Book of Job MSG


Summary of the Book of Job

This summary of the book of Job provides information about the title, author(s), date of writing, chronology, theme, theology, outline, a brief overview, and the chapters of the Book of Job.


Although most of the book consists of the words of Job and his friends, Job himself was not the author. We may be sure that the author was an Israelite, since he (not Job or his friends) frequently uses the Israelite covenant name for God (Yahweh; NIV "the Lord"). In the prologue (chs. 1 - 2; ), divine discourses (38:1 -- 42:6) and epilogue (42:7-17) "Lord" occurs a total of 25 times, while in the rest of the book (chs. 3 - 37) it appears only once (12:9).

This unknown author probably had access to a tradition (oral or written) about an ancient righteous man who endured great suffering with remarkable "perseverance" (Jas 5:11; see note there) and without turning against God (see Eze 14:14,20), a tradition he put to use for his own purposes. While the author preserves much of the archaic and non-Israelite flavor in the language of Job and his friends, he also reveals his own style as a writer of wisdom literature. The book's profound insights, its literary structures and the quality of its rhetoric display the author's genius.


Two dates are involved: (1) that of Job himself and (2) that of the composition of the book. The latter could be dated anytime from the reign of Solomon to the time of Israel's exile in Babylonia. Although the author was an Israelite, he mentions nothing of Israel's history. He had an account of a non-Israelite sage Job (1:1) who probably lived in the second millennium b.c. (2000-1000). Like the Hebrew patriarchs, Job lived more than 100 years (42:16). Like them, his wealth was measured in livestock and servants (1:3), and like them he acted as priest for his family (1:5). The raiding of Sabean (1:15) and Chaldean (1:17) tribes fits the second millennium, as does the mention of the k e ́s i ̣t a h, "a piece of silver," in 42:11 (see Ge 33:19; Jos 24:32). The discovery of a Targum (Aramaic paraphrase) on Job dating to the first or second century b.c. (the earliest written Targum yet discovered) makes a very late date for composition highly unlikely.

Language and Text

In many places Job is difficult to translate because of its many unusual words and its style. For that reason, modern translations frequently differ widely. Even the pre-Christian translator(s) of Job into Greek (the Septuagint) seems often to have been perplexed. The Septuagint of Job is about 400 lines shorter than the accepted Hebrew text, and it may be that the translator(s) simply omitted lines he (they) did not understand. The early Syriac (Peshitta), Aramaic (Targum) and Latin (Vulgate) translators had similar difficulties.

Setting and Perspective

While it may be that the author intended his book to be a contribution to an ongoing high-level discussion of major theological issues in an exclusive company of learned men, it seems more likely that he intended his story to be told to godly sufferers who like Job were struggling with the crisis of faith brought on by prolonged bitter suffering. He seems to sit too close to the suffering -- to be more the sympathetic and compassionate pastor than the detached theologian or philosopher. He has heard what the learned theologians of his day have been saying about the ways of God and what brings on suffering, and he lets their voices be heard. And he knows that the godly sufferers of his day have also heard the "wisdom" of the learned and have internalized it as the wisdom of the ages. But he also knows what "miserable comfort" (16:2) that so-called wisdom gives -- that it ony rubs salt in the wounds and creates a stumbling-block for faith. Against that wisdom he has no rational arguments to marshal. But he has a story to tell that challenges it at its very roots and speaks to the struggling faith of the sufferer. In effect he says to the godly sufferer, "Forget the logical arguments spun out by those who sit together at their ease and discuss the ways of God, and forget those voices in your own heart that are little more than echoes of their pronouncements. Let me tell you a story."

Theological Theme and Message

When good people (those who "fear God and shun evil," 1:1) suffer, the human spirit struggles to understand. Throughout recorded history people have asked: How can this be? If God is almighty and "holds the whole world in his hands" and if he is truly good, how can he allow such an outrage? The way this question has often been put leaves open three possibilities: (1) God is not almighty after all; (2) God is not just (is not wholly good but has a demonic streak in him); (3) humans may be innocent. In ancient Israel, however, it was indisputable that God is almighty, that he is perfectly just and that no human is pure in his sight. These three assumptions were also fundamental to the theology of Job and his friends. Simple logic then dictated the conclusion: Every person's suffering is indicative of the measure of their guilt in the eyes of God. In the abstract, this conclusion appeared inescapable, logically imperative and theologically satisfying.

But what thus appeared to be theologically self-evident and unassailable in the abstract was often in radical tension with actual human experience. There were those whose godliness was genuine, whose moral character was upright and who had kept themselves from great transgression, but who nonetheless were made to suffer bitterly (see, e.g., Ps 73). For these the self-evident theology brought no consolation and offered no guidance. It only gave rise to a great enigma. And the God to whom the sufferer was accustomed to turn in moments of need himself became the overwhelming enigma. This theology left innocent sufferers imprisoned in windowless cells to agonize over their crisis of faith. In the speeches of chs. 3 - 37, we hear on the one hand the flawless logic but wounding thrusts of those who insisted on the traditional theology, and on the other hand the writhing of soul of the righteous sufferer struggling with the great enigma even while being wounded by his well-intended, theologically orthodox friends (see note on 5:27). Their learned theology had no helpful, encouraging or comforting word for a truly godly sufferer.

