The book of Job addresses perhaps the most difficult of life’s questions: “Why does God allow human suffering?” This article deals with Job’s three friends who tried to answer this question. Some things they said were wrong and some right…but mostly they were wrong. We must also bear in mind that God allowed Satan to bring this suffering on Job. (Note: Only chapter and verse citations are used for Job references.)
Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, “made an appointment together to come to sympathize with him and comfort him” (2:11). When they saw him “they did not recognize him” and “they raised their voices and wept” (2:12). They sat with Job for seven days in silence (v. 13), which they eventually broke by launching into an oratory on Job’s problems. Becoming weary of their unhelpful counseling, Job eventually said, “You are miserable comforters, all of you!” (16:2) In the end they were condemned by God (Job 42:7-9).
But did they get everything wrong? They got a few things right. Job’s friends were helpful in at least three ways (2:11-13): 1) They came to him when he was suffering. 2) They had empathy; “they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads” (v. 12). 3) They were with him in silence for seven days (v. 13).
However, they finally broke their silence. In chapters 4 through 25, we read a series of speeches with many false notions, primarily concerning why God allows suffering. To them, Job’s suffering was because he had sinned. So they insisted that he confess and repent so that God would bless him again.
Eliphaz the Temanite is introduced in the first verse of chapter 2. He is one of Job’s would-be comforters. However, all three failed in their attempt to comfort their suffering friend. Their sympathy shown in verses 12-13 of chapter 2 was replaced by accusations, false theology, and challenging Job’s character.
After Job’s complaints (3), Eliphaz speaks first (4-5) with a thesis of the innocent prospering. In other words, Job was obviously not prospering because he must have done something wrong.
In response, Job declared his innocence. Then in a second speech Eliphaz asserts that Job does not fear God (15).. If Job feared God, he reasons, he would not face such suffering. Job responds that his friends are “miserable comforters” (16:2).
Eliphaz’s third speech is recorded in chapter 22. This time, he says, “Is not your wickedness great, and your iniquities without end?” (22:5). He enumerates Job’s supposed sins (vs. 6–9). From his perspective, God would only allow great evil to befall someone who had done something very bad. Job replies by asking for God to intervene on his behalf (23).
God intervenes and rebukes Job’s friends: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has” (42:7). These men are required to offer burnt offerings, and Job prays on their behalf. In the end, Job’s fortunes are restored (doubled), and he is blessed with new children in place of those whom the devil had taken.
Eliphaz exemplifies the world’s wisdom to suffering. To him that suffering was the consequence of sin and worthy of punishment by God. He was wrong. Job’s life is a clear example of how the innocent sometimes suffer. God can allow suffering to strengthen a believer’s spirit and to change the lives of others for His glory.
Bildad the Shuhite is first seen as one of three friends who come to comfort Job (2:11). He, Eliphaz and Zophar visit Job after hearing of the calamities that had befallen him. Bildad cannot believe Job’s horrific condition. He mourns silently with him for seven days (2:12-13).
Bildad is the second of Job’s friends to speak. In chapter 8, he suggests that Job’s children got what they deserved (v. 3). And of Job he said: “If you would seek and implore the compassion of the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, Surely now He would rouse himself for you and restore your righteous place” (8:5-6). The implication is that Job is not pure and upright and that material prosperity is directly linked to righteous behavior. Job responds in chapter 9, desiring to plead his case before God and lamenting the fact that there is no one to intervene for him.
Bildad’s second speech focuses on the theme that God punishes the wicked (18). His logic is that Job must have done something wrong since he is being punished. In chapter 19 Job responds by saying: “How long will you torment me and crush me with words?” (v. 2). He also asks for his friends’ pity (v. 21) and declares that his God is alive and knows all things. God would be the one to judge him fairly, and Job trusts in Him (vs. 25–27).
Bildad‘s third speech focuses on the idea that a person cannot be righteous before God (25). He says, “How then can man be just with God? Or how can he be clean who is born of woman?” (v. 4) Job answers in chapter 26, sarcastically arguing that God alone knows all things and fully understands the situation.
As noted above (42:7), Bildad and his two friends are rebuked by the Lord. Job’s three friends then obey the Lord’s command to offer burnt offerings (42:8-9), “and the Lord accepted them.”
Job’s friends’ speeches exemplify how people often view suffering from a human perspective, assuming that suffering is always the result of personal sin. In the end, these friends learn that God had allowed Job to suffer as part of His divine plan and that Job was not at fault for his trials.
Zophar the Naamathite is first mentioned as the third friend who came to comfort Job (2:11). The verses following show their response to his distress: “When they lifted up their eyes at a distance and did not recognize him, they raised their voices and wept. And each of them tore his robe and they threw dust over their heads toward the sky. Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great” (vs. 12-13).
Zophar’s speech begins in chapter 11. Giving the strongest of the three initial speeches, he stated, “Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves” (v. 6). Job responds in chapter 12 that the Lord brought this suffering upon him, and in chapter 13 maintains his innocence: “…I know I will be vindicated” (v. 18).
Zophar’s second speech states, “The increase of his house will depart; his possessions will flow away in the day of His anger. This is the wicked man’s portion from God, even the heritage decreed to him by God” (20:28-29). In chapter 21, Job says of the wicked: “They spend their days in prosperity, and suddenly they go down to Sheol” (v. 13). Job was suffering and yet had done no wrong, while others who did evil lived “…safe from fear, and the rod of God is not on them” (v. 9). This was why Zophar’s assessment of Job’s condition was in error.
Following Job’s long defense after Bildad’s third speech, a fourth man, Elihu, speaks up. His two concerns are expressed thus: “But the anger of Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram burned against Job; his anger burned because he justified himself before God. And his anger burned against his three friends because they had found no answer, and yet had condemned Job” (32:2-3).
In the end, God rebuked all three. “My anger burns against you…for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). Yet all three repented and offered sacrifices to God (42:9).
Zophar and his friends exemplify how suffering is often viewed from a human perspective. While it is true that those who do wrong often suffer, God also allows suffering for reasons often unknown to us. Instead of assuming all suffering is due to our wrongdoing, we should joyfully endure trials, pray in faith for wisdom, and consider God’s compassion (Ja. 1:2-8; 5:11).
Job erred in professing his righteousness (42:1-6), yet his trials and suffering were not caused by his behavior. God used them as a lesson on His sovereignty in the end, blessing Job with twice as much as he had before (42:10).
What can we learn from the errors of Job’s friends? We should not assume that troubles are due to personal sin (cf. John 9:1-3). Instead of telling a hurting person to confess wrong and repent (especially when we do not know why they are hurting), we can encourage them to faithfully endure. God always knows their pain and He has a purpose in allowing it.
What good might we learn from Job’s friends? When a friend is hurting, go to them and cry with them, spending time together. Our presence is powerful, even if we don’t know the words to say.
People do not need our surmising as much as they need our sympathy. The apostle Paul wrote: “Mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). Let us do our best not to be “miserable comforters.”
Roger and his wife Alisa live in Valdosta, GA. He graduated from Lipscomb University in 1988 and the Nashville School of Preaching in 1992. He preaches for the Adel Church of Christ in Adel, GA.