In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton calls Job “one of the colossal cornerstones of the world,” and in his introduction to the book of Job, he calls it one of the most interesting of all books, both modern and ancient. Further research, including an awesome commentary that I first discovered in Oxford but have more recently discovered on the internet, has only caused me to agree with this statement of vast importance more and more. The book of Job remains to this day one of the most immediately relevant and applicable books of all time.
And it is not merely because of the ending. It is not merely because Job does not fail. It is because of the sense, inherent in the book of Job, that at any moment Job might fail. At any point in his dialogue with his friends, Job might “curse God and die.” Everything hangs by a thread, and all the heavenly beings are on the edge of their heavenly seats, waiting to see what this man of clay will do.
I’ve thought a lot about Job before. This isn’t a case of Satan challenging God: rather, it is God who throws down the gauntlet and Satan who picks it up, God who boasts of Job’s faith and Satan who angrily (and defensively) attacks that faith. Satan believes that Job, like himself, is ultimately in it for himself. Faith in God has provided Job with earthly wealth–take it away, and Job’s faith will disappear. The angels chuckle and nudge each other when God brings up Job–they all know Job, especially those whom God may have tasked with rewarding Job for his faith.
And then the heavenly host falls silent as Satan angrily hurls his challenge: “Stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face!”
All eyes turn to the glorious, radiant throne. But immediately comes the response, and the angels gasp and the devil, almost disbelieving his good fortune, leaps. Satan’s request is granted, and all that Job possesses, save his own person, is in the hands of the great Accuser. Satan wastes no time: Immediately he leaves the heavenly court and, arriving once again on earth, completely destroys everything that Job has–all his property, all his livestock, all his sons and daughters. The angels are struck dumb, the devils cheer, but the throne of Yahweh is silent. As MacFadyen says, Satan uses “not only the robber tribes of the desert, but the very lightning, the fire of God from heaven, and the mighty rushing wind that comes up from the desert. These calamities may be natural in their kind, but they are supernatural in in their intensity and in the rapidity of their succession.”
There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that this is the work of God. And all the angels in heaven and all the devils in hell watch as Job cries in pain, rips his robe, shaves his head, and finally collapses into the dust.
His lips quiver. His words catch in his throat. Finally he gathers the strength to speak, face streaked with tears and muddy dust. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. Jehovah has given, Jehovah has taken: The name of Jehovah forever be…” There is complete and utter silence in the universe, as every unseen spirit huddles close around to hear what his next word will be. Satan is poised to begin his celebratory journey to Jehovah’s court. The angels are nervous, comforted only by the still-radiant throne of Jehovah.
But Satan has chosen poorly. The Great Cynic (as MacFadyen calls him) has met his match. “The name of Jehovah forever be blessed.” And the cheers from heaven drown out the shrieks and howls of hell, and Satan staggers back, puzzled and furious. Job blesses God, despite his knowledge that God could have protected him. Satan can take Job’s possessions, his livestock, even his family away: But he cannot take God away, and it is to God that Job clings. I’m going to end this section with a quote from MacFadyen:
Why do good men suffer? One answer to that is this: That through their suffering a divine purpose—we do not yet say what purpose, but some purpose—is being worked out. To the thinking heart life would be intolerable and history a chaos, were their seeming confusions not redeemed and illuminated by a sense of purpose. This is the faith that reconciles us to the mystery, and this is the faith which shines through the story of the council in heaven. The blows that shatter to atoms the happiness of Job are not dealt by chance or accident or any random hand: they fall by permission. They come, because “Jehovah had said to Satan, ‘Hast thou considered my servant Job?'” That is, the sorrows below find their explanation in the world above.