Wilson, Lindsay. Job. Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 420 pp. Pb; $28. Link to Eerdmans
Suffering is one of the few constants of human history. The early twenty-first century has witnessed daily suffering because of war, human greed and natural disaster. Most people have wondered if some suffering is just and deserved or unfair and undeserved. It is difficult to hear stories of innocent children suffering in the media without asking how it is “fair” a child starves to death while a despotic ruler grows even more powerful and wealthy. If God is really both ultimately righteous, just and all-powerful, how can he allow such suffering in this world?
Frequently Christians appeal to the book of Job for answers to these difficult questions, although Job does not always offer the answers we hope for when we study the book. Lindsay Wilson’s contribution to the Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary series is an attempt to understand the book of Job in its proper biblical context and to sketch out some possible answers to these deep questions about God’s justice and human suffering.
Wilson’s twenty-eight page introduction asks a series of questions about the book of Job. Although the story of Job takes place in patriarchal times, it was written later, probably after the exile and a significant time after Proverbs. When the book was written is not matter for Wilson, only that it is a reaction to misunderstandings of Proverbs and other wisdom literature (5). In fact, whether the story “really happened” does not matter since the book may be something like a parable, a story illustrating important theological truths. Job is a protest against a “fossilized misunderstanding of retribution that had misrepresented the mainstream wisdom tradition of Proverbs” (8). In fact, Wilson suggests that reading Proverbs is the first step in understanding Job.
The main issue in Job is retribution: Does God reward the righteous and punish the wicked? Based on their misunderstanding of wisdom literature, Job’s friends think this is the case, yet the book of Job makes it clear not all suffering is a result of God’s punishment, nor is every good thing in life a reward for righteous living. Although this is the most common theological use of Job, the book also is about God’s relationship with humanity. Why should humans fear God? Does “fear of the Lord” cancel the need to question God? Ultimately, however, the book of Job is about the character of God. As Wilson comments, the theophany and Yahweh speeches make it clear God cannot be constrained by “narrow human categories,” the “majestic picture of God’s power” is foundational for understanding the theology book of Job (10).
The Commentary is divided into four sections. Although it is minimal in the body of the commentary, Hebrew appears along with transliteration. Often difficult vocabulary is compared in various English translations (NRSV, ESV, KJV). Wilson uses footnotes for details of exegesis and interaction with major recent commentaries on Job. Occasionally textual variants appear in the notes. Although this is not a full exegetical commentary like Clines’ 1200+ page WBC Commentary, Wilson provides enough detail to help read the text of Job with insight. This commentary section is necessarily brief, treating large paragraphs in summary fashion. Occasionally Wilson will focus on a particular word or phrase (Hebrew appearing with transliteration). He interacts with major exegetical commentaries in the notes, providing the interested reader a pointer to more in-depth discussions. The purpose of the commentary is not detailed exegesis, but a discussion of the theological themes of the book.
The prologue and epilogue are treated briefly. Wilson focuses on a few key questions the prologue asks which will illuminate the dialogues. Job is a man of unblemished righteousness, but we are not sure why he serves God. Does Job have a disinterested faith? Or does he serve God because of what blessing and protection he receives from God? The Dialogue (3:1-31:40) naturally makes up the bulk of the commentary section. As Wilson comments in his introduction, the dialogues are long and repetitive, they are in short a “talkfest” (27). Any commentary on Job must be selective in its exegesis, so this main section of the commentary summarizes larger units and only selectively comments on difficult exegetical issues. The Verdict section (32:1-42:6) deal with the divine speeches. Wilson observes “some of Job’s problems are simply resolved by the appearance of Yahweh” (180).