The author of the book of Job broke out of the tight, logical mold of the traditional orthodox theology of his day. He saw that it led to a dead end, that it had no way to cope with the suffering of godly people. It could only deny the reality of the experienced anomaly and add to the pain and inner turmoil of the sufferer. Instead of logical arguments, he tells a story. And in his story he shifts the angle of perspective. All around him, among theologians and common people alike, were those who attempted to solve the "God problem" in the face of human suffering (are the ways of God just?) at the expense of humans (they must all deserve what they get). Even those who were suffering were told they must see matters in that light. The author of Job, on the other hand, gave encouragement to godly suffers by showing them that their suffering provided an occasion like no other for exemplifying what true godliness is for human beings.

He begins by introducing a third party into the equation. The relationship between God and humans is not exclusive and closed. Among God's creatures there is the great adversary (see chs. 1 - 2). Incapable of contending with God hand to hand, power pitted against power, he is bent on frustrating God's creation enterprise centered on God's relationship with the creature that bears his image. As tempter he seeks to alienate humans from God (see Ge 3; Mt 4:1); as accuser (one of the names by which he is called, ́s a ̣t a n, means "accuser") he seeks to alienate God from humans (see Zec 3:1; Rev 12:9-10). His all-consuming purpose is to drive an irremovable wedge between God and humans to effect an alienation that cannot be reconciled.

In his story, the author portrays this adversary in his boldest and most radical assault on God and godly people in the special and intimate relationship that is dearest to them both. When God calls up the name of Job before the accuser and testifies to his righteousness -- this creature in whom God takes special delight -- Satan attempts with one crafty thrust both to assail God's beloved and to show up God as a fool. True to one of his modes of operation, he accuses Job before God. He charges that Job's godliness is evil. The very godliness in which God takes such delight lacks all integrity; it is a terrible sin. Job's godliness is mere self-serving; he is righteous only because it pays. If God will only let Satan tempt Job by breaking the link between righteousness and blessing, he will expose this man and all righteous people as the frauds they are.

It is the adversary's ultimate challenge. He is sure he has found an opening to accomplish his purpose in the very structure of creation. Humans are totally dependent on God for their very lives and well-being. That fact can occasion one of humankind's greatest temptations: to love the gifts rather than the Giver, to try to please God merely for the sake of his benefits, to be "religious" and "good" only because it pays. Satan's accusation of Job is that this is the deep truth concerning his apparently godly and upright conduct -- that this is, in fact, the deep truth about the godliness of all righteous people. If he is right, if the godliness of the righteous in whom God delights can be shown to be evil, then a chasm of alienation stands between God and human beings that cannot be bridged. Then even the redemption of human beings is unthinkable, for the godliest among them would be shown to be the most ungodly. God's whole enterprise in creation and redemption would be shown to be radically flawed, and God can only sweep it all away in awful judgment.

The accusation, once raised, cannot be ignored, and it cannot be silenced -- not even by destroying the accuser; it strikes too deeply into the very structure of creation and is rooted too deeply in the human condition within that structure. So God lets the adversary have his way with Job (within specified limits) so that God and righteous Job may be vindicated and the great accuser silenced. From this comes Job's profound anguish, robbed as he is of every sign of God's favor so that God becomes for him the great enigma. And his righteousness is also assailed on earth through the logic of the orthodox theology of his friends. Alone he agonizes. But he knows in the depths of his heart that his godliness has been authentic and that someday he will be vindicated (see 13:18; 14:13-17; 16:19; 19:25-27). And in spite of all, though he may curse the day of his birth (ch. 3) and chide God for treating him unjustly (9:28-35) -- the uncalculated outcry of a distraught spirit -- he will not curse God (as his wife, the human nearest his heart, proposed; see 2:9). In fact, what pains him most is God's apparent alienation from him.

So the adversary is silenced, and God's delight in the godly is vindicated. Robbed of every sign of God's favor, Job refuses to repudiate his Maker. He faces toward God with anguish, puzzlement, anger and bitter complaints, but never turns his back on him to march off -- godless -- into the dark night. His whole being yearns, not for God's gifts as such, but for a sign of God's favor (cf. Ps 42). Godly Job, dependent creature that he is, passes the supreme test occasioned by his creaturely condition and the adversary's accusation.

