The Hidden Ways of Providence and the Book of Job

We  cannot speak of the Old Testament witness to providence without pausing to consider the Book of Job. It will be well to pass in review the general ideas it contains, with particular stress on the meaning and significance of the conclusion to which they lead.

The book treats of the mystery of suffering or the distribution of happiness and misfortune in this present life. Why is it that here on earth even the just must at times endure so many evils? What is the purpose of this in the plan of divine providence? We shall see that the general answer to this question is made more precise in numerous other passages of the Bible which point out that these trials of God's servants are ordained for a greater good.

There is now. practically unanimous agreement with the Church Fathers that Job was a real person. The conversation between Job and his friends must have been substantially that attributed to them by the inspired writer, who then gave to the book the form of a didactic poem, its main purpose being to instruct. From the literary point of view it is unusually rich in style. Its purpose is to give the reason for the ills of this present life. Let us see first of all how the problem is presented, and then what solution is given to it. [1]

A review of the more important of these texts will be of particular profit to those souls who find themselves unable to look upon the question of pure love as just a theoretical problem, but who view it as a question in which they are deeply and passionately interested. God's love is concerned more with their griefs than with their words or their writings; it is because, as with Job, their words are the fruit of their griefs that they are the source at times of so much good.
Let us obtain light on this point by consulting St. Thomas' commentary on the Book of Job, which anticipates some of the most sublime pages of St. John of the Cross in The Dark Night of the Soul, concerning the passive purifications that distinguish the night of the spirit. [2]

Is it always on account of sin that misfortune befalls us in this life?

Is even the innocent man struck down, and if so, why? This is the question Job asks himself, afflicted as he is by the loathsome disease. The very beginning of the book (1:1) says of him that he was "simple and upright, and fearing God, and avoiding evil," that he had great possessions, and that he frequently reminded his sons of their duties toward God, offering holocausts for each one of them.

The Most High God Himself declares of him: "There is none like him in the earth, a simple and upright man, and fearing God, and avoiding evil" (1:8); to which Satan replies: "Doth Job fear God in vain? ... His possession hath increased on the earth. ... But stretch forth Thy hand a little, and touch all that he hath: and see if he blesseth Thee not to Thy face" (1:9-11).
"Then the Lord said to Satan: Behold, all that he hath is in thy hand. ... And Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord." These words recall those our Lord addressed to St. Peter before His Passion: "Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not" (Luke 22:31).
The best always are the ones who must undergo this winnowing. This first and most important chapter of the whole book throws light on all that follows, the conclusion especially. But Job is not himself aware of what the Lord has said to Satan or of what he has permitted him to do. Such are, indeed, the hidden ways of providence, whose secret is here revealed to us in the opening chapter of the book, while for the one afflicted they remain a profound mystery.
In point of fact, Job is deprived of all his possessions, and his sons and daughters meet their death in a tempest. Yet the patriarch is resigned to God's will, saying: "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. ... Blessed be the name of the Lord" (1:21). Then Satan obtains leave from God to afflict the holy man "with a very grievous ulcer, from the sole of the foot even to the top of the head" (2:7). But still, in spite of the insults of his wife, who bids him "bless God and die," Job continues faithful to God.
At this point three of his friends arrive to console him: the aged Eliphaz, the middle-aged Baldad, and a young man named Sophar. They remain for a long time weeping, unable to utter a word at the sight of the intense affliction of their unfortunate friend.

