The glory of God is more important than your or my comfort. That is a statement with which all Christians will readily agree in theory. A Puritan prayer begins:
Lord of all being,
There is one thing that deserves my greatest care,
that calls forth my ardent desires,
That is, that I may answer the great end for which I am made—
to glorify thee who hast given me being....1
That is a fine and noble prayer. But it has awesome consequences from which we naturally shy away. Of course, we say, there can be nothing more important than the glory of God. What Christian could possibly disagree with that expression of correct piety? And yet before long we find ourselves recoiling from the implications of this statement.
The introduction of the book of Job in
Scene 1: Heaven (Job 1:6–12)
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and the Satan2 also came among them. The LORD said to the Satan, “From where have you come?” The Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the LORD said to the Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then the Satan answered the LORD and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the LORD said to the Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So the Satan went out from the presence of the LORD. (
After the timeless introduction, which describes who Job was and what he habitually did, we read, “there was a day” (
The day began in what seems to have been a routine way: “the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD” (
God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment....
I said, “You are gods,
sons of the Most High, all of you.” (
Psalm 82:1, 6)
For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD?
Who among the sons of God (ESV footnote) is like the LORD...
a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones,
and awesome above all who are around him? (
Psalm 89:6, 7)
As members of God’s heavenly cabinet, they come “to present themselves” before him (
This “day” that turns out to be so devastating for Job begins with a normal heavenly cabinet meeting. God summons his ministers rather as an American President might call his senior staff to an early-morning meeting in the Oval Office before sending them out for action.
Only one member of the heavenly cabinet is mentioned individually: “... and the Satan also came among them” (
We are not told explicitly whether or not the Satan is present as a member of the heavenly council or whether he is in some way a gatecrasher. It is sometimes assumed that because the Satan is evil he cannot be a member of the council and must have barged in uninvited. So the Lord’s question, “From where have you come?” (
How the World Is Governed
This description of the Lord and “the sons of God” gives us an important insight into the way the world is governed. Presumably this language of God sitting surrounded by a heavenly council is anthropomorphic language. God does not literally sit at the head of a council any more than he literally has hands or feet. This kind of language is used of God because we can understand it, to accommodate to our limitations. But what does it mean?
Broadly speaking there are three models for understanding the spiritual government of the world.
The first is polytheism or animism, in which the universe is governed (if that is not too strong a word) by a multiplicity of gods, goddesses, and spirits, none of whom is perfect and some of which are exceedingly evil. There is no absolutely supreme god or goddess, although some are generally more powerful than others. The end result is a universe filled with anxiety, in which we may never know in advance which spiritual power will come out on top in a particular situation, in which different deities have to be appeased and kept friendly, much as a citizen in a corrupt society may offer bribes to different officials, hoping he or she gets the bribes right in their amounts and their recipients. This is the world of animism and of Hinduism. In a strange way, it is also the world of Buddhism, where the “gods and goddesses” are within ourselves. Each person is his or her own god or goddess. Who knows who will win?
At its simplest this view becomes a dualism in which the world is governed by the outcome of an ongoing contest between God and the devil, who are thought of as pretty much equal and opposite powers battling it out for supremacy, like the Empire and the Federation in Star Wars. The devil is perceived as having an autonomy and agency independent of God. Some Christians are practical dualists in this way.
The second is a kind of absolute monism, in which the world is governed absolutely and simply by one God. What this God says goes, end of story. Above the visible and material universe there is one, and only one, supernatural power, the absolute power of the Creator of Heaven and earth. This model underlies the classic objection to the goodness of God: “If God is God He is not good. If God is good He is not God.”9
As I understand it, this is the model of Islam, and many Christians think it is the Biblical model. It is not.
Christian people can veer toward either of these, a dualism or a monism. Neither does justice to the Bible’s picture, which is more nuanced and complex. The Bible portrays for us a world that lies under the absolute supremacy and sovereignty of the Creator, who has no rivals, who is unique, such that there is no god like him. And yet he does not govern the world as the sole supernatural power. He governs the world by the means of and through the agency of a multiplicity of supernatural powers, some of whom are evil. That is to say, “the sons of God” represent powers that are greater than human powers and yet are less than God’s power. They include among their number the Satan and his lying and evil spirits.
Above the visible and measurable material world of human senses lies a world in which is the one Jesus calls “the ruler of this world” (
This model is not dualist; the sovereignty of God is not compromised one iota in this model. But the nature of the government of the world is significantly different than in the monist model. We need to take account of these supernatural agencies, “the sons of God” in the language of Job and other Old Testament passages. And we need to grasp that the evil agencies, the devil and all his angels, while being supernatural and superhuman, are sub-divine. Satan is, to again quote Luther’s famous phrase, “God’s Satan.”
Some will object that since God cannot look at or have fellowship with evil (
1. The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975), p. 13.
2. I have rendered the Hebrew literally, “the Satan” (ESV, “Satan”). It has the article here and in
3. So Clines.
4. This is a famously puzzling passage. It is not clear whether these are heavenly creatures or powerful human princes.
5. Gordis rightly rejects the suggestion that this expression means here “to stand against God.”
6. So Clines.
7. As, for example, in this word’s use in
9. Archibald MacLeish, in his play JB, has one of his characters repeat this refrain (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, Sentry Edition, 1956), p. 11.
Life can be hard, and sometimes it seems like God doesn’t even care. When faced with difficult trials, many people have resonated with the book of Job—the story of a man who lost nearly everything, seemingly abandoned by God. In this thorough and accessible commentary, Christopher Ash helps us glean encouragement from God’s Word by directing our attention to the final explanation and ultimate resolution of Job’s story: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Intended to equip pastors to preach Job’s important message, this commentary highlights God’s grace and wisdom in the midst of redemptive suffering.