While the question of Job’s historicity affects the way we read the book, there’s another matter that affects us far more significantly.
I’ve noticed that many Christians treat Job as though it were Proverbs. They’ll find a verse that says something they like, and they’ll post it as though it applies to us, even without context.
- “Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5.7).
- “Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know?” (Job 11.7-8).
- “The light of the wicked shall be put out” (Job 18.5).
- “Is it any pleasure to the Almighty, that thou art righteous?” (Job 22.3).
- “The spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life” (Job 33.4).
- “How forceful are upright words!” (Job 6.25).
- “Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble” (Job 14.1).
- “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me” (Job 19.25-27).
- “He knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23.10).
- “He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing” (Job 26.7).
- “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding” (Job 28.28).
These are powerful words that have been precious to generations of Christians. And I’m not saying they shouldn’t be. But there’s a pitfall here that we should be wise enough to avoid.
The quotations in the first section above are from the mouths of Job’s 3 friends. The second section is from Elihu, the young bystander. And the third section is from Job himself.
Now, what do we know about these 5 men? For starters, we know that all of them—all of them—were wrong about some things. God is much harder on Job’s friends than on Job himself (Job 42.7), but with his first words at the end of the book he makes it clear that Job too has problems with his thinking:
“Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38.2).
The word this here is singular, and the previous verse indicates that God is speaking specifically to Job. He, too, is “without knowledge.” And the extended argument that follows, all the way through Job 40.2, is directed specifically at Job.
Job responds by condemning himself (Job 40.3-5). And God’s response is not to try to soften the blow; he doubles down, so to speak, at considerable length (Job 40.6-41.34), leading Job to repeat his words of repentance (Job 42.1-6).
But before it’s over, God pays him a remarkable compliment: Job, he says, “has spoken of me the thing that is right” (Job 42.7). And then he says it again (Job 42.8). Job, he says, “I will accept” (Job 42.8).
And the rest of the story, which we know well, shows God pouring his blessings out on Job.
So there’s a lot to appreciate in and learn from the man Job, but when we read his words, and especially the words of his 3 friends and Eliphaz, we can’t take them as authoritatively true; they’re not Proverbs. Oh, they may well be true, but we don’t know that without confirming them from elsewhere in Scripture. Eliphaz certainly gives us good advice when he says, “If you return to the Almighty you will be built up; … then you will delight yourself in the Almighty and lift up your face to God. You will make your prayer to him, and he will hear you” (Job 22.23-27). But his words are not true in relation to Job’s specific situation—Job’s troubles weren’t the result of his being distant from God—though they’re often true of us. We know that not because Eliphaz said them, or simply because the statement appears in the biblical book of Job, but because it is confirmed by countless other passages of Scripture, whose contexts indicate that they, unlike these, are authoritative.
Context is a really big deal. We all benefit when we pay attention to it.