Redeemed Suffering in Job

“Job’s Despair” by William Blake, circa 1805

If there is any book in scripture that reads like an examination of the purpose of human suffering, it is surely Job. This may not be the only place in the Bible where the concept is considered, but due to the nature of the text – a lengthy debate between one suffering man and his friends, with an appearance at the end by God Himself – it is particularly compelling. In one of the most famous passages in this book, Job boldly proclaims, “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives…” (19:25a) I would like to take a moment to examine this comment and what exactly Job meant when he referred to God as his “Redeemer”.

When I as a 21st century Christian read Job’s words, I automatically think of Jesus Christ and His work on the cross. Without a doubt, His atonement has redeemed all who believe. Yet, Job lived long before Christ walked the earth; in fact, he lived long before most of the Messianic prophecies were made. Could Job have foreseen the work of Jesus Christ? Was that what he meant by the word “Redeemer”?

The Hebrew term in question is ga’al. It is often used to describe the ancient Jewish practices of buying back a piece of land, purchasing someone’s freedom from slavery, or marrying the widow of a deceased brother. In much the same way, it is used to describe the Lord’s position in relation to the nation of Israel, as in Isaiah 54:5. “For your husband is your Maker, / Whose name is the Lord of hosts; / And your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, / Who is called the God of all the earth.”

Even more specifically, the word ga’al is used to describe God’s work in freeing Israel from slavery. “Say, therefore, to the sons of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burden of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.” (Exodus 6:6) Note that the same Hebrew word can be translated into English as either a noun or a verb.

So what did Job mean when he used this word? I would suggest that there are multiple levels of meaning in his use of the term, though they are necessarily linked. All are examples of Job’s belief that God would redeem his suffering. The first has to do with the accusations that Job was receiving from his friends.

It is important to keep in mind that Job’s suffering was due to no fault of his own. God Himself said of Job, “For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” (Job 1:8b) Scripture makes clear that while Job was certainly born with a sinful nature, he was not being punished on account of any unrepentant sin he had personally committed. On the contrary, he made a strong effort to follow God’s commands and repent of sins, as evidenced by the sacrifices he offered for his family. (Job 1:5)

“Job Rebuked by His Friends” by William Blake, circa 1805

Yet, when Job’s friends heard of his severe suffering, they assumed that it was on account of some sin in Job’s life. In his very first speech, Eliphaz says the following,

Remember now, who ever perished being innocent?

Or where were the upright destroyed?

According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity

And those who sow trouble harvest it.

By the breath of God they perish,

And by the blast of His anger they come to an end.

Job 4:8-9

The implication is that Job has earned the Lord’s wrath. To be fair, Eliphaz seems to believe that no man can truly be counted righteous (4:17), but Job must have bristled a bit when his friend told him, “Behold, how happy is the man whom God reproves, / So do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” (5:17) Later on, Job’s friend Bildad has some not so friendly things to add. When Job protests his innocence, Bildad responds,

How long will you say these things,

And the word of your mouth be a mighty wind?

Does God pervert justice?

Or does the Almighty pervert what is right?

If your sons sinned against Him,

Then He delivered them into the power of their transgression.

If you would seek God and implore the compassion of the Almighty,

If you are pure and upright,

Surely now He would rouse Himself for you

And restore your righteous estate.

Job 8:2-6

In other words, your sons died because of their sins, and you, Job, are suffering because of your sins. If you repent, God will make everything better.

In his reply to Bildad, Job spends less time attempting to counter each one of those statements, and instead addresses the Almighty. “According to Your knowledge I am indeed not guilty, / Yet there is no deliverance from Your hand.” (Job 10:7) It would be one thing for Job to protest his innocence to his friends, but he actually declares it to the all-knowing God.

This is the context in which Job’s words in chapter 19 should be viewed. Rather than comforting him, Job’s friends have attempted to rationalize events. They have answered the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” by declaring that it simply doesn’t happen: if you suffer, you must be a bad person. Therefore, in addition to all the suffering he has endured, Job is now forced to answer these charges that have been brought against his integrity. This is why he says,

Pity me, pity me, O you my friends,

For the hand of God has struck me.

Why do you persecute me as God does,

And are not satisfied with my flesh?

Oh that my words were written!

Oh that they were inscribed in a book!

That with an iron stylus and lead

They were engraved in the rock forever!

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives,

And at the last He will take His stand on the earth.

Even after my skin is destroyed,

Yet from my flesh I shall see God;

Whom I myself shall behold,

And whom my eyes shall see and not another.

My heart faints within me!

If you say, ‘How shall we persecute him?’

And ‘What pretext for a case against him can we find?’

Then be afraid of the sword for yourselves,

For wrath brings the punishment of the sword,

So that you may know there is judgment.

Job 19:21-29

It is clear from the context that at least one of the ways Job viewed God as his Redeemer was in light of the accusations of his friends. That is what he mentions both before his big statement (vs. 21-22) and after it. (vs. 28-29) I strongly believe that Job longed for God Himself to redeem his reputation and prove that his suffering was not on account of personal sin.

“The Lord Answering Job Out of the Whirlwind” by William Blake, circa 1805

As it turned out, this was absolutely the case. At the end of the book, we see the Lord tell Eliphaz, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has.” (42:7b) This was the vindication Job sought, and he received it. Therefore, one important lesson we can learn about redeemed suffering from the book of Job is this: while all suffering is ultimately the result of the curse of sin upon the world, it is not always due to personal sin in the life of the one who suffers.

This begs the question, “Why is that the case?” After all, Job was born with a sinful nature the same as every other human being. He was clearly not sin-free for his entire life. How could he be counted righteous before God? The answer is found in Job’s repentance, as evidenced both in the sacrifices he made at the beginning of the book and his statement after hearing the words of the Lord. “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; / But now my eye sees You; / Therefore I retract, / And I repent in dust and ashes.” (42:5-6)

Now we are heading toward the second level of meaning in Job’s use of the term “Redeemer”. One of the truly incredible things about Job’s speech in chapter 19, particularly in light of the fact that it occurs in the Old Testament, is his clear belief in not only a final judgment, but also the resurrection of the body. Again, he says,

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives,

And at the last He will take His stand on the earth.

Even after my skin is destroyed,

Yet from my flesh I shall see God;

Whom I myself shall behold,

And whom my eyes shall see and not another.

My heart faints within me!

Job 19:25-27

Now, the phrase translated “from my flesh I shall see God” is actually a bit complicated. Though I am no expert on ancient Hebrew, I gather that Job might have been describing either an embodied experience (inside his flesh) or a disembodied one (beside his flesh). What we can know for sure is that Job believed in some form of life after death. If his skin was destroyed, that would surely mean death. You cannot live without your skin. It would seem that Job envisions a time after his body has finally wasted away and given out when he will see God come down to earth and pronounce his final judgment upon mankind – a day in which Job expects to be vindicated.

Job clearly believed that his God had power over death, and that the destruction of his body was not the end. He foresaw a time when God would release him from suffering into a newness of life, redeeming him from death itself. More than that, He would redeem him in a spiritual sense, for He would find him righteous in the judgment. Here, I think Job surely knew that at the end of the day, it was not his own deeds that made him righteous before God, but the fact that God was his Redeemer.

We have no reason to think that Job received a specific prophecy about the coming of Christ. He never mentions a Messianic ruler who will set up a kingdom on earth or die for the sins of humanity. However, we must remember, Job made a sacrifice to God for his family. What we now know with the benefit of hindsight, and what some of the ancient people of God must have figured out, is that those sacrifices themselves were not sufficient to atone for sin. They were pointing forward to a greater atonement.

“Job’s Sacrifice” by William Blake, circa 1805

The author of Hebrews talks about many ancient saints and lauds them for their faith. Now, it is this author who assures us, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,” (Hebrews 10:4) and then points us to Christ as the final, perfect sacrifice. In the very next chapter, often called the “hall of fame of faith”, he speaks of people like Abel, Noah, and Abraham, and concludes that, “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” (11:13) Now, the very first promise God gave on this score comes immediately after the fall of man, when he is speaking to Eve and the serpent.

And I will put enmity

Between you and the woman,

And between your seed and her seed;

He shall bruise you on the head,

And you shall bruise him on the heel.

Genesis 3:15

This prophecy points forward to Jesus Christ, who despite receiving a “bruise on the heel” would deliver a fatal “bruise” to the head of the serpent. That is why, in spite of God’s sentence of death upon humanity, we read in Genesis 1:20, “Now the man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.”

I believe that on some level, Job was aware of this promise. He was looking forward to a future redemption from sin. I cannot possibly declare the extent of Job’s understanding of the redemptive process, but we know that he offered sacrifices in faith, trusting in God’s grace and forgiveness for sins. That is what we witness in his statement in chapter 19. He believes that God will redeem him from false accusations, physical death, and spiritual damnation.

Therefore, Job’s powerful words, recorded for all time in the pages of scripture (even as he desired – see 19:23-24), shed some light on how Christ redeems our own suffering. He is our Redeemer because He has freed us from the guilt of sin and the finality of death. He has enabled our suffering to have a better meaning than simply being punished for personal sin. We can join in praise along with Job, for our Redeemer truly lives.

“Job and His Family Restored to Prosperity” by William Blake, circa 1805

All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.