribution principle is true. The thing is, all three can’t be right in this instance. At least one of them has got to go. On the one hand you have Job’s three friends who look at what is happening to Job and in effect say, ‘Look everyone knows God is just. Everyone knows that suffering is punishment for wickedness. You are suffering terribly Job. QED you must have done something really bad to deserve this. All you have to do is say sorry to God, appease him in some way and all will be well.’ For his friends, it is Job who is in the dock and guilty. But for Job it is God who is in the dock, for in each case, he protests his innocence and challenges God to come down so he can question him about the way he is running the world, which in his view is not that well. Job reasoning is this: he is innocent, suffering is punishment for wickedness, QED God must be unjust. Do you see?
But later on another younger man comes onto the scene in chapters 32-37, an Israelite called Elihu and says they are all wrong! He affirms that God is just and sets about defending that. Elihu suggests an altogether different perspective for understanding suffering. Instead of looking back for some sort of cause for suffering and asking, `Is this suffering due to Job's sin or God's injustice (when in fact it is neither)?' Elihu suggests that it might be more helpful to look forward and try and identify a purpose in suffering. In other words, if God is good and wise (and the supremacy of Wisdom is celebrated in chapter 28 with a song), what we need to ask is: what possible good could there be in him allowing us to suffer like this? And the answer Elihu gives is that it is part of God's way of correcting us and preventing us from going off the rails and ending up in hell, as he puts it in 33:17-18: `to turn man from wrongdoing and keep him from pride to preserve his soul from the pit.' In 36:10 he says that God makes people. `….listen to correction' and `speaks to them in their affliction'. Job has already complained that God has not spoken, but Elihu suggests he is speaking `now one way, now another ‘(33:14) speaking to Job through suffering. Job's other friends insisted that God should primarily be thought of as a judge, whereas Elihu suggests that he should be thought of as a teacher, 36:22.: `Who is a teacher like him?' In other words, it is too narrow a view to think of all suffering as retribution; may it not be that some suffering is God's instruction? Maybe Job’s easy willingness to accuse God of injustice is revealing a flaw in his character which these circumstances might be used to correct and make Job into a better character. The Bible teaches that God puts us in his gymnasium, using hardship to knock off some of our rough edges, so as to discipline and humble us, making us more into the type of person he wants to be- more like Jesus. Of course we can respond to this in two ways. We can be like sulky children, locking ourselves away in our room, building up resentment towards God for the way he is treating us, refusing to open the door in response to his knocking. God gives us that choice. Elihu warns Job that he is in danger of letting this happen to him: `Beware of turning to evil, which you seem to prefer to affliction' (36:21). Or we can be like obedient children who, while expressing the hurt and the pain, nevertheless in the midst of difficulty will ask, `Lord, what are you teaching me through this?’
And so we can think of the courtroom as a triangle with different people occupying one of three corners as you see in the diagram.
But then we come to the trial itself. If God is in the dock, as he is in the minds of many people today and in the mind of Job and the Satan, what must happen for him to lose his case? The quickest way would be for Job to take the advice of his wife- ‘Curse God and die’, then the Satan would have been right- Job was in it only for what he could get out of it. And it is sad to say that there are those who profess to be believers who take that same attitude. They are only into religion so long as they have a good job, good health, nice family and a thousand and one other things, but dare God take any of these away they touch the apple of their eye and God becomes an object of disdain. But what they have been worshipping is a false god, a sugar daddy god, who is no god at all. And maybe the sooner that is exposed the better. The second way God could be indicted is by Job following the advice of his friends by trying to appease God. Again this is a false view of God, more like the Greeks view, that God is unprincipled and capricious like some drunken abusive father, you never know when he is going to blow up so you are walking on eggshells all the time and you bend over backwards to try and please him. But had Job gone along with this, the Satan’s charge would have held- Job was only interested in himself and not the truth or justice. Those are Satan’s charges which don’t stick, because Job doesn’t give in-he really is righteous and God is vindicated in his choice.