After the coming of his friends, for seven days and nights of suffering, Job himself remains silent. Then, having, reached the limit of endurance, he opens his lips and says: Let the day perish wherein I was born. Why is light given to him that is in misery, and life to them that are in bitterness of soul: ... That look for death, and it cometh not, as they that dig for a treasure. ... I am not at ease, neither am I quiet neither have I rest" [3] (3:3, 20, 21, 26).
Thereupon Job's friends address him thus: "Behold thou hast taught many. ... Thy words have confirmed many that were staggering. ... But now the scourge is come upon thee, and thou faintest" (4:1-5). Eliphaz, the eldest, anxious to preserve his reputation for wisdom, is astonished that Job should let himself be so deeply discouraged: the innocent he says, cannot perish: it is only the wicked who are consumed by the Divine wrath. Then he relates how it was revealed to him one night that no man is just in the sight of God. Job, therefore, must cease complaining so bitterly unless he wishes to share the fate of the wicked; let him confess his guilt and implore God's mercy, for God chastises as a father, and the wounds He inflicts He will also heal (chaps. 4, 5).
Job replies that his complaints fall far short of the sufferings he endures: death itself would be more welcome. He hoped to receive some consolation from his friends, but he was deceived in his expectations; and yet, all that his friends can reproach him with is, that he spoke somewhat hastily (6:24-30). Then, turning to God, he lays before Him his misfortune, imploring Him to put an end to it by death (7:1-21). "I have had empty months, and have numbered to myself wearisome nights. ... So that my soul rather chooseth hanging, and my bones death. ... How long wilt Thou not spare me? ... I have sinned. What shall I do to Thee, O Keeper of men? Why dost Thou not remove my sin?"
It is Baldad, middle-aged, opulent, self-confident, who, instead of consoling his friend, replies by insisting that God is not unjust; such misfortunes as these He inflicts only on those who have sinned grievously. He then exhorts Job to return to God (chap. 8). Job acknowledges that God is wise and just; but, he adds, "if any man is innocent, surely it is I." And he continues to give free vent to his complaining (chaps. 9, 10).
Sophar, the third and youngest of his friends, a passionate, hot-headed youth, takes the theme from the other two: in his opinion Job's wickedness far outweighs the severity of his chastisement, and he, too, exhorts him to return to God.

In chapters 12, 13, and 14, Job acknowledges once again the infinite wisdom of God, His justice, and His power, sounding the praises of the Divine perfections even more loudly than his friends. Then, in chapter 13, he continues: "Although He should kill me, I will trust in Him. But yet I will prove my ways in His sight: and He shall be my savior. ... I shall be found just. How many are my iniquities and sins? Make me know my crimes and offenses." Finally he becomes less vehement, excuses himself, and implores His judge to have pity on him.
But he does not succeed in convincing his friends. In the harshest terms Eliphaz continues to maintain that Job does wrong to complain, seeing that before God all men are guilty (chap. 15) Job answers (chap. 16): "I have often heard such things as these: you are all troublesome comforters. ... I also could speak like you: and would God your soul were for my soul." Once again he testifies to his innocence, calling upon God Himself to judge between him and his friends. "Behold my witness is in Heaven: and He that knoweth my conscience is on high. My friends are full of words: my eye poureth out tears to God."

As St. Thomas says in his commentary, Job's friends have no thought for the future life; they believe that the just must be rewarded and the wicked punished even in this world.

Baldad repeats what he has already said, that here on earth misfortune is always the lot of the wicked. But this time he adds neither consolation nor promise: to him Job is now a hardened sinner, and he treats him accordingly. We see, therefore, that of all the trials Job had to endure, one of the severest comes from his own friends. Losing sight of the future life, they repeat insistently that all accounts must be settled here on earth, and thus they oppress him with their arguments.
It is then that Job, who is a figure of the Christ to come, is uplifted by an inspiration from on high to that mystery of the after-life which was hinted at in the prologue. He answers (chap. 19):

Behold these ten times you confound me, and are not ashamed to oppress me. For I have been ignorant, my ignorance shall be with me. But you set yourselves up against me, and reprove me with my reproaches. At least now understand that God hath not afflicted me with an equal judgment. ... He hath hedged in my path round about, and I cannot pass: and in my way He hath set darkness. ... He hath taken away my hope, as from a tree that is plucked up. ...He hath counted me as His enemy. ... He hath put my brethren far from me: and my acquaintance like strangers have departed from me. ... Even fools despised me. ... Have pity on me, have pity on me, at least you my friends, because the hand of the Lord hath touched me. ... Who will grant that my words may be written. .. graven with an instrument in flint stone? For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and in the last day I shall rise out of the earth. And I shall be clothed again with my skin: and in my flesh I shall see God. Whom I myself shall see, and my eyes behold: and not another. This my hope is laid up in my bosom. Why then do you say now: Let us persecute him. Know ye that there is judgment.

