When suffering slithers into our lives, Christians often turn to the book of job. No matter how
bad the circumstance, it’s hard to read the story of the unfortunate man from Uz and think our
situation is worse. Few of us have lost our livelihood, our families, and our health. Left destitute
and with a wife and friends who prove to be less than supportive, Job faced suffering alone. And, in some of the most profound Hebrew poetry ever written, the groveling man paints a picture of confidence in the face of his plight.
But that’s not all there is to the story. Sure, we can pull out the point that Job’s three friends sat with him in silence and extol the virtues of presence in the midst of another’s sorrow. Yes, we can quote Job’s declaration that his redeemer lives. And we can always speculate on whether or not the behemoth and the leviathan were, in fact, dinosaurs. But the true value of the high-poetry in Job lies in the message it carries about the character of the God we serve—a God who refuses to be chained by angel or man.
As the only prose portion of the book, the introduction sets up the stage for the epic drama that will unfold over the dozens of chapters to follow: God, king of earth and heaven, entertains an angelic accuser’s argument that Job—righteous above all men—loves God only because of a cold contractual relationship. Because God has blessed him, Job returns the favor in worship. It’s transactional—nothing more.
God, as the poetic play will bear out, resents the notion that he is bound with the chains of a contract. So he allows the accuser to strip from Job all the blessing that had made the man so renowned in both heaven and on earth. In the span of a few sentences, Job finds himself reduced to rubble—both figuratively and literally.
What follows are the stunning poetic images and wordplays in Hebrew. Because Hebrew poetry relies so heavily on parallelism—saying the same thing on two different lines but in different ways that expand the meaning—the writer of Job uses synonyms found nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. It’s one of the most complex and yet spectacular examples of ancient verse we have to this day.
And, if we’re honest, we get lost quickly in the arguments between Job and his friends. At the heart of the heated (and poetic) debate lies a misunderstanding about God’s freedom. Job, his friends argue, violated an unspoken contract with the Almighty. By sinning somewhere or sometime in his life, he defaulted on his obligations. As a result, God removed his hand of blessing and sent curses. It’s clean. It’s clear. Cause-and-effect contract between God and Job.
On the other hand, Job insists that God’s the one violating the agreement. Job’s done nothing wrong. God’s being unfair and is judging Job without cause. Back and forth the four men go, spanning chapter after chapter of picturesque poetry. The contrast is striking—the flowing beauty of verse glides overtop the frigid iron of the chains both Job and the accuser strive to cast around God.
Suffering isn’t the centerpiece of the book. It’s merely the catalyst that exposes Job’s naïve understanding of God. The Creator of the universe is in no way obliged to treat his creation one way or another. He will not submit to chains forged for him by any denizen of heaven or earth.
And the Almighty makes the point in a way no one—least of all Job—can forget.
In the final chapters of the book, God paints with his own poetry and it is a powerful portrait. In a breathtaking whirlwind challenge, the Creator asks Job just how deep his knowledge goes. God asks where the man was at the beginning of the world, if he could hold the tempest in his hand, and if he could best the beasts of earth and sea in one-on-one combat. The sum effect of God’s line of challenge is simply that he transcends the constraints that humans or angels would seek to place on him.
Our God is free.
When we read the book of Job, we should walk away feeling floored by the massiveness of the God we serve. But we should also feel the warmth of yet another truth: If God is completely free of any contract or transaction, then he is also free to love us when we don’t deserve it. He is free to open the windows of heaven and dump his kindness like summer rain onto our lives. He’s free to rush like wildfire to our side in the midst of our greatest struggles. And he’s free to whisper on the wind into our most intimate moments of pain.
Job and his friends thought they could find comfort in a God who played by their rules. At the end of his suffering, however, Job found comfort in the world-shaping arms of a God—that would not be chained.