Today I want to look at the concept of wisdom as it is presented in Job. To do that, the first thing we need to inspect is the literary structure of the book.
The book of Job has a very interesting structure in an A B C D E D’ C’ B’ A’ format. To wit:
A. Job is prosperous (1:1-3)
B. Job acts as priest for his children (1:4-6)
C. God speaks twice to Satan (1:7-2:9)
D. Conflict between Job and his Friends (3-27)
E. Ode to Wisdom (28)
D’. Conflict between Job and Elihu (29-37)
C’. God speaks twice to Job (38-42:6)
B’. Job acts as priest for his Friends (42:7-9)
A’. Job is prosperous (42:10-17)
Notice that, in this format, the ode to wisdom in chapter 28 is the center of the book. Everything that happens before chapter 28 has a corresponding event after chapter 28. If we were to graph this on a chart, it would look like a beam of light bouncing at an angle off a mirror, with each event in Job having a mirror image except chapter 28, which would be at the point in which the light hits the mirror. This structure, with the ode to wisdom at the center of the book, strongly suggests that the central theme of Job is wisdom.
“What?” I can hear you yelling, “No it isn’t! Job is about human suffering and why bad things happen to good people, and why we go through trials, and about patience to deal with those trials, and . . .” And I’ll agree that a lot of those things are present in the book, but if the question the book deals with is “why do we suffer?” then why is the answer to Job’s suffering given to us in chapter 1? Job never learns why he had to go through such suffering, but we are told at the very beginning that God was using Job to prove an essential point to Satan—that true servants of God don’t serve Him just for the reward, but because He is worthy of the service. Since we have the answer in chapter 1, what is the point of the rest of the book? Again, based on its central position in the book, it is the ode to wisdom in chapter 28. So let’s inspect it for a moment.
Chapter 28 begins by acknowledging that man can find anything that is valuable. If it is precious minerals like gold, copper & tin (to make bronze), or iron (for steel weapons), man will track it down. Overturning mountains, lighting up caverns, tracking it down in wilderness areas even the wild animals don’t know about, man will find it. But then comes verse 12. In spite of being able to find anything else on or in the Earth, man cannot find wisdom. The poem then turns to the marketplace where anything can be bought and everything has a price. Except wisdom, which can’t be bought no matter how much of what type of precious commodities one has. Finally, in verses 23-28 we see that God, and only God, knows the way to wisdom. He established it and defined it. It is only through Him that man gets any inkling, any speck of wisdom. Wisdom, as God defines it, is to fear Him and turn away from evil.
It is a beautiful poem showing the value of wisdom and God’s preeminence, but, on the surface it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the book. It almost feels like it should be Proverbs 32, rather than Job 28, but that’s because it is easy to get distracted when reading Job. We get distracted by Job’s pathetic wails of grief and pain and the friends’ seemingly unsympathetic attacks. Elihu’s hubris amazes and God’s appearance awes. One has to read Job with the centrality of chapter 28 in mind to see just how all pervasive the concept of wisdom is to the book.
I went back through Job looking for places where wisdom, teaching, or knowledge was mentioned. I looked for places where the speaker implored the others to listen and he would tell them truth. Mentions of proverbs, explanations and similar phrases were also noted. And from chapter 4 through 36:4 (not counting chapter 28) I found 46 places where the concept of wisdom/teachings was mentioned or discussed. I quit at 36:4 because I ran out of energy; there might be a couple more between there and chapter 38, where God speaks. And, of course, God’s speeches are full of the discussion of wisdom as He demands Job explain the workings of the world to God, if Job is so smart.
Yes, Job and his friends are trying to deal with the problem of human suffering and why God allows the righteous to suffer, but they are using their concepts of wisdom to deal with those problems all the while denying the wisdom of their opponents. This is most clear in the first round of discussion, in which the friends are essentially being good examples of what Paul later commands in Galatians 6:1. They erroneously see Job’s suffering as punishment from God and assume that means that Job has sinned and they each try to convince him to turn back to the Lord. In fact, the only real invitations you see in the Bible are in the book of Job as each friend in the first round of speeches invites Job to return to the Lord. While they are trying to bring back their “erring brother”, as they see it, they each proclaim that what they are telling Job is wisdom.