In spite of this sublime cry of hope, the young Sophar returns to his original theme, insisting that the misfortunes of this present life can be explained only as a chastisement of sin.

Job, on the contrary, proves from experience that this is a false principle (chap. 21). Doubtless, in many cases the wicked do receive signal punishment, but there are cases also in which outwardly they are successful up to the very moment of their death, whereas occasionally the just have much to suffer.

Eliphaz comes back persistently to his point; he even goes so far as to give a long list of the sins Job must have committed: "Thou hast withdrawn bread from the hungry. ... Thou hast sent widows away empty" (chap. 22).

In chapters 28-31 Job maintains that misfortune in this world is not always a chastisement for a sinful life. He does not know, he confesses, why he should suffer, but this God knows in His great wisdom, which to man is unfathomable. Chapter 31 concludes the first part of the book, and with it the colloquies of Job, "who ends by reducing his opponents to silence, but without himself discovering the clue to the enigma." [4]

With the second part there enters a young man, Eliu by name, who gives proof of some degree of intelligence, "but apparently is not altogether free from over-confidence." [5] He maintains that Job is being punished not for any serious crime, but for not having been sufficiently humble before God; the bitter complaints to which he gave way are themselves an indication of his interior feelings. Let him repent, therefore, and God will reinstate him in his former happiness (chaps. 32-37). To this Job has no answer, for what Eliu has said is quite possible and is to a great extent true. Thus every aspect of the problem of suffering has now been presented; yet still there is something lacking.

The meaning and significance of the Lord's reply

Finally, in the third part, the Lord Himself intervenes in response to Job's petition to plead his cause before Him (13:22).

It is contrary to God's dignity to enter into discussion with men. He answers by unrolling before the eyes of Job a magnificent panorama of the wonders of creation, from the stars in the heavens to the wondrous effects of animal instinct (chaps. 38, 39).

Shalt thou be able to join the shining stars, the Pleiades, or canst thou stop the turning about of Arcturus? Canst thou bring forth the day star in its time? ... Dost thou know the order of Heaven? And canst thou set down the reason thereof on the earth? ... Wilt thou take the prey for the lioness, and satisfy the appetite of her whelps? ... Wilt thou give strength to the horse? ... Will the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest in high places?

All these works reveal a wisdom, a providence, a perfect adaptation of means to ends that bear witness to the absolute goodness of their author, and they should teach men to accept humbly and without murmuring whatever the Almighty may direct or permit. As we read these words uttered by "Him Who is," we realize intuitively almost that He is the author and conserver of our being, that He has knit together, as it were, our essence and existence, which He continues to conserve, and that He is the cause of all that is real and good in creation. It has been said that this Divine answer does not touch the philosophical aspect of the question under discussion. As a matter of fact, it shows that God does nothing but for a good purpose, and that if already in the things of sense there is this wonderful order, much more sublime must be the order in the spiritual world, even though it must at times be obscure to us on account of its transcendence. Later on we shall see our Lord making use of a more striking similitude: "Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap ... and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not you of much more value than they?" (Matt. 6:26.) And so the Divine answer arouses in the heart of Job sentiments of humility and resignation.

In conclusion, God ironically invites Job to take over the government of the world and maintain there the reign of order and of justice (41:1-9). Would he be able to do so, powerless and unarmed as he was, in face of the two monsters He names? Yet these are no more than a plaything in the hands of God. [6] In His description (chap. 40) of the mighty strength with which He has endowed Behemoth and Leviathan (the hippopotamus and the crocodile), the Lord suggests the parallel that if, like these monsters, the devil has sometimes extraordinary power in afflicting men, nevertheless he cannot exercise that power without the permission of God, Who can make its very fury subserve His Own good purpose. [7]

And so in the end (chap. 42) Job makes his humble confession: "I know that Thou canst do all things. ... I have spoken unwisely, and things that above measure exceed my knowledge." He thus acknowledges that his complaining was excessive and his words sometimes unconsidered. Nevertheless the Lord tells Eliphaz: "My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends, because you have not spoken the thing that is right before Me, as My servant Job hath. ... Offer for yourselves a holocaust. And My servant Job shall pray for you. His face I will accept, that folly may not be imputed to you." And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job with even greater blessings than before, and he died in peace very advanced in years.

