The main point of the book of Job is to challenge what is known as the retribution principle. This is the idea that God blesses those who are righteous and punishes those who are wicked in this life. If a person is blessed, that is proof that he is righteous. If a person suffers hardship, that is proof of sin in his life. As Eliphaz asks in Job 4:7, “Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed?”
Most of the people in the book of Job labor under this assumption. This is why Job’s three friends all tell him that he should confess his sin so that God will relent.
In Job 8:5–7 Bildad tells Job, “But if you will seek God earnestly and plead with the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, even now he will rouse himself on your behalf and restore you to your prosperous state. Your beginnings will seem humble, so prosperous will your future be.”
Similarly, in Job 11:13–19, Zophar says, “Yet if you devote your heart to him and stretch out your hands to him, if you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent, then, free of fault, you will lift up your face; you will stand firm and without fear. You will surely forget your trouble, recalling it only as waters gone by. Life will be brighter than noonday, and darkness will become like morning. You will be secure, because there is hope; you will look about you and take your rest in safety. You will lie down, with no one to make you afraid, and many will court your favor.”
Job, on the other hand, knows that he has not sinned, so he maintains his innocence before his friends. This is not to say that Job thinks he is perfect or sinless, but he counters the assumption that he must have committed some horrible sin (which he has successfully hidden) to warrant such a response from God. As described in the first verse of chapter 1, Job was “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” There is a difference between being sinless, which no one is, and being a person of integrity who genuinely wants to please God.
Interestingly, Job does not question the retribution principle but continues to affirm it. He thinks he understands the way things are supposed to work, and he cannot understand why God is doing this to him. First, he is plunged into despair and laments that he was ever born (Job 3). Then he begins to doubt God’s justice and wisdom. It seems to him that God is not “playing by the rules.” Job’s friends see this as an attack upon the character of God: In Job 8:2–3 Bildad asks, “How long will you say such things? Your words are a blustering wind. Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right?”
In chapter 23 Job says that, if he could only present his case to God, he could prove his innocence.
Back and forth the argument goes between Job and his friends. They say God is just so this travail could not happen to a righteous man. Job says he is righteous, and he just can’t figure out how this could happen to him. His world has been completely turned upside down. Yet no one questions the retribution principle or suggests that God is not bound by those “rules.”
In Job 27, Job affirms the retribution principle again and states that God has denied him justice (verse 2). He is doubting and in despair, yet he never curses God (as his wife suggests he should in Job 2:9). He never turns his back on God. He simply thinks that there must be some mistake and, if he could present his case before God, things could be straightened out. But, alas, God seems nowhere to be found (see Job 23).
Then Elihu, a fourth friend, speaks. He does not offer a solution but rebukes the three friends for accusing Job of wrongdoing even though they have no evidence of it. He also rebukes Job for accusing God of being unfair.
Finally, God speaks to Job. Instead of giving Job an explanation, He essentially says that Job has no idea about how God governs the world. In Job 38:2–4 God asks Job, “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.” This line of questioning continues through chapter 41.
In Job 42:1–6, Job admits that he really does not know all the ways of God:
“Then Job replied to the Lord: ‘I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘You asked, “Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?”
‘Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.
‘You said, “Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.”
‘My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.’”
Job certainly has come to believe that he has sinned in his response to God.
In Job 1, after the initial hardships that Job endured, the closing verse states, “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.” This is not the verdict on Job for everything he says in the whole book, but a specific statement about his initial response. Later on, Job doubted and questioned God. Some might see this as sin. Others might see what Job did as something like the laments in the Psalms. However, God does not reprimand Job (other than the questioning in chapters 38—41). God does reprimand Job’s three friends “because you have not spoken truth about me as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7).
The truth that Job spoke is probably in Job 42:1–6 where Job admitted that God’s ways are beyond his understanding. The three friends think they understand God perfectly! God then directs Job to offer sacrifices on behalf of his friends and to pray for them, saying He will forgive them. This is a vindication of Job’s righteousness (Job 42:8–9).
In the end, God does not explain pain and suffering but simply affirms that He cannot be “boxed in” to a set of rules. Sometimes the righteous do suffer, and sometimes the wicked do prosper in this life. Ultimately, this conundrum is not resolved until the next life when God judges everyone according to truth (Romans 2:16). But the “retribution thinking” that Job and his friends had still persists in our day, especially in the prosperity gospel teaching.