What Job Got Right and His Friends Got Wrong — Are We Misreading a Key Verse?

For all the benefits of studying the book of Job, it’s worth our time even if the only lesson we learn from it is how not to be like Job’s friends.

To be fair to Jobs friends, they did say some things that sound right. It’s only at the end, when God speaks to them, that we see that they got it so wrong.

Below is Job 42:7–8. As you read it, look for the line that gets repeated. That’s the statement we are going to take a closer look at.

“And so it was, after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has. Now therefore, take for yourselves seven bulls and seven rams, go to My servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and My servant Job shall pray for you. For I will accept him, lest I deal with you according to your folly; because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.’”

“You Have Not Spoken of Me What Is Right”

God said the same thing two times in this passage:

“…you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.”

That was the New King James Version. Just about all the most popular English versions say the same thing. The NIV says something similar:

“…you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.”

So there is agreement about what God said, and it’s left to us to figure out exactly what Job got right and that his friends got so wrong.

And we can do that. We can find lessons about sensitivity and nuance, and how not to beat someone over the head with our understanding of the cosmic order.

But what if there is something positive that we can do to be more like Job, not just less like his friends. What if that’s what God is telling us to do in this passage?

What if we are misreading that key verse?

What If That’s Not Exactly What God Said?

In a 2008 article in the Bulletin for Biblical Research, Elaine A. Phillips proposed a different translation of Job 42:7–8.

When it came to the statement in question, Phillips translated it like this:

“…you have not spoken to Me in the right manner as my servant Job has.”

When we read it like this, we get a different answer about what Job’s friends did wrong.

Why was God angry at Job’s friends? Maybe it wasn’t so much because of what they said about Him, but because of what they didn’t say to Him.

That’s what Phillips’s translation suggests, and if it’s correct, it fits the overall picture that the book of Job paints.

Throughout the book of Job, his friends speak from what Phillips called a “flat deistic universe.” For them, God was real, He only needed to be explained.

So they explain Him to Job. But their theology was too rigid. Even when their words were true, they were misapplied.

Phillips described it like this:

“They erred in consistently slipping Job into their moral formulas, subtly at first but egregiously at the end.”

For Job, on the other hand, this was more than a discussion about a God. It was more like a conference call with God on the other line.

Is It a Conversation or a Conference Call?

You can’t help but notice, when you read Job, that Job talks to God a lot. He goes back and forth from addressing God to addressing his three friends.

But his friends don’t follow the same pattern. They just talk to Job. They don’t address God one time.

That’s not unusual in and of itself, but compared to how much Job does talk to God, you can see how God might feel ignored by the others.

That’s one thing that Phillips’s translation brings out: “…you have not spoken to Me in the right manner as my servant Job has.”

Why the Different Translation?

As is often the case, it’s the small word, the preposition, that causes the uncertainty. Everyone agrees that the Hebrew word for speaking means speaking. But when it’s combined with that small preposition, does it mean speaking to or speaking about?

Phillips pointed out that when those two words appear together in the Hebrew Bible, the more common meaning is speaking to.

According to the studies Phillips referenced, it’s actually a lot more common: it’s speaking to 435 times, speaking about 7 times, plus 13 times where it kind of means both.

How Much Difference Does It Make?

Suppose Phillips’s translation is right, and God actually said, “…you have not spoken to Me in the right manner as my servant Job has.”

How does that change our understanding of what Job got right and his friends got wrong?

Well, it doesn’t mean that what his friends said wasn’t important, or that everything they said was correct. But this translation would support the idea that God’s problem was more their attitude than their theology, as good or as bad as it might have been.

They didn’t intercede for Job. They didn’t pray for him. They were confident enough to speak to Job on God’s behalf, but they never spoke to God on Job’s behalf.

As Phillips wrote in her article:

“In sum, Job repeatedly addressed God while the friends never made any appeal, whatsoever, on behalf of Job to the God whom they were defending. Perhaps God’s rebuke started with that crucial omission.”

What Job Got Right

So the emphasis of God’s complaint may be on the lack of intercession by Job’s friends.

This idea gives more weight to a detail mentioned in the beginning of Job.

In the first chapter of Job, we are given a brief description of what Job’s life was like before disaster struck. One thing we are told is that Job’s children used to get together for feasts. Then verse 5 adds this detail:

“So it was, when the days of feasting had run their course, that Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job said, ‘It may be that my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.’ Thus Job did regularly.”

“Thus Job did regularly.”

Job was a praying man. This fact is given prominent place in a short introduction to Job.

This is confirmed when we read Job’s words throughout the book. He seems like someone who has spent his lifetime talking to God.

He not only prayed, he interceded for others. Before he entered into his trial, Job had established a habit of intercession. This affected the way he experienced his trial, and maybe it helped him come out on the other side with God’s approval.

Phillips put it this way:

“What is a most striking difference, superficial as it might seem, is that the friends talked solely to Job about God in the most pious terms, admonishing him to pray to God in repentance lest the dismal fate of the wicked in a moral universe overtake him as well. Job, on the other hand, talked frankly about God as he attempted to understand the horror that had overtaken him, but he also appealed again and again to God and to evidence of his intimate relationship with God. In fact, this pattern had emerged long before the dialogue began. Job’s practice of offering sacrifices on behalf of his children demonstrated at the outset that he was in the habit of directing his attention to God. It may be this long-standing character trait of Job that lay behind God’s response to Eliphaz, part of which was the call for Job to intercede for the friends, just as he had done for his children.”

Phillips pointed out that Job would have naturally looked for an intercessor when his own trouble came. It was clear that his friends weren’t going to do it, so he looked to God. As upset as he was with God, he also knew that he needed God’s help:

“Because there was no recourse to a sufficient human arbitrator, Job knew that his witness and intercessor had to be found in heaven (Job 16:18–21). That meant that God was both Advocate and Adversary and Job’s faith had to be big enough to hold both of those truths.”

Job’s Friends Were Trying to Win a Theological Debate, Job Was Trying to Win God’s Heart

Elaine A. Phillips’s translation of Job 42:7–8 parted ways with the most common versions at other points as well. Let’s take a quick look at one of them.

Remember that statement that appears twice in Job 42:7–8. Again, according to the New King James Version, God said to Job’s friends, “…you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.”

When we read it this way, there is another question we have to answer:

Isn’t this the same Job whom God had just accused of darkening counsel by the ignorant things he said?

In fact, that was the first thing God said when He began to speak to Job in Job 38:1–2:

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: ‘Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’”

In the end (Job 42:3), Job himself agreed with this:

“Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

So why did God then say that Job had spoken of Him what is right?

According to Elaine A. Phillips’s translation, Job wasn’t necessarily right in the substance of all that he said about God. In her translation, God said ,”…you have not spoken to Me in the right manner as my servant Job has.”

Job’s theology wasn’t necessarily perfect, but at least he was really trying to get at God. He was taking his argument straight to God, honestly, if not politely. He was praying his theology. His friends were just saying theirs.

Phillips suggested that it was Job’s relationship with God that made his speaking the right kind of speaking:

“…it may be that God declared unequivocally (two times) that speaking correctly meant speaking to him, and in the process properly representing both Job’s situation and God himself. Job did so; the friends did not, suggesting that, in addition to their limited view of the situation, they completely lacked the relationship that infused Job’s every utterance.”