For some years now I've been reading through the Bible each year, alongside gradually going through the Bible also using the New International Version Application Commentary (NIVAC) as a guide. Have to say, going through the Bible is a great discipline which I would thoroughly recommend to all Christians in getting to know the Bible better.
The scheme I use has a portion each day from each of the Psalms and Proverbs, then about two chapters from the rest of the Old Testament and an average of just less than one chapter from the New Testament. Many such schemes exist, find one that works for you!
Whilst in general this is a great way to go through the Bible, it breaks down slightly when it comes to Job. At 42 chapters this means that 3 weeks each August are spent going through the book. The main part of the book, consisting as it does of 'discussions' between Job and his 'comforters', appears superficially to go endlessly round the same things over and over again, as I suggested in this blog entry giving rise to the feeling that the whole thing could usefully be summarised considerably.
The NIVAC commentary, however, is organised into sections including several chapters at a time through the discussion sections. This, combined with the fact that the week just gone was half-term, so allowing for longer periods of Bible study than would normally be possible, has enabled me to get a much stronger sense of the structure of the book, particularly seeing the arguments starting gently and then intensifying as the 'comforters' and Job get more and more exasperated with each other.
One point particularly which I've been pondering is the assumption underpinning much of what is said by the 'comforters' - and to some extent also by Job - of what the commentator calls the 'retribution principle', ie that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Bad things were happening to Job, therefore, so the argument goes, he was a bad person and needed to repent of his (unspecified) sins.
Like many principles of this nature, the retribution principle can't be dismissed out of hand. At risk of oversimplifying Max Weber's argument in his seminal book, "The protestant work ethic", if people work hard to high standards of professionalism and ethics, then you are likely to be in line for promotion. That is, good things happen to good people. Conversely, the health risks of smoking, illegal drug taking and excess drinking - not to mention listening to music at high volume - are now well known. If one engages in these activities and then has associated health problems later in life, one may well consider that this is the retribution principle in practice.
But one can readily see that things are not that simple. What about people who were smoking before the health risks were well known - ie the 1950s thereabouts? What about babies born prematurely to mothers who smoked through pregancy? What about people in one car colliding with another being driven by a person well over the alcohol limit?
The clear message of Job is that suffering does not at all necessarily come about through the retribution principle, there is no reason to assume that somebody going through a hard time is in some way to blame for their suffering. It is interesting to note that Jesus on a number of occasions said, either implicitly or explicitly, the same thing. So in the Beatitudes He says:
He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
It is worth noting also the following:
As He went along, [Jesus] saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked Him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him."
Which offers one reason for suffering. Others can be offered beyond the retribution principle, including the outworking of the consequences of free will on other people, living in a fallen world, that we might be brought closer to God (consider for example Paul's thorn in the flesh).
The NIVAC on Job has two authors, the principal author John Walton is a theologian, with some penetrating insights offered also from the second author Kelly Viscaino who was involved in a serious car accident when aged 12, leaving her with considerable neurological damage, huge chronic pain, a series of operations some of which left her worse off than before. Her contribution does a great deal to bring the commentary to life and make it applicable today. I was particularly struck by her account of well meaning people coming up to her insisting that the Lord had spoken to them that she would be healed, only to conclude when she wasn't that there must be sin or unbelief in her life. The retribution principle lives on into the 21st century!
Where does all this leave us? In helping others going through hard times for whatever reason it is not good, in general I would suggest, to try to impose meaning on those hard times. Job teaches us that God is sovereign, we cannot expect to understand His purposes, attempts to do so can easily result in pain and confusion, the very opposite of what was intended.
There is here a related question as to whether we should expect God to intervene miraculously to heal people. Over the years I've become increasingly conservative on this point, so when I pray for people who are ill I pray that they would know God's peace and presence at this difficult time rather than for an actual healing, and would need to have very strong reason to believe it is right to do so before I would do that. Possibly I've become too conservative and have insufficient faith that God will act. But Job teaches us, I think, that if we are to pray for people to be physically healed, then we need to make sure we go about things in a way which does not leave them feel very disappointed and guilty if it does not happen. It is not for us - or Job or Jonah for that matter - to presume to tell God what to do.
So, I'm pleased I've worked through Job, and will face it in August with perhaps less of a feeling of dread than I've previously felt, with a stronger sense of its structure and key messages. Do I hold to the view I've previously expressed that the whole thing could be usefully summarised from 42 to about 8 chapters? Actually I do. I don't think this is pure pigheadedness on my part refusing to accept that I was previously wrong, but can't be sure on that point....