Book Review: Beyond Suffering: Discovering the Message of Job

Layton Talbert was one of our Sunday School teachers at the church we attended the first fourteen years we were married, back before he earned his PhD. In the years since our class with him, I’ve very much enjoyed his articles in Frontline magazine, where he currently serves as a contributing editor. I particularly like his regular “At a Glance” column where he usually gives an overview of a book of the Bible (his column on Ecclesiastes particularly opened that book up for me). Next to one of our former pastors, Dr. Mark Minnick, there is no one whose exegesis and teaching I trust more (though no one is infallible, of course). So when our current pastor began preaching through the book of Job and recommended Dr. Talbert’s book, Beyond Suffering: Discovering the Message of Job, I didn’t need much convincing to get it. In addition, I know personally many of the people he mentions in the book. I trust, however, that even though this prior knowledge inclined me positively toward the book even before I got it, it didn’t cloud my perspective.

Dr. Talbert has attempted (successfully, I think) to write the book on two levels: the main text is easily readable for most any layperson, but the end notes are helpful for more experienced theologians (and for others who want to delve into them.) Though probably no one loves end notes, I can understand that having those notes scattered throughout the book as footnotes would make the text look cluttered and daunting to some.

Dr. Talbert begins by acknowledging that the book of Job is both long and difficult, especially the discourses between Job and his friends, but he reminds us “the Holy Spirit does not waste space” (p. 9) and even these discourses are valuable to us. He offers several helpful suggestions for reading Job, explores the theme of the book (suggesting that suffering is the catalyst rather than the main theme), and plunges right into commentary, not verse by verse, but section by section.

I spent a few hours this week compiling a list of the quotes I marked as well as pages numbers of sections that were particularly instructive to me but were too long to quote, both as a way of review and a way to have some of them handy. I ended up with five pages. I can’t share all of that here, but I’ll try to share some of the most poignant.

Satan’s accusation that Job is “pious only for pay” undermines God as well as Job because if it is so, that means God is content with that arrangement (p. 40).

Suffering can cause us to question either God’s omnipotence or His love: either He wasn’t able to stop the suffering or He was able but allowed it because He’s not completely good. “Since both options are expressly unbiblical, we are faced with a choice: (1) Ignore what the Bible says about God and reevaluate Him on the basis of our limited experience, knowledge, and understanding or (2) accept God’s self-description and reevaluate our circumstances in the light of the Bible’s depiction of realty.” P. 57).

“It is not merely the affliction itself that Job finds so hard to bear; it is the sudden and inexplicable change in God’s posture toward him that the circumstances seem to signal (p. 85).

“Expressions of grief may not fit some people’s sanitized ideas of what a Christian ‘ought’ to think and feel. But when catastrophe strikes like lightning, ripping ragged holes in the lives of previously serene saints, God has preserved a record of the grief of godly saints for our consolation. Anger is not unbelief and questions are not sinful; they are human and shared by some of the best of God’s people” (p. 90).

You may have wondered, as I have, if Job “sinned not” in his initial reaction to his suffering at the end of chapter one, yet repents in chapter 42:1-6, what happened in between that he had to repent of? Part of the answer is this: “If Job justifies himself at the expense of God’s righteousness (as God says he did – Job 40:8), then he has virtually, if unintentionally, made himself more righteous than God….Whenever we think that God is being unfair, or that we would never do some of the things God does, we make ourselves more righteous than God” (p. 98).

On the difficulty of 19:25-27: “We must be content to enter the passage with no prejudgment as to what we will bring out of it. That’s the only way to insure that we derive our theology out of the text (exegesis) rather than read our theology into a text (eisegesis)” (p. 121). (Yes! If only all Bible teachers and preachers would get this. bh)

“[God] censures Job for defending his own righteousness over against and at the expense of God’s righteousness (40:8)” (p. 159).

“For Job to be browbeaten into ‘confessing’ uncommitted sin with the assurance that his fortunes will be restored is to trifle with his soul, to confuse his conscience, and to redirect everyone’s attention to materialism as the motivation and demonstration of one’s spiritual condition” (p. 130).

“The three friends argue that Job’s suffering is consistent with God’s justice because [Job] has (obviously) sinned. Job argues that his suffering is contrary to God’s justice because he has not sinned. Elihu offers a revolutionary third perspective: suffering is not necessarily linked to God’s justice at all. God’s justice remains intact, therefore, and may not be impugned (34:12). The issue is man’s justice in responding to inexplicable suffering sent or allowed by a just God. That suffering may not be explicitly ‘deserved’ does not render the suffering itself unjust, nor does it imply that God is unjust for permitting it” (p. 170).

“Job is not rebuked for asking why. He is rebuked for an honest question that has soured into a complaint laced with insinuation. God reprimands Job for sins of speech and attitude subsequent to his sufferings – speech and attitudes that reflect wrongly on the character of God” (p. 202).

If you’ve ever wondered, as I have, what God’s discussion of animals has to do with Job’s suffering, a part of the answer is: “By belaboring this point with Job, God unveils one of His divine qualities. The Lord is powerful and majestic and wise beyond man’s comprehension, but He is also compassionate…even towards beasts. He talks as if He has intimate knowledge of their nature and needs because He does. That’s the point” (p. 206).

“We may not always see the signs of God’s goodness in our immediate circumstances, but what we see is not all there is. That is a significant part of God’s answer to Job” (p. 206).

“The furnace of affliction may be transformed into a holy of holies, a sanctuary filled with the presence of the God Whose path is in the storm” (p. 235).

“Believe Him implicitly, with or without proof, because He has spoken. Trust Him submissively, with or without understanding, because He is sovereign and good. Worship Him reverently, with or without reward, because He is worthy… Wait for Him patiently, with or without reprieve, because He will come.” (p. 241).

“God’s revelation furnishes ample evidence to justify faith but also ample opportunity to exercise faith” (p. 256).

I was also happy to see Job vindicated from something I heard a preacher say years ago, that Job’s confession in 3:25 that “the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me” indicated that he had a “life-dominating sin” of fearfulness. But God repeatedly says that Job is “a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil” (1:8; 2:3) and that his trials came upon him “without cause” (2:3).

There are also insightful discussions on the purposes for suffering, possible reasons why God didn’t tell Job what was behind his suffering, a section on helping the hurting (an excerpt from that is here), and even an appendix on leviathan, for those who might want more information about what that creature mentioned by God might have been.

This is an immensely helpful book, both for those who have wrestled with suffering and those who have wrestled with their study of the book of Job. Those of you who read here regularly know that it is rare that I can recommend a book completely without reservation: this is one I can.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

14 thoughts on “Book Review: Beyond Suffering: Discovering the Message of Job

  1. This has been on my list since you mentioned it to me back when I was struggling through Job. It sounds wonderful — meaty, like it doesn’t shirk any of the difficulties. I can see why you have so much respect for this author.

    I really appreciate your review — so thorough and useful.

  2. I like a lot of these quotes.
    “We may not always see the signs of God’s goodness in our immediate circumstances, but what we see is not all there is. That is a significant part of God’s answer to Job” (p. 206).

    It’s true. ” Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely”. 1Corinthians 13:12 New Living Translation 2007.
    Have Faith, Trust Him and Wait.

  3. I’ve had this review up on my computer since yesterday so that I could really focus on it. It sounds absolutely wonderful. I can’t even pick a quote to comment on because each has something to offer in its own way.

    I would definitely be interested in reading this one.

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