The Bible’s Book of Job explores the question of why good people sometimes endure senseless suffering—particularly, why God seems to allow such suffering. The story centers on Job, a thriving patriarch whose prosperity seems to be the reward for his upstanding behavior. So when God permits Satan to inflict disease and devastating losses on Job, it seems, from a human perspective, that divine justice has somehow gone awry. As he laments his circumstances, Job notes that it often seems like God refrains from punishing those who do deserve it and ignores the cries of the innocent. Meanwhile, Job’s companions (Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu) argue that God doesn’t make righteous people suffer, so Job must be guilty of sin despite his protestations of innocence. After a series of arguments between the men, God interjects with his own perspective, speaking of his overpowering greatness and majesty, and pointing out how little human beings understand about the world, much less about God. Through the ambiguity surrounding God’s response to Job’s innocent suffering, the book suggests that suffering is a mystery, and that its larger purpose (whether a person “deserves” suffering or not) is to draw people closer to God in humble dependence.
Job’s suffering initially appears to be meaningless because he hasn’t done anything to “deserve” it. From the beginning, the book establishes that Job is “blameless and upright”—he worships God and resists evil. He even offers sacrifices to God to atone for his children’s hypothetical sins. Job, then, is a model of goodness—the kind of person who doesn’t seem to deserve suffering and, in fact, appears to deserve blessings. So when raiders carry off most of Job’s livestock and his children are suddenly killed, the disaster is meant to come as a shock—it’s not what such a righteous person would expect, and it sets up a glaring dissonance between the ideal of divine justice and the reality of what actually happens in the world.
Job can’t reconcile his own suffering with his belief that God is fundamentally just. It doesn’t make sense for God to lump him in with evildoers by handing him over to suffering and shame: Job is innocent, but God is treating him unfairly—something a just God wouldn’t do. Furthermore, Job wonders why God, who created him, now threatens him with death, implying that it’s unjust for God to have bothered giving Job life in the first place if he was ultimately going to crush Job without reason. This complaint has an ethical undertone—that if it’s God’s nature to be the giver of life, then it’s out of character for him to impose meaningless death, and therefore there must be some explanation for what Job is going through. Countering his friends’ (and conventional wisdom’s) argument that the wicked generally get what they deserve, Job observes that, in many cases, the wicked actually enjoy long lives, are blessed with children, and die peacefully. This, too, seems to be out of accord with divine justice. Job closes his series of speeches by saying that if he has done anything wicked, especially treated the poor unjustly, then it would be only right for him to suffer ruin himself. By concluding this way, Job essentially asks God to act in keeping with divine justice.
Yet, when God himself finally speaks, he doesn’t resolve the question of divine justice. Instead, God suggests that Job and his friends have been focused on the wrong thing by wondering why some good people suffer—the reason for suffering is a mystery beyond human comprehension, and God’s overwhelming greatness underscores this fact. God doesn’t give Job and his friends a clear answer to the problems they’ve been debating all along. Instead, he offers poetry on the complex mysteries of creation, testifying to his own irresistible power and thereby suggesting that everything is within his divine control. Thus the book’s answer to the question of suffering is ambiguous—but the ambiguity hints that people should stop focusing on unexplainable circumstances they can’t control and instead trust God, who controls everything.
Suffering and Divine Justice ThemeTracker
Suffering and Divine Justice Quotes in Book of Job
The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”
Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.
So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.
Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
How happy is the one whom God reproves;
therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.
For he wounds, but he binds up;
he strikes, but his hands heal.
See, we have searched this out; it is true.
Hear, and know it for yourself.
Let me have silence, and I will speak,
and let come on me what may.
I will take my flesh in my teeth,
and put my life in my hand.
See, he will kill me; I have no hope;
but I will defend my ways to his face.
Only grant two things to me,
then I will not hide myself from your face:
withdraw your hand far from me,
and do not let dread of you terrify me.
Then call, and I will answer;
or let me speak, and you reply to me.
Why do you hide your face,
and count me as your enemy?
Will you frighten a windblown leaf
and pursue dry chaff?
Agree with God, and be at peace;
in this way good will come to you.
Receive instruction from his mouth,
and lay up his words in your heart.
If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored,
if you remove unrighteousness from your tents,
and if the Almighty is your gold
and your precious silver,
then you will delight yourself in the Almighty,
and lift up your face to God.
If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold.
So these three men ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. Then Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, became angry. He was angry at Job because he justified himself rather than God; he was angry also at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer, though they had declared Job to be in the wrong. Now Elihu had waited to speak to Job, because they were older than he. But when Elihu saw that there was no answer in the mouths of these three men, he became angry.
And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. […] The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters. […] After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.