December 18, 2017

Straight Cuts: Good Principle, Wrong Text

Layton Talbert

“But he knoweth the way that I take; when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).

Job 23:10 has traditionally been used to express a Scriptural truth that has comforted and encouraged countless believers: God knows all we are going through and intends it only to strengthen and purify us. One writer cites this verse as proof that “for the Christian, affliction is gold in the making. If we will cooperate in the process, we will come forth as gold.”[1] Certainly, God uses the fiery heat of adversity and the pressure of affliction to remove impurities from our lives and to refine our faith and character. Scripture teaches in many passages that trials have a refining effect on believers and their faith, but Job 23:10 is not one of them.

The Problem

Too often, doctrine relies on popular clichés and surface impressions. Every time we derive an interpretation and application of a text that is not native to the context — no matter how Biblical the concept itself may be — we are robbing that text, and ourselves in the process, of the meaning and applications that God intended when He gave it. The key is not to read any verse as a devotional island, isolated from its immediate and larger context. To ignore the context is to gag the original, Spirit-intended meaning of a verse, while commandeering the terminology to a noble but hermeneutically erroneous use. Job 23:10 is one of those verses whose familiar words have taken on a hallowed life of their own and are used to teach a concept that, though good and Biblical in itself, is as foreign to the actual contextual meaning of the verse as a bowl of grits is to New England. The instant you drop the verse back into its local and larger context, the meaning is unmistakable.

The Text

Literally Job 23:10 reads, “But He knows [the] way [that is] with me; if He should test me, I would come forth as gold.” Job is simply calling God to be his witness, to testify that He knows Job to be righteous and undeserving of what has happened to him—a point the book is careful to concede three times at the book’s beginning (1:1, 8; 2:3). To paraphrase Job: “God knows my ways; if He were to put me to the test, I would come through like gold.” A stunning assertion—but one entirely in keeping with both the broader and more immediate context.

The Context

Despite his confusion and frustration not only at his circumstances (e.g., 13:3) but especially at God’s silence (e.g., 19:7), Job has (throughout the book) maintained an unshakable faith in God (e.g., 13:15, 16), a confidence in His sovereign control over all his experiences (e.g., 12:9, 10), and a belief that he would one day, someday, see and hear God for himself and receive a divine explanation for his inexplicable circumstances (e.g., 19:25–27). In the meantime, Job bluntly insists that if his friends are right (that God sends this kind of suffering only as a punishment on the wicked), then God has turned against him and inexplicably wronged him (16:7ff.; 19:6ff). Nowhere does Job ever express any assurance that his circumstances are only a temporary test through which he will successfully pass and which he understands God has designed to perfect him. Instead, Job is simply waiting to die (e.g., 6:8, 9; 7:21) and anticipates no end in sight in this life to his circumstances (e.g., 10:18–22).

The more immediate context further clarifies Job’s meaning. In 23:3–7, Job wishes he could find God and come before His seat. If he could do so, he would arrange his arguments and present his case before God. Then he would hear for himself how God would explain what He has allowed to happen to Job, and why. But Job’s major frustration is that God is nowhere to be found (23:8, 9). He searches for Him everywhere, but God remains silent and invisible. Nevertheless, even though Job cannot see God, he knows that God sees him (23:10a; cf. 16:17, 19). And though Eliphaz has just maligned Job’s record with false accusations (22:5ff.), God sees Job’s way and knows his record (23:10a).

On that basis Job posits: “If he should test me, I would come forth as gold” (23:10b). How can Job be so confident? Because he has closely followed in God’s steps, kept to His way, and not turned aside from it (23:11). He has not departed from God’s commands, but has treasured up His words as more valuable than all the wealth God had previously allotted to him (23:12). Nevertheless, Job is resigned to the fact that God is inscrutable and sovereign— He does whatever He wants. Job just does not understand why God has done this to him (23:13–17).

One might argue that Job spoke truer than he knew. He did not know at the time that all his adversity was actually a temporary test of the integrity of his faith, and had no anticipation of deliverance from his circumstances. But as readers we know better. In retrospect, we know that what Job thought was a permanent affliction from God was, in fact, a temporary test through which he was refined and purified. In that sense, then, these words convey even more comfort for the suffering saint. What we, like Job, may feel is dark and mysterious with no way out is, indeed, only a temporary test (2 Cor. 4:17–18). Nevertheless, that’s not what Job meant. The Scripturalness of the sentiment which this verse has traditionally been used to express is more accurately reflected elsewhere (Ps. 66:8–12; cf. Zech. 13:9; James 1:12; 1 Pet. 1:7).

Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a FrontLine Contributing Editor.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2003. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Ron Lee Davis, Gold in the Making: Where Is God When Bad Things Happen to You?, 32 []

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