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Proverbs and Job

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Labor Day is often viewed as the unofficial end of summer and beginning of fall. For those participating in Faith Church’s 4-Year Bible Reading Plan called Cover to Cover, Labor Day also marked the end of our time reading through Proverbs and the beginning of our journey through Job. While these books are not placed back-to-back in English Bibles (The Book of Psalms stands between them) and can seem very different from each other, we put them next to each other in our reading plan because of many connections between these books (which may be one reason they are back-to-back in the Hebrew Bible). 

Connections in Form Between Proverbs and Job
At first glance, it might be difficult to recognize the significant connections between Job and Proverbs because their form seems so different from each other. The Book of Proverbs may be one of the easiest books in the Bible to read, as it is filled with little sayings that, while not always easy to understand, seem easy to apply to your life – it is a practical book for us to use in our daily living. In contrast, the majority of the Book of Job consists of long speeches and dialogues between Job and his friends, with these words tough to follow at times and not always conducive for a daily takeaway for life.

But on further glance, there are more similarities than you might think. They share the same overarching feature of being written in Hebrew poetry (outside of the first couple of chapters and final chapter in Job); they are thus both considered “Poetic Books” in the Old Testament. In addition, both books have prologues that are essential to understand all that follows: Proverbs has its prologue that sets the framework to understanding the purpose of the book and the heart of wisdom (Proverbs 1:1-8), and the opening chapters of Job are essential to see that Job’s suffering is not in any way related to his sin (Job 1-2). Both also have concluding chapter(s) that differ from the bulk of the work (Proverbs has sayings of Agur and King Lemuel in Proverbs 30 and 31, and Job has a narrative of his restoration and judgment in Job 42) and revisit key themes from the beginning and bring some resolutions. A final structural similarity is that both have something of “cycles” that stand as the backbone to the organization and structure: Proverbs has various collections of sayings throughout the work and Job consists of different cycles of dialogue between Job and his friends as well as speeches of Job, Elihu, and God. 

Connections in their Content
Probably the more important connection between these two books is that they both discuss the subject of wisdom – approaching this subject from different angles and thus offering complementary (rather than contrasting) perspectives.

The Book of Proverbs essentially points to wise living as leading to peace and prosperity in life while living foolishly will ultimately result in calamity and chaos. I worded that carefully to indicate that Proverbs does not always point to these things being immediate, but rather in the long-run. This book then should be used to inspire and encourage us along the path of wisdom and away from the path of foolishness.

The Book of Job first appears to reinforce this teaching, as Job is both a godly man and a prosperous man. The description of him fearing God and turning away from evil (Job 1:1) would point to him being a wise man, as wisdom is fearing the Lord (Proverbs 9:10). However, we are then given a glimpse into heaven and see that there is a cosmic battle, with Satan at work and challenging God. This leads to the godly Job suffering – in contrast to what we would expect. 

Job’s suffering thus seems to put the teaching of Proverbs to the test. Job’s friends essentially seek to apply the overarching teaching of the Book of Proverbs to Job’s life, noting that his suffering must have arisen from sin in his life; their words at times seem like echoes of what we read in Proverbs. When Job examines his life and does not find sin (note: he does not find himself sinless but rather would see himself as walking in wisdom rather than foolishness; a “blameless” life like we are called to live), he starts to ask questions and ponder the reality that while his situation might be extreme, it does not seem completely unique in that there are times the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Job’s suffering does not lead to him rejecting God, but rather wondering if there are more nuances or mysteries in the moral order of the universe that Proverbs describes and that Job, like his friends, would have espoused.

In looking at the realities of injustice in this world, Job does not undercut or contradict the truths and approach of Proverbs because one of the sources that Proverbs looks to in discovering wisdom is observable experience. In a certain sense, then, Job is applying the principles of Proverbs in a deeper way by looking at other situations that are not examined in Proverbs. In addition, Job’s discussion points back to the importance of “fearing the Lord” and trusting in him rather than one’s own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6). Job’s friends seem so confident in their ideas and understand that they are not willing to re-examine them as they find new data. 

In some ways, Job’s friends are examples of what happens when wisdom is only partially integrated into one’s life, something that Proverbs itself warns against. Proverbs 26:7 says, “A proverb in the mouth of a fool is like lame legs that hang limp,” and in Proverbs 26:9 we read, “A proverb in the mouth of a fool is like a stick with thorns, brandished by the hand of a drunkard.” These seem to be apt descriptions of these friends as they don’t necessarily speak in short proverbs but speak proverbial wisdom in a way that is unhelpful. Much of what they say is true but not applicable or helpful to Job at all, showing that his friends don’t have wisdom in terms of applying principles to life. While not literally singing “happy songs” to Job in the midst of his suffering, the friends seem tone deaf to the pain of Job in a way reminiscent of the principle in Proverbs 25:20, “Singing songs to a troubled heart is like taking off clothing on a cold day or pouring vinegar on soda.” Proverbs speaks about the importance and blessings of friendships and care, while Job shows pictures of what happens when that model is not attained.

The Same Bottom Line Found in Different Ways
Perhaps the firmest proof that these works are related and complementary – not contradicting – is found in Job 28 which is a poem about wisdom that stands as an interlude in Job. The chapter ends by saying “The fear of the Lord – that is wisdom. And to turn from evil is understanding” (Job 28:28). I suspect if I had made you guess which book this verse came from, you would have thought it was Proverbs as it is very reminiscent of the teachings of the book. Job does not contradict but provides further nuance and insight into what fearing the Lord and trusting in God means. We can’t just trust in God when things are going well, and our trust in God means that our understanding will be limited. Trusting in God means that we recognize the reality of mystery in God and have confidence in Him when we don’t have the full story of what’s going on. May Proverbs encourage us to faithfulness and Job remind us about faithfulness in the midst of mystery.

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