As with other Two Horizon commentaries, the bulk of the book is 172 page section tracing nine theological themes of the book of Job. The obvious theme in Job is of course suffering. Wilson follows David Clines in seeing three main questions concerning suffering that arise from the book: Why is the suffering? Why do the innocent suffer? What should I do when I suffer? The book offers some answers to these questions, but they are not always satisfying (especially those presented by Job’s friends). As Wilson observed, not all suffering is linked to sin nor does an individual who suffers need to know why they have suffered (219). A related theme is “Retribution and Justice,” is all suffering deserved? Does life really work like the Book of Proverbs implies it should? Wilson tracing retribution through the book and argues the book of Job ultimately agrees with Proverbs, although Proverbs does not promise peace and prosperity as is commonly assumed.
Wilson covers several related topics concerning Job’s questioning of God (litigation motif; lament and complaint to God; preserving faith). Christians are sometimes shocked by Job’s questioning of God and his frank refusal to accept suffering as a punishment. Although he ultimately retains his faith in God, Job cries out bitterly to God and even demands his case be heard by the just and righteous God. Wilson has several pages describing the form of lament in the Hebrew Bible and wrestling with the disappearance of laments as a form of Christian worship. For Job, laments may question God, but the purpose of Job’s lament is to restore and strengthen faith. “Job’s complaints can never be understood as merely mouthing off to God” (252). Citing Tennyson, Wilson concludes “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds” (257).
The final section of the book examines Job’s contribution to biblical, systematic, moral and practical theology. Under the heading of biblical theology, Wilson sets Job in a canonical context. In order to do this, he reads Job alongside of the rest of the wisdom literature. As he observes often in the commentary, Job is a kind of protest against misunderstanding the theology of retribution of Proverbs. In some ways Job goes beyond Proverbs by describing the righteous life of Job. Wilson traces the use of the rest of the Old Testament in Job (creation, Decalogue, God’s kingly rule). He briefly examines the common view that Job is a type of Christ, concluding Job is not “all about Christ” in the sense Job prefigures Christ’s suffering. The central theme of the book is God’s kingly rule (320). Perhaps the most fascinating section in his biblical theology section concerns the New Testament use of Job. How should we read Job as a Christian? He rejects the search for Christ in every page of Job, arguing instead to focus on God as sovereign and to restore the kind of “robust, lamenting faith” demonstrated by Job (331).
Under the heading of systematic theology, Wilson rightly begins with what Job contributes to our understanding of God, especially what Job tells us about God’s relationship with evil. Yet Job does not give a direct answer to the problem of evil, rather the book “seems content to leave the question of theodicy unresolved.” (340). He also briefly discusses the contributions Job makes to a theological understanding of Satan, sin, justice, resurrection and the nature of faith.
Under the heading of moral theology, Wilson attempts to create an “ethics of Job,” both in terms of sources for the book’s ethics and the ethical content of book. Scholars who do anything like this in Job usually focus on chapter 31 since it contains a clear statement of what integrity and righteousness looks like. Wilson goes beyond this by briefly touching on Job’s social ethics, including the book’s view of the environment and wealth. He includes a fascinating discussion of suicide. Job’s wife seems to think it is possible for Job to “curse God and die” and Job longs for death. Yet he continues to hope in God for justice and possibly restoration. As Wilson observes, suicide results from the total loss of hope in God (365), Job never seems to reach this point in the book.
Under the heading of practical theology, Wilson covers several topics which will appeal to anyone who wants to teach or preach from the book of Job. It seems strange to think of the book of Job as a source for pastoral care or a guide for prayer, but Wilson shows how the book contributes to these important areas of ministry. In addition, he includes a section on preaching the book of Job. Since it is unlikely anyone would (or should?) preach a lengthy series of expositional sermons based on the book, Wilson offers some practical advice on how to relate this difficult yet important book to Christian audiences.
Conclusion. Like other contributions to the Two Horizons series, Wilson’s book is an important contribution to a Christian understanding of the book of Job. It is a solid albeit brief commentary on the Hebrew text of Job with extensive theological reflection on how Job contributes to the overall theology of both the Hebrew Bible and the whole canon. The book is an excellent support for a pastor, teacher or layperson reading and wrestling with the book Job
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.