In the wisdom books of the Bible there is a recurring theme which, for the ancient writers, was clearly one of the “big issues” of their time.
The issue is this: when and how does God judge the wicked and reward the righteous? Does God do that during our lifetime or is judgement reserved for a later time? Are the nasty (but apparently chance) things that happen to some people God’s punishments on them? Equally, do the good (but apparently chance) things that happen to others represent God’s rewards for them? Many parts of the Bible declare that God is righteous and will reward faith while punishing wrongdoing. The simplest, literal understanding of many of these passages would lead to the conclusion that God is watching what people do and brings blessing or calamity to a person’s life depending on how they are behaving.
Take Psalm 37:1-4 for example:
“Fret not yourself because of evildoers, be not envious of wrongdoers. For they shall soon fade like grass, and wither like the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land, and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the Lord; and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
This issue is particularly addressed in the book of Job in the argument between Job and his three friends and the way Job presents his point of view raises some interesting perspectives.
In a nutshell, Job’s friends argued for the “doctrine of immediate retribution” that is, God punishes or rewards people during their lifetime. On this basis they concluded that Job’s suffering must have been as a result of his wicked behaviour. It has often been commented that their basic premise that “God will judge righteously” is scriptural. There are plenty of examples of a simple, literal reading of God’s word apparently supporting the friends’ position. Good examples would include Deuteronomy 28 where the Israelites are told that if they abide by God’s law they will receive blessings, however if they do not, curses and calamity will befall them, also, Ezekiel 18 with its principle of “the soul that sins, it shall die” declares that if a man is righteous he will live (v5-9) but if a man is evil he will die (v10-12).
However, the point of interest relates to how Job counters his friends’ argument. We notice that he appeals to the evidence of what he can see in the world around him. He particularly makes this point at length in chapter 21, for example this extract from Job 21:28-30.
“For you say, ‘Where is the house of the prince? Where is the tent in which the wicked lived?’ Have you not asked those who travel the roads, and do you not accept their testimony that the evil man is spared in the day of calamity, that he is rescued in the day of wrath?”
His counter argument to his friends is: “your explanation of what God is doing must be wrong because it is not consistent with what we can see going on in the world”. Job therefore rejected the friends’ simplistic understanding and sought for an alternative interpretation of how and when God will judge. His conclusion, expressed in Job 19:25-26, was that God would carry out his righteous judgement at a future time following a resurrection.
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.”
What Job did was bring together God’s revelation with his observations of the world. He applied his ability to reason and derived an understanding which made them consistent. The wisdom of Job and his approach to bringing God’s revelation to life in the real world is timeless and speaks to the same questions men and women have today.