Eliphaz finishes his speech by saying “Lo this, we have searched it, so it is; Hear it, and know thou it for thy good.” Job 5:27. He claims to have researched what he is teaching Job and knows it is true. It is wisdom to live by.
Bildad goes further in saying “For inquire, I pray thee, of the former age, And apply thyself to that which their fathers have searched out: (For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing, Because our days upon earth are a shadow); Shall not they teach thee, and tell thee, And utter words out of their heart?” 8:8-10. Bildad claims to be giving Job not his own wisdom, but the wisdom of the ancients. When Job still refuses to listen to their “wisdom”
Zophar then nearly claims to be speaking for God: “But oh that God would speak, And open his lips against thee, And that he would show thee the secrets of wisdom! For he is manifold in understanding.” When Zophar continues to speak after this he is at least claiming that his words are backed by what God would say. In all three cases, the friends are trying to teach Job wisdom that they believe will help him in his predicament. Of course, they are wrong, but that is their intention.
ob begins to answer in force in chapter 12. In the first three verses he mocks their wisdom, essentially calling it too simplistic for the problems he sees. In 13:1-3 he repeats that idea in a more clear way: “Behold, my eye has seen all this, my ear has heard and understood it. What you know, I also know; I am not inferior to you. But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God.” Job is saying he already knows what the friends are telling him but that isn’t enough. He wants to move forward and speak to God. He wants greater understanding that what they are offering (which he already knows anyway). He then tells his friends they would show their wisdom better if they just shut up.
Throughout the remaining discussions between Job and the friends, the friends keep claiming to have the right wisdom for dealing with these problems, but Job continues to poke holes in their arguments and mock their understanding. In the process, Job builds up concepts of wisdom that are far more profound than the friends’ paltry offerings, and nearly gets to the correct answer (he is oh so close in chapter 23 before he again allows his grief to overwhelm him). What Job does accomplish is a complete dismantlement of all the friends’ arguments. He makes them look like fools and they shut up, bewildered.
Then Elihu enters the fray and it seems that all he talks about is wisdom. All he says in chapter 32 is a defense of his right to speak. He has wisdom too, better than the old men around him, and he will speak it. He then tells Job repeatedly in 33 that he will teach Job (never stated so baldly by the friends), asks the wise men to judge between his words and Job’s in chapter 34, claiming that all the wise will side with him and say that Job has no insight. Then in 36:2-3 he flat-out claims to be speaking for God and in verse 4 says he is “perfect in knowledge”. Despite his hubris, Elihu is often right as he tries to answer the problems brought up by Job. Right, but with a caveat. What he says doesn’t apply to Job’s situation (known to us from chapters 1&2). He is right in the facts (God is great) but wrong in the application (you don’t have the right to ask the question!). So, finally, despite all his claims, Elihu doesn’t get the answers through his wisdom either.
God has to come upon the scene to dispense the proper wisdom for dealing with the problems facing Job. God’s answers basically boil down to “There are things you can’t understand, but I do understand them and I’m in charge watching out for all these things. Trust me.” In a lot of ways, what God says boils down to 28:28. Fear God and turn away from evil. If Job just feared God, let Him handle what Job didn’t understand, and kept himself pure, all would turn out ok. And that’s what eventually happened.
Did you notice how closely this perusal of the theme of wisdom through the book of Job followed the ode to wisdom in chapter 28? All through the discussions Job is searching for the wisdom to deal with his problems and to know the whys. His friends offer their best, but it is fool’s gold. Just like it says in chapter 28, man’s best efforts can’t find true wisdom. Finally, after the best man can do, after a great search for correct wisdom from some very intelligent and wise men turns up nothing, God has to come upon the scene to give out the true wisdom. Just like Chapter 28. The true point of Job seems to be that man’s wisdom will never be able to obtain all the answers. The best that man’s wisdom can do will still leave us short on some of the most important questions. Job is teaching us that to get the answers to those problems we must turn to God for the proper wisdom. And then we learn that God’s answer is “Don’t worry about it, you wouldn’t understand anyway. But I love you and am looking out for you, so just trust me. I got this.”