The frustrating wisdom of Job and Ecclesiastes.
The crises of Job and the Preacher are reconciled only by the uninhibited wisdom of God.
One of the prevailing projectiles which unbelievers relish in hurling at unwary Christians is the dilemma of evil and the suffering Erich plagues the innocent. If the Judeo-Christian God really is a deity of love and compassion and grace, why does so much hardship afflict the world he supposedly created? Additionally, why would a God of this sort let his people exist under the same conditions? Inquiries such as these are convincing enough for the grasp of one’s faith to be relaxed, if not altogether lost. To curtail these bristling questions, however, one need only turn to the theodicean orations of the Old Testament (OT) Wisdom Books, specifically the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.
Job and Ecclesiastes both rank in the upper echelon of OT books which induce the most amount of interpretive angst. Controversy and frustration are archetypal ingredients when determining to understand Job’s unmerited plight or the Preacher’s existential crisis. Indeed, there are segments of each that remain just as perplexing and divisive as they did in centuries prior. Despite traces of theodicy forming the narrative structures of both Job and Ecclesiastes, it is misleading to assume that their respective narratives offer sweeping solutions to the problematic questions of evil and suffering. “Theodicy,” as defined by J. Davies, “is discourse about the justice of God in the face of indications to the contrary — the presence in the world of evil in all its forms.”1 If one reads these books with the presupposition that they will yield conclusive explanations for such quandaries, it will only result in accrued exasperation and desperation.
This is not to say that the texts of Job and Ecclesiastes offer no recourse for the issues of suffering, evil, and death that plague the world; it is, however, a concession that the expedient wisdom offered by each is entirely unexpected. Instead of bridging the yawning chasm of questions and frustrations that typify life “under the sun” (Eccl. 1:3), Job and Ecclesiastes leave one at the precipice. Rather than offering the appropriate means to unravel the mysteries life, death, and providence, one is forced to acknowledge that they are “unable to discover the work that is done under the sun” (Eccl. 8:17). This is abundantly clear during the denouement to the book of Job, which leaves Job himself with no apparent reason for the havoc that dislodged so much of his life. In fact, the closing verses of the book record Job not repenting of some latent sin made apparent that served as the operating cause of all his suffering, but repenting of his accusative misgivings towards the nature of God himself (Job 42:1–6). This J. H. Walton sees as “an indication that the book is more interested in one’s view of God than in one’s understanding of the causes of suffering.”2
This is, perhaps, what makes Job and Ecclesiastes so unsatisfactory. The authors of each seemingly present an array of problems without including the solution. The book of Job, Walton continues, “makes no attempt to offer the explanation but instead undertakes the task of reformulating the foundation.”3 The same is unquestionably true of Ecclesiastes. The wisdom proffered by both books is strikingly similar — namely, that one’s presuppositional questions regarding evil and suffering are inherently wrong. Mankind reckons that there are certain abiding principles by which the universe operates; and if one endeavors to live accordingly, one will prosper. However, the Preacher testifies that the exact opposite is true (Eccl. 7:15; 9:11–12); and the life of Job bears this out in excruciating detail.
What, then, is one to do with the frustrating wisdom of Job and Ecclesiastes as it pertains to the problem of evil and suffering? The interpretive key for both books lies in this vital assertion: wisdom, not a formula, is at the center of the cosmos. If a certain formula served as the point around which the universe revolved, prosperity would only be a matter of finding the right sage to elucidate its meaning and disseminate its implementation. The narratives of Job and Ecclesiastes aptly prove that is not the case (Job 40:1–2; Eccl. 3:22; 8:7; 10:14; 11:5). No one knows how to make sense of this futile life precisely because there is no making sense of it. The fabric and the logic of the created order was fundamentally altered when sin entered the arena (Gen. 3), a reality which is implicit though not explicit in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. “The result is a universe that has become subject to frustration,” Davies writes. “The created order is warped as a consequence of sin and God’s response.”4 Humanity is not merely misinformed as to what decisions warrant suffering and those that reap benefits; the situation is entirely misshapen, terminally malignant. A Savior, therefore, not a sage, is what is needed to remedy the cosmos.
The crises of Job and the Preacher are reconciled only by the uninhibited wisdom of God (Job 38—41; Eccl. 7:13–14) “Humanity’s existence makes sense only in relation to God the Creator, the Sustainer, the Lawgiver, the Judge,” O. Palmer Robertson comments. “Therefore, fear God and keep his commandments. For apart from him, nothing makes sense. No greater reason for fearing him and keeping his commandments can be imagined.”5 Inherent within man’s insistence that he can make sense of suffering is a demand for justice to be executed. But, as Walton attests, a “focus on justice demands explanation of cause and gazes at the past, whereas a focus on wisdom needs only to understand that God in his wisdom has a purpose as it fixes one’s gaze on the future”6 — a realm in which God alone is supreme.
In the end, the problematic occurrences may persist, the “perplexities may remain,” Davies writes, “but it is not our place to resolve them, but to abide in a relationship of trust in our maker.”7 As much as one might be pained with knowing that the puzzle of human suffering remains outside of the realm of human comprehension, there is immense comfort in the knowledge that the One who does understand human suffering is none other than the One who spoke humanity into existence.
J. Davies, “Theodicy,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, edited by Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 808.
J. H. Walton, “Job 1: Book Of,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, edited by Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 339.
Walton, “Job 1: Book Of,” 341.
Davies, “Theodicy,” 814. See, for example, Eccl. 1:2, 15; 7:13; cf. Rom. 8:20.
O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of Wisdom: A Redemptive-Historical Exploration of the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 241.
Walton, “Job 1: Book Of,” 342.
Davies, “Theodicy,” 813.