By Isaac Johnson

I’ve always loved the wisdom literature, which is why I am currently specializing in Old Testament theology. One wisdom book, in particular, has always held great interest: Job. Job is set long before the advent of national Israel and asks the biggest philosophical question of the Ancient Near East. The ancients believed in the retributive principle: when you are righteous God rewards you and when you are wicked God punishes, so the question of “why do bad things happen to seemingly righteous people” was a considerable one.

God convened his divine council, of which a member of the council played the role of the satan. In this role, the satan pointed out that Job would not love God if God were not protective of Job. God accepted this challenge and calamity befell Job as he lost his family and eventually his health. It was then that his three friends and their younger associate came to comfort Job and in the process produced the exquisite poetic discourses we possess today. Yet for all their combined wisdom, they were stuck debating whether God is just or whether Job had sinned against God. All the while they failed to stop and ask whether the retributive principle was true!

From our vantage point, we can see that God remained just while Job remained righteous and that the two are not linked in the least. During my time as a pastor and later as a missionary, I would regularly experience calamity befalling people who by all accounts would appear as righteous as any Christian possibly could. I recall one of our most promising national workers being crushed between two buses right outside our missionary headquarters. It seemed incredibly senseless that such a gifted minister and good Christian died. Even today there is a part of us that wants to ask “was it God or was it the person” when we witness such tragedies, all the while forgetting to question the validity of the retributive principle.

In the New Testament, Jesus was again confronted by the retributive principle when he was asked: “who sinned, this man or his parents that he should be born blind?” Jesus responded “Neither this man sinned nor his parents, but it happened so that the works of God could be revealed in him,” because their question, just as Job and his friends had asked, was fundamentally wrong. Jesus went further to flip the retributive principle entirely upon its head in Matthew 5:10-12:

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things against you, lying on account of me. Rejoice and be glad, because your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.

While it is always easier said than done when facing calamity, may we be able to set aside the notion of a retributive principle and focus instead on Christ, the supreme example of righteousness who was yet suffering servant. May we be comforted by his closeness and righteousness as we face trials and seeming injustices.
{1}Walton John, “Asking the Right Questions of Job,” YouTube, March 30, 2012,
{2}Michael S. Heiser, “Divine Council,” in Faithlife Study Bible, ed. John D. Barry et al. (Lexham Press, 2015).
{3}Jn. 9:2 (LEB).
{4}Jn. 9:3.

Photo by Brett Jordan