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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

- Job

by Various Authors



As is the case with most great literature, and with all literature of revelation, it is far better to read the Book of Job than to read about it. The only justification for an "introduction" to this masterpiece is either to explain obscure points (which might more conveniently be dealt with in the actual comment) or to remove misconceptions which bar understanding. These pages attempt the latter purpose under three main heads: What the book is, where it comes from, and what seems to be its purpose.

What Is the Book of Job?


Before reading any further it would be well for the student to leaf through the Book of Job in order to note its basic structural pattern. A cursory examination shows that the book is a long poetical composition, embraced by a prose introduction (or Prologue) and a prose conclusion (or Epilogue). Closer examination of the poetry also reveals that it follows a fairly even pattern. There are various participants who speak in turn, and there is a regularity about the order of their speeches. The pattern of speeches appears in chapters 3-14 (see Job 3:1; Job 4:1; Job 6:1; Job 8:1; Job 9:1; Job 11:1; Job 12:1), and much the same pattern is repeated in chapters 15-21. Similar marks of regular structure appear at Job 27:1; Job 29:1; Job 32:15; and especially at Job 40:1-6; and Job 42:1-6. All of this can be easily seen, and to take note of it gives some preparation for an intelligent reading of the book as a whole.

The Character of the Book of Job

Acquaintance with the form of this book raises the more basic question of its nature. Precisely what is it? Is it drama or epic poetry, to use two of the most common designations? Is it a debate, as the pattern of speeches seems to suggest? Although at first glance such defining terms may seem to be appropriate, all fall short on closer look. The truth is that the Book of Job resists categorizing of this kind. It is not a modem production; it came out of a culture which knew neither drama nor debate in the modern sense of the terms. It has dramatic touches, it has elements of argument, and it has undeniable epic power. But to think of it in any of these accustomed and familiar patterns is to miss the important fact that it is unique. Long ago it was pointed out that one of the greatest difficulties posed by the Book of Job is precisely the fact that it has no parallels. There is nothing with which to compare it. We should not expect to find here the familiar and the recognizable; instead we may look for a strange and somewhat alien treatment of themes that are universal.

Poetic Forms

It is generally known that, whereas Hebrew poetry does not make much use of rhyme, it does build on regular metrical forms in a simple structure of parallel lines. Often strophes or verses are present, as is particularly true of parts of Job.

The metrical patterns of the Book of Job are quite varied, reflecting most of the forms found elsewhere in Scripture. Sometimes the length and character of the lines in the English translation reflect the actual metrical pattern, although these patterns are by no means identical with the familiar arrangement of feet in Western poetry.

Parallelism is more important, and fortunately it is a readily observable feature of Hebrew poetry. Parallelism is immediately apparent, for example, in Job 29:3; Job 29:8; Job 29:14; Job 29:17, where each verse presents a single thought in slightly altered form in two successive lines. The image and the actual phraseology change, but in each case the second line is basically a repetition of the first.

Sometimes the parallelism of lines is not that of identical statement but of opposites, where a truth is elaborated by a positive and then by a negative statement (see, for example, Job 5:3; Job 36:6). At other times the thought is developed in lines of continuing repetition (Job 3:5-6) or by lines that expand a stated thought (Job 5:4). It is always helpful to the reader of the poem to keep this feature in mind, and even to learn to feel the poetic force of regularly repeated statement. .

How Did the Book of Job Originate?


Although there are no close parallels to the Book of Job which can serve as convenient points for comparison or contrast, this is not to say that it has no relationship to other literary developments of antiquity. Resemblances in structure, in type of expression, and even in basic themes can be found between the Book of Job and Egyptian and Babylonian writings. In no case is there any evidence of borrowing or even of direct dependence, but similarities of form and theme do point to similar concerns among other peoples and even to similar methods of literary approach to common problems.

