Why Do Bad Things Happen?

Job's Tormentors. Engraving, William Blake, 1793

You recall how the story goes—God and Satan are having a discussion about a man named Job. He was a man of great character whom God had given much wealth and blessing. God commends Job, and Satan accuses Job, betting that Job would deny God if God would simply allow difficulty in Job’s life (1:7-12). God allows Satan to test Job, and Job loses all of his wealth, most of his family, and his health.

Job is, of course, unaware that he is being tested, and is deeply frustrated by his change of fortune. He feels that he has done nothing to deserve these tragedies, and he speaks out—essentially proclaiming his innocence and the unfairness of the situation. Thankfully, Job has three friends who come to the rescue. They all have the same message: this could only be happening to Job if he had done something wrong. They understood that God would not allow such things to happen to an innocent person.

Here’s a brief summary of Job 3-31:

  • Job: I didn’t do anything to deserve this.
  • Friends: Yes you did.
  • Job: No I didn’t.
  • Friends: Yes you did.
  • Job: No I didn’t.
  • Friends: Yes you did. God wouldn’t allow it otherwise.
  • Job: This isn’t fair…because I didn’t do anything wrong.

Now, I don’t mean to make light of Job’s situation—it was one of the most severe individual tragedies ever recorded, and I believe he was a real person who underwent intense pain and suffering. I think we can read the dialogues of Job and his “friends” with empathy while still being able to distill the discussions down to their most basic concepts. As we read, we discover that God’s character is the primary issue, along with the question of why God allows evil things to happen to people. Chapters 3-31 invite the big questions but provide no answers.

Finally, in chapter 32, we are introduced to a young man who has been sitting by and listening in silence, waiting for Job’s three friends to respond well. Elihu recognizes that Job and his friends have made some key mistakes: Job had justified himself before God (32:3) and the three friends had condemned Job without being able to refute him (32:4).

In chapter 33 Elihu challenges Job’s assertion that God does not explain why He is doing what He is doing (33:13). Elihu argues that God has revealed himself in many ways. Now, remember that Job was written around the time of the events in Genesis, so Job and his contemporaries did not yet have any written revelation from God. Even then, God communicated with people to protect, correct, and enlighten them (33:16-18, 29-30). God was gracious even then.

Elihu then addresses Job’s friends (ch. 34). They had argued that God could not allow such misfortune to befall Job without guilt being involved. Little did they realize that they were accusing God of unrighteousness and injustice, because Job had no guilt in the situation (“in all this Job did not sin with his lips,” 2:10). Elihu recognizes that God is righteous and just (34:1-12), but also that God is sovereign over His creation (as its Creator) and has the right to do with it as He determines (34:13-15).

I should note at this point that some commentators have perceived that Elihu to be equally as wrongheaded as Job’s other three friends, because those commentators suspect that Elihu is condemning Job of sin. But it is important to recognize that Elihu never accuses Job of sin. He recognizes that the “wise men” and “men of understanding” have accused Job of sin and rebellion (34:34-37), but he never agrees with them. Instead, Elihu accuses Job of speaking in ignorance (35:16)—which is a very different accusation altogether. Further, at the end of the book God rebukes Job (38-41) and the three friends (42:7), but never Elihu. Ultimately God’s words and those of Elihu are rooted in the same basic argument (that God is Creator, and as such is sovereign over His creation) and are at times even indistinguishable. Elihu gets it right. Job acknowledges his own ignorance (42:1-6), and the three are guilty of misrepresenting Job and God.

Elihu understands that God has his own reasons for causing things to happen. Sometimes these reasons are indiscernible to us, but they are good reasons nonetheless: “Whether for correction, or for His world, or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen” (37:13). Elihu offers three reasons for God’s activity, suggesting that we can trust God to know what He is doing, and to be beneficial to His creation according to His own designs.

The problem is that we expect Him to work in ways we can comprehend. Yet, just as we cannot comprehend all the inner workings of the natural world like He does, we sometimes cannot comprehend what He is doing and why. Just as scientific study helps us to gain some understanding of the natural world, study of God’s revelation helps us understand His character better. The more we grow in that understanding, the more likely we are to be able to comprehend at least the big picture of what God is doing. In any case, Elihu is confident in God, trusting Him to know and to do what is best for His creation.

Elihu gets it right, and offers encouraging advice to anyone struggling with incomprehensible difficulties in life. God is sovereign, He understands, and He has a plan. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-beneficent. As Creator, His plans are a bit better constructed than our own (Is 55:8-11), and because of that He is worthy of praise (Rom 11:33-36). Do we really think that we know better than God? Do we really think that we have a right to condemn Him when things don’t go as we expect they should? Or are we willing to trust that He has things under control, and in the end, the wrongs will be righted? Even in Job 42 we see the narrative resolved. Surely we can have a little patience with God. He certainly has great patience with us (2 Pet 3:9).

Christopher Cone 2016

Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.

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Aaron Blumer's picture


Love the book of Job. When I studied through it a few years back, I never completely knew what to do w/Elihu. There are parts of his discourse that still sound very much to me like the same thing the rest were saying: He insists that God repays people with what they deserve and calls on Job to repent.

On the other hand, it has to mean something that he speaks last, that God does not correct him, and that he seems to think his view is substantially different from that of the 'friends.'

7 What man is like Job, who drinks up scoffing like water, 8 who travels in company with evildoers and walks with wicked men? 9 For he has said, ‘It profits a man nothing that he should take delight in God.’ (ESV, Job 34:7–9)

11 For according to the work of a man he will repay him, and according to his ways he will make it befall him. (ESV, Job 34:11)

36 Would that Job were tried to the end, because he answers like wicked men. 37 For he adds rebellion to his sin; he claps his hands among us and multiplies his words against God.” (ESV, Job 34:36–37)

Maybe where I've been off track is in identifying what sin(s) Elihu is referring to. It's true that most of his focus is on Job's error in thinking God should appear and give him a fair trial (and by implication, declare him innocent and... apologize?).

I'm also not sure Job's friends directly accuse of Job of "sinning" any more than Elihu does... it's mostly assumed. I need to dig up my notes and take a fresh look. It's hard to nutshell more than 30 chapters of dialog.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

josh p's picture

Aarron if memory serves, I believe a DBTS prof write an article called something like "The Contribution of Elihu to the Book of Job." I think it's probably online. I need to read it because I have the same question.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Great. Give us a summary when you find it maybe?
What I did in my study a while back was lay out the friends speeches in columns in a table & tried to color code chunks to show recurring themes.
Likewise with Job's turns... He needed a whole different set of colors.
My thesis was--not original to me--that the debate is about the "retribution principle" which the friends had oversimplified to say God basically gives everyone their due right away, no exceptions.
I think I decided that Elihu added complexity, but still fell short & then God stepped in & basically said it's more complex than any of you could begin to understand.

Edit: I see we have the link now. Thanks Jim.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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