The clue to the whole book is to be found in the first chapter, where we are told how the Lord permitted the devil to try His servant Job. The conclusion, then, is obvious: If men are visited by God with tribulation, He does so not exclusively as a chastisement for their sins, but to prove them as gold is proved in the furnace and make them advance in virtue. It is the purification of love, as the great Christian mystics call it. In the prologue Satan asked (1:9): "Doth Job fear God in vain? ... His possessions have increased on the earth." Now we see how even in the greatest adversity Job still remained faithful to God. That this is the meaning of the trials sent upon the just is shown in many other passages of the Old Testament.

The trials of the just serve a higher purpose This teaching receives its confirmation in the two great trials recorded in Genesis: Abraham preparing, at God's command, to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen., chap. 22) and Joseph sold in captivity by his brethren (Gen., chap. 37).
God tried Abraham by commanding him to offer as a holocaust his son Isaac, the son of promise. As St. Paul tells the Hebrews (11:17): "By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son (to whom it was said: In Isaac shall thy seed be called), accounting that God is able to raise up even from the dead. Whereupon also He received him for a parable." The Angel of the Lord stayed the hand of the patriarch, who heard a voice from Heaven saying: "Because thou hast done this thing, and hast not spared thy only begotten son for My sake: I will bless thee, and I will multiply thy seed as the stars of Heaven. ... And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed: because thou hast obeyed My voice" (Gen. 22:16).
Joseph was tried when, through envy of him, and his dreams and inspirations, his brethren sold him into captivity. Calumniated by his master's wife, the innocent Joseph was cast into prison, subsequently to be raised to the first rank by Pharaoh, who recognized in him the spirit of the Lord (Gen. 41:38). Later still, when under the stress of famine his brethren came seeking corn in Egypt, he said to them:

I am Joseph. Is my father yet living? ... I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. Be not afraid, and let it not seem to you a hard case that you sold me into these countries: for God sent me before you into Egypt for your preservation. ... Not by your counsel was I sent hither, but by the will of God: Who hath made me ... lord of his [Pharaoh's] whole house, and governor in all the land of Egypt. ... And falling upon the neck of his brother Benjamin, he embraced him and wept" (Gen. 45:3-14).

What more eloquent declaration than this of providence, of the Divine governance, which turns to good account the trials of the just, sometimes even to the welfare of their persecutors, when their eyes at last are opened?

The same is repeatedly brought out by the psalms, notably 90:11-16, from which the gradual and tract for the first Sunday in Lent are taken:

He hath given His Angels charge over thee to keep thee in all thy ways. [8] In their hands they shall bear thee up, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt tramp under foot the lion and the dragon. ... He that dwelleth in the aid of the most High shall abide under the protection of Heaven. He shall say to the Lord: Thou art my protector and my refuge: my God in Whom I trust. For He hath delivered me from the snare of the hunters: and from the sharp word. He will overshadow thee with His shoulders: and under His wings thou shalt trust. His truth shall compass thee with a shield: thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night, of the arrow that flieth in the day. ... A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand: but it shall not come nigh thee. ...For He [the Lord] hath given His Angels charge over Thee, to keep Thee in all Thy ways. ...[He will say] : Because he hoped in Me I will deliver him: I will protect him because he hath known My name. He shall cry to me and I will hear him: I am with him in tribulation, I will deliver him, and I will glorify him. I will fill him with length of days: and I will show him My salvation.
In these admirable verses, full of a sublime poetry and a forceful spiritual realism, we are given a glimpse of the future life.
It is true, doubtless, that the Old Testament rarely mentions this future life except in a veiled way and usually in symbols. Yet Isaias (60:19), describing the glories of the New Jerusalem, wrote: "The Lord shall be unto thee for an everlasting light, and thy God for thy glory. The sun shall go down no more. ... For the Lord shall be unto thee for an everlasting light: and the days of thy mourning shall be ended." And again (65:19): "I will rejoice in Jerusalem and joy in My people, saith the Lord, and the voice of weeping shall no more be heard in her, nor the voice of crying."