A more fruitful line of study, and one open to all students of this book, is the investigation of the relationship Job bears to other writings within the Old Testament. Although in format it is completely unlike any of the other books, its origin and its particular concerns are to be understood in the light of the issues raised in the so-called "wisdom writings," particularly the Book of Proverbs and, to a lesser extent, the Book of Ecclesiastes. Such writings are the work of a "school" or a class of "wise men" in ancient Israel. Differing from both prophet and priest, the wise man was nevertheless like both in that his concern was a religious one. The wise men undertook, on the one hand, to apply the revelation of God made to Israel in history and in the Law to the minutiae of everyday life, much as the prophets did to the broader and more comprehensive areas of society. On the other hand, the wise men also undertook to explore the meaning of life, again much as the prophets explored the meaning of history. In so doing, they followed out the implications of the faith with which the Bible opens and which Israel always regarded as foundational — the faith that life itself is the direct creation of God who pronounced it good, and that it must therefore carry some marks of his nature.

In the Book of Proverbs, especially in the central part (chs. 10-29), certain basic presuppositions emerge. These are nowhere stated absolutely, but they do appear to be working hypotheses so far as the wisdom writers were concerned. Among these pre-suppositions are the following:

1. The belief that life, that is, the realm of human life and experience, makes sense. This somewhat incredible belief was seriously challenged in the Book of Ecclesiastes, but it remained a constant of Israelite faith. Any other view, of course, would be unthinkable, given the fact of creation. We must notice especially, however, that for the Hebrew to say that life makes sense means primarily not philosophical or metaphysical sense or even rational sense, but religious sense.

2. The belief that, as a corollary to the above, God himself can be known through the events and happenings of life. God is everywhere in control; his hand orders all small events as he directs the course of history. It follows, then, that by a reverent and careful study of such happenings one may draw some conclusions concerning the nature of God.

3. The belief that this life, not another future one, is the sphere in which God makes himself known for blessing or for punishment. With few exceptions, the basic wisdom writings show no belief in a future life of any consequence. The issues that develop and the questions that are raised by the evidence that life offers must necessarily be resolved within the narrow span of a man’s life, threescore years and ten.

4. The belief that moral principles not only work out in life but indeed can be discerned as they work. Specifically this means that goodness in man is rewarded appropriately with blessings and that evil in man is visited with punishment. This belief, which is basic to any sensible view of God, was of course the foundation of much of the prophets’ view of history. But whereas the prophets had a broad canvas upon which to work — namely, the whole scope of national and political life — the wisdom writers confined themselves largely to the narrow limits of man’s individual life.

It is easy to see how these principles and others like them, when applied too rigidly, produced more questions than answers. They are general truths, agreed to by the great body of Old Testament writers, from Moses through the prophets and the psalmists. They fail, however, as exact formulae when every experience of life is made to fit their scheme. The dilemmas which the Book of Job faces so realistically, then, are the dilemmas posed by these principles. Thus they are the dilemmas of faith. To a man unconcerned with faith the Book of Job has no appeal save a superficially aesthetic one. Even to one who is absolutely secure in faith it has nothing to say; it may, in fact, appear to such a one as something of an embarrassment. It speaks, however, to those who know the difficulties of faith, who know that believing often raises more questions than it answers, and who because they believe are driven on in the search to know.

Date and Author

What, then, was the time when such problems became most acute and to which, therefore, we may most naturally assign the Book of Job? An easy answer cannot be had. The most natural time would be the Exile, especially in the period when that time of testing and distress for the Jews began to come to its close. But any attempt to find an exact date, or even to declare with confidence that the book originated in the Exile, is as barren of success as the attempt to find the author. It fits many ages of Israel’s history, for it is a book that speaks to a crisis and there were few ages when Israel was not faced with crisis.

Of the author we may say that he was a genius, that he was a great theologian of the grace of God, that he was an unexcelled poet. But his identity is lost; he has left no clue in his book, and history provides none.

The Parts of the Book

To use the term "the author" is somewhat misleading. Most interpreters of the Book of Job feel that, at least in its final form, it is the work of more than one hand and mind. And as will be indicated in the comment, there is much evidence that points in this direction, notably in connection with the speeches of Elihu, part of the speeches of the Lord, and the Prologue and Epilogue.

It is quite reasonable to assume that so far as the Prologue and Epilogue are concerned we have to do with a very old story, which the author utilized as a setting for his discussion. In so doing, however, he must have reworked it to make it blend in some respects with his own work.

