A prose account of the fall and restoration of the pious Job frames the book as a whole (Job 1:1–2:13; 42:7–17). Here readers meet a blameless man, whose peace and prosperity are tragically disrupted when—unknown to him—God points him out to Satan (see ESV Study Bible note on Job 1:6). The question posed in 1:9, “Does Job fear God for no reason?” appears to be the leading concern of the prose, and it receives a full and satisfactory answer by the book’s conclusion.
Within those prose bookends, though, a dramatic poetic dialogue unfolds as readers listen to the main protagonists in the story. Job’s soliloquies (chs. 3; 28; 29–31) bracket three rounds of impassioned debate (chs. 4–14; 15–21; 22–27) with his “friends”—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar (cf. Job 2:11). Their dialogue descends from intuitive integrity in Job (cf. Job 3:23–25; 6:4) and sympathy from his friends (Job 4:2–5) at the beginning, to embittered self-justification in Job (ch. 27) and outrageous accusation from his friends (ch. 22) at the end. Throughout, the main concern seems to be a question Eliphaz voiced: “Can mortal man be in the right before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?” (Job 4:17; cf. Job at Job 9:2; 31:6; Bildad at Job 25:4). Consequently, Job himself comes under increasing scrutiny as he mounts an increasingly bold defense of his innocence in the face of the simplistic ethical onslaught of his friends.
Job longs for divine vindication, and for an intermediary who can bring this about (cf. Job 9:33; 16:19–21; 19:25–27). The reader, who has had a privileged glimpse into the heavenly mysteries behind Job’s suffering, is prepared by the end of the dialogues for God to declare to the disputants their errors and relieve Job of his misery. It is not to be, however—at least not yet.
Instead, a new character makes an entrance, one who alone in the book bears a Hebrew name: Elihu (“he is God” or possibly “Yahweh is God”) son of Barachel (“may God bless” or “God has blessed”; cf. Job 32:6). Through five uninterrupted chapters (chs. 32–37) he rebukes both Job and his friends—but how are readers to understand his intervention? Commentators vary dramatically in their assessments. From the text itself, certain factors stand out.
- Elihu provides in small measure the “intermediary” for whom Job hoped. Elihu himself is not the answer to Job’s quest, but he does point in the right direction.
- The dialogues to this point appeal to tradition and observation; Elihu introduces the notion of inspiration (Job 32:8, 18–20). Some see here an overtly prophetic response to the wisdom discussion.
- Elihu cites and finds wanting both sides of the debate (Job 33:1; 34:2). Again, Elihu anticipates the stance that God himself will take (chs. 38–42).
- Perhaps most important, Elihu reorients the entire debate. The focus slowly but surely swings away from Job and the problem of human morality, urging attention to God alone as the grounds of certainty and hope (cf. Job 36:22–23; 37:14–24).
At the same time, Elihu may be overestimating his own contribution (Job 32:6–10). He knows no more of the actual reasons for the events (chs. 1–2) than the three friends do, and some of his arguments overlap theirs. Further, when the Lord finally speaks (Job 38:1), he seems to ignore Elihu entirely (cf. also Job 42:7). Elihu may be asserting some true things at the core of his argument, but how he applies these things and the conclusions he draws about Job contrast significantly with the Lord’s speech to Job. On a literary level, Elihu’s speech builds suspense by delaying the final outcome.
Finally, the Lord appears in the whirlwind (Job 38:1; 40:6)—as Job had suspected he might (cf. Job 9:17a). The “Yahweh speeches” (chs. 38–41) do not directly engage Job’s questions but point rather to the reality of the God behind, and now clearly within, his suffering.
The reader’s insight into the “true” state of affairs comes by the prose introduction (chs. 1–2), which helps both to nuance the content of the dialogues and to explain the outcomes in the book’s conclusion. While Job’s assertions of innocence have some justification, his character develops throughout the speeches. On the other hand, the friends may claim some kernel of truth, but despite their “orthodoxy,” the reader can make an informed judgment about how their accusations apply to Job. Thus, the Lord’s commendation of Job and instruction to the friends to beg Job’s intercession on their behalf (Job 42:7–9) is in part explained by the context set in the opening two chapters.
The most important key word in the book is the term “comfort”; the book shows where true comfort is to be found. In Job 2:11 Job’s three friends come to comfort him; in Job 6:10 Job takes comfort in not having denied the words of the Holy One; in Job 7:13 Job claims that God will not allow his bed to comfort him. In Job 15:11 Eliphaz claims to be offering the comforts of God, while in Job 16:2 Job calls his friends miserable comforters, and in Job 21:34 he declares they are trying to comfort him with empty nothings. In Job 21:2 Job sarcastically offers to his friends the “comfort” of hearing him out. The key comes in Job 42:6 (if the reading of the ESV footnote is followed; see ESV Study Bible note there): now that God has spoken, Job can say that he is “comforted in dust and ashes.” When Job’s relatives and friends come to comfort him in Job 42:11, this is probably ironic: Job found the comfort he needed in the vision of God’s unsearchable wisdom.
As already indicated, the Israelite author presents Job as a person living in Uz, which is outside the borders of Israel itself. His piety (Job 1:1) exemplifies the ideal in Israelite wisdom, and he invokes the name of Yahweh (Job 1:21). At the same time, his relationship to Abraham’s offspring remains a mystery. The events of the book seem to be set in the times of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The way Ezekiel 14:14, 20 (see ESV Study Bible note there) refer to Job along with two others apparently from ancient times enhances this impression. So do the favorite names for the deity, “God” (Hb. ’Eloah, the singular of ’Elohim) and “the Almighty” (Hb. Shadday), which seem more suited to the days before Exodus 3:14; 6:3 (the name Yahweh, the Lord, appears only in Job 1–2, and 38–42, with one lone exception in the middle of the book, Job 12:9).
The prophet Ezekiel mentions Job along with Noah and Daniel, and this seems to imply that he took Job as a real person. This is also the implication of James 5:11: “Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” At the same time, the author has supplied many details for the sake of his literary presentation: the question of whether Job and his friends actually spoke exalted poetry to each other is not important to the author’s purposes.