Still, more clearly in the Book of Wisdom (3:1) we read:

The souls of the just are in the hands of God: and the torment of death shall not touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: and their departure was taken for misery, and their going away from us, for utter destruction: but they are in peace. ... Their hope is full of immortality. [9] Afflicted in few things, in many they shall be rewarded: because God hath tried them, and found them worthy of Himself. As gold is tried in the furnace He hath proved them, and as a victim of a holocaust He hath received them: and in time there shall be respect had to them. The just shall shine, and shall run to and fro like sparks among the reeds. They shall judge nations, and rule over people: and their Lord shall reign forever ... for grace and peace is to His elect. ... Then shall the just stand with great constancy against those that have afflicted them and taken away their labors. ... [These shall say] within themselves: ... These are they whom we had some time in derision and for a parable of reproach. We fools esteemed their lives madness and their end without honor. Behold how they are numbered among the children of God, and their lot is among the Saints. Therefore we have erred from the way of truth. ... What hath pride profited us? But the just shall live for ever more: and their reward is with the Lord, and the care of them with the Most High. Therefore they shall receive a kingdom of glory and a crown of beauty, at the hand of the Lord: for with His right hand He will cover them (5:1).

These words, "But the just shall live for ever more: and their reward is with the Lord," can refer only to eternal life. The psalmist had already declared: "But as for me, I will appear before Thy sight in justice: I shall be satisfied when Thy glory shall appear" (Ps. 16:15). Daniel declares (12:13): "They that are learned [in the things of God, and keep His law] shall shine as the stars for all eternity." Finally, in his Martyrdom, one of the seven Machabees thus addresses his executioner: "Thou indeed, O most wicked man, destroyest us out of this present life: but the King of the world will raise us up, who die for His laws, in the resurrection of eternal life" (2 Mach. 7:9).

Tobias had declared: "Thou art great, O Lord, forever, and Thy kingdom is unto all ages. For Thou scourgest, and Thou savest: Thou leadest down to hell, and bringest up again. ... He hath chastised us for our iniquities: and He will save us for His Own mercy" (Tob. 13:1-2, 5).

Many other texts of the Old Testament give us an insight into the meaning of the trials sent by God and hint clearly at the higher purpose He has in view. Judith exhorts the ancients of Israel to wait patiently for help from the Lord:

They must remember how our father Abraham was tempted, and being proved by many tribulations, was made the friend of God. So Isaac, so Jacob, so Moses, and all that have pleased God, passed through many tribulations, remaining faithful. ... As for us ... let us believe that these scourges of the Lord, with which like servants we are chastised, have happened for our amendment, and not for our destruction (Judith 8: 22-23, 26-27).

The advantages to be gained by suffering are thus declared by Ecclesiasticus (2:1-10):

Son, when thou comest to the service of God ... prepare thy soul for temptation. Humble thy heart, and endure: incline thy ear, and receive the words of understanding: and make not haste in the time of clouds. Wait on God with patience: join thyself to God and endure, that thy life may be increased in the latter end. Take all that shall be brought upon thee: and in thy sorrow endure, and in thy humiliation keep patience. For gold and silver are tried in the fire, but acceptable men in the furnace of tribulation. Believe God, and He will recover thee and direct thy way. ... Ye that fear the Lord, hope in Him: and mercy shall come to you for your delight.

