Job 6:21 “Now you too have proved to be of no help.”
You are sitting in a hospital room, where the faint smell of antiseptic lingers and the sound of lowered voices rustles all around you. The medical prognosis of your friend is bleak. You’ve listened to your friend’s anger and despair, and a jumble of other emotions. Now it’s your turn to reply. Everyone in the room waits for your response.
What do you say to a suffering person? The book of Job gives page after page of examples. Job’s three friends, finding him in despair, filled the air with high-sounding advice. But unfortunately they offer models of what not to say. Their main argument only made Job feel worse, and at the end God dismissed them all with a scowl.
Who Were Job’s Friends?
This book gives few details on time and place, but it presents Job as a very wealthy “sheik” of the Middle East. His three friends, from neighboring lands, were also prosperous and well respected. When they first saw Job, they wept aloud and sat with him on the ground, silent, for seven days and nights, overcome with grief (see Job 2:12–13).
After Job finally broke the silence, each friend delivered a flowery speech on Job’s dilemma. There are three cycles of speeches in all, with Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar taking turns, allowing Job to respond to each. Eliphaz, who led off, had strong and noble ideas. Bildad was briefer and slightly less sympathetic. Zophar (who did not speak in the third cycle) showed passion and fire.
The friends seemed to crescendo in emotional intensity. In the first cycle (Job 4—14), they showed hope of winning Job over to their point of view. In the second cycle (Job 15—21), the speeches grew more severe and threatening. And by the time of the concluding speeches (Job 22—25), Job’s friends were making direct accusations against him.
A Flawed Theory about Suffering
Job’s friends believed in a God of love and fairness; their arguments started from that premise. Surely a just God would not allow an innocent man to suffer so much, they reasoned. Most of their comments boil down to one simple theory: Job must have committed some great crime for which God was punishing him. All three believed that good people prosper and bad people suffer; therefore, suffering must betray some hidden sin.
“Surely God does not reject one who is blameless or strengthen the hands of evildoers,” they said to Job (Job 8:20). Repent, they admonished him, and God will forgive and restore you. Their words got this response from Job: “You … smear me with lies; you are worthless physicians, all of you!” (Job 13:4). Job also believed in a loving God, but he knew he was innocent.
When God finally made his appearance, he dismissed the three friends in one sentence to Eliphaz, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7).
Although the Bible elsewhere gives examples of suffering that resulted from a person’s sin, Job clearly shows that such a theory cannot be applied in every case. It is not for us to try to reason out the specific cause of a person’s suffering; God reserves that knowledge for himself.
What is the most “unfair” thing that has ever happened to you? How did it affect the way you thought about God?