The Old Testament book of Job can be mysterious, exhausting, and frustrating. Yet, for millennia, readers have also drawn comfort and hope from the story of Job’s extreme suffering.
For those who are unfamiliar with it, briefly tell the story of Job.
Rev. Ash: The book of Job is one of the most astonishing books in the world. We don’t know when or by whom it was written. It tells a true and deep story, the story of Job, an upright and righteous man (Job 1:1,8; 2:3) who trusted God. He was a very great man (1:3). And yet quite suddenly he suffered the loss of all his wealth and possessions, all his children, and his health (1:6-2:10). After this catastrophe, Job has long debates with his three so-called “comforters” (chapters 4-26) about what is going on and why. Job then sums up his case (chapters 27-31). After that he hears two answers; the first is from a man called Elihu (chapters 32-37), the second (in two parts) from God himself (chapters 38-41). The book ends with Job’s final response to God (42:1-6), God’s verdict on the debates (42:7-9), and God’s final vindication and restoration of Job (42:10-17).
Why are you convinced that the book of Job “makes no sense apart from the cross of Christ”? And what is the “wisdom of the Cross” that your book’s subtitle speaks of?
Rev. Ash: If you believe in any kind of justice, this story would seem to contradict your beliefs. For in it a man who does not deserve to suffer finds himself suffering intensely and deeply. Read on its own it would seem to be, as someone has put it, “the record of an unanswered agony.” Job’s “comforters” can only make sense of it by supposing that Job is a secret and wicked sinner (e.g. 22:5). But we, the readers, know this is not true (1:1,8; 2:3; 42:7). In their world, good things only happen to good people and bad things only to bad people (e.g. 8:3,4). The Cross shows that at the heart of history there is undeserved suffering that makes possible undeserved blessing; that because a righteous man suffered, unrighteous people like us can experience mercy and grace. This is the wisdom of the Cross (1 Cor.1:18-2:5). Job foreshadows this great truth.
Briefly explain the three big questions you say Job raises.
Rev. Ash: A. What kind of world do we live in, and how is it governed? The most common answers are either that God runs it (full stop: what he says goes) or that it is chaotic, perhaps with a multitude of powers, gods/goddesses/spirits—call them what you will. The Bible’s answer is that God runs it entirely, but does so through the intermediate agency of a variety of supernatural powers, some of which are evil. This is a deep truth and one that Job explores, how God can govern the world making use in some strange way of evil to do it, without himself being tainted by evil.
B. What kind of Church should we want? The biggest dangers to church life worldwide are the “prosperity gospel” (if I follow Jesus, God will make me rich and healthy) and its close cousin the “therapeutic gospel” (if I follow Jesus and already have wealth and health, then Jesus will also make me feel good about myself). Job pulls the rug out from under both these distortions.
C. What kind of Savior do we need? Only the perfect obedience and suffering of Jesus Christ can bring grace to a needy world. Job opens up this truth perhaps above all.
Why is the book of Job so long? And why is most of it poetry?
Rev. Ash: Deeply to grapple with God in a messed-up world takes time. We cannot tidily sum up the message of Job on a postcard or in an SMS or Tweet. We need to let these truths soak into our souls and engage with us in our real human experience; there is no shortcut for that. Poetry touches us in our emotions, our feelings, our affections, our delights and aversions. We need to read it and hear it aloud to let God get to work on us through it. Beware the desires to summarize it, rush it, get through it quickly so we can get on to the next thing, boil it down to tidy propositions! You have not engaged with Job until, for example, you have been moved to tears by his lament in chapter 3.
What can we learn and model from Job’s perseverance?
Rev. Ash: Writing to suffering Christians, James encourages them and us to wait patiently for the return of the Lord Jesus; he says, “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job” (James 5:7,11). As we walk with Job through his trials, we watch as Jesus perseveres through his; and, by the Spirit of Jesus in our hearts, we are enabled the better to walk through our own troubles with patient faith.
Why do you say the book of Job is not fundamentally about suffering? Then what is it about? And how does it foreshadow Jesus?
Rev. Ash: Like every Bible book, Job is most deeply a book about God and specifically about Jesus Christ, the righteous man who suffers unjustly and is finally vindicated by his Father. It is a mistake to think the book speaks simply to human suffering as a universal experience; for the central character who suffers is very far from a typical or universal human being; he is conspicuously great, exceptionally upright, and definitively righteous. Job in his extremeness foreshadows Jesus in his uniqueness. It is therefore only about us if we are indwelt by the Spirit of Jesus and enter into some share of the sufferings of Christ (e.g. Col.1:24). And yet it is about us as believers in Christ; for Satan still demands to sift disciples like wheat to prove our genuineness (compare Job 1:8-11; 2:4,5 with Lk.22:31) and in the end our genuine faith will redound to the glory of God (1 Peter 1:7).
What do you recommend as a good way for people to experience Job?
Rev. Ash: I have four suggestions. First, that preachers have a go at longer sermon series on Job, perhaps 10 sermons rather than the skimpy two or three that some offer! Second, that individual Christians read Job aloud to themselves. Aloud is important, so you cannot read too fast and you cannot skim. If you find the language too inaccessible, try a vivid paraphrase like The Message. Third, you could try reading gradually through Job aloud with a small group. Fourth, you could try reading slowly through Job using my book as a friendly guide!
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Rev. Ash: It may seem strange to say that I love the book of Job, given that it is so dark and intense. And yet I do. I find that immersing myself in it helps me appreciate more deeply the love of my Savior, the misery of being a sinner in a world under God’s curse, and the wonder of the Christian hope. I hope you will find the same.
Bio: Christopher Ash works for the Proclamation Trust in London as director of the Cornhill Training Course. In addition to serving on the council of Tyndale House in Cambridge, he’s the author of several books, including Out of the Storm: Grappling with God in the Book of Job and Teaching Romans. He’s married to Carolyn; they have three sons and one daughter.