It is reasonable also to say that near the end of the book the author or a later editor, or even a group of wise men, incorporated into the body of the original work other material, composed independently but contributing to the central themes. The important thing, of course, is that as a final work the book has great power, and that as a unit it finds "its place in Scripture. Certainly it is to be studied first of all as a unit. It can be said with confidence, moreover, that of all attempts to better the structure of the Book of Job by rearrangement of its parts or by omission of some, none comes anywhere near equalling the power of the whole as it stands today.

The Message of the Book

Literary Values

Although aesthetic appreciation is not the primary purpose of any Bible study and although a proper understanding of the message of the Book of Job has often been hampered by excessive preoccupation with its literary character, still one would be unusually blind and deaf not to value the book as literature. Besides his power as a poet, the author shows his creative ability in countless ways. For example, while character delineation was] not the author’s main purpose, the fact remains that Job, his ’ friends, and Elihu all are given clear portrayals without a line of description.

The author has his own way of achieving literary effect, a method not at all in harmony with standards accepted in the modern age under the influence of Western models of literature. Throughout the book, for example, there is an evident pattern of climax followed by a kind of quiet falling off. Where we would expect the climax of separate speeches and even of the work as a whole to come at or near the end, in this book most of the climactic material occurs in the middle of a speech or a division. (See, for example, the climactic words in Job 19:23-27, followed typically by an anticlimactic section.)

In keeping with what seems to be deliberate intent, the book also follows a strange pattern of dealing with ideas as they are advanced in the discussion. An idea is advanced and then apparently ignored for a time, to be taken up again later on and either expanded or refuted at that point. Motifs appear and reappear in this fashion so markedly that one necessarily thinks of some sort of cyclic arrangement of material rather than a straight-line progression from beginning to end.

Major Themes

Just as no one descriptive term fits the Book of Job as a definition, so no one statement can describe its contents and purpose. Certainly it is a great misapprehension to imagine that its single theme is the problem of suffering. There are many themes which are woven into one another. Among them are the following, along with others that will be discussed in the comment and still others that will doubtless appear to the observant reader.

1. There is the theme stated in the Prologue and the Epilogue as these are taken together without the intervening discussion. This is the idea that there exists such a thing as "disinterested goodness" and that Job is a good example of it. This was the point of the ancient story which the author utilized, and it is surely a point that needs constant reiteration, especially in an age which is apt to set materialistic criteria of success for every venture of life, even faith. Against such a view this old story raises its protest, holding up for admiration a single individual who held on to his integrity and faith, even though instead of success these qualities seemed to bring him only failure and tragedy.

2. There is the bold denial of an absolute application of the principle of rewards and retribution. Without denying the fact that moral principles do operate in the world, the book nevertheless forbids any tendency to catalogue all human experience by such a rule (see also in Luke 13:1-3 and John 9:1-3 Jesus’ denial of the same tendency). The poet does not deny that there is a connection between righteousness and blessing and between sin and tragedy, but he does deny that it can be reasoned out on the basis of life’s evidences.

3. There is the strong emphasis on firsthand knowledge of God. In the place of the reasoned orthodoxies of the friends, in the place of Job’s own efforts at rational explanation of his experience, there stands at the end only this one fact: God himself meets man. In that meeting he neither answers man’s questions nor gives him the kind of peace he seeks and believes to be his deepest need, but because God is there neither questions nor that kind of peace seems to matter very much.

4. There is the breaking open of the possibility of a future life. This is put forward in the book only on individual terms, and then somewhat tentatively, but for Job to have posited it at all was a real advance upon the common expectation of a meaningless existence after this life, for which Sheol stood as the bleak symbol. In Job there is not yet the full light of the New Testament, but it is not amiss to say that in this book there shines the first clear ray of the Easter dawn.

