What They Don’t Believe
The trouble with [Job’s] comforters is that so much of what they say sounds right. It would be a useful exercise to read their speeches with a pencil in hand, and to put a tick in the margin against every statement they make with which we agree. There would be many ticks, and generally high marks for doctrinal orthodoxy, so much so that it is easy to think the friends are doctrinally sound teachers whose fault is simply that they are pastorally insensitive.
But more careful consideration suggests that their fault lies deeper than pastoral insensitivity. It is the content, not just the tone, of their teaching that is false. Their problem is not so much what they say as what they leave unsaid. (This is so often the case with false teaching; we need to be on the lookout not only for wrong teaching some church teachers may give, but also for vital biblical ingredients they habitually omit.) There are three vital truths they don’t believe.
1. No Satan
They have no place in their thinking for Satan. We know from Job 1 and 2 that Satan is a real and influential spiritual person. We know that the whole tragedy of Job has its origin in heavenly arguments between the Lord and Satan. But the comforters have no place in their thinking for Satan or for the spiritual battle. We find hints that Job does believe in Satan, however: in Job 3:8 he speaks of Leviathan (we shall return to Leviathan when we reach Job 41), and in Job 26:12–13 he refers to Rahab the serpent monster (another expression in Old Testament symbolism of the great spiritual enemy of the Creator God). But the friends have no place for spiritual forces of evil. In their world evil is purely a human phenomenon. It has no spiritual dimension; there is no spiritual battle. How wrong they are.
2. Judgment is now.
The wicked are punished now; the righteous are blessed now. But the promises of judgment are not for now. They are for the end. So, for example, Psalm 1 presents a clear distinction between the righteous and the wicked. But it is “in the judgment” that the wicked will not stand (Ps. 1:5). And the judgment is (usually) not yet. The comforters’ “now” theology seems so tidy, but is actually disastrous.
It is like a vending machine: put in some goodness, and out pops a can of blessing. Put in some badness, and out pops a can of poison. Just like that. In terms of the Matrix trilogy of films, the friends thought God was like a deterministic computer program, a part of how the matrix is operating, with fixed rules that determine how everything runs. The Bible teaches that we will reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7–10); we really do. But not immediately, because what we sow has to grow until harvest. In Jesus’s parable, the wheat and the weeds grow together (Matt. 13:24–30). And they will not be separated until harvest (the last judgment). Then the wicked will be punished and the righteous saved, but not until then.
The comforters are right to believe in retributive justice; they are wrong to assume that it will necessarily be immediate retributive justice. There will one day be a world ordered as it was at the creation, but we are not there yet. But what are we to make of Bible passages that seem to speak quite straightforwardly of blessings following obedience and curses following apostasy? For example: let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you. (Prov. 3:1–2) And yet they brought no peace to Job! (We could cite many other examples, especially from Proverbs and Deuteronomy.) There is a distinction between the general truth of such sayings and absolute “every case” truth.
Consider this analogy. Suppose an earthquake struck a well-planned place like Manhattan, with its clear and ordered grid of streets. If I wanted to go from A to B after the earthquake, I would in general still be best advised to go by the main roads. But whereas before the earthquake that would always be the best route, now I might find both that the main road has been blocked and also that some building has collapsed to open up some unplanned route. It is a little like this with the created order after the disruption of the fall of humankind. In general, keeping God’s commandments and living in line with the created order will bring peace and prosperity; in general, for example, if I am honest and work hard, I will do better. But not always.
And the final proof that righteousness pays will not come until the final judgment, when the disruption will be put right and the creation reordered as it ought to be. But the comforters turn religion into an impersonal vending-machine formula. There is no hoping for a future promised, but only living in the present. There is no prayer to a God unseen, but only moralizing.
There is no love for a hidden God, or love for people in pain, but only well-swept answers. There is no personal yearning and longing and faith, but only sight. And so faith, hope, and love are dissolved into moralism and lectures. There is a kind of Christianity that belongs to this family, that revels in the immediate. I expect the blessing of God now; I expect to see the triumph of God now; I expect to know the answers now. There is to be no waiting.
3. No Cross
In the context of the whole Bible, perhaps the deepest error and omission of the friends is this: they have no place for innocent suffering. They think that if the righteous were ever to suffer or perish, it would be a blot on the moral landscape. As Eliphaz asks, “Who that was innocent ever perished?” (4:7). The Bible places against that question a large eternal cross. The innocent one perished in the place of the guilty, so that we might not finally perish. In a profound sense, the sufferings of Job anticipate the great cost that the grace of God will pay for our redemption. To be more accurate, the sufferings that Job foreshadows will be the cost of grace. With their tidy impersonal theological code, the comforters miss the heart of the universe.