Question: "What did Job's three friends have wrong, and what did they have right?"
Answer: Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, have historically been known for offering lengthy speeches that resulted in their being condemned by God (Job 42:7–9). At one point Job, weary of their unhelpful rhetoric, told them, “You are miserable comforters, all of you!” (Job 16:2). But did they get everything wrong? Perhaps they got a few things right.
Job’s friends did at least three things right that can be seen in Job 2:11–13. First, they came to him when he was suffering. Second, they empathized with him: “they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads” (verse 12). Third, they spent time with him. Verse 13 states they were with him for seven days before they offered their advice. They commiserated with their friend in silence.
But their silence did not last forever, and these three men gave a series of speeches to Job, recorded in chapters 4—25. The speeches of Job’s three friends include many inaccuracies, primarily involving why God allows people to suffer. Their overarching belief was that Job was suffering because he had done something wrong. As a result, they repeatedly encourage Job to admit his wrong and repent so that God would bless him again.
God clearly condemned their advice: “I am angry with you [Eliphaz] and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me” (Job 42:7). For this reason, we should always be careful about how we interpret individual verses from Job. It is unwise to pull an isolated verse from the book of Job and use it to understand God—if the verse comes from a speech of Eliphaz, Bildad, or Zophar, then we have no guarantee that it accurately reflects the character of God. As with any single verse, we must look at the context.
Though, in the end, Job erred in overstating his righteousness (Job 42:1–6), he had done nothing to deserve his suffering. The trials Job endured were not related to his behavior. Instead, God used the sufferings as a test and as part of His sovereign plan in Job’s life. Following Job’s time of suffering, God blessed Job with twice as much as he had before (Job 42:10).
Much can be learned from the example of Job and his friends. When we are aware of a friend who is hurting, we can follow the positive example of these men by going to the person, mourning with him, and spending time together. Our physical presence with a hurting friend can be a great comfort in and of itself, even if we have no words to say.
In addition, we can gain wisdom from what Job’s friends did wrong. We should not assume that troubles are the sure sign of God’s judgment (cf. John 9:1–3). Instead of telling a hurting person to admit his wrong and repent (when we do not know the reason for the suffering), we can join together and encourage a friend to endure faithfully, knowing God sees our pain and has a purpose for it.
When we turn our focus to God, we can offer great encouragement and hope to those in need, helping those who suffer to see God at work. This is a great application of Romans 12:15: “Mourn with those who mourn.” When we are willing to enter into the pain of a suffering friend, we follow the example of Jesus, who came to bear our pain and suffer in our place. Our help to those in need is ultimately a way we serve Christ (Matthew 25:40).