Monday, October 9, 2023

What’s Good Advice? What Can We Learn from Job’s friends?


Appreciation to the Jewish Museum (Google image), by James Jacques Joseph Tissot 1896-1902

Where do you get your advice and how do you know it is good advice?[1]

I first think of Bill, my husband. I ask him many things all day long and he gives me great advice.

But, who might be second?

For regular advice, I thought of Google. Do you ever ask Google for information or advice? Even if you have AleXa or another robot with a human voice,  they sound like experts. And you can get it! Most is good, but some is not appropriate.

I asked Google how it gives advice. This is its answer:

“Google Search works in three stages, and not all pages make it through each stage:

1.           Crawling: Google downloads text, images, and videos from pages it found on the internet with automated programs called crawlers.

2.           Indexing: Google analyzes the text, images, and video files on the page, and stores the information in the Google index, which is a large database.

3.           Serving search results: When a user searches on Google, Google returns information that's relevant to the user's query.”

Now, that’s impressive!

So, to test it, I asked Google for information on myself (which I could easily test for accuracy). Google gave me a picture of Bill, Steve, and myself (which I had placed somewhere in a bio). It also showed me my Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary picture, then, my name: Aida Besancon Spencer. I also saw many of the books that I wrote, including one that wasn’t ours: The Prayer Life of Jesus, the same title as our book, but a different subtitle and different author!

Google can give you some great information and advice, but how do you know when it’s wrong?

How about you? Do you always receive good advice? And do we iurselves always give good advice?

Last month Bill gave us a helpful framework for understanding Job[2]: a court drama, God as the judge, Satan the Accuser or the prosecutor, defendant Job and 4 witnesses with a final verdict.

These witnesses were all Job’s friends. God did not dismiss them as biased and nonobjective witnesses. Their testimony was welcomed. Their advice went on from chapters 4-37:

Eliphaz the Temanite chs. 4, 5, 15, 22—4 chapters;

Bildad the Shuhite chs. 8, 18, 25—3 chapters;

Zophar the Naamathite chs. 11, 20—2 chapters;

Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite of the family of Ram chs. 32-37—6 chapters;

The Lord, chs. 38-41—4 chapters.

I found a couple articles on the net when I asked: What advice did Job’s friends give?, and the authors of the articles were all agreed that his friends started out well. Let’s take a look at Job 2:11-13:

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”[3]

I summarized their empathetic help in 10 steps:

1.     They found out about Job and his current situation.[4] That is not always so easy to do.

2.     They went to Job, leaving their homes.

Where were they all from?

Job was from the land of Uz. Whenever I hear of Uz, I think of The Wizard of Oz, a fictional story. But Uz was a historical land and the people from there were Uzzites. Uz was near Idumea and the Arabian desert. Idumea is south and east of Israel. Uz was a son of Aram, descendant of Shem, one of Noah’s sons (Gen 10:23), another Uz was a son of Milcah, Abraham’s sister-in-law (Gen 22:20; 11:29). Uz was also a descendant of Esau (Gen 36:28).

Eliphaz as a Temanite was probably a descendent of Esau and from Idumaea. Teman was the grandson of Esau.

Zophar was an inhabitant of Naamah, perhaps named for Naamah, the daughter of Lamech and Zillah in Genesis 4:22. Naamah’s brother Tubalcain made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.

Bildad was a native of Shuah, Shuah was a son of Abraham and Keturah in Genesis 25:2, whom Abraham married after Sarah died.

Elihu descended from the same family as Abraham—Aramaea. “Elihu”’s name means “My God is He.”[5] Thus, these friends lived all around the Arabian desert and not far from Idumea. They did not live in the same village as did Job and thus had to travel some distance to reach him.

3.     They were communal. The text says that they “met together to go” (2:11). That in itself must have been a lot of work, to contact each other.

4.     Their goal was laudable: “to console and comfort Job” (v. 11). Job looked so awful, they didn’t recognize him. The commentator F. Delitzsch suggests that Job had elephantiasis, where your limbs could become jointless lumps, a type of leprosy or tubercular boils, like cancer spreading over the whole body,[6] these boils went from the sole of Job’s feet to the crown of his head (Deut 28:35).

5.     They sympathized with Job by crying aloud, tearing their robes, throwing dust on their heads (v.12)—all signs of mourning.

6.     They sat with him on the ground for 7 days.

7.     And through the night! (I made this last action a separate point!) Staying with someone throughout the day is one thing, but staying with someone at night is something else!

8.     And they said nothing! How many of us will take over a week to visit friends and remain silent day and night in their presence! If I remain silent a few seconds or minutes, at most 30 minutes, that is a great accomplishment!