But what of Job’s charges against God that he is being unjust? That would hold if the retribution principle were to remain unmodified. That is where Elihu comes in, some hard things may come our way not to punish us but instruct us, getting us to change our priorities, stopping our spiritual drift. And it is obvious that the world doesn’t operate in a strict cause and effect kind of way because you can see that many a good person has suffered terribly while many a tyrant has died peacefully in their sleep surrounded by a fortune. So might it not be that things are a little more complicated in the world- bad things do happen to good people? But Job is still insistent that God appears and defends himself, and he is happy to take God’s silence as a sign that he has surrendered to Job’s accusations.
Well God does eventually appear and speaks but not quite as Job had hoped. (38:2). `Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man: I will question you, and you shall answer me' It is Job who is put in the dock by God and it is he and not God who is required to answer a few questions: `Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations? Tell me, if you understand? Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place? Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail, which I reserve for times of trouble? Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion? Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons ...?' Job is barraged with question after question. What about the animals? Do you provide for them, Job? Have you got so great a mind that out of nothing you could come up with such a strange looking bird as an ostrich? You think you are so wise, Job, and I am so useless!' Job had wanted an interview with the Almighty, and that is precisely what he got. In other words, `Just who do you think you are, Job - God? To protest your innocence is one thing, but to act so high and mighty that you accuse me of injustice is another. In order to make the right judgement upon me and what I am doing you have to have a lot more wisdom, a lot more knowledge than you have. You have not been able to answer one of my questions, Job, questions to which I know all the answers. Does it not therefore occur to you that I might, just might, have the answer to why I have permitted you to suffer? If you cannot comprehend the intricacies of the creation which you can see, then can you honestly expect to grasp all the mysteries of suffering which you can’t see? Only I, God, can do that.'
What is more, why should we presume that God owes us an explanation as to why he allows suffering, any more than he owes us an explanation as to why he made the ostrich the way he did? While it may be true that whilst we can't see why he should design so peculiar a bird, no doubt God had plenty of good reasons for doing so, if only known to himself, could not the same be said for suffering? More to the point, is it not reasonable to trust a God who has both the wisdom and the power to create so mind-boggling a universe, even if we may not be able to understand all the whys and wherefores of what happens in it?
Well, Job finally realised his mistake which is often ours, namely to think that we are privy to all the facts, when we are not; we think we can see everything through the keyhole, but we can’t. And our response should be that of Job's, not to rise up in arrogance and demand that God explain everything to us, but to repent of our presumption that we know better than God, and fall down in worship. (42:2-3, 6). 421Then Job replied to the LORD: 2"I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. 3You asked, `Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?' Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. 4"You said, `Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.' 5My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. 6Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes."
So at the end of it all there are only two corners of the triangle left God is just and Job is righteous and the retribution principle doesn’t hold.
But you may say, ‘But this is just a story’ real life isn’t like that. Well, let me tell you the difference this kind of belief makes in real life by telling you about John and Betty Stam. It was December 6, 1934, Tsingteh, China. Betty was bathing their three-month old daughter when the Red Army surrounded the house. They took them captive and made them walk to Miaosheo. There they bound John to a post for the night. The next day they forced John and Betty to walk in their underwear through the streets of the town and forced the people to come watch the execution. Outside town in a clump of pine trees they beheaded John Stam with a sword while his wife watched. And then when she fell over his body, they beheaded her. When the China Inland Mission notified Betty's parents in Patterson, New Jersey, of the death of their daughter and son-in-law, the mission received back a telegram immediately: ‘Deeply appreciate your consolation. Sacrifice seems great, but not too great for Him who gave Himself for us. Experiencing God's grace. Believe wholeheartedly Romans 8:28, ‘In all things God works to the good for those who love him.’ How do you explain that? They were not unfeeling parents, but they were Christian parents. Not only they, but their other children knew this to be true too. Betty's sister Helen wrote to her bereaved parents, ‘Dearest Daddy and Mother, you don't need to hear me say how much we love you and are thinking of and praying for you in these days . . . I have such radiant pictures of Betty and John standing with their palms of victory before the Throne, singing a song of pure joy because they had given everything they had to their Master, that I cannot break loose and cry about it as people expect. Crying seems to be too petty for a thing that was so manifestly in God's hands alone; but my heart is very, very sore for you.’ How did Job put it? ‘I know that my redeemer lives.’
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