Book Review—Beyond Suffering

by Tim Ashcraft

Talbert, Layton. Beyond Suffering: Discovering the Message of Job. Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 2007. Softbound, 392 pages. $17.95

(Review copy courtesy of BJU Press)

beyond_suffering_cvr.jpgPurchase: BJU

ISBN: 9781591666202

LCCN: BS1415.53.T35 2007

DCN: 223.107

Special Feature: Selected Bibliography

Subjects: Job, Suffering
talbert.jpgLayton Talbert (Ph.D., Bob Jones University) is a professor of theology at the Bob Jones University Seminary. He has also authored Not by Chance, a study of God’s loving providence in every area of the believer’s life. Dr. Talbert lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with his wife, Esther, and their five children. (from the back cover)

I haven’t heard many sermons or lessons on the book of Job. I did hear a Sunday school series on Job back in the ‘90s. The teacher was Layton Talbert, the author of Beyond Suffering: Discovering the Message of Job. The scriptural truths he brought out in that series changed my thinking about suffering, and for several years I have looked forward to the expanding of those lessons into a book. Dr. Talbert has written a sound, thorough Bible study of this much-neglected and sometimes difficult area of Scripture.

Beyond Suffering is not a technical commentary, “though it is devoted to unfolding the meaning and application of each passage throughout the book of Job. It is an exposition of the message of Job” (p. x). Taking Job as a case study in inexplicable suffering, the author expounds the message of comfort conveyed by this book: “Beyond suffering, past our pain and loss, is a God Who is not only all-knowing and omnipotent, sovereign and free to do as He chooses but also always good and just, loving and wise, purposeful and perfect in all that He chooses to do or to allow—and intimately aware of all its effects on us” (p. xi).

Dr. Talbert’s introduction deals briefly with the nature, structure, authorship, and historical and literary settings of the book of Job. One feature I especially like in the introductory section is his “Hints for a Profitable Reading of the Book of Job” (pp. 9-13). He offers helpful suggestions on how to get the most out of our own reading of the scriptural text. This is important because the lengthy dialogue between the main characters can be confusing to some readers, possibly discouraging them from continuing. But “the dialogue contains indispensable insights into the nature of God, the nature of man, and the relationship between them” (pp. 9-10). Following the “Hints” are two charts: a Structural Outline and a Visual Diagram of the book of Job (pp. 12-13). The suggestions in this chapter are helpful in “getting a handle on the book as a whole” (p. 10).

Chapter 2, “Discovering the Theme of Job,” is worth the price of the book. Many readers think of the word suffering when they think of Job. The author identifies “at least four different kinds of suffering” in the Bible: persecution, punishment, chastisement, and affliction (pp. 14-15). “Affliction is suffering that is not only undeserved but not even understood” (p. 15, author’s emphasis). Interpreting and responding “to that kind of suffering … is the issue at the eye of the storm swirling around Job” (p. 15). Having demonstrated this type of suffering as a test of faith (a concept probably not widely known in Job’s day), Dr. Talbert then surveys the theories put forth by commentators concerning Job’s theme. All the ideas he examines have some merit, but “each one latches onto one segment of the book, often at the expense of other sections” (p. 19). Taking all aspects of the book of Job into account, the author sharpens our focus on the book’s theme. The characters do talk about suffering, but they talk much more about God, specifically concerning what He is like and how He deals with people. Weaving all of the biblical data together, the author states the theme of Job as “the nature and basis of the relationship between God and man—founded on faith in God’s self-revelation as ultimate reality and God’s Person as supremely worthy” (p. 22). This theme is illustrated in Job’s final, contented submission to God before his suffering is taken away. Dr. Talbert gives an interesting quote from Philip Yancey: “The point of the book is not suffering: Where is God when it hurts? The prologue dealt with that issue. The point is faith: Where is Job when it hurts? How is he responding?” (p. 23).

The chapters covering the prologue of Job (Job 1-2) deal with foundational truths that must be remembered throughout our reading of Job. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that God Himself said Job was a righteous person and that God Himself initiated the process of suffering and that the suffering was meant to prove the genuineness of Job’s reverence for God. In the course of the bitter complaints and the accusations and counter-accusations, it is easy to forget Job’s initial submission and worship or the fact that Job’s three friends really are friends and came a long way to try to comfort him. Dr. Talbert not only expounds these passages but also applies them in ways that minister to the reader. For example, in dealing with Job’s character, he explores the question “What Kind of People Suffer Adversity?” He states that the reason for the opening “portrait of Job’s godly character and happy home life” is that “Job was quite literally the last person on earth to deserve what was about to happen to him” (p. 33). His application is that if you “find yourself suffering inexplicable adversity, part of the message of Job is this: It happens to the best of us, and it happens to better than us” (p. 34).

Dr. Talbert has a wonderful treatment of the challenge and counter-challenge between God and Satan concerning Job, about which Job knew nothing. When I heard Dr. Talbert teach this study in Sunday school, it opened my eyes to spiritual realities I had never contemplated before. All that and more are here in his book. I must resist the temptation to recount that exposition in this review; however, before leaving the prologue, I must give the author’s summary of Job’s suffering: “The agony of Job is the stuff of martyrdom. He was not a dying martyr but a living martyr, suffering as a witness to the genuineness of human faith and to the integrity and worthiness of God. His witness was all the more eloquent and authentic because it was unwitting” (p. 66).

Have you ever gotten bogged down in the lengthy dialogue between Job and his friends? Dr. Talbert provides much help in this area. He begins by devoting a chapter to “How to Read the Debate,” in which he counsels the reader to watch the Scripture text for interpretive signposts. In the exposition of the dialogue he gives many helpful summaries of the speeches so the reader can see the progression of thought in the debate.

So what was wrong with the argument of the friends? They claimed Job was suffering because he had sinned, something they couldn’t prove. All Job had to do, they said, was repent, and God would make everything right again. Dr. Talbert maintains that the theology of Job’s friends is basically orthodox, but “it is the inferences and applications of a basically correct theological posture that bedevil their arguments. They have hammered general principles into an invariable, iron-clad, one-size-fits-all modus operandi” (p. 125, author’s emphasis). They did not have all of the facts but counseled as if they did.

What do you make of the character Elihu? Some writers condemn him as a young know-it-all. Others simply dismiss him. Dr. Talbert gives him a thorough, balanced treatment by observing the similarities between what he says and what God says. “The significance of Elihu’s argument lies in its dissimilarity to what the friends argued before him and in its parallels to what God says after him” (p. 169). So what is Elihu’s place in the book of Job? “Elihu transitions us from the false accusations and flawed arguments of Job’s friends to the final word from God” (p. 191). Elihu “concentrates on Job’s reaction to what has happened, not on what Job did to deserve it” (p. 191). The author makes a very good application from Elihu’s speeches: “The central problem of undeserved suffering is not why it happens but what to do with it” (p. 192).

Dr. Talbert treats God’s speeches as thoroughly as he does the others’. He shows that while some readers may think God’s answer to Job was irrelevant because it did not explain the reason for his suffering, Job did not think God’s answer was irrelevant. He submitted to God and was satisfied. Dr. Talbert sums up the heart of the message in Job this way:

To believe God with or without evidence simply because He has spoken, to submit to God with or without understanding because He is both sovereign and good, and to worship God with or without reward because He is worthy delivers to the believer a peace that surpasses understanding and baffles unbelievers, instructs angels and glorifies God (p. 220).

Dr. Talbert interacts well with conservative commentaries and other resources on Job. His “Selected Bibliography” will be a help to anyone desiring guidance for strengthening his library. Scripture quotations are from the King James Version except for occasional quotes from several modern translations.

Beyond Suffering is a thorough exposition of the book of Job. I think it represents some of the best scholarship in Fundamentalism today. Both laymen and scholars can profit from this book. The text of the book contains his exposition. Further research, including technical exegetical details, is included in his copious endnotes. The reason for the many thorough endnotes is that Dr. Talbert has written the book “on two levels—a lay-friendly text for the general reader, supplemented by technical, elaborative, or corroborative endnotes for the more advanced student of the Scripture” (p. x). The pastor or Sunday school teacher who plans a message or series on Job will be well-served by this book. It also makes a great Bible study with many heart-searching applications for the lay reader. If you’ve ever been baffled by adversity, you will find much scriptural help in these pages.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was worth the wait. I don’t say that just because I know the author. He really has a gift for teaching and writing. This book ministered to me just as his lessons did years ago. It was good to be powerfully reminded that “suffering is not an inconvenient obstacle to ‘normal’ life. Affliction is ‘normal’ life … Serving God is not about accomplishing tasks but waiting on Him in all His appointments” (pp. 70-71).

ashcraft.jpgTim Ashcraft is a layman serving in various ministries at Mount Calvary Baptist Church (Greenville, SC), where he and his family are members. As well as teaching in the Adult Sunday School classes, he is editor of the Men’s Ministry’s Man of the Word manual. Tim is a graduate of Tabernacle Baptist Bible College (Greenville, SC) and works at Kohler Company (Spartanburg, SC). He is married to Doris and has two daughters, Becky and Diane.
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