This first test of Job's godliness inescapably involves a second that challenges his godliness at a level no less deep than the first. For the test that sprang from Satan's accusation to be real, Job has to be kept in the dark about the goings-on in God's council chamber. But Job belongs to a race of creatures endowed with wisdom, understanding and insight (something of their godlikeness) that cannot rest until it knows and understands all it can about the creation and the ways of God. For that reason, Job's sudden loss of all that makes life good -- every good gift from God -- cries out for explanation and puts human wisdom to a supreme test. Job's friends confidently assume that the logic of their theology can account for all God's ways. However, Job's experience makes bitterly clear to him that their "wisdom" cannot fathom the truth of his situation. Yet Job's wisdom is also at a loss to understand. Still, he demands of God an explanation; he wants to reason matters out with God as his equal. When the dialogue between Job and his three wise friends finally stalemates, and before Job's last defense (chs. 29 - 31), the vain attempt of a brash younger voice to explain Job's plight, and Yahweh's own breaking-in on the scene, the author introduces a poetic essay on wisdom (ch. 28) that exposes the limits of all human wisdom. The wisdom God has given human beings can indeed understand creaturely things, but from these creaturely things humans cannot learn all of God's ways. For them the supreme wisdom is to "fear�the Lord�and to shun evil" (see v. 28) -- the very wisdom that had marked Job's life all the while (see 1:8). Standing as it does at a major juncture between the dialogue and the final major speeches, this authorial commentary on what has been going on in the stalemated dialogue anticipates God's final word to Job, which silences his arguments and defenses. In the end Job passes the second supreme test of his godliness -- of all true godliness -- namely, to live by the wisdom God gave him (28:28) even while acknowledging the limits of human wisdom. But that insight and Job's acceptance of it came only after the long night of suffering and a new hearing of the voice of the Creator speaking from behind the glory curtain of the creation.

In the end the adversary is silenced. Job's friends are silenced. Job is silenced. But God is not. And when he speaks, it is to the godly Job that he speaks, bringing the silence of regret for hasty words in days of suffering and the silence of repose in the ways of the Almighty (see 38:1 -- 42:6). Furthermore, as his heavenly friend, God hears Job's intercessions for his associates (42:8-10), and he restores Job's blessed state (42:10-17).

In summary, the author's pastoral word to godly sufferers is that God treasures their righteousness above all else. And Satan knows that if he is to thwart the all-encompassing purpose of God, he must assail the godly righteousness of human beings (see 1:21-22; 2:9-10; 23:8,10; cf. Ge 15:6). At stake in the suffering of the truly godly is the outcome of the titanic struggle between the great adversary and God. At the same time the author gently reminds the godly sufferer that true godly wisdom is to reverently love God more than all his gifts and to trust the wise goodness of God even though his ways are at times past the power of human wisdom to fathom. So here is presented a profound, but painfully practical, drama that wrestles with the wisdom and justice of the Great King's rule. Righteous sufferers must trust in, acknowledge, serve and submit to the omniscient and omnipotent Sovereign, realizing that some suffering is the result of unseen, spiritual conflicts between the kindgom of God and the kingdom of Satan -- between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness (cf. Eph 6:10-18).

Literary Form and Structure

Like some other ancient compositions, the book of Job has a sandwich literary structure: prologue (prose), main body (poetry), and epilogue (prose), revealing a creative composition, not an arbitrary compilation. Some of Job's words are lament (cf. ch. 3 and many shorter poems in his speeches), but the form of lament is unique to Job and often unlike the regular format of most lament psalms (except Ps 88). Much of the book takes the form of legal disputation. Although the friends come to console him, they end up arguing over the reason for Job's suffering. The argument breaks down in ch. 27, and Job then proceeds to make his final appeal to God for vindication (chs. 29 - 31). The wisdom poem in ch. 28 appears to be the words of the author, who sees the failure of the dispute as evidence of a lack of wisdom. So in praise of true wisdom he centers his structural apex between the three cycles of dialogue-dispute (chs. 3 - 27) and the three monologues: Job's (chs. 29 - 31), Elihu's (chs. 32 - 37) and God's (38:1 -- 42:6). Job's monologue turns directly to God for a legal decision: that he is innocent of the charges his counselors have leveled against him. Elihu's monologue -- another human perspective on why people suffer -- rebukes Job but moves beyond the punishment theme to the value of divine chastening and God's redemptive purpose in it. God's monologue gives the divine perspective: Job is not condemned, but neither is a logical or legal answer given to why Job has suffered. That remains a mystery to Job, though the readers are ready for Job's restoration in the epilogue because they have had the heavenly vantage point of the prologue all along. So the literary structure and the theological significance of the book are beautifully tied together.


  • Prologue (chs. 1-2)
    • Job's Happiness (1:1-5)
    • Job's Testing (1:6;2:13)
      1. Satan's first accusation (1:6-12)
      2. Job's faith despite loss of family and property (1:13-22)
      3. Satan's second accusation (2:1-6)
      4. Job's faith during personal suffering (2:7-10)
      5. The coming of the three friends (2:11-13)
  • Dialogue-Dispute (chs. 3-27)
  • Interlude on Wisdom (ch. 28)
  • Monologues (29:1;42:6)
  • Epilogue (42:7-17)

From the NIV Study Bible, Introductions to the Books of the Bible, Job
Copyright 2002 © Zondervan. All rights reserved. Used with permission.