5. There is the depth of understanding of human sin. Beyond all sins we deal here with the primeval sin, that of rebellion against God. All of the human participants in the discussion participate in that sin. Each in his own way makes God in his own image (an insight that William Blake has clearly seen in his "inventions" on the Book of Job). Each is unwilling for God to be God on his own terms, and each in the end must stand before the God who is God, and who does not exist only in man’s definitions or man’s experiences. He is the God who defines himself, with a definition that immediately contradicts all others.

6. There is the evident fact that with all of Job’s wrongness he is the hero of faith. His doubt is the reflex of true faith, far more so than is the theologizing of the friends. And it is Job who is vindicated for his insistence that knowledge of God be somehow observable within the arena of this life. Job never leaves the realm of his own existence and never gives up the demand that God be known, not in some essentially supernatural vision or some purely heavenly manifestation, but within the frame of his own life. And he is right. The fact that the Lord speaks at the end in a whirlwind ought not to be construed as a pure "supernaturalism." The point is that God speaks, speaks the language that Job knows, converses with him, and makes himself known by pointing to evident facts of life. Job, it must be said, is in many ways the strongest witness in the entire Old Testament to the Incarnation, for in his agony he never gives up the conviction that finally God must be known within the intimate realm of our life. Even Job cannot anticipate what will be the blinding glory of the Son of God who "became flesh," but he knows where the glory of the Father must be revealed.

7. There is, above all else in this book, a true note of the grace of God. For all his abundant righteousness and his integrity. Job was still sinner (would he not have understood Paul’s "chief of sinners"?). And the point is that to such a man, a kind of Adam in rebellion against his Maker, God comes in mercy and grace. The basic faith of the book is that Job, who above all else wished to be justified, learned that the way to justification is not by self -justification but by God’s justifying grace. Justification is not something we achieve (to use the Protestant formula), nor is it something we establish for ourselves (to use Job’s formula) ; it is God’s gracious gift. Job and Paul are more alike than any other biblical characters. The thing that separates them is that Paul knew in whom God justifies the ungodly.


The Prologue. (Job 1:1 to Job 2:13)

The First Scene on Earth (Job 1:1-5)

The First Scene in Heaven (Job 1:6-12)

The Second Scene on Earth (Job 1:13-22)

The Second Scene in Heaven (Job 2:1-6)

The Third Scene on Earth (Job 2:7-13)

The First Round of Discussion. (Job 3:1 to Job 14:22)

Job Speaks (Job 3:1-26)

Eliphaz Speaks (Job 4:1 to Job 5:27)

Job Speaks (Job 6:1 to Job 7:21)

Bildad Speaks (Job 8:1-22)

Job Speaks (Job 9:1 to Job 10:22)

Zophar Speaks (Job 11:1-20)

Job Speaks (Job 12:1 to Job 14:22)

The Second Round of Discussion. (Job 15:1 to Job 21:34)

Eliphaz Speaks (Job 15:1-35)

Job Speaks (Job 16:1 to Job 17:16)

Bildad Speaks (Job 18:1-21)

Job Speaks (Job 19:1-29)

Zophar Speaks (Job 20:1-29)

-ob Speaks (Job 21:1-34)

The Third Round of Discussion. (Job 22:1 to Job 31:40)

Eliphaz Speaks (Job 22:1-30)

Job Speaks (Job 23:1 to Job 24:25)

Bildad Speaks (Job 25:1-6)

Job Speaks (Job 26:1-14)

Job Speaks (Job 27:1-23)

A Poem on Wisdom (Job 28:1-28)

Job’s Final Testimony (Job 29:1 to Job 31:40)

The Speeches of Elihu. Job 32:1 to Job 37:24

Introduction (Job 32:1-5)

The First Speech (Job 32:6 to Job 33:33)

The Second Speech (Job 34:1-37)

The Third Speech (Job 35:1-16)

The Fourth Speech (Job 36:1 to Job 37:24)

The Speeches of the Lord. Job 38:1 to Job 42:6

s. Introductory Summons (Job 38:1-3)

The Wonders of Creation (Job 38:4 to Job 40:2)

The Response of Job (Job 40:3-5)

Behemoth and Leviathan (Job 40:6 to Job 41:34)

The Second Response of Job (Job 42:1-6)

The Epilogue. (Job 42:7-17)

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