The Book of Wisdom (chaps. 15-17) contrasts the trials of the good with those of the wicked, and shows their gradation. The Egyptians are scourged with extraordinary plagues, but the Israelites by looking upon the brazen serpent are healed of the serpents' bite; they are fed with manna from Heaven, are led forward by the pillar of fire, and find a passage through the Red Sea, in which the Egyptians are swallowed up. And in Isaias we read: "I have blotted out thy iniquities as a cloud and thy sins as a mist: return to Me, for I have, redeemed thee" (45:22; cf. 46:2-6).
Micheas foretells how God will have mercy on His people (7:14-20): "He will send His fury in no more, because He delighteth in mercy. He will turn again and have mercy on us: He will put away our iniquities and He will cast all our sins into the bottom of the sea. Thou wilt perform ... the mercy to Abraham: which Thou hast sworn to our fathers from the days of old."

All these Old Testament texts setting forth the reason why trials are sent upon the just throw light on the final conclusion of the Book of Job. But it is the Gospel that brings full light to bear upon the last things; only Christianity can provide the final solution. That solution, however, is foreshadowed in the Book of Wisdom (245-250 B. C.). What the Book of Job declares is that the justice of God, which, as Job himself recognizes, must some day have effect, is infinitely beyond our restricted view, and again that in this world virtue, instead of having as its inseparable accompaniment what men commonly call happiness, is often seen to be subjected to the severest trials.
With the Christian Saints, in fact, the love of the cross is seen to increase as they grow in the love of God and likeness to Christ crucified, of Whom holy Job was a figure. When misfortune overtakes us, whether the affliction is a trial or a chastisement, this remains obscure for each of us. Usually it is both, but then what is the measure of each? Only God knows. St. Paul, writing to the Hebrews, gives the solution when he speaks of perseverance in the midst of trial after the example of Christ (chap. 12):
Let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us: looking on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, Who, having joy set before Him, endured the Cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth on the right hand of the throne of God. For think diligently upon Him that endured such opposition from sinners against Himself: that you be not wearied, fainting in your minds. For you have not resisted unto blood, striving against sin. ... Whom the Lord loveth, He chastiseth: and He scourgeth every son whom He receiveth. ... For what son is there, whom the father doth not correct? ... [God chastises us] for our profit, that we might receive His sanctification.

It remains true, therefore, that, as Job says (chap. 7), "the life of man upon earth is a warfare and his days are like the days of a hireling." But upon His servants the Lord bestows His grace; although, as St. Paul says (Rom. 8:38), "to them that love God all things work together unto good," to the very end. All things --- graces, natural qualities, contradictions, sickness, and, as St. Augustine says, even sin. For God permits sin in the lives of His servants, as He permitted Peter's denial, that He may lead them to a deeper humility and thereby to a purer love.
1. Cf. Dictionnaire de la Bible, art. "Job." The brief summaries given of the long discourses of Job and his friends are taken from Crampon's translation.
2. Cf. the Commentary of St. Thomas on the Book of Tob, chaps. 4, 6, 8, 9 (lesson in its entirety), 19, 28. Again St. Thomas, Ia IIae, q. 87, a. 7, 8; De Malo, q..5, a. 4; and the Commentary on St. John, 9: 2.
3. The author has followed Crampon's translation of the discourses of Job and his friends. The reading of Job 3: 26 is that of the Revised Version. The Douay Version, following the Vulgate, has: "Have I not dissembled? Have I not kept silence? Have I not been quiet?" [Tr.]
4. Dictionnaire de la Bible, art. "Job," col. 1560.
5. Le Hir.
6. Cf. Dictionnaire de la Bible, art. "Job," col. 1574.
7. Some of the expressions God uses here to describe the strength with which He has endowed these monsters recall what theology has to say about the nature of the devil. As nature, as reality and goodness, he is still loved by God; for he is still His work. We are reminded, too, that, as St. Thomas says, the devils continue of their nature to love existence as such (as prescinding from their unhappy condition), and life as such; and therefore they continue of their very nature to love the author of their life, Him Whom as their judge they hate. Nevertheless; rather than exist in their miserable state they would prefer not to exist at all. (Cf. St. Thomas, Ia, q. 60, a. 5, ad 5um.)
8. We are reminded of Moses rescued from the waters and the constant assistance given to him by the Lord.
    9. After the death of the just of the Old Testament, they had to await in Limbo the coming of the Redeemer Who was to open to them the gates of Paradise.