We all know that suffering is a reality in our fallen world. But we need not despair because of that reality. That is because the Bible recognizes this conundrum and provides us with wisdom to help us. I say that it provides us wisdom, rather than saying it provides us an answer, because the Bible does not give the straight-forward answer to the issue of suffering that we might expect or even hope for. Instead of simply telling us why suffering happens, even to the innocent, the Bible uses the issue as a platform to more fully reveal who God is. But a fuller revelation of God should not leave us disappointed in not receiving a more direct answer to the question of suffering. Rather, we should rejoice that God, through His Word, allows us to know Him better in the midst of suffering. Indeed, Scripture tells us that fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Prv 1:7). The books of Job, Habakkuk, and Ecclesiastes help in providing such wisdom for those who suffer. They do not offer hollow, surface-level answers that fail to sustain those who suffer; instead, they steer the sufferer deeper to profound truths that offer true comfort to the soul.
At the outset of the book of Job, God himself states that Job was “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8; see also 1:1; 2:3). Yet God ordains terrible suffering for Job. The book recognizes very quickly, therefore, that there is such thing as innocent suffering. And although Job, amazingly, first reacts by praising God and declaring “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord,” (1:21; see also 2:10), eventually Job gives in to despair and questions God’s justice, stating “I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me. You have turned cruel to me” (30:20-21). Along the way, Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, seek to explain Job’s suffering by appealing to the retributive principle, reasoning that Job’s suffering must be punishment for some evil that he has committed and that he must repent from in order to be restored. But the book—partly through Elihu’s rebuke, and more fully in God’s statements and Job’s response to God—dismantles the idea that all suffering is punishment for wrongdoing and that doing right always leads to prosperity. One very practical take-away from Job, then, is to not make the mistake of Job’s friends when dealing with people who are suffering, and simply conclude that they must be undergoing punishment for some sin for which they should repent. Job does not allow for such a simplistic formula; and thankfully not, because life experience reveals to all men the reality of innocent suffering. To deny this reality would undercut the credibility of the truths that the book of Job reveals.
Near the end of the book, God answers Job out of a whirlwind. But instead of telling Job why he was suffering, God appeals to His own sovereignty, infinite power, and unsearchable wisdom in creating all things and holding them together in perfect order, thus pointing out the absurdity of such a tiny, limited, finite man challenging Him. In so doing, God challenges Job, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it. . . . Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?” (40:1, 8-9). Job can only reply, “I am of small account,” (40:4), but “you can do all things, and . . . no purpose of yours can be thwarted. . . . I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . . I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:2-6). The conclusion, thus illustrates that God is incomprehensible and therefore His ways cannot be fully understood by us. But the inability to fully understand God does not mean that we cannot have faith in him. To the contrary, realizing this truth about God should drive people to more fully place their faith in Him—the creator of all things who has the power and wisdom to hold them all together; what better person in whom to place all faith and trust?
Habakkuk, like Job before him, questions God’s justice. The book of Habakkuk—written in a desperate time when the people of Judah suffered internal oppression from evil rulers and the imminent, external threat of the Babylonians—opens with the prophet bemoaning, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? . . . . Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? . . . justice goes forth perverted” (Hb 1:2-4). Habakkuk continues, “why do you idly look at traitors?” (1:13). God’s answers Habakkuk that “the righteous shall live by his faith,” (2:4), and ensures that justice will ultimately prevail, (2:5-20; 3:13-15), and “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (2:14). This demonstrates that despite the confusion that can stem from what seems to be a withholding of God’s present justice, His justice will prevail ultimately. And this realization drives Habakkuk to respond in reverent fear of the Lord and His awesome power, (3:2-16), and to declare, “I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength” (3:17-18). So, like Job, Habakkuk’s suffering changes Habakkuk for the better, teaching him to trust the wisdom and justice of God no matter what because God is sovereign and incomprehensible, and works all things out for His glory.
Ecclesiastes likewise deals with the confusing, frustrating, and tragic nature of this fallen world, as indicated by the Preacher’s opening line and constant refrain: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ec 1:2; see also 1:15 (“What is crooked cannot be made straight.”)). The Preacher wants “to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven,” (1:13), but concludes that man “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (3:11). Like the other wisdom books, we see that the pursuit to understand all that God ordains, including suffering, leads to a fundamental truth: man cannot fully comprehend the incomprehensible God. This should not lead us to despair, however, but instead, drive us to the ultimate conclusion of Ecclesiastes: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13-14). This is crucial. We can and should trust that God will ultimately administer perfect justice. We, being finite humans, should stand in awe of His power and wisdom, and trust him implicitly.
These books appeal to the awe-inspiring power and wisdom of God in creating all things and holding them together, leading to the inevitable conclusion that we ought to fear God and keep His commandments. By better understanding who God is, it should necessarily follow that we have a more proper fear for Him. And by fearing God as we ought, it necessarily follows that we will obey him better and grow in wisdom. And as our wisdom increases, our understanding of God’s purposes, even in suffering, will grow. Instead of asking: “why do bad things happen to good people?” or “why am I suffering?” we will begin asking better questions: “how is God using this suffering for my good?” and “how is God using this suffering to accomplish His divine purposes?” In so doing, our perspective becomes less self-centered and more God-centered. When we properly fear God, we better recognize His sovereignty, wisdom, omniscience, incomprehensibility, benevolence, and justice, which, in turn, frees us to place our faith entirely in Him in the midst of our suffering. We know longer need to know why some particular pain is occurring because we know who is behind all things, and we have faith, not only in His ability to do what is right and good, but also that He will in fact do it, without fail. The desire to know why fades into the truth of who ordains all things and works them out for our good and His glory.
The Christian Standard Bible Study Bible, (CSB). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017.
The English Standard Version Study Bible, (ESV). Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.Longman
III, Tremper and Peter Enns, eds. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarstiy Press, 2008.