9.     They allowed Job to speak first and heard his complaint.

10.  Once they spoke, their comments are thoughtful and eloquent.

One commentator thought that “The speeches of Job’s three friends include many inaccuracies.”[7] Rather, I think they were accurate but not relevant to Job’s situation.

For example, Eliphaz was right on when he told Job: See, you have instructed many; you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have supported those who were stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees. But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed.” (4:3-5)

Isn’t Bildad right when he said? “If you are pure and upright, surely then [God] will rouse himself for you and restore to you your rightful place. Though your beginning was small, your latter days will be very great” (8:6-7). He was prophetic, because Job was restored.

Bildad’s point is similar to Psalm 91:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’ For he will deliver you from the snare of the hunter and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and defense. You will not fear the terror of the night or the arrow that flies by day or the pestilence that stalks in darkness or the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you….Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone” (1-10, 12).

The devil quotes this passage to Jesus in the wilderness, but as with Job’s friends, this truth did not apply to Jesus at that time, just as their advice did not apply to Job.

Isn’t Zophar right? “Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? It is higher than heaven—what can you do? Deeper than Sheol—what can you know?” (11:7-8) God agrees with Zophar at the end of the book.

Sometimes when I scarcely avoid a car accident, I think of Psalm 91 and Bildad’s words.

Isn’t Eliphaz right that Job fell apart when he got the sores?

Isn’t Zophar right that God is deep and beyond our comprehension?

But, if we turn to chapter 42, the Lord is angry at Eliphaz and Job’s two other friends, Bildad and Zophar (42:7). They have not spoken of the Lord “what is right, as my servant Job has” (v. 7). All Job did was complain! How can he be the hero?

Yet, he is also the hero in Ezekiel 14:14-20. Noah, Daniel, and Job are examples of righteous humans, so righteous that they could save a whole land from destruction, but not in the instances when God is adamant about its destruction.

And of course you may remember James 5:11: “Behold, we consider blessed the ones enduring; you heard of the endurance of Job and you saw the outcome of the Lord, that greatly compassionate is the Lord and merciful.”[8]

Of course, Job was not patient! He “endured or persevered.” “Endurance” is the capacity to hold out or bear up in the face of difficulties or trials, external unavoidable events that happen—in this case, being tested for the genuineness of one’s faith. Job was tested for his faith, as had been Abraham and Rahab. The testing of our faith produces endurance, which results in maturity, the confidence in God to resolve injustice because God is compassionate and merciful. Job did not give up. Though Job’s suffering is great, and his complaints are many, he never curses God.[9] We are told that Job’s face is “red with weeping, and deep darkness is on his eyelids.” His spirit is broken (16:16; 17:11).

Like Jeremiah, he becomes a laughingstock to all” (Job 12:4; 17:6; 19:13-19; 30:1, 9). However, Job never doubts the nature of God as just, wise, mighty, omniscient, and the creator and sustainer of the world. How beautiful is this speech of Job’s in 28:12-28:

“But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?
Mortals do not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living.
 The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’ and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’
It cannot be gotten for gold, and silver cannot be weighed out as its price. It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir, in precious onyx or sapphire. Gold and glass cannot equal it, nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold. No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal; the price of wisdom is above pearls. The chrysolite of Cush cannot compare with it, nor can it be valued in pure gold.

Where then does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air.
Abaddon and Death say, ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’

God understands the way to it, and he knows its place. For he looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. When he gave to the wind its weight and apportioned out the waters by measure, when he made a decree for the rain, and a way for the thunderbolt,  then he saw it and declared it; he established it and searched it out. And he said to humankind, ‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’ ”

Job persists in defending his innocence and repeatedly desires to present his case to God. But even the righteous Job grows in understanding and maturity when God confronts him: God is even greater than Job imagined and more responsive than Job thought.

Job’s friends do not see any of these qualities in Job. God says to Job and to Eliphaz the Temanite: “my wrath is kindled against you and your two friends because you have not spoken of what is right (or reliable/faithful/certain/steadfast), as my servant Job.” (42:7). What does God mean to be “right”?

The same word literally is used in Judges 16:26 and 29 about a house set firm upon pillars. Remember when the Philistines captured Samson and gouged out his eyes so that he could not see? They made him stand between the pillars of the house and when Samson leaned his weight on the middle pillars, he pulled the pillars down, then the house fell on everyone who had attacked and mocked him. That is what our advice should be like: like pillars that hold up a building— reliable and faithful, pillars that secure the house of advice that we give about God’s work in the world.

The pillars of a house should be upright or firm and faithful. Job’s friends did not support Job steadfastly.

What did they do wrong?

  They assumed that there is only one reason that believers suffer: because they have sinned. For example, Eliphaz: “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?” (4:7). Eliphaz adds in 22:4-5 “Is it for your piety that God reproves you and enters into judgment with you? Is not your wickedness great? There is no end to your iniquities.”

Bildad: “If you are pure and upright, surely then [God] will rouse himself for you and restore to you your rightful place” (8:6).

Zophar: “Do you not know this from of old, ever since mortals were placed on earth, that the exulting of the wicked is short and the joy of the godless is but for a moment? Even though they mount up high as the heavens and their head reaches to the clouds, they will perish forever like their own dung; those who have seen them will say, ‘Where are they?’ They will fly away like a dream and not be found; they will be chased away like a vision of the night” (20:4-8).

Ironically, Job agrees! He cannot understand why “the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power” (21:7).

Job and his friends all had one reason for suffering: punishment for sin—directly from God, which reduced God to one dimension, a punishing God, equated with the Accuser.

1. In other words, people suffer because we live in a punishing world where sin is corrected. That’s true, but Job’s friends overlook the other reasons for suffering:

2. Sometimes believers and nonbelievers suffer from living in a fallen world, whose order is disrupted by evil.

Jesus mentions this to his disciples in Luke 13:1-5: When they “told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 

He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the other people living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.’”  In effect, Jesus is saying that a similar disaster might occur to any of us, so we need to be ready to meet our judge.

3. Sometimes believers suffer when they advance God’s reign, such as happened to Jeremiah; a persecuting world may oppose God’s people.

4. Sometimes an innocent individual righteous person suffers, as in Job’s case, and no one knows why. We live in a mysterious world and from a human perspective we are perplexed because we don’t know the whole picture.[10]

Let us end with an example from my past where someone applied the wrong reason to my suffering and did more harm than good. It would have been better if she had said nothing about the cause of my suffering.

I was studying in seminary and got a cold. I decided to clean my dorm room to remove the germs but the excess dust in the room moved my cold up to pneumonia. That is the first and only time I ever got pneumonia and I had to go into the school’s infirmary. The problem, outside of being sick, was that I was scheduled to preach a Sunday sermon at a nearby home for retired Presbyterian ministers and church leaders. Bill graciously agreed to take my place, for which I was most thankful. As usual he did a wonderful job and the seniors were delighted with him.

But then the pastor’s wife afterwards told us that she thought that God allowed me to get pneumonia so that Bill could preach! That sure made me feel depressed. Am I such a bad preacher that God has to strike me with pneumonia in order to replace me with a better preacher? Bill was appalled when he heard that because he knew that I had prepared an excellent sermon.

I was happy that Bill did an effective presentation, but must I be compared with Bill? Doesn’t God use everyone’s gifts?

I wonder now what could have been her biblical base for this view. And I think that maybe she was alluding to Romans 8:28, “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” However, Paul is writing in Romans about salvation. God’s goal is for us to be conformed to the Son’s image and eventually be glorified, not that all suffering is God’s direct purpose.

Rather, what Bill and I thought was that I got a cold and pneumonia because I live in a fallen world where tiredness and dust can harm us and be disruptive, yet God can achieve God’s purpose even in the midst of this suffering world. The seniors did not lose their opportunity to hear God’s word because we found someone willing to take my place! In this case, Bill!

We all have our favorite reason for suffering, but we should be careful. We should make sure it is a biblical reason and not force our favorite reason to be applied to every occasion. If we aren’t sure, best not say anything and follow the first ten steps of Job’s friends:

1) We should keep aware of what is happening to our friends; 2) if God stirs in our hearts to be compassionate, we should go to the suffering person; 3) find others to go with us, if they too feel called; 4) aim to console and comfort; 5) sympathize with the suffering person; 6-7) stay with them, 8) keep quiet, 9) let them speak, and 10)  be thoughtful when we finally do speak.

And we should always think carefully about the four basic reasons, so we can suggest the appropriate one. Plus, we may still respond sympathetically no matter the reason.

And we should never offer counsel when we don’t understand what people are going through and why.

And then maybe God will say about us: that we spoke what is right and the suffering person will not have to make intercession for us! Amen!


[1] This blog is an adaption of a sermon given for Pilgrim Church in Beverly, MA, August 27, 2023.

[2] “The Case of the Innocent Bystander: Job” in Applying Biblical Truths Today,

[3] All quotations are from the NRSV unless otherwise indicated.

[4] This first step may be found in: 7 Positive Lessons from Job’s Friends on Helping Hurting People September 22, 2020 by brian 15 comments, accessed August 2023.

[5] See also F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes, vol. 4 Job (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 206-7.

[6] F. Delitzsch, Commentary, 70.

[8] Author’s translation from Aída Besançon Spencer, A Commentary on James, Kregel Exegetical Library (Grand rapids: Kregel, 2020), 268-69.

[9] Spencer, Commentary, 268-69.

[10] See further, Aída Besançon Spencer and William David Spencer, Joy through the Night: Biblical Resources on Suffering, House of Prisca and Aquila (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1994).

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