Editor's note:

The Book of Job is not known for elic­it­ing chuck­les, but one would have a dif­fi­cult time read­ing this intro­duc­tion to Job from G.K. Chester­ton with­out crack­ing a grin or two. The key is that Chester­ton knows that the inher­ent absur­di­ty of Job’s wrestlings with God is part of the uni­ver­sal human con­di­tion, and he treats it with a warm, expan­sive spir­it that says, Ah yes, and I’ve been there, too.”

So, here is a piece for you, if you’ve been there, too. A lit­tle wis­dom from GKC, mixed with the great Wis­dom of Scrip­tures, amounts to an inspired con­sid­er­a­tion of suf­fer­ing, right­eous­ness, and the unfath­omable won­der of God.

—Renovaré Team

The present impor­tance of the Book of Job can­not be expressed ade­quate­ly even by say­ing that it is the most inter­est­ing of ancient books. We may almost say of the Book of Job that it is the most inter­est­ing of mod­ern books. In truth, of course, nei­ther of the two phras­es cov­ers the mat­ter, because fun­da­men­tal human reli­gion and fun­da­men­tal human irre­li­gion are both at once old and new; phi­los­o­phy is either eter­nal or it is not phi­los­o­phy. The mod­ern habit of say­ing, This is my opin­ion, but I may be wrong,” is entire­ly irra­tional. If I say that it may be wrong I say that is not my opin­ion. The mod­ern habit of say­ing Every man has a dif­fer­ent phi­los­o­phy; this is my phi­los­o­phy and its suits me”; the habit of say­ing this is mere weak-mind­ed­ness. A cos­mic phi­los­o­phy is not con­struct­ed to fit a man; a cos­mic phi­los­o­phy is con­struct­ed to fit a cos­mos. A man can no more pos­sess a pri­vate reli­gion than he can pos­sess a pri­vate sun and moon. 

The first of the intel­lec­tu­al beau­ties of the Book of Job is that it is all con­cerned with this desire to know the actu­al­i­ty; the desire to know what is, and not mere­ly what seems. If mod­erns were writ­ing the book we should prob­a­bly find that Job and his com­forters got on quite well togeth­er by the sim­ple oper­a­tion of refer­ring their dif­fer­ences to what is called the tem­pera­ment, say­ing that the com­forters were by nature opti­mists” and Job by nature a pes­simist.” And they would be quite com­fort­able, as peo­ple can often be, for some time at least, by agree­ing to say what is obvi­ous­ly untrue. For if the word pes­simist” means any­thing at all, then emphat­i­cal­ly Job is not a pes­simist. His case alone is suf­fi­cient to refute the mod­ern absur­di­ty of refer­ring every­thing to phys­i­cal tem­pera­ment. Job does not in any sense look at life in a gloomy way. If wish­ing to be hap­py and being quite ready to be hap­py con­sti­tute an opti­mist, Job is an opti­mist. He is a per­plexed opti­mist; he is an exas­per­at­ed opti­mist; he is an out­raged and insult­ed opti­mist. He wish­es the uni­verse to jus­ti­fy itself, not because he wish­es it to be caught out, but because he real­ly wish­es it to be jus­ti­fied. He demands an expla­na­tion from God, but he does not do it at all in the spir­it in which Ham­p­den might demand an expla­na­tion from Charles I. He does it in the spir­it in which a wife might demand an expla­na­tion from her hus­band whom she real­ly respect­ed. He remon­strates with his Mak­er because he is proud of his Mak­er. He even speaks of the Almighty as his ene­my, but he nev­er doubts, at the back of his mind, that his ene­my has some kind of a case which he does not under­stand. In a fine and famous blas­phe­my he says, Oh, that mine adver­sary had writ­ten a book!” It nev­er real­ly occurs to him that it could pos­si­bly be a bad book. He is anx­ious to be con­vinced, that is, he thinks that God could con­vince him. 

In short, we may say again that if the word opti­mist means any thing (which I doubt) Job is an opti­mist. He shakes the pil­lars of the world and strikes insane­ly at the heav­ens; he lash­es the stars, but it is not to silence them; it is to make them speak. In the same way we may speak of the offi­cial opti­mists, the Com­forters of Job. Again, if the word pes­simist means any­thing (which I doubt) the com­forters of Job may be called pes­simists rather than opti­mists. All that they real­ly believe is not that God is good but that God is so strong that it is much more judi­cious to call Him good. It would be the exag­ger­a­tion of cen­sure to call them evo­lu­tion­ists; but they have some­thing of the vital error of the evo­lu­tion­ary opti­mist. They will keep on say­ing that every­thing in the uni­verse fits into every­thing else: as if there were any­thing com­fort­ing about a num­ber of nasty things all fit­ting into each oth­er. We shall see lat­er how God in the great cli­max of the poem turns this par­tic­u­lar argu­ment alto­geth­er upside down.

When, at the end of the poem, God enters (some­what abrupt­ly), is struck the sud­den and splen­did note which makes the thing as great as it is. All the human beings through the sto­ry, and Job espe­cial­ly, have been ask­ing ques­tions of God. A more triv­ial poet would have made God enter in some sense or oth­er in order to answer the ques­tions. By a touch tru­ly to be called inspired, when God enters, it is to ask a num­ber more ques­tions on His own account. In this dra­ma of skep­ti­cism God Him­self takes up the role of skep­tic. He does what all the great voic­es defend­ing reli­gion have always done. He does, for instance, what Socrates did. He turns ratio­nal­ism against itself. He seems to say that if it comes to ask­ing ques­tions, He can ask some ques­tions which will fling down and flat­ten out all con­ceiv­able human questioners. 

The poet by an exquis­ite intu­ition has made God iron­i­cal­ly accept a kind of con­tro­ver­sial equal­i­ty with His accusers. He is will­ing to regard it as if it were a fair intel­lec­tu­al duel: Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.” The ever­last­ing adopts an enor­mous and sar­don­ic humil­i­ty. He is quite will­ing to be pros­e­cut­ed. He only asks for the right which every pros­e­cut­ed per­son pos­sess­es; He asks to be allowed to cross-exam­ine the wit­ness for the pros­e­cu­tion. And He car­ries yet fur­ther the cor­rect­ness of the legal par­al­lel. For the first ques­tion, essen­tial­ly speak­ing, which He asks of Job is the ques­tion that any crim­i­nal accused by Job would be most enti­tled to ask. He asks Job who he is. And Job, being a man of can­did intel­lect, takes a lit­tle time to con­sid­er, and comes to the con­clu­sion that he does not know.

From The Intro­duc­tion to the Book of Job (1916); pub­lic domain, via A Solemn Charge.

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