It’s often said that Job’s friends don’t speak falsely or foolishly, but simply misapply wisdom.
The problem is, Job doesn’t agree with this assessment. “I do not find a wise man among you” (17:10). And, “your answers remain falsehood” (21:34).
Their folly and falsehood is exposed especially in the way they assess prosperity and calamity.
Bildad says, in essence, that Job’s sons died because of their own sins (8:4), and says that if Job sought God, implored His compassion, and remained pure, “He would rouse Himself for you and restore your righteous estate” (vv. 5-7). Zophar says the same, “If you would direct your heart right, and spread out your hand to Him . . . then you could lift up your face without defect, and you would be steadfast and not fear . . . your would forget trouble . . . your life would be brighter than noonday” (11:13-15).
Bildad later presents a terrifying picture of the life of the wicked: his light goes out, his fire gives no light, his tent is dark, his strides are short and his schemes fail, he is snared by his own net, his skin devoured by disease and he is terrorized, brimstone falls on his house and he is driven from the inhabited world, he has no offspring or survivor, and everyone is appalled by his fate (18:5-21).
Eliphaz sums up their perspective early on, “Who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed?” (4:7).
Along the way, they falsely accuse Job: “To the weary you have given no water to drink, and from the hungry you have withheld bread . . . . You have sent widows away empty, and the strength of orphans has been crushed” (22:7-9). This must be the case, because if it wasn’t, Job would not be suffering.
Behind these claims about the lives of the righteous and wicked lies a particular theology, according to which God is so highly exalted that nothing pleases or satisfies Him. Man cannot be pure before God because even “the heavens are not pure in His sight” (15:14-15). He doesn’t trust anyone, even His “holy ones” (15:14). Bildad says that we cannot be just with God: “how can he be clean who is born of woman?” Even the moon and stars are not bright before God, “How much less man, maggot, and the son of man, worm!” (25:4-6). Later Elihu chides Job for complaining that Yahweh “does not give an account of all His doings” (33:13). Sovereign that He is, He can do what He pleases without explanation or justification.
On both of these points, the friends are not misapplying wisdom but simply speaking foolishly. Regarding the lives of the wicked, compare Psalms 37 and 73 to Bildad’s depiction. On the other hand, the Psalms also make it clear that the righteous are frequently beset with enemies, pushed to the edge of the grave, abandoned by friends, afflicted with disease, abandoned by God.
If all the wicked had lives as Bildad describes, and if the righteous lived lives of easy prosperity, there wouldn’t be any moral mystery in the universe. It’s the prosperity of the wicked and the affliction of the righteous that challenges faith and requires wisdom. Job’s friends are too foolish to notice that there is a mystery.
Regarding the friends’ “theology proper,” it’s clear from the opening chapters of Job that Yahweh “trusts” His servant Job, and despite Eliphaz’s claim that man cannot be pure, Job insists, “my prayer is pure” (16:17). Bildad’s maggot anthropology sounds pious, but it’s hard to fit with the teaching of Psalm 8. Perhaps Elihu is correct in the abstract that God has no need to give an account of Himself to creatures, but in fact He does and has defended Himself, as He does in the whirlwind vision at the end of the book, as He does in the gospel. He answers Job’s complaints by demonstrating His righteousness.
What Yahweh says to Eliphaz at the end of Job should be taken seriously: “